11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
From the rooftopsProfile by Pascale Ghazaleh
One life is far too little
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The photo on the inside flap of the book's jacket says both more and less than I want to know. Hanan Al-Shaykh seems ethereal, almost aggravatingly translucent: her hair is fluffy, and floats about her face in clouds; you could cut bread with her cheekbones, and there is a mysterious smile playing -- there is no other word for it -- on her lips. She looks knowing, amused, detached. Her eyes are luminous and fixed on a point beyond the frame of the picture. Is this what she looks like, some star from a silent movie? It would be too good a marketing device to resist: a beautiful woman, writing about women's oppression in the Arab world. How could the audience not turn the pages, spellbound?
Women of Sand and Myrrh; The Story of Zahra; Beirut Blues; I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops: In all of these, women struggle to understand. They are surrounded by tragedy, but seem to believe, somehow, that the tragedy is within themselves: that they bear it in their hearts, their wombs, their minds. They live in war, or in the intolerable isolation of the desert; in the gilded cage of a Gulf state, hemmed in by fear, death, desolation. From oppression, death, monotony, they pluck a kind of joy -- transient or lasting, real or illusory. "I thought to myself," she writes in Women of Sand and Myrrh, "how human beings continually manage to overcome their circumstances, thinking up the strangest ways to give substance to their desires." They do not always achieve reconciliation, though. Sometimes, as in The Story of Zahra, their joy kills them, quite literally. A bullet ends the journey toward self-discovery. In wartime, why would snipers not be lovers? And why not the reverse?
Then again, what would Hanan Al-Shaykh know?
For in her world, it is often illusion itself that turns out to be the most tangible reality of all -- a reality that brands its victims for life. And yet -- and yet.
How much of Hanan Al-Shaykh is media phenomenon, how much is writer? She would laugh at the question. She takes no offence. Her eyes are perpetually wide and astonished, with a glimmer of amusement, as if at her own innocence: it is not play-acting or self-consciousness, rather a vague awareness of her childish voice and tinkling laughter, attributes that she chooses to half ignore while showing them off helplessly, as if to say 'what can I do?'. If she were really aware of this fragility, that would mean she was using it as a tool, as a way of manipulating people. That would be a betrayal of the game. She is eminently likable. Her smile is very sweet, her forehead very wide and moon-white beneath the thick cloud of stiff, dark red hair. An abundance of hair. She speaks in a soothing sing-song, her voice is frail and her sentences trail off then pick themselves up again, going exactly where she wants them to. She is wearing an ethereal outfit in tones of prune and wine, improbable ballet slippers on her slender feet. On anyone else, it would look calculated. On her, it does not. Her face, when she turns it quickly to face you, is like a full moon: round and pearly, subtly shaped, the hollows and curves less obvious than when she turns away; in profile, it is sharp, almost cutting. She has written about this, this face of hers, in a novel called Suicide of a Dead Man, the first she wrote, when she was a student at the American College. The story, of a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 44-year-old man, is told from the man's point of view. He sees two different women in her: one full-face, the other in profile. These things have happened to her. Sometimes she has imagined them: she did not stay in Beirut, during the war; she left as soon as she could. But she wrote about those who stayed, who could not imagine going elsewhere, who embraced the war and the ravaged city like a familiar body. She wondered what a sniper would be like if you went up to him, up on to one of the city's rooftops, and she wrote about it. So many of her stories are so bleak; it comes as a surprise -- almost a betrayal -- to find her so equanimous, so unnervingly cheerful.
Her latest novel is set in London. This is a first for her. Her books have always been set in the Arab world -- Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. The stories have always been written at a remove: she had to leave before she could write about where she had been. Recently, she has come to realise that she lives in London, although she has in fact lived there, on and off, for over a decade. "Every time I used to go back to Lebanon, or come here to Egypt, I would become schizophrenic. Not this time. Now I know that I live in the West. I am not nostalgic anymore."
Hanan Al-Shaykh's life can seem as fragmented, as mysterious and opaque, as her stories. She does not dissemble or dissimulate, just takes things naturally that seem to warrant explanation, to defy simple description. She first came to Cairo at 17. "I had been to the cinema in Lebanon and seen a short film advertising Egypt. There was a song, 'Take Me Back to Cairo'," -- she breaks spontaneously into song, one small, bird-like hand fluttering to underscore the melody, then laughs delightedly. "Anyway, I was very bad at school, especially in maths. Maybe, you know, I had a learning deficiency and never knew about it. So I didn't get the grades to pass at school. I used to go bowling on Al-Hamra Street, and I met a boy there who told me he was going to Cairo. He told me all you needed was a piece of paper from the school in Lebanon saying you had attended. So I told him, 'I want to go too'."
