By Helena Murphy
In October 2019, life in Beirut exploded. I had spent two months there that summer previous. It had been weeks on end of drinking coffee at cafés, going to extravagant clubs in the evening, lying on beaches, or lazing by the pool at a rooftop bar, and barely working. On the surface, life was sweet and easy, but all Lebanese know that Beirut’s peaceful existence can turn on a sixpence, always riding the edge of possible collapse. Underneath the charmed life of the expats and the wealthy, life is hard in Lebanon. Half of the population lives in poverty; women are denied many basic rights including the right to pass on their nationality to their children; the government is run through with corruption; and the Kafala system means immigrant workers are often treated as less than second-class citizens. When the government announced the introduction of a new tax on WhatsApp use, the same week that Lebanon’s mountains were set aflame by forest fires, the Lebanese people decided that it was time to protest. It quickly became evident that this was to be no ordinary protest: thousands and thousands took to the streets for months, and at its peak, a quarter of Lebanon’s entire population was protesting across the country. Glued to my phone, I saw my social media fill up. There were photos and videos of people dancing for freedom, calling for the removal of the government, demanding better lives while protestors were tear gassed and shot at by the army. And in amongst all those social media posts I stumbled across a book, ‘Beirut Blues,’ written by Hanan al-Shaykh.
If you google-search Hanan al-Shaykh, a Lebanese author born in Beirut and later educated in Cairo, you will quickly find articles on the great ‘Arab, feminist, female writer.’ When I talked to al-Shaykh on the phone, I was sat at my desk in my childhood home thousands of miles away from Beirut and hundreds from al-Shaykh in London. My first question is: how did she feel about this label? Immediately, I can sense how tired she is of being asked the question. She tells me, without hesitation, ‘it’s stupid to say I’m a feminist, I’m a human being’ – not meaning that she isn’t a feminist, but that it should be obvious that she is, according to her standards of what any sane person should be. So, where does the label come from? Al-Shaykh knows exactly where. ‘They pigeonhole you in the West,’ she tells me. ‘They are happy for an Arab woman to be a feminist,’ because it is an appealing idea to the Western editor and reader. Whereas in the Arab world, al-Shaykh isn’t known as a feminist, but as ‘the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh.’ Her writing speaks for itself.
There is, however, one label that al-Shaykh admits she quite likes: ‘rebel.’ There was no single moment when al-Shaykh was suddenly transformed into this rebellious figure: ‘I was always a rebel,’ she confesses, laughing through our WhatsApp call. She was a rebel in her choice not to wear a veil, despite her father’s devotion to religion, hiding her headscarf among her books on the way to school; a rebel in her determination to ask, and, most of all, in her writing. Al-Shaykh began to not only write at a young age, but to have her work published when she was as young as 14 in the student page of An-Nahar, Lebanon’s most established newspaper. The same newspaper that I happened to have interned at last summer, a strange, happy coincidence. And there was nothing that she wasn’t prepared to write about, as long as it was true to her feelings and to her expression of self.
The very first article that al-Shaykh ever wrote for An-Nahar was unpublished, but bold. She wrote of her longing for her mother, who had divorced her father and had left al-Shaykh and her sister in order to marry her long-term lover. All of which happened when al-Shaykh was only seven years old, and created a rift between them. The divorce was scandalous, considered hot gossip in her neighbourhood in Beirut. