Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

(Auto)Biography of an illiterate woman

Hikayati sharhun yatul (My Life: An Intricate Tale), Hanan al-Shaykh, Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2005. pp380

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Hanan al-Shaykh

The life of Kamila, an extraordinary woman from Lebanon and the mother of acclaimed novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, is beautifully narrated in this unusual and multi-layered text. For one thing it is very difficult to categorize it as autobiography, biography, or simply a novel. Hanan al-Shaykh tape- recorded her illiterate mother's narration of different stages of her life, spanning most of the twentieth century and collected all the papers and letters she had in her possession and the ones she dictated and sent. In that sense the mother speaks, and the oral texture of the work attests to the authenticity of a narration by a daring unschooled woman of a poor background. Yet the work is written after all by a well-known writer, who personifies her mother by putting together her story and constructing a well- wrought narrative.

Even after her death when the mother is taken to the burial grounds in her village Nabatiyya in Southern Lebanon, "her" voice continues to articulate and comment on what she sees. This part is clearly the daughter's who is identifying with her mother and completing the story until its closure. This work can also be considered a great novel as it presents the poetics of an illiterate person and of everyday life. It amazes us by the beauty of the oral expressions used by ordinary people in their effort to make sense of the world and of their emotions. Analogies, metaphors, proverbs, songs, jokes, and ironic comments are all colloquial, yet they are of rare beauty and impact. Al-Shaykh in her most recent novel uncovers the aesthetics of daily speech as others like Salah Abdel-Sabur have done in poetry. It is not surprising to find Hanan telling her mother Kamila in this work: "If you were educated, you would have been the writer and not I."

The story of Kamila in its faithfulness to reality, presents a narrative without embellishments: the mother was forced to marry and tricked into it when she was not yet a teenager. She commits what would be called adultery with the man she loves and eventually marries after divorcing her husband (a miserly widower and former husband of her older half- sister). She commits petty thefts and tells numerous lies in order to survive and to manage a love affair behind the backs of the family. Yet the narrative is not confessional in tone. There is a matter-of-fact unfolding of what has been, without an expression of guilt, though there are definite regrets for having stayed too long with the first husband and for having had to leave her two daughters, Fatma and Hanan, at a young age when she remarried.

Although Kamila is unlikely to be representative of her generation in her audacity, many events in her life are typical: the miserable life in her village and subsequent move to Beirut at the age of nine, becoming an apprentice to a dress-maker, going to movies secretly, falling in love, getting married despite her wishes, ending up having seven children, going through the momentous events of the 1958 "revolution" in Lebanon and the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and later traveling to Kuwait and the US where children and relatives reside. All this along with the ups and downs on the ladder of social mobility and decline is representative of the tribulations that affected people in Lebanon in particular and in the rest of the Arab World in general.

In many ways, this work presents a people's history of modern Lebanon. The religiosity of some, such as Kamila's first husband and her frowning and stern brother on the one hand, is implicitly contrasted to the more secular and ideological members of the family who have turned to the National Syrian Party or the Baath Party on the other. The religious frames of reference -- including visits to Sayyida Zaynab's shrine in Damascus, the religious rituals of 'Ashura' (the day of mourning for the Shi'a since it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of al-Hussein in 680 A.D. when he fell fighting against the Caliph Yazid), and the constant invocation of Prophet Muhammad and Imam 'Ali, as well as wedding by proxy and cures by amulets -- mark everyday life. Traditions and class play an important role in the life of Kamila, though politics hardly touches on it except when the male members of the family are investigated for their involvement in oppositional politics. The main concern of Kamila, for example, when the Twin Towers are attacked on September 11 is that this incident did not take place in California, where she has relatives, but in New York.

Gender issues are interwoven intimately in this work. The protagonist and other female members of her family are not helpless women, but a brave lot who know how to fight back and how to plan and scheme in order to have a better life and more freedom -- in which they do not always succeed. Their disobedience and its justification to themselves take many forms. The female characters of this narrative -- and particularly the protagonist -- have psychological verisimilitude. The complicity between Kamila and her niece, whom she refers to as "angel," as well as friends who are willing to write letters for her or carry secret messages from her beloved, create a female underground front facing the patriarchal oppressive traditions.

But this is not a work pitting women against men. Kamila's other brother, an oud player who loved music but was not allowed to pursue his artistic interest, seems more understanding, just as some women relatives seem to stand behind patriarchal practices. When little, Kamila -- only ten years old -- is called from her jump rope game with other kids to a room and asked to say, "you are my proxy," she had no idea what that implied. Only much later does she understand that her right to object to a marriage contract has been delegated to someone else. Thus she ends up marrying her brother-in-law -- a strict and unpleasant character -- who was considerably older than her. When she objected, her women relatives (mother, sister-in-law, and aunt) told her that it was her responsibility since her sister had died leaving young children. If she refused, the widower would marry a stranger who would be a step-mother abusing the children of her husband from another wife. She was eventually forced to become his wife despite her attraction to a young man closer to her age and temperament.

What really contributed to the character of this young illiterate Kamila living in Beirut in the 1930s and after is the Egyptian movies and their plots and songs. Most of them romantic, with stories of unrequited love, she could thus identify with the heroines. The songs of love and longing seemed to express her very feelings. Muhammad, the young lover, was also fond of movies and would recite to her poetic passages he wrote to her just as she would sing him songs she learnt from the radio and movies. This lyrical link between them is a key in their attraction. Love and jealousy also go hand in hand in their relation, echoing dramas of the silver screen.

Hanan al-Shaykh is a writer who appeals to sophisticated critics as well as to general readers. She has a talent for writing entertaining novels with a deceptively simple style. Behind the simplicity lurks a challenging complexity for cultural and literary critics. In this work of Hanan al-Shaykh, which defies neat categorization, we encounter issues of subaltern and gendered aesthetics. The entire novel is written in the first person and carries the worldview of an illiterate woman. Her worldview corresponds to her language, which wavers between sentimentality, practicality, and humour. Words lacking decorum and naturalistic scenes come across without embarrassment and often with comic relief.

Finally what endears Kamila to the readers is her childlike qualities. She might have lived to be an old woman suffering from old-age ailments, but she has kept her inner child alive and well. Her awareness of her woman-ness never ceased, and her joy in the opposite sex did not wane. She was delighted to see a young man in a clean white shirt opposite her house in the summer resort, for example, and she started to comb her hair and throw glances at him. Her friend, however, laughed when she heard her mentioning the neighbour's attractiveness and pointed out that it was only a white shirt on the laundry rope! Kamila's eyesight was failing her, but certainly not her desires. The finale of the work is powerful and al-Shaykh -- while describing the last journey of her mother to the burial grounds in Nabatiyya -- moves us by understatement, as if it were just one more displacement of this extraordinary woman.

Hanan Al-Shaykh has a strong sense of ending and offers the readers a thought-provoking finale. It is only on the last page of this work that we learn the significance of the Arabic title, which is taken from the opening of an Arabic folktale in which the king of the land poses a difficult question to his subjects and only a lover is able to answer it. Perhaps this work is meant to be read by people who appreciate love in its varied manifestations -- eros, philos, and agape, as the Greeks called them.

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