It seems odd that a girl whose father was "very religious, but not a fanatic", and whose family was hardly well-off, could just take off, with little more than a letter to relatives in her pocket, and come to a city where she knew hardly anyone. How did it happen, Hanan? She seems surprised at the question, as though it had never occurred to her that anyone could say 'you can' or 'you can't'. She answers, indeed, in terms not of permission or prohibition, but of her own feelings: isolation and difference. Since she did not feel she belonged, she simply detached herself. "In Beirut, we lived in a street full of Beirutis. We were from the south, we always felt like outsiders. The whole street thought my father was mad: he wore a shawl on his head, and would wash the stairs of the whole building. He wanted things to be very clean all the time. He would line up the whole family's shoes on the balcony to shine them, and the balcony was open, everyone could see these shoes from the street. In Cairo, everything was different: I was alone, I could invent myself. I liked modern things, I wanted everything to be modern. I was a different person, a little bit existentialist, without having a clue what existentialism was. I wore black... All my links were severed, I had nothing to do with who I had been in Beirut. In Beirut, people would ask, 'why does she act like that? Does she think we don't know who she is, who her family is? She is not a girl from Al-Hamra or Al-Ashrafiya. Her family's not well-off.' I came to Cairo, and went to the Saniya secondary school."
When pressed for more, Hanan Al-Shaykh looks a little surprised, and smiles. "My father was a very good man, so good he never thought that -- you know, he trusted me completely. Or he was so simple he never thought anything could happen to me. Also, my generation was timid. Things were not natural, the way they are today. I remember one day, I was crossing the street with a boy. I was holding his hand and I saw my father. I hid; I was so frightened. That night, I saw my father, and he said 'I saw you with a boy,' and I said 'yes, he was helping me cross the street.' Maybe he loved me so much that he didn't want to believe anything bad. Every time he wanted to make a decision he would consult the Qur'an."
Even in Beirut, however, a certain kind of independence had been considered natural. Aged 12 or 13, Hanan would take her father his lunch, crossing the city to reach Sursock Market, and the shop where her father sold cloth. "I would take the train, walk through the vegetable market, the gold market, until I reached him. I was so ashamed... He would take me with him to buy food, take me through the market, carrying his shopping bag, and I would take the food home. Today, in London, I do the same, I go to market, I buy fruit and vegetables, but at the time, I was embarrassed."
The shop in Sursock Market did not last long, however; her father's partner took it over and pushed him out. This was one of the set-backs of his life, the disappointments that broke him. Hanan's mother leaving him was the other. She has written about this, too. In The Scratching of Angels' Pens, Shadia, having left her husband for the man she loves, is urged to repent:
Naturally, the angels' pens will cross your bad deed off the slate if you return to your first husband... Repent so that you can go to heaven and see 'the ground gleaming white like silver and pearls, the earth made of musk, the saffron plants, the trees with alternative leaves of silver and gold'...
But Hanan's mother did not want to return to her first husband, not even after her second died in a car accident. "Everyone said his death was my father's revenge."
The sense of alienation that pervades Hanan Al-Shaykh's writing seems to have taken root around this time, the time when her mother left them. When she visited her mother on the Jabal, where she had gone to live, young Hanan would hide things, matchsticks or bits of paper, under stones or on windowsills, "to prove to myself that I had been there before. I felt that our house in Beirut was a person, with an individual personality, who talked to me, who could like or hate me -- a human being in every sense of the word. So there was always a sense of alienation, when I went to the south, or returned, or went to visit my mother, or came back. My husband is the same; he likes to move all the time. All of us are looking, all of us have this ghurba, this otherness inside." In a mirror-reverse reenactment of this ritual, Al-Shaykh recently went back to see the girls' hostel where she had stayed in Cairo, on Qasr Al-Nil Street, that first time. "Madame Rachel, the landlady, was gone, but Hanem, her assistant, was still there. They had painted the whole place, it was completely different: but I saw the old wallpaper, and cut off a piece, and kept it."
After Cairo, and two years at the American College, she did not feel she could return to Beirut. Her mother's brother lived "in Africa" -- she does not give any details -- and she went to stay with him. "After that I got married, and went to Saudi Arabia with my husband. That's where I wrote Faras Al-Shaytan [The Praying Mantis]." Al-Shaykh is worried that, if the book were reprinted today, she would be attacked for her scathing attack on religion. "My father was like that, always reciting the Qur'an." The same father who was religious, but not a fanatic? "He wanted me to veil; I didn't want to. I believe in the written word very strongly: I believe it. His way of praying all the time, telling us to say the shihada [the Muslim declaration of faith] before going to bed, in case we died in our sleep -- it was frightening. The story of Al-Isra wal-Mi'raj [the book of the Prophet Mohamed's night journey to heaven], the women hung up by their hair: it was frightening."
