1. Familiarize yourself with the biographical context of Hanan al-Shaykh's life
2. Learn about the basic political context of the Lebanese civil war that is featured in the book
3. Determine dominant themes in al-Shaykh's writing to prepare you for reading The Story of Zahra.
A series of biographical and historical readings about Hanan Al-Shaykh and Lebanon
1. Read the general readings first before moving on the to "group" passages.
Follow the link below to read more about the geography of Lebanon
Banned in several Arab nations, this rich tale mesmerizes with its frank sexuality and scenes of war-torn Beirut. Zahra is a misfit mistreated by her mother, who brings her along to secret meetings with a lover, and by her father, a harsh disciplinarian who reacts angrily to her habit of picking at her pimpled face. She leaves her parents to stay with an uncle who has fled to Africa to escape being arrested for political activity. When his affection for her grows sexual, Zahra agrees to an unsuccessful marriage with his friend Majed. Eventually, she returns to Beirut, where ``the war was like a weevil that had found its way into the heart of a huge bag of white flour and settled there,'' and begins meeting secretly to have sex with a man who may or may not be a rooftop sniper. A rotating first-person narrative gives everyone a voice; Zahra's is the most striking, but each character has memorable moments, as when Majed describes his adolescent arousal while reading Jane Eyre and seeing an illustration of the heroine kissing Mr. Rochester. Al-Shaykh ( Women of Sand and Myrrh ), a Lebanese writer now living in London, has a focused and original style. (Jan.)
Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world. Hanan al-Shaykh's works deal with women's role in society, the relationship between the sexes, and the institution of marriage. Before turning to writing fiction, Al-Shaykh worked as a journalist in Beirut. Her novels, written in Arabic, have been translated into several languages, including English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Italian, Korean, Spanish, and Polish.
"At that time Lebanese coins had a hole in the centre. I threaded some into a bracelet and, each time my hand brushed against a table, their jingling sound promised me maturity, control, freedom; promised me that I could cope with the neighbourhood children's taunts about my absent mother. The voice helped me to seduce them. I was like a magician: I told stories and did funny imitations. I could make them laugh." (from The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, 2005, translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen)
Hanan Al-Shaykh was born in Beirut and brought up in Ras al-Naba, a conservative and unfashionable sector of the town. Her mother, Kamila, was illiterate and married off at an early age. Rebellious and strongwilled, she eventually left her family to live with her lover, Muhammad. A few years after they married, Muhammad died in a car crash. "I can count the times I saw her as a child," al-Shayk wrote in The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (2005). "When I did, it was as though she was a wild, chaotic neighbour. She had no authority over me." Al-Shaykh father, who worked long days at a jointly owned textile shop, was a devout Shia Muslim. Though he was forced out by his partner, he refused to bring the case to court, saying "God is my lawyer".
Al-Shaykh first attended Alamillah traditional Muslim girls' primary school and then the more sophisticated Ahliyyah School for Girls. She started to write, as she once said, to release her anger and frustration towards her father and brother, because they were able to restrict her freedom. Her teachers included Layla Baalbaki, whose novel Ana ahya (1958, I Am Alive), banned by the authorities, became a landmark in Lebanese women's fiction. In Saida her roommate in the boarding school was Leila Khaled, who later joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and became the first woman to hijack a plane. By the age of 16, al-Shaykh had already published essays in the newspaper al-Nahar. Between the years 1963 and 1966 she studied at the American College for Girls in Cairo.
While in Cairo, al-Shaykh had a love affair with a well-known and married Egyptian novelist, twice of her age. Back in Beirut she worked in television and as a journalist for Al-Hasna', a women's magazine, and then for al-Nahar from 1968 to 1975. During the four years al-Shaykh lived in Egypt, she made her debut as a writer with Intihar rajul mayyit, which was published in 1970. It has nothing in common with a typical first novel – instead of being autobiographical it is narrated by a middle-aged man. Through the narrator's obsessive desire for a young girl, al-Shaykh examines power relations between the sexes and patriarchal control.
Against the wishes of his father, al-Shaykh married a Christian man, and moved to Saudi Arabia, where her husband worked as a construction engineer. Her next novel, Faras al-shaitan (1971), was written when she lived in the Arabian Peninsula. It included biographical elements related to her extremely religious father, aspects of her own love story, and her subsequent marriage. The narration moves freely in time, and depicts the personal development of the heroine, Sarah, against the background of southern Lebanon. In 1976 al-Shaykh left Lebanon for London because of the civil war. Her home street in Beirut had been turned into a no-man's-land. Until 1982, she lived in Saudi Arabia and then settled permanently in London. She has frequently visited Lebanon and spent summers at Antibes in the south of France.
Al-Shaykh first came to international attention with Hikayat Zahrah (1980, The Story of Zahra), written in London. Because no publisher in Lebanon accepted the novel, she published it first at her own expense. The story operates on many different levels and uses many voices, but in the center is a bewildered and directionless young woman, Zahrah, who finds in the Lebanese Civil War an opportunity to escape oppression. Zahrah's family sends her to Africa to recover from two abortions and a nervous breakdown. She stays with her lecherous uncle, once active in Lebanese politics. To avoid his sexual advances she marries one of his associates. The marriage is loveless and she returns to devastated Beirut – as torn as herself. Chaos transforms her and she falls in love for the first time. But her lover is a sniper who shoots innocent passersby, and the pregnant Zahrah, who carries his own child, becomes one of his targets. The Story of Zahra was banned in most Arab countries. Some of her Lebanese readers rejected the book because it "gives a very wrong impression about Arab culture." Boston Sunday Globe praised it as "an original, moving and powerfully written novel, vividly illuminating the personal human tragedy of war and madness."
