Author’s Chat: Amal Ghandour and Hanan al Shaykh

  • by Amal Ghandour
  • September 10, 2013

Amal Ghandour has a conversation with Hanan al Shaykh on her recent publication of One Thousand and One Nights

Author’s Chat: Amal Ghandour and Hanan al Shaykh

Hanan al Shaykh always looks like she is about to break into a smile. Even when she’s in deep thought, her mouth is at a slight angle, ready to gently tilt up. It’s not affability that registers like a hint on the face, but a sly playfulness that is meant to shield as much as it is to disarm. For this celebrated Arab novelist has often had to do end runs around a fickle circumstance, and the studied, self-assured demeanor suggests a life well lived and battles hard won.

I could paint al Shaykh in youth as a Lebanese woman clawing her way out of the trap of a nondescript life. For her, in mid-1950s Lebanon, the usual blend of hardship and farce obtained. There was the family teetering on the edge of its middle income; the constantecho of giggles in a house crowded with siblings, cousins and aunts; the condescension of a patriarchal society towards its women; school days jam-packed with daydreaming and mirth; and, of course, in the center of the frame, the precocious child angling for the exit, quietly calculating the odds.

Love intrudes, though, separation and death as well, to make an already challenged childhood even more arduous. Hanan’s mother, Kamila, inadvertently (or not) wreaks a little havoc on her own household. Married at an agonizingly tender 13 years of age, upon her sister’s sudden death, to her much older brother-in-law, Kamila is rearing three nephews along with her own two daughters, Hanan and Fatima, when she, barely in her 20s, declares her love for the young gentleman two doors down.Soon, divorce leaves the daughters in the care of a pious father, while the mother gets to act out the Egyptian love scenes that sent her swooning in the darkness of Beirut’s cinemas. That is, until her new husband dies in a car crash, much in keeping with those same Egyptian melodramas, leaving Kamila, barely in her 30s, with five kids tugging at her heart.

The full story is in The Locust and The Bird, Hanan’s raw memoir of her mother, rather unusually told by Kamila herself. Bare-boned on the page, it borders on the tragic; but in full regalia, it’s a wild joy ride, full of every twist, hilarious and sad, good and bad, that a plot could possibly throw at a lush and self-indulgent heroine, as endearing as she is contemptible.

For readers unfamiliar with al Shaykh, this is the stuff that has always fed her fiction; indeed, the stuff that originally coaxed that smile into permanent existence.

But it also has to be said that, for a long time now, fortune itself has been smiling on al Shaykh. After her breakout 1981 novel, The Story of Zahra, was translated into French, winning soon thereafter Elle Magazine’s literary prize, the daring fictionist very quickly became the darling of Western critics while still managing to stay on the good side of most Arab ones — a remarkable feat, considering the relentlessness with which she teased social taboos at home and stereotypes abroad.

Perhaps what made al Shaykh resonate across the divides is the composure (I am tempted to opt for charity) with which she addressed chauvinisms both sacred and out of bounds, all inevitably revolving around man’s pervasive entitlements over his woman. And there is a rawness but no bitterness in her treatment of the forbidden that unnerves Arab conservatism: illicit love, rape, sex (of the premarital and extramarital kind), homosexuality. Her writing is conspicuously protective of the proverbial question mark that trails almost all human acts. She is clear about what she disdains — mores that harangue female potential, traditions immune to the times, the veil as identity politics, people devoid of humor, the mosque in the public square. But although she is unfettered in her candor, she doesn’t wield an ax. Al Shaykh is just interested in telling stories, and she tells them with a simplicity that abhors self-conscious thought. 

Hence her aversion to titles and crowns, not to mention pulpits and microphones. She shies away from that one label — Arab feminist writer — that has for long introduced her, because “I am a storyteller not a crusader. Families, society, relationships, life … These larger forces fascinate me. My female characters are at the center of the action, but I don’t pick up the pen for their sake. I have my sympathies and I am passionate about women’s rights, but, as a novelist, I am not driven by a cause, and I don’t have it in me to be a spokeswoman.”

Still, a free pen, whatever the topic, is often a shunned one in very conservative settings, making al Shaykh one of the most reliably bannable names in most Arab countries. As she says it, “Governments will often ban my books because of my name. Otherwise, why should, for example, Sonallah Ibrahim, whose books are much raunchier than mine, get a pass? I suspect that when they see my name, they figure trouble. I doubt they bother to read me anymore.” That she has been consistently bankable for her Lebanese publisher over the decades betrays the futility of these official stamps of disapproval. It no doubt betrays Arab readers’ receptivity to her voice. “I am an Arab novelist, I write in my native tongue, I have an Arab publisher and my Arabic books run into third and fourth editions. That’s what counts.”

Enter her latest book, One Thousand and One Nights,an adaptation of those fantastical tales of old that softened a vengeful king’s heart and spared Shahrazad’s head. Commissioned by the British theater director Tim Supple for an Arabic play (with English subtitles), Al Shaykh waded through every page of the original, picked 19 out of the hundreds of stories, threaded them together tight, spiking them here and there with her own embellishments. The production, which boasted some of the most talented Arab theater actors, debuted in Canada and went on to show at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012.

For her theme, al Shaykh, being al Shaykh, distills from those nights of thrilling make-believe the wars of the sexes, where women, oppressed or threatened or coveted or jilted or put upon, get to level the playing field with the men. The overall feel of the book, then, is as Shahrazad intended: that of intelligent, sexually free, enterprising, empowered women paradoxically thriving in confining dominions.

