Hanan al-Shaykh: Butterfly blues
The American University in Cairo Literature Department's distinguished visiting professor this month, Hanan al-Shaykh is among the Arab world's best respected novelists. An unequivocally female voice, she has rarely made a point of stressing gender. And far from being a self-styled feminist, the way many of her generation are, she remains admirably level-headed about the distinction between literature and politics. Hers is an all-too-human fem lib, steeped in familiar family settings, however dysfunctional the families, and fuelled not by clashing with the precepts of patriarchy but through courageous immersion in individual life experiences, acceptance of the limitless human capacity for wrongdoing and sustained fascination with the simple and the mundane, all that goes into telling a gripping tale. Al-Shaykh first came to the attention of the public with the publication in 1980, at her own expense, of Hikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra, 1994), an autobiographically inspired account of the war from the viewpoint of a young woman -- widely adopted as a model, both victim and victor. Already she had written Intihar Rajul Mayit (Suicide of a Dead Man, 1970) -- a novel she would like to return to now she knows how to build a lifelike character, she says -- and Faras Al-Shaytan (The Praying Mantis, 1971), her initial response to Saudi Arabia, a country in which she was yet to spend eight years behind closed doors, in 1988 producing the far more accomplished Misk Al-Ghazal (Women of Sand and Myrrh, 1992). She has since further explored the war, written about London, the city of her residence since 1976, and retold her mother's life in Hikayati Sharhun Yatoul (My Life, a long story, 2005).
Think about three things for a moment, one by one.
Your brother is a political assassin -- a failed one who flees to Liberia, marries a local and stays; when he comes back years later, he has two children with him, a boy and a girl; they are (as no one hoping to live in, let alone belong to Beirut should be) coal black, yet it turns out they are crazy about their Arab heritage -- something that no sooner engages than destroys them.
Your mother was forced to marry your father -- her just dead sister's husband -- at the age of 14; by 22, having given birth to you and your elder sister, she runs away from home, eventually to marry the man she loves; and although a complete pariah by virtue of the fact, she lives a couple of blocks away from the house where you continue to grow up with your father.
Or else -- this should command more attention than the other two -- at a time when every literate girl your age is in love with Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, the Arab world's most celebrated romantic novelist, in 1963 you leave the periphery of the cultural landscape, move to Cairo -- the glittering centre -- and have an affair with none other; you've only just turned 18.
BACK TO CAIRO: Hanan al-Shaykh was very happy to be here, she said. During her early stay in Cairo, she had hoped to graduate from the American Girls College to this very institution, she confessed to her audience; what could make her happier than being hosted by it? For each of two talks she delivered at the inexplicably named Blue Room of the American University in Cairo's similarly anomalous Greek Campus, of which journalists are normally kept out, the novelist proffered a singularly fecund image: respectively a globe and a carriage.
On the surface of the first, apparently a present she had bought her children, she traced her way across the continents where, approaching on tiptoe, as it were, she spied women behind tables hacking away at the rocky substance of their lives; some were very well known.
Al-Shaykh spoke in accented English, smiling magnificently if somewhat wearily as it seemed, while she ever so slightly shrugged her shoulders, punctuating: "here in Egypt I cannot distract you from the difficulties of my analysis in the same way that I can with audiences in the West -- for example, when I talked about Satan's vast eyes and how one had to walk for three years before reaching the eyelid, they were enchanted." And dismissing "a new genre of women's writing... called Chick-lit or Aga Saga with titles like 'Does my bum look big in this' and 'The devil wears prada'", she went through a long list of male as well as female writers, elaborating only on those texts that had moved her personally, but crediting all.
Except for a pious interjection cut short with astonishing ease -- "I went to a religious school as a little girl," al-Shaykh said, "and all I can say is that I'm not interested in religion," -- and several more or less failed attempts at drawing her out, the talk proceeded smoothly, al-Shaykh living up to her reputation for lightness. She was serious enough, indeed occasionally profound, but consistently featherweight -- in spirit, in tone, in overall presence. And young. Astounding, indeed, how young, when you consider that she was born in 1945.
The second talk was somewhat busier, with writers like Ibrahim Aslan and Salwa Bakr among the audience. And though easily read as an elaborate promotional exercise, it ended up being even more truthful in drawing the connection between places of residence and books produced: al-Shaykh's departure from her usual mode of story telling in Only in London (2000), for example, written after more than a decade of living there, reflected a corresponding change in her own psychological landscape. It also served a purpose: by drawing a map of London's Arab population, she was requisitioning a newfound homeland, however complicated.