In the short story 'The Persian Carpet' al-Shaykh examined the effect of divorce on the children. The narrator and her sister visit their remarried mother. She notices a Persian carpet on the floor of the new home. It had disappeared from the old family house and her mother had accused an old man who used to repair cane chairs in the quarter. The daughter's relationship with her mother is shattered. "Again I looked at my mother and she interpreted my gaze as being one of tender longing, so she put her arms round me, saying: 'You must come every other day, you must spend the whole of Friday at my place.' I remained motionless, wishing that I could remove her arms from around me and sink my teeth into that white forearm. I wished that the moment of meeting could be undone and re-enacted, that she could again open the door and I could stand there – as I should have done – with my eyes staring down at the floor and my forehead in a frown." (from 'The Persian Carpet')
Misk al-ghazal (1989, Women of Sand and Myrrh) was chosen as one of the 50 Best Books of 1992 by Publishers Weekly. Set primarily in an expatriate community in an anonymous Middle-Eastern country, the story tells of four women, each from her own perspective. Two of the women, Nur and Tamr, are Arabs from the unnamed country in question, one is Lebanese, and the fourth is American. Each woman has chosen a different path that reveals their struggle with the patriarchal order. Suha has a degree in Management Studies from the American University of Beirut. She feels disillusioned: "this wasn't the desert that I'd seen from the aircraft, nor the one I'd read about or imagined myself". Suha longs for the freedoms she had in Beirut and has a lesbian relationship; Tamr's success in opening a beauty shop is not easy; Nur is not allowed to travel alone; and the unhappily married Suzanne has a multitude of affairs. "The elaborate network of first-person narrative, in which the text allows the four women to speak in turn giving voice to the voiceless, reflects in its structure the compartmentalization of women and their struggle to break out of all forms of social confinement. The very structure of the novel in which each section conveys a sense of independence while at the same time being an integral part of the whole reflects the degree of sophistication in the authors feminist vision." (Sabry Hafez in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993) The book was banned in several Middle Eastern countries.
Barid Bayrut (1992, Beirut Blues), a novel of correspondence, celebrated the resilience of the human spirit in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War. It consisted of ten letters "written" by Asmahan, a Muslim woman, and addressed either to specific persons, both living and dead, or places. The letters perhaps never reach their destination, but through them Asmahan has a small hope of transferring signs of culture over present devastation. Al-Shaykh's story collection, I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops, was came out in English in 1998. In her short-stories al-Shaykh has criticized patriarchal notions of how Arab women should behave, but they also praise Arab cultures that give women a measure of power to negotiate their own realities. In 'A Season of Madness' a woman tries to gain her freedom by becoming mad, while her husband continues to live his life as normal. Only in London (2000) explores in comic light the lives of people caught between the ways of East and West. Lamis, a recently divorced Iraqi woman, has an affair with Nicholas, an Englishman who is an expert in Arabic and eastern antiquities. Another pair is Amira, a prostitute from Morocco, and Samir, a gay Lebanese. The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (2005) was a family history about miserable marriage, survival, and love in a traditional patriarchal society. Toward the end of the story, al-Shaykh says: "My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time."
For further reading: The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982); War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War by Miriam Cooke (1987); Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East by Evelyne Accad (1990); 'The Fiction of Hanan al-Shaykh, Reluctant Feminist' by Charles Larson, in Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, 1 Winter (1991); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Arab Women Novelists by Joseph Zeidan (1995); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Writing Self, Writing Nation: Imagined Geographies in the Fiction of Hanan al-Shaykh,' by Ann Marie Adams, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 20, no. 2 (2001); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars, Arbolina Llamas Jennings (2008)
An Interview with Hanan al-Shaykh
<1> What sort of things prompt you to write?
I don't know, really. It's my job. I don't question it anymore. This is what I do in life. I discovered that this is what I want to do at a very, very early age, when I was fourteen years old. And, of course, I have changed from what I was writing then, because everything you do in life, you do according to your age and experience. As you know, life consists of stages. And what happened at the beginning is that I wanted to convey certain feelings about boredom, about how parents don't understand you. So I started writing these essays for a newspaper. They had one page in a very good newspaper. They had every two weeks one page for students. I contributed and my essays were published. And then, I later started writing fiction. Personally, I feel at home most when I sit and write. And at the beginning, you know, you usually concentrate on certain feelings you feel about things and then slowly, slowly, you start importing or inhabiting the soul of the characters. You can write about any character. It doesn't have to be something you experienced or something you felt a great deal about. Like my latest novel, Only in London, one of my heroines, the character [Amira] is a prostitute, and the other one is a Lebanese man [Samir], homesexual. So in a way, I inhabited their soul and it becomes like a craft. Of course, the feelings should be always there. I wanted to use them as a vehicle, to say whatever I wanted to say about the Arab society in England.
<2> I would particularly like to talk about your latest novel, Only in London. In both of your novels, in Beirut Blues (1992) as well as in Only in London(2001) the cities seem to function as additional characters. How important is setting for you in this context and how would you describe the roles Beirut and London play in your work?
Location in my work is very important. It's a character itself. Like, for example, even if you want to go back to Women of Sand and Myrrh, the desert was a real character. Because of the way all these characters' lives rotated around it and how it changed their lives. They were in flux almost all the time because of the place itself. I felt, even at an early age, that places have a spirit. They're like alive. I remember when I used to come from the mountains back to Beirut, I used to enter the house and think that the house knows that I'm back. I just knew that whenever I was late, and my father would be upset with me, that the house would be upset as well. The house wasn't only furniture. I used to feel that it's like a human being. But it took me so long to write about London.
<3> Even though you have been living there for almost twenty years.
More or less. I left to live in Saudi Arabia and I used to come only in the summer. But it took me so long because I didn't feel that I was engaging with this place. And all of a sudden, I mean, it's not only when I wrote Only in London, it's before when I wrote my two plays about immigrants in London.
<4> Are they published?
