An Interview with Hanan al-Shaykh

Christiane Schlote

<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.[1] 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 wrote Women 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 Myrrh for 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?

Yes.

<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'Ítre, 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'Ítre, 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.

Endnote

[1] 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. [^]