Shadia closed her eyes, recollecting what she had read in her teens about the terrors of the afterlife, about 'women hanging by their hair in the infernal zaqoum tree and having boiling water poured over them till their flesh came off in strips...'
"At Ashura, my father would cry," says Hanan Al-Shaykh. "He was crying for all of us: for himself, because my mother had left him, for us, because our mother had left us, for my brother, who had been accused of political assassination and had been forced to flee the country, for himself, because his partner had betrayed him and taken his shop... I didn't understand him or his rituals. He cried for all of us."
Her father closed in on himself. She did not trust him, did not feel he offered any support. He wept night and day for the martyrdom of Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein. Hanan's mother had her own life. One of her brothers had become involved in politics and been forced to flee the country; one had a learning disability. "I felt there was no one for me, no one but me. I would have liked my father to take me to the dentist... We never went to visit friends, never sat and talked. Once, once, I remember: he took us to the beach, took us to see the sea. Although I lived by the sea, I had never seen it. Now I know that Beirut is surrounded by sea, but I had never realised it. He sat there, on the beach, and prayed. My sister and I were ashamed of him. So I felt there was no one, no one, no one."
Today, she believes that, no matter what, one cannot remain an outsider. Even those who try to do so do not succeed entirely. "Now I feel I have a home in London. Many women writers like me, Arabs, Pakistanis, Japanese... we feel we don't entirely belong to England, and we've made a country of our own."
The fact that she has no political convictions, strictly speaking, may help. "Sometimes my friends say I'm na•ve, but I always see different sides of an issue. It's interesting. I don't take positions. I don't really have much of an opinion. I always feel I want to learn. There's something to learn in everything. You see people, you hear things, you feel some people are making contact. Maybe it's a weakness in my personality, but I don't think so. If I understand already, and writing is not going to help me discover anything, why write?"
In much the same way, her characters take her wherever they want to go. Most of her work -- notably, Women of Sand and Myrrh, but also The Story of Zahra -- are told from more than one perspective. "I don't focus on one character, do I?" she muses with a tinkling laugh. "When you write about different characters, the one you're focusing on is brought out more clearly. It's not nice to be old-fashioned, and write about just one person. And always, always: I don't have prejudices. I'm not a prejudiced person. When I write, I don't know what's going to happen till it happens. I like dramatic situations, though. They attract me." Among her friends, oddly enough, Al-Shaykh is known as a joker. "It doesn't come out in my writing." She gets her lighter side from her mother, she believes: "My mother is a very witty person, very amusing, always laughing and making puns." Asked to contribute to an anthology of stories about women and solitude, Al-Shaykh wrote about her mother, and the time she went to America to visit one of her sons. "There was a fire, and she was alone in the house. She didn't know a word of English, she didn't know how to tell anybody or ask for help. She banged on the neighbour's door, and took a box of matches. She started lighting one match after another, and screaming. They thought she was insane, and became terrified of her."
So behind the laughter, there is always a tragedy lurking. Whether or not it happens seems to be a matter of pure luck. But so many possibilities seem present in every situation that it must be difficult to resist any of them. So Al-Shaykh doesn't. She changes them around, and writes about what could have happened, as if conjuring fate. A happy marriage; and stories about divorce, incest, abandonment, betrayal. A glamourous life; and tales of emptiness and frustration. Letters to Beirut; and a desire -- soon fulfilled -- to flee the city. "When the war broke out, I could see Beirut burning from my window. I couldn't stand it. I'm really a coward. I was very frightened. Besides, I wanted to live, to see, I didn't want to sit at home. I wanted to walk about on my feet. There was a life out there. I just left: I was not leaving a homeland, I was leaving people with no identity, no values, nothing. Although some of my friends felt they could not leave -- I had never felt I really belonged."
Hanan Al-Shaykh says she has been a late bloomer, remaining aloof from the worlds around her until long after they had changed. She wonders how her friends could have liked her when she was so self-absorbed, but they have told her they knew what she was really like -- what she would become. And this, in the final analysis, has been what she wanted, quite literally. Writing what could have been has had its disadvantages, though: "I went to see a friend of my mother's, and she refused to speak to me. Finally she said, 'I'm frightened of you! You'll just put anything I say in one of your books.' And I told her, 'I wouldn't write about you if I didn't love you!'" Hanan Al-Shaykh smiles again, but now bright tears are standing in her eyes. "Next I'm going to write about my mother. She still doesn't believe I forgive her. So I'll show her, this way, that I do."
photo: Randa Shaath