No, unfortunately. They were staged at the Hampstead Theatre. One is called Paper Husband, the second one Dark Afternoon Tea. So with these two plays I started tampering and playing with the question of place. How it is influencing people. I don't want to call it an exile. It is a diaspora because I chose to be away from Lebanon. It had nothing to do with any political reason or anything. So the place is very important. I noticed that all the years I have been living in London, subconsciously, I have been thinking of the city and how it has received and is still receiving immigrants. Whether they come because of poverty and economic reasons or because of political reasons. They are like a pot full of ingredients, full of reasons. Mainly, they either try to change their lives or continue in this country. But, inevitably, they really change, no matter how they are holding on to their traditions. They either become fanatics more here or more liberated. Ultimately, they change. The city makes them change. When I see the city, it is the culture, it is the way people interact with each other. For me, actually, to write about London was a big step. Because when I, for example, wrote about Oxford Street or the BT tower, it's as if I'm saying to myself, in a way, these things mean something to me. To write about them, it means, that I thought about them. I felt them. Now I can really write about them, not like before, when you're just in a strange city. When you write about Oxford Street, it doesn't have the same meaning as when you live in London and you know what Oxford Street means.
<5> How do you think has having lived in London for such a long time also influenced or changed your style and aesthetic sensibility?
I don't know, really. Usually, for example, when I sit with friends from Lebanon and we talk about how we're really changing, we ask ourselves: are we changing because of where we are, or is it because we are getting older. I really don't know. But I am sure living here exposed me to various kinds of international literatures. I can't deny the experiences I've had. I'am exposed to major writers, not only reading them, but conversing with them. If I stayed in Lebanon, maybe the case wouldn't be like this at all. But there is one thing which I took from the West, from reading literatures here. In the Middle East or in the Arab world, usually, if you are a serious writer, then you don't let any sentence which is funny come into your text. Unless, if you are a comic writer, then you write comedy from the first word to the last word. You cannot mix both at all. And only when I started living here and reading books here, I thought that when you sometimes produce a laughter here and there in the text, they consider you as being very much in command of your work and that you really know what you are doing. You can produce laughter. Because it's very easy to write about tragedies and to let people cry. But to let them smile, you have to be very witty. So this is what I learnt here.
<6> Talking about humour, could you briefly comment on the monkey in Only in London?
I have a collection of short stories which is going to be published this August. It was published in the States two or more years ago. It is called I Sweep the Sun of Rooftops. You will find in this collection, I refer to animals. I love animals and I like to write about them. The monkey, actually happened when I met somebody like Samir [one of the main male protagonists], a long time ago, also twenty years ago. This is how I was inspired by the character. He told me that, when he knew I was a Shi'a Muslim, 'Oh, all the Shi'a men are so attractive.' Then he told me, that when he was living in Lebanon, he loved a Shi'a man who asked him to go to Africa and then he asked him to smuggle a monkey for him which he did.
<7> So this is actually a true story?
He told me, he did smuggle it into Lebanon and he told me one sentence which stuck in my mind that every time the monkey walked up, he used to feed him bananas. He ate, maybe, 130 bananas. And then I thought, I can't let that go.
<8> Indeed, critics have stressed the humourous element in Only in London. They also talk about a shift from your earlier, to their mind, darker novels, to a lighter mood in Only in London. Would you agree?
Well, this is what they're thinking. I was really surprised, that they called it a comic book. It's not a comedy book at all. You know, there are very serious issues under the tone of lightness. Amira [one of the two main female protagonists] is miserable. Funny, but miserable. And Samir, too. You know, I think, at the beginning, in a way, you take a position when you start to write, like a strategy. Although I can say that I'm not like other writers. I mean, I didn't finish my higher education in Lebanon and I didn't read a lot before I started writing. So most of my work, especially the early ones, were very, very spontaneous. I mean, I wouldn't think, 'Oh, I'm going to have this style, or that style, or this technique or this is how it follows, this chapter.' No, no, no. I was never like that. So, I left everything to my spontaneity at the beginning. But to say that, I mean, I was in a way denying by not getting in a little bit of humour. Denying my actual personality because I lived among women who are hilarious. They were so tragic, but hilarious at the same time.
<9> In Only in London this tragicomical element comes through particularly well in the character of Amira.
Yes, this is what I thought. I mean, the most tragic things, sometimes they make you laugh. It's so tragic, it's so unreal, it makes you laugh. Actually, I started experiencing this thing, my full personality, because when I was young, I was the entertainer of the family and the neighbourhood. I was very, very funny, and I used to imitate everybody. I took it from my mother and her family. They were all like that. But somehow, when I started writing, I thought, I should be very serious, a little bit on the melancholy side. What happened to Lebanon, and what happened with traditions and everything. So the subject made me go that path. With my two plays I started having fun, showing the other side of my personality.
<10> Would you say that over the course of your career as a writer, you've endowed your female character with increasing power? For example, starting with the relatively powerless Zahra from The Story of Zahra to Amira in Only in London? And if so, would you attribute this to your last novel being set in London?
I tell you what to start with. I never thought, like the readers thought, that Zahra is hopeless. I mean, according to the West, she was very hopeless, she couldn't do anything. But in her own society, she tried to really say no, like even going to Africa, spiting her father in telling him that, although she was not beautiful, beauty wasn't everything. I mean, if she were hopeless, she wouldn't have had a miscarriage, she would have somebody killing her from the family. So, in a way, I mean, she's tragic. But she also tried her best within her limits. She was, I think, stronger than others within her limits. Of course, you know, nowadays, if in twenty years the position of women hadn't changed, we should really lament our situation and our world [laughs]. So in a way, my characters have more, I wouldn't say integrity, but they're more pushy in a way. Even Lamis [the other of the two main female protagonists in Only in London] to just divorce her husband, knowing she has no money and that she will really suffer economically, but she went ahead and did it regardless.
<11> I would like to follow up on this. You once said in an interview, that you think Lebanese women today are much more materialistic and that when you were that age, you and your friends were much more politicized and you spent your time arguing in coffee houses. In Only in London you also talk about materialistic Russian women in Arab countries, and nowaday's young women only wanting to marry rich in general. Do you see this as a worldwide development in regard to women and older feminist ideals?
I know that every time I went to Lebanon, I felt that the society is really changing. I'm really sorry, every time when I talk to young people. I feel so distressed. As I said, because on the one side the country has become so materialistic, and on the other side, it has become so fanatical, religiously fanatical. So both of these issues were really on my mind, when I started thinking, why this should be so. Is it because after the war, the society degraded and people became so materialistic because they experienced death, they experienced war, and they don't care for anything important except themselves? But then I go back, and I have like a monologue with myself. If they experienced death, and became nihilistic, why should they care for material things? Why not go the other way? Perhaps it's political, when you feel that the people who matter, are the people who have money and who are under the limelight. When political parties became mainly religious parties and actually took the place of political parties. Now, for example, the Christians belong to this political party, the Muslims belong to that political party, while before religions weren't like political parties and now they are.
<12> What role, if any, does religion play in your work? For example, the lives of female characters in Arabic or Pakistani literature, often seem to be very determined by whatever stance their country takes on religious matters.
In the case of Lebanon, if you follow our political situation nowadays, it is in a way democratic. It's not religious at all. Although, it is, for example, that the prime minister has to be Sunni Muslim, the president has to be Marronite, etc., etc. But at the same time, it is not a religious government. Not at all. It represents all the three religions in Lebanon. But, I mean, there is a great religious influence, especially Islam and it is political. Islam and politics go hand in hand. So in a way, there is a wave of religion which is kind of brainwashing young girls and women. But if you compare it, for example, to Saudi Arabia, if you compare it to Iran, there is no comparison. Even religious parents send their children to school. But I feel very upset because I thought, that when I was young, I wasted a lot of time, and my friends also wasted a lot of time to defy our parents and say no to religion, and traditions, and to habits. And now I feel, automatically, they should all be free, but unfortunately, they are worse off than we were.
<13> Are you practising any religion?
No, I don't.
<14> One of the concepts, that seems to be running through your work, is that a lot of your female characters try to negotiate the demands which are put upon them, whether by their families or society, through their bodies. There are nervous breakdowns, there is madness, there are abortions, etc. Could you elaborate that?
Well, they know, that this is where they can negotiate with men. They can negotiate with men through sexuality. I think because, you know, most of the time men feel that they have the upper hand. But only sexually they feel that they need the woman. Deep down they hate, that they are in need of that but they are. On the one hand, women have to be in society, they are very important because they are the bearers of children, especially of boys. But at the same time, men hate that because they want to have the upper hand even sexually. They wish they'd invent something something else, other than women [laughs]. That's how I've always seen it. Like in The Story of Zahra and especially like in Women of Sand and Myrrh, women thought that in order to attain freedom, they had to obtain it through their bodies. Because they knew that the ultimate taboo was sex in their country. And they were playing games and thinking that by going to practise sex, in a way they are defying men, and they are fighting men in a way and winning. But, of course, they didn't win anything by doing that because they stayed in the desert. And they did things against their spirits, against their personalities.
<15> Amira in Only in London with her work as a prostitute also partly follows this pattern.
Yes. Although Amira, in a way, she had a choice. Even though not at the beginning. You know, she resembles gamblers who say, that only this time they will gain that much money and then that's it and then they will leave.
<16> That's right. You even have casino scenes in the novel. Still, as in other national literatures, the representation of Arab female characters even by Arab women writers themselves, seems to be a highly charged subject. As when it is argued that certain representations of Arab women are more popular in the West, because they seem to confirm Western prejudices and stereotypes of Arab women as oppressed victims, etc. Do you also find it difficult to walk that narrow path between, obviously not wanting to confirm any Western prejudices but at the same time, of course, wanting to have the freedom as a writer to address those issues which are most important to you?
It's exactly what you said. I'm trying really, and I've tried for a long time already, not to care what I read. I remember a professor at one of the American universities and she told me, 'Oh, Ms. al-Shaykh, I love your work. But I don't dare to teach it because I don't want people to think that this is how the Arabs are.' She was very honest because she loved the Arab countries. But she said, the students would take it as it is. They would take it out of its context. And I really appreciated what she told me. But at the same time, I wasn't convinced. I mean, there are lots of criticisms. Like when somebody knew about my latest novel, even before they read it, there was a debate on one of the radios, that here Hanan al-Shaykh is talking about prostitutes and homosexuals. Now she wants to draw attention, ta, ta, ta, ta. Well,in a way, I feel that I am writing about our society. This is our society. We cannot hide. We have to go through the darkest tunnels to come out into the light. And if we don't go into the tunnels of taboos and, you know, oppressions, and talk about it, then we will never emerge into the light. We will never be with integrity and free people. This is how I feel about it. And I want to tackle these things, because they are next to my heart. But, you know, I just decided really, really not to care. Just go ahead and write what I feel. Because even when I wroteWomen of Sand and Myrrh - I was living in Saudi Arabia and The Story of Zahra wasn't translated yet - and everybody thought, I wrote Women of Sand and Myrrhfor the West which is a big lie. I didn't.
<17> The 'burden of representation' seems to be undiminished for writers of countries, like those in the Arab world, where there are still not too many translations of other works available in the West. Thus, the few works available are often falsely received as representative documentaries rather than fiction.
Absolutely. They take it literally. They take it, that all the girls are like Zahra, all the women are like Lamis. Of course, there is something from reality. There is Zahra, and there is Amira. There is Samir and there is Zahra's uncle. But there is a variety.
<18> That is something which really struck me in your work and it is something a lot of writers strive for and a lot of readers demand. Which is that any nation, any community of people, needs to be presented in their heterogeneity. To me this polyphony of voices is present in Only in London but also already in your earlier work, such as Women of Sand and Myrrh. Are you employing this strategy deliberately?
I mean, I'm attracted, when I write, to characters that are colourful. Like when you are choosing a dress, you just want something different. And this is how I feel when I'm choosing these characters. And sometimes characters die in the middle of the novel, because they are not strong and they don't mean anything to me. And others win. It's always like this. I start with characters and then this character doesn't move the way I thought she or he will be moving. I tell you, every stage I live in, characters come to me or I come to them and they really bug me. They just want to be in this novel. And as I said, I'm still spontaneous in my writing, I mean, I'm drawn to certain characters. For example, Amira. When I first came to London, I heard about a woman, an Algerian woman, who was a prostitute and who pretended to be a princess. This is like twenty years ago and she died. A friend of mine told me, 'Oh, you have to meet her, Hanan,' and then I don't know what happened. I never met her, never thought of her again, never at all. And when I started writing about London, of course, I wrote about an academic, and in the end while I was writing, the figure of Amira became very important, as if she really fought to be still in the novel. And I felt that because in a way I'm a very sincere writer, you know, I cannot lie, I cannot play games with my writing. So when I started writing this academic character, my writing instinct thought, maybe she will be an important character, but she wasn't. She had one incident, and when I wrote this incident in the novel, that was it. She disappeared. It wasn't authentic. So I couldn't really write about it. In a way, I feel that my characters should be very authentic. I should feel with them. They should be presenting something from the society which I really care for.