Later, at the Hanager Art Centre's little garden, al-Shaykh would praise the Shia faith, from a purely cultural perspective, for having "something writers can find very useful": a sense of tragedy, a kind of equivalent to Christ's Passion and Crucifixion (in the killing of the Prophet Mohamed's grandson Hussein). "But because of religion," she would go on, "there was no joy at home; no pleasure in anything." Along the same lines, she said, London was gradually embedded in her consciousness even as she realised how alien she was in it, discovering, as she had said during the second talk, that "not all human beings are the same".
Cairo, on the other hand, had formed her -- to a greater extent, even, than Beirut. As a budding intellectual she found all the stimulation she required; when she was denied the request to continue staying in the foreign girl students' hostel where she first lived -- she hadn't broken any of the rules, but her attitude was too easy-going for the proprietors' tastes, and no one believed, as she would insist to them, with neither fear nor shame, that Abdel-Quddous was " walley amry ", her guardian or benefactor, a kind of parent -- she moved in with Palestinian friends whose landlady, a warm Jewess, was friends with Laila Murad.
"When you've read Hikayati Sharhun Yatoul, you'll know what Laila Murad meant to me then, especially her lips, because of the way she would curl them in the movies. I liked Madam Rachel because I was told that Laila Murad came to her to play the partita," a gambling card game, "or maybe it was bridge, I don't remember. Anyway, one day I came back from school and who should I find right there in front of me but Laila Murad. In black, her hair tied back in a bun, no make- up. So I throw my books in the air and charge at her; she must've been scared, the poor thing. 'I love you, my mother loves you, Fadila loves you...' I just list all those names to her. And later she can't play because of my excessive attention -- I'd bring her water, she didn't want water; I'd wipe her brow with a handkerchief -- just never taking my eyes off her."
Murad's initial response was to open her purse and hand al-Shaykh an LE20 note. "I refused to take it," she remembers. But with the insistence of Rachel, who explained that al-Shaykh was a student and that she needed no money even as she told her to take it under her breath, the valuable note finally passed hands. "But no sooner was Laila Murad gone," al-Shaykh recounts, laughing, "than Madam Rachel stuck it in her own purse."
"Others go to great lengths to seek out the kind of drama they could write about," al-Shaykh smiled wryly as she said this. "In my case it just came to me."
Such was the drama surrounding her two brothers' activism, for one thing, she developed an aversion to the kind of political action that results in policemen surrounding and searching the house, unwittingly setting off the hidden bullets and then firing at non-existent rivals, or else detaining loved ones for months without trial. She learned to be cautious. "Everyone in the neighbourhood loved Gamal Abdel-Nasser," for example. "I feared him."
Yet Arabism notwithstanding, al-Shaykh seldom felt Lebanese.
Even in language she preferred "Egyptian tenderness", she says -- taala instead of the more abrupt tala -- and when she met her husband, it was his "Palestinian speech" that drew her to him, since he had spent the first few years of his life in Jerusalem. Even in Yemen, she recounts, she was wearing fashionable trousers when an old woman asked her where her dress was. "You can't go around in a sirwal," she told al-Shaykh. "Which part of the country do you come from anyway?" Elsewhere in the Arab world, too, she felt at home. That said, since leaving Lebanon, a twinge of guilt has never left her: "I felt as if I'd been living in this wonderful hotel, and as soon as there was a fault in the plumbing, I just packed my bags and left."
ARAB, WOMAN, WRITER: "Ihsan was depressed," she was saying, "because he was gradually disinherited of everything. All that political stuff. Nationalisation, then he was marginalised. And I was but an added responsibility. He would get mad trying to talk to me. He would bring up one of his problems, and I'd just be gazing at a flower. I'd respond by pointing to a butterfly."
Yet Abdel-Quddous was more than an exciting companion. His presence had been intense enough in Beirut, where al-Shaykh found inspiration in novels like La anaam (Sleepless). The title of Ana horra (I am free), indeed, became the mantra of her adolescence; she would cry it out in defiance of her elder brother's edict never to say such things, running down the stairs while he shaved so he could not catch and beat her up as was his wont. "My father was very weak," al-Shaykh explained, "so after my mother left it was he who took us on."
Abdel-Quddous was a kind of envoy from the big city -- "I would wonder how Beirut could be on the Mediterranean coast when it was in reality so small" -- which represented a world in which religiosity didn't mar life and where it was possible to talk respectfully about sex, maybe even have it. Beirut was all about French existentialism and the Swinging Sixties -- left-wing politics, the Absurd, the body -- and al-Shaykh had already taken to disavowing not only her religious but gentle father but the entire Lebanese South, whence her ancestry hailed.