You would think the blunt message that screams like a trumpet solo in this storyteller’s rendition would be as well received in the Arab world as it is in the West. But something rather peculiar appears to be happening to al Shaykh. Outside, accolades; at home, silence. It’s been over a year since the book was published and distributed in the region, but nary a review so far of One Thousand and One Nights. The omission seems all the more puzzling because, exceptionally in the West, the play executes a retelling in Arabic — an approach whose attention to authenticity should have achieved, at the least, an Arab nod.

When we sit for this interview, al Shaykh agrees that, of all the questions I might pose to her about the book, this one by far is the most intriguing and, in the end, the most consequential for this veteran Arab writer.

“They probably didn’t read the book, thinking it’s nothing more than exotica and jinn of no literary value to an Arab world struggling with contemporary problems.” Perhaps, but then why not critique it as such, I ask.  Had an upstart penned the book, one could understand the disinterest, but to ignore an established, widely read author surely suggests a deeper disconnect.

“Well, there is, obviously, a problem. For some Arabic critics, it started with Women of Sand and Myrrh. They accused me of writing for the West with an Orientalist bent; that I obsess about sex only to attract the attention of a Western audience. Never mind that I wrote the novel when I was living in Saudi Arabia and that I was one of the first to write with reality about desert societies.

Actually, I’d like to go further back. When France’s L’Institut Du Monde Arabe chose me back in 1981, along with the likes of Neguib Mahfouz, as one of 10 Arab novelists to be translated into French, people went up in arms. The Story of Zahra had just been published in Arabic, and who was I to be chosen over other much better known writers at that time? Even [Egyptian novelist] Youssef Idriss complained that they picked me because all I write about is sex, which prompted a reader to ask him what was his House of Meat about if not sex.”

What, at first look, makes this dissonance between al Shaykh and her critics even more of a conundrum is that her work, as brassy as it is, never plays to the West’s favorite misconceptions. As critical as she is of patriarchy and religion’s myriad dicta against women, her depictions of them are nuanced and sensitive to context. In fundamental if not explicit ways, she gives vent to Arab objections to Western notions that pummel flat extraordinarily rich and varied Arab landscapes, where women actually live — and with much oomph — roles other than that of victim. Put bluntly, the one sin that her detractors rip her most for is the very one al Shaykh doesn’t commit — that of pandering. And yet, loath as she has been to partake in the standing argument between the Arab world and the West, she has become one of its casualties.

So, I press her to rummage a little more in the detritus of this long and tumultuous affair with her Arab detractors. In the ensuing conversation, a couple of revelations begin to ring louder than all the others. “I left the Arab world a long time ago, you have to remember. With One Thousand and One Nights, they’re telling me that I’ve lost touch; that I belong in the West now. One critic recently asked my Lebanese publisher why I still write in Arabic. The essence of all this is that I am dishonest, that my only aim is to gain favor in my new home at the expense of my own culture. They blame me for dragging them back and pigeonholing Arab women and society.”

“What they see in Shahrazad is the sword that hangs over her head. What I see is fiction at its best, a treasure box of stories that has inspired some of the greatest novelists we have: Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Neguib Mahfouz, Tayyeb Saleh, Salman Rushdie … What I also see is Shahrazad’s intelligence and wit with which she manages to change King Shahrayar’s mind. This is about a woman who wins in the end. If they resent the fact that she has to work hard for herself and her gender’s safety, then it seems to me they’re the ones who are denying our culture and history.

“When Only in Londoncame out, they were furious that two of my main characters were a prostitute and a homosexual who immigrated to England in search of an easier life. But what’s wrong with being a prostitute or a homosexual? Are we supposed to pretend that Arab immigrants are only serious people, doctors and lawyers who walk around thinking serious thoughts? And why obsess in shame about the prostitute and the homosexual? I had other so-called mainstream characters. Why ignore those?”

That’s always been the thing about al Shaykh, which perhaps is the very quality that promised to set Arab critics and this woman of letters apart from the start: her “fascination with the trivial, the side issues,” that dance around the heavy ones. “It’s like that story I wrote sometime around 1974 about the [cooped-up] girl in her mid-teens who finally persuades her parents to let her join the political demonstrations. Once out, all she does is ogle the boys, the donkey, the nut market,” the minutia of life.”

“Arab thinkers like a polemic that expresses their sense of indignation.” They like to brood, in other words. And what is One Thousand and One Nightsif not surreal, wild, over-the-top, bawdy, erotic, frivolous: qualities that appeal to a West craving Harry Potter and Twilight, but fall dead on Arabs minds interested in material preoccupied with the momentousness of the times.

“Distance has its price,” she readily concedes. The implications are clear for al Shaykh, whose relevance in the West has derived from the insights she has offered about an Arab locale she no longer inhabits.

“If Arab critics feel that I don’t tackle issues close to their heart, so be it. I also have moved on. Now I am part of a different flux. Arab migrant communities are everywhere in Europe. I belong to one of them. Only in London was set in England, and my new novel is about expats coping in the West.”

“Crossroads?” I put to her.

“Who knows? Maybe when my novel comes out, they will finally think of me as a British author of Arab origins. And why not?”

Amal Ghandour is the author of About This Man Called Ali: The Purple Life of an Arab Artist and the blog, Thinking Fits. She lives in Beirut, Lebanon.

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