<19> Would you say that Only in London was very much informed by your experiences with Arab communities in London? Are you actually part of any at all?
In the beginning, yes. In the beginning you need your community. But, all of a sudden, I said, in Lebanon I wouldn't have talked to these people. But, you know, even if I'm not involved in the community now, I know the connotations. For example, if I see an Arab in a supermarket, immediately, I know what he is thinking, how he is reacting, why he is behaving in that way. But to be honest, now I'm really worried about myself because I spend so many hours working. I mean, I don't socialize a lot, like I used to. Only to go to the theatre, cinema, and see friends. But not because I don't want to be among Arabs but because I don't socialize like before. You either live or write, I think.
<20> As far as I know, you only write in Arabic. Have you ever written or are you planning to also write in English?
No, I don't write in English at all. I write essays when I'm invited to a conference and then I give it to my translator to correct my English. No, because I think the whole time in Arabic. It would be as if I were translating, and not writing. It would be a shame.
<21> The translations are very good. But since you are multilingual, have you ever had serious problems with the translation process?
No, but I work with my translator.
<22> Catherine Cobham?
Yes. Because there are many things which sometimes she cannot understand. I mean, she will translate it like literally and it will be fine. But the spirit is not there. And what I do is, I tell her a story. I don't tell her about the sentence, how it should be or what I meant. I tell her the story behind the sentence and she will understand what I mean. I am now writing a book about my mother. And my agent asked me what I was doing. And I wrote her a letter, saying why I want to write about my mother. And she rang me and she said, 'Hanan, you have a certain English, as if you were inventing an English of your own, because you're not English. So why don't you try writing about your mum in English?' I said, that maybe in one letter I can, but a whole book, no way, no way. Because, you know, I am like in a sea, and this is the last wood which I'm attached to. My language. If I lose it, chalas, finish. No Hanan, no writing. So I will never write except in Arabic.
<23> Which nationality do you actually have? Do you have both, British and Lebanese?
<24> Do you actually still feel as if you were in a kind of diaspora or have you also started to feel like a Londoner, whatever that might be defined as individually?
No, I don't feel like a Londoner or Lebanese at all. Yes, I am Lebanese in a way. But I don't feel, I'm half English or anything. But I feel that in a way, there is a place in London which I belong to. Which is many, many writers and many people who came from all over and they formed this place. I don't know where it is, this place, I've never been to it. Like we talk together and we feel we belong to a place in London, we don't know where this place is. But we feel that our raison d'être, in this country is that we belong to this place. I don't know where it is, in London, in England. I mean, if I would feel Londoner or Lebanese, I wouldn't exist. You understand? I wouldn't exist. I'd be like nothing here.
<25> So are you saying that you do feel most at home in the space which you are creating through your writing, through your work?
With the writing and with the other writers who are not from here. My raison d'être, my reason for living, in a way is this oasis, where I don't know where it is. It is mentally, mainly mentally.
<26> Would you say, that such an international, artistic space can rather be found in metropolitan cities such as London or New York or could it also be anywhere else in the world?
An English writer sent me his manuscript about Lebanon. He was inspired by Beirut and he wrote a novel. I felt like him, that he found something in Beirut, with other English and expatriate people like I found here in London. You can feel that. I think it's everywhere. Like in Beirut, I'm sure, there are journalists, writers, English and Americans who come together and they feel this is their reason of their existence. If I would totally become like the Lebanese here, or I if would feel that I had to become totally English, and I don't think I could do that, but I think I'd be nothing.
<27> Writers are often expected to bear and address a certain social and moral responsibility. Like in one review, for example, your work was defined as "a plea for liberation." Could you comment on that?
Well, if I told you that I write for the enjoyment only, I'd be lying. I mean, of course, when I start something, I want to finish and I want to finish well, because this is the creativity in me which writers cannot deny. But at the same time, why do I write? Something in the society provoked me to write. I am criticizing in one way or the other things around me. And, of course, my point of view, I want it to be read by many people. I want people to read it and I'd like to have an echo in the readers. What they make out of it. I want to provoke a little bit. Because you can't only choose beautiful language and lines and images. Many writers say, 'Oh, we write, we have no message, nothing.' I don't think so. Also, saying that, I don't mean that I say, 'Oh, now my message about prostitutes.' No, it doesn't work this way. Otherwise, I'd be writing non-fiction, maybe, books like Nawal El Saadawi about feminism, although Nawal writes fiction as well. But I'd be very polemic. I don't think I'm a polemic writer.
<28> I was also wondering if, when you write about something set in an Arab country or something set in England, whether you would say that sometimes you write in a certain way or explaining more than you would usually do, depending on your readers?
No. I wouldn't explain more. Sometimes, even the translator would say, 'Hanan, they wouldn't know.' And I say, 'Well, let them search.' I wouldn't bend only for the sake of the reader. I don't think it's fair. I mean, Only in London, it was critisized, because it was published in Arabic before. And one of the reviewers said, 'Oh, how are we going to know what she means by Oxford Street. How do we know about a certain street and BT Tower.' And she said this as if this novel was written for an English audience. But at the same time, my English translator will tell me 'How do we know about Ashura? How is the English reader supposed to know that this is the name of a girl, not a boy?' Both of them, in a way, wanted more explanation. But then I think, as a reader you are clever and you know what the writer is talking about.
<29> Could you perhaps briefly say something about the reception of your work. For example, is it very different in Arab countries compared to other countries?