"Back then books for me meant the dark black letters on the yellowing pages of the only book in the house. They resembled the black pearls of rosaries lying serene in drawers. They evoked humility and tears and reminded me that my father, who used to pull taut his leather trouser belt and threaten to beat me, was a quaking dove before that book and its black letters. The other books found their way to me, like school books, which sent shudders through me when the pictures printed in them in black and white seemed to me to imply something terrible... I remember when I was 14 years old heading to my father's shop in ' Souq Sursouk,' in the heart of downtown Beirut, to deliver his lunch in a brass container.
"As usual I had to pass a particular bookshop before losing myself in the fruit and fish markets, and one day, the bookshop window caught my attention. Leila Baalbaki's book, I LIVE, was actually displayed in the window. I was attracted to the name because she had taught me for a year at elementary school. She had made a special impression on me by the way she talked and dressed, and with her gypsy hair- do. But I also found myself attracted to the lettering used for the title of the book and her name. It became a habit of mine to stop at this bookshop. I was eager to touch the books and buy them, but they were beyond my means.
"I started reading about the authors before reading their work: about Ounsil al-Hajj's beard and Leila Baalbaki's Gitanes cigarettes... I found myself wearing one mask after another, erasing and demolishing what had been shaped in childhood, what had saddened me, scared me, and made me flourish. Of these I made a big bundle which I left in the darkest corner... I stopped eating the food that I had been brought up to love, changed my accent and denied some of my relatives, even ignoring my father in the street. I dressed in black, let my hair down, smoked Gauloises, mumbled phrases like 'do I exist?' and 'do I breathe?'..."
Soon enough she had completed Hikayat Zahra, however, the tale of a girl very like her, who finds release not in taking off to Cairo but in the very confusion and chaos afforded by the war. The book turned the experience in on itself, pointing to man's madness as a possibility for woman's freedom -- and put al-Shaykh in touch with her unique voice, a voice she would use again and again until Only in London, and then return to, to tell her mother's tale -- in some sense a variation on, or rather the strategic depth of, that first effort.
"Here is my story which my daughter Hanan wrote for me, so that when I told it to her I would stop blaming myself. We sat together without a recorder, she writing in her little notebooks that look like address books with pictures pasted in them..."
Hikayat Zahra was rejected by Beirut publishers precisely because it set a precedent. Though al-Shaykh persisted, coming up against conservatism continues to be a recurrent concern. "I was scared people would ask me questions I wouldn't know how to answer," she said of her Blue Room talks, at the Hanager. "That they would bring up the whole sex thing again -- why do you write about sex, and why in this way. That they would take issue with my positive reference to Salman Rushdie." She joked with the waiter, noticing a wasp. "What surprised me, rather, was that there were very few students in the audience," she went on, before sailing back into the building with that same juvenile curiosity in her eyes. You could only compare her to a butterfly, one who has managed to transform all the sadness surrounding her into beautifully patterned instruments of flight. "Then again I thought about it, and remembered that if I was their age, I would be very reluctant to attend an event like this myself."
But think again, for yours is a life course fashioned to a novelist's vocation.
Without the benefit of a university degree, indeed, immediately on your return to Beirut in 1966, thanks to a novel you submit to a literary competition, you become a journalist with the prestigious An-Nahar. You are not only over Abdel-Quddous but in love with one of a handful of Arab engineers who know how to desalinate sea water.
A Maalouf -- heir to much social and intellectual status in the Levant -- he wants to marry you; more importantly, he knows what you are like: unimaginably open-minded for the times, intellectually motivated but paradoxically apolitical; it's what he likes about you. Enough of an Arab nationalist to surrender himself to the cultural desert of the peninsula, where sea water must be desalinated, he knows you will become political in time, enough to respond to your own life, at least, for this is the only thing you have done with commitment: to write.
Nor is he mistaken: on arriving in Saudi Arabia with him in 1970 -- there the religious atmosphere is so reminiscent of all that you grew up resenting about your background you are more sure of your secular identity than ever -- women's rights emerge as an issue; you write. Similarly on settling down in London in 1976 -- your daughter is four months old when civil war breaks out in Beirut, and the UK happens to be the only country to which you have a multiple-entry visa -- the conflicts back home become personally relevant, at last. You write.
For rather than activism or madness, when all is said and done, it is fiction that saves you. On the page the potentially shattering confusion of the vertiginous space-time continuum you've occupied becomes somewhat more ordered, it makes sense. And by the time you make your name, you have given up journalism, given up cultural circles, given up any straightforward notion of home. But, come to think of it, had you ever sought one in the first place?