Well, at the beginning, in the West, they used to think that everything I wrote is feminist. Whereas in the Arab world they didn't think that. Because they are used to feminist writers who are not engaging in novels and they don't develop the characters. They are just shouting, shouting, 'We don't want men,' or something like that [laughs]. It would be so prejudiced. So, I was never classified as a feminist novelist in Lebanon or the Arab world. At the beginning it was feminism, but now, with Only in London, it wasn't the case. I was very happy actually with the reception because they talked about the style, about the images, about the characters, about so many things, not only about feminism.
<30> Are you actually tired of that classification?
I'm really surprised, I mean, we are 2002, and still people say 'feminist' and 'not feminist'. I mean, if you think of Naguib Mahfouz, he was so feminist. And he's a man and he writes about women in all his fiction. And I think, every person with integrity is a feminist deep down. I mean, men defy the laws, they want equality for women. I mean, any man with integrity, this is how he would be feeling and women would feel the same as well. So why pigeonhole people as feminists?
<31> I was also wondering whether you are tired of being invited to panels as 'the' Arab writer?
Yes, this is why I stopped. Because this is how it is. It is always, always an Arab writer. They have to find a slot for you the whole time. And to be honest, at my age now, I'm tired. That's why I wouldn't go to a panel if it is very specialized. Although, nowadays, I mean, I feel like every writer or journalist who could have any connection with the West, because what we are passing through now politically, is very sad. And now I feel that for the first time, I'm writing more essays and articles.
<32> And you did work as a journalist in the past.
But I was never writing essays, only when I was very, very young. As a journalist I was writing more interviews and features.
<33> And now you feel the need to address political issues directly, not just in fiction?
Yes, I do.
<34> What do you write for?
For example, Granta asked me to write something about the United States. And I was so upset with the Taliban and how they treated Arabic women. So I wrote in the Arabic media a big essay and some of it was translated for the internet. And I wrote something which I still have to work on more, about the Arabs in Andalusia and in a way I am talking about what's happening now. So, whenever I have strong feelings about things, I prefer to write them like essays, so they won't disturb my fiction.
<35> Regarding the development in terms of the globalization of art and culture, are there any specific issues you're particularly concerned about?
Well, I think it's a positive development. Because now with the internet, you just type any name of a writer, and you get so much information. It has become so easy and in a way, you write about a certain book, and sometimes you don't even have to go to a bookstore. I think it will help writing and writers eventually. I have nothing against it. Although I'm still old-fashioned. I write with longhand. But I also feel that, as I said, writing in a way goes into stages. I mean, nowadays, writers write historical novels, they need to question history as such. And, you know, through writing one gets the true idea about things. Because ultimately readers know that they could get the reality, the truth more from writers than, let's say, newspapers or politicians. And writing is helping people building bridges between all the countries. And I mean, this is fantastic.
Thank you very much for your time.
 Dark Afternoon Tea was performed at Hampstead Theatre (London) from 9 February to 11 March 1995 and Paper Husband from 23 January to 22 February 1997. According to Hanan al-Shaykh, she is in the process of editing both plays for publication with one of the two publishers in London, who have shown an interest in publishing the plays in Arabic and English for students. [^]
(Civil War 1975-1991)
Non-Lebanese military and paramilitary forces retain significant influence over much of the country. Palestinian groups hostile to both the Lebanese government and the US operate largely autonomously inside refugee camps in different areas of the country. Intra communal violence within the camps has resulted in violent incidents such as shootings and explosions.
The population of Lebanon comprises Christians and Muslims. No official census has been taken since 1932, reflecting the political sensitivity in Lebanon over confessional (religious) balance. The US Government estimate is that more than half of the resident population is Muslim (Shi'a, Sunni and Druze), and the rest is Christian (predominantly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Armenian). Shi'a Muslims make up the single largest sect. Claims since the early 1970s by Muslims that they are in the majority contributed to tensions preceding the 1975-76 civil strife and have been the basis of demands for a more powerful Muslim voice in the government.
There are over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and thousands of stateless undocumented persons resident in the country (mostly Kurds and Syrians). Palestinians and stateless persons are not accorded the legal rights enjoyed by the rest of the population.
With no official figures available, it is estimated that 600,000-900,000 persons fled the country during the initial years of civil strife (1975-76). Although some returned, continuing conflict through 1990 sparked further waves of emigration, casting even more doubt on population figures. As much as 7% of the population was killed during the civil war between 1975 and 1990. Approximately 17,000-20,000 people are still "missing" or unaccounted for from the civil war period.
Lebanon's history from independence has been marked by periods of political turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional center for finance and trade. In 1958, during the last months of President Camille Chamoun's term, an insurrection broke out, and U.S. forces were briefly dispatched to Lebanon in response to an appeal by the government. During the 1960s, Lebanon enjoyed a period of relative calm and Beirut-focused tourism and banking sector-driven prosperity. Other areas of the country, however, notably the South, North, and Bekaa Valley, remained poor in comparison.
In the early 1970s, difficulties arose over the presence of Palestinian refugees, many of whom arrived after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and "Black September" 1970 hostilities in Jordan. Among the latter were Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Coupled with the Palestinian problem, Muslim and Christian differences grew more intense.
Beginning of the Civil War--1975-81
The spark that ignited the civil war in Lebanon occurred in Beirut on April 13, 1975, when gunmen killed four Phalangists during an attempt on Pierre Jumayyil's life. Perhaps believing the assassins to have been Palestinian, the Phalangists retaliated later that day by attacking a bus carrying Palestinian passengers across a Christian neighborhood, killing about twenty-six of the occupants. The next day fighting erupted in earnest, with Phalangists pitted against Palestinian militiamen (thought by some observers to be from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). The confessional layout of Beirut's various quarters facilitated random killing. Most Beirutis stayed inside their homes during these early days of battle, and few imagined that the street fighting they were witnessing was the beginning of a war that was to devastate their city and divide the country.
Despite the urgent need to control the fighting, the political machinery of the government became paralyzed over the next few months. The inadequacies of the political system, which the 1943 National Pact had only papered over temporarily, reappeared more clearly than ever. For many observers, at the bottom of the conflict was the issue of confessionalism out of balance--of a minority, specifically the Maronites, refusing to share power and economic opportunity with the Muslim majority.
The government could not act effectively because leaders were unable to agree on whether or not to use the army to stop the bloodletting. When Jumblatt and his leftist supporters tried to isolate the Phalangists politically, other Christian sects rallied to Jumayyil's camp, creating a further rift. Consequently, in May Prime Minister Rashid as Sulh and his cabinet resigned, and a new government was formed under Rashid Karami. Although there were many calls for his resignation, President Franjiyah steadfastly retained his office. As various other groups took sides, the fighting spread to other areas of the country, forcing residents in towns with mixed sectarian populations to seek safety in regions where their sect was dominant. Even so, the militias became embroiled in a pattern of attack followed by retaliation, including acts against uninvolved civilians.
Although the two warring factions were often characterized as Christian versus Muslim, their individual composition was far more complex. Those in favor of maintaining the status quo came to be known as the Lebanese Front. The groups included primarily the Maronite militias of the Jumayyil, Shamun, and Franjiyah clans, often led by the sons of zuama. Also in this camp were various militias of Maronite religious orders. The side seeking change, usually referred to as the Lebanese National Movement, was far less cohesive and organized. For the most part it was led by Kamal Jumblatt and included a variety of militias from leftist organizations and guerrillas from rejectionist Palestinian (nonmainstream PLO) organizations.
By the end of 1975, no side held a decisive military advantage, but it was generally acknowledged that the Lebanese Front had done less well than expected against the disorganized Lebanese National Movement. The political hierarchy, composed of the old zuama and politicians, still was incapable of maintaining peace, except for occasional, short-lived cease-fires. Reform was discussed, but little headway was made toward any significant improvements. Syria, which was deeply concerned about the flow of events in Lebanon, also proved powerless to enforce calm through diplomatic means. And, most ominous of all, the Lebanese Army, which generally had stayed out of the strife, began to show signs of factionalizing and threatened to bring its heavy weaponry to bear on the conflict.
Syrian diplomatic involvement grew during 1976, but it had little success in restoring order in the first half of the year. In January it organized a cease-fire and set up the High Military Committee, through which it negotiated with all sides. These negotiations, however, were complicated by other events, especially Lebanese Front-Palestinian confrontations. That month the Lebanese Front began a siege of Tall Zatar, a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp in East Beirut; the Lebanese Front also overran and leveled Karantina, a Muslim quarter in East Beirut. These actions finally brought the main forces of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), into the battle. Together, the PLA and the Lebanese National Movement took the town of Ad Damur, a Shamun stronghold about seventeen kilometers south of Beirut.
In spite of these setbacks, through Syria's good offices, compromises were achieved. On February 14, 1976, in what was considered a political breakthrough, Syria helped negotiate a seventeen-point reform program known as the Constitutional Document. Yet by March this progress was derailed by the disintegration of the Lebanese Army. In that month dissident Muslim troops, led by Lieutenant Ahmad Khatib, mutinied, creating the Lebanese Arab Army. Joining the Lebanese National Movement, they made significant penetrations into Christian-held Beirut and launched an attack on the presidential palace, forcing Franjiyah to flee to Mount Lebanon. Continuing its search for a domestic political settlement to the war, in May the Chamber of Deputies elected Ilyas Sarkis to take over as president when Franjiyah's term expired in September. But Sarkis had strong backing from Syria and, as a consequence, was unacceptable to Jumblatt, who was known to be antipathetic to Syrian president Hafiz al Assad and who insisted on a "military solution." Accordingly, the Lebanese National Movement successfully pressed assaults on Mount Lebanon and other Christian-controlled areas.
As Lebanese Front fortunes declined, two outcomes seemed likely: the establishment in Mount Lebanon of an independent Christian state, viewed as a "second Israel" by some; or, if the Lebanese National Movement won the war, the creation of a radical, hostile state on Syria's western border. Neither of these possibilities was viewed as acceptable to Assad. To prevent either scenario, at the end of May 1976 Syria intervened militarily against the Lebanese National Movement, hoping to end the fighting swiftly. This decision, however, proved ill conceived, as Syrian forces met heavy resistance and suffered many casualties. Moreover, by entering the conflict on the Christian side Syria provoked outrage from much of the Arab world. Despite, or perhaps as a result of, these military and diplomatic failures, in late July Syria decided to quell the resistance. A drive was launched against Lebanese National Movement strongholds that was far more successful than earlier battles; within two weeks the opposition was almost subdued. Rather than crush the resistance altogether, at this time Syria chose to participate in an Arab peace conference held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 16, 1976.
The Riyadh Conference, followed by an Arab League meeting in Cairo also in October 1976, formally ended the Lebanese Civil War; although the underlying causes were in no way eliminated, the fullscale warfare stopped. Syria's presence in Lebanon was legitimated by the establishment of the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) by the Arab League in October 1976. In January 1977 the ADF consisted of 30,000 men, of whom 27,000 were Syrian. The remainder were token contingents from Saudi Arabia, the small Persian Gulf states, and Sudan; Libya had withdrawn its small force in late 1976. Because of his difficulties in reforming the Lebanese Army, President Sarkis, the ADF's nominal commander, requested renewal of the ADF's mandate a number of times.
Thus, after more than one and one-half years of devastation, relative calm returned to Lebanon. Although the exact cost of the war will never be known, deaths may have approached 44,000, with about 180,000 wounded; many thousands of others were displaced or left homeless, or had migrated. Much of the once-magnificent city of Beirut was reduced to rubble and the town divided into Muslim and Christian sectors, separated by the so-called Green Line.
In 1982 Lebanon began to rebuild their armed forces with assistance from the United Staes. In 1988, these new modern forces gave General Aoun, the interim prime minister, the will to declare a war of liberation against the Syrians who were still occupying the country. However, within two years General Aoun was defeated and exiled to France. Syria maintained its presence while also rebuilding the Lebanese Armed Forces, which were devastated by the brief war.
An interim cease-fire brokered by the U.S. in 1981 among Syria, the PLO, and Israel was respected for almost a year. Several incidents, including PLO rocket attacks on northern Israel, as well as an assassination attempt on the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, led to the June 6, 1982 Israeli ground attack into Lebanon to remove PLO forces. Operation "Peace for Galilee" aimed at establishing a deeper security zone and pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, with a view toward paving the way for an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. With these aims in mind, Israeli forces drove 25 miles into Lebanon, moving into East Beirut with the support of Maronite Christian leaders and militia.
In August 1982, U.S. mediation resulted in the evacuation of Syrian troops and PLO fighters from Beirut. The agreement also provided for the deployment of a multinational force composed of U.S. Marines along with French and Italian units. A new President, Bashir Gemayel, was elected with acknowledged Israeli backing. On September 14, however, he was assassinated. The next day, Israeli troops crossed into West Beirut to secure Muslim militia strongholds and stood aside as Lebanese Christian militias massacred almost 800 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Then-Israeli Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon was held indirectly responsible for the massacre by the Kahane Commission and later resigned. With U.S. backing, Amin Gemayel, chosen by the Lebanese parliament to succeed his brother as President, focused anew on securing the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces. The multinational force returned.
On May 17, 1983, Lebanon, Israel, and the United States signed an agreement on Israeli withdrawal that was conditioned on the departure of Syrian troops. Syria opposed the agreement and declined to discuss the withdrawal of its troops, effectively stalemating further progress. In August 1983, Israel withdrew from the Shuf (southeast of Beirut), thus removing the buffer between the Druze and the Christian militias and triggering another round of brutal fighting. By September, the Druze had gained control over most of the Shuf, and Israeli forces had pulled out from all but the southern security zone, where they remained until May 2000. The virtual collapse of the Lebanese Army in February 1984, following the defection of many Muslim and Druze units to militias, was a major blow to the government. With the U.S. Marines looking ready to withdraw, Syria and Muslim groups stepped up pressure on Gemayal. On March 5, 1984 the Lebanese Government canceled the May 17 agreement; the Marines departed a few weeks later.
This period of chaos witnessed the beginning of terrorist attacks launched against U.S. and Western interests. These included the April 18, 1983 suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut (63 dead), the bombing of the headquarters of U.S. and French forces on October 23, 1983 (298 dead), the assassination of American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr on January 18, 1984, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut on September 20, 1984 (9 dead).
It also saw the rise of radicalism among a small number of Lebanese Muslim factions who believed that the successive Israeli and U.S. interventions in Lebanon were serving primarily Christian interests. It was from these factions that Hizballah emerged from a loose coalition of Shi'a groups. Hizballah employed terrorist tactics and was supported by Syria and Iran.
Worsening Conflict and Political Crisis--1985-89
Between 1985 and 1989, factional conflict worsened as various efforts at national reconciliation failed. Heavy fighting took place in the "War of the Camps" in 1985 and 1986 as the Shi'a Muslim Amal militia sought to rout the Palestinians from Lebanese strongholds. The Amal movement had been organized in mid-1975, at the beginning of the civil war, to confront what were seen as Israeli plans to displace the Lebanese population with Palestinians. (Its charismatic founder Imam Musa Sadr disappeared in Libya 3 years later. Its current leader, Nabih Berri, is the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.) The combat returned to Beirut in 1987, with Palestinians, leftists, and Druze fighters allied against Amal, eventually drawing further Syrian intervention. Violent confrontation flared up again in Beirut in 1988 between Amal and Hizballah.
Meanwhile, on the political front, Prime Minister Rashid Karami, head of a government of national unity set up after the failed peace efforts of 1984, was assassinated on June 1, 1987. President Gemayel's term of office expired in September 1988. Before stepping down, he appointed another Maronite Christian, Lebanese Armed Forces Commanding General Michel Aoun, as acting Prime Minister, contravening Lebanon's unwritten "National Pact," which required the prime minister to be Sunni Muslim. Muslim groups rejected the move and pledged support to Salim al-Hoss, a Sunni who had succeeded Karami. Lebanon was thus divided between a Christian government in East Beirut and a Muslim government in West Beirut, with no president.
In February 1989 Aoun attacked the rival Lebanese Forces militia. By March he turned his attention to other militias, launching what he termed a "War of Liberation" against the Syrians and their Lebanese militia allies. In the months that followed, Aoun rejected both the agreement that ultimately ended the civil war and the election of another Christian leader as president. A Lebanese-Syrian military operation in October 1990 forced him to take cover in the French Embassy in Beirut and later into a 15-year exile in Paris. After Syrian troop withdrawal, Aoun returned to Lebanon on May 7, 2005 and won a seat in the 2005 parliamentary elections. He is now the leader of the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
End of the Civil War--1989-91
The Ta'if Agreement of 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the war. In January of that year, a committee appointed by the Arab League, chaired by Kuwait and including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco, had begun to formulate solutions to the conflict, leading to a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, where they agreed to the national reconciliation accord in October. Returning to Lebanon, they ratified the agreement on November 4 and elected Rene Moawad as President the following day. Moawad was assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut on November 22 as his motorcade returned from Lebanese Independence Day ceremonies. Elias Hrawi, who remained in office until 1998, succeeded him.
In August 1990, parliament and the new President agreed on constitutional amendments embodying some of the political reforms envisioned at Ta'if. The Chamber of Deputies expanded to 128 seats and was divided equally between Christians and Muslims (with Druze counted as Muslims). In March 1991, parliament passed an amnesty law that pardoned all political crimes prior to its enactment. The amnesty was not extended to crimes perpetrated against foreign diplomats or certain crimes referred by the cabinet to the Higher Judicial Council. In May 1991, the militias (with the important exception of Hizballah) were dissolved, and the Lebanese Armed Forces began to slowly rebuild itself as Lebanon's only major nonsectarian institution.
In all, it is estimated that more than 100,000 were killed, and another 100,000 left handicapped, during Lebanon's 16-year civil war. Up to one-fifth of the pre-war resident population, or about 900,000 people, were displaced from their homes, of whom perhaps a quarter of a million emigrated permanently. The last of the Western hostages taken during the mid-1980s were released in May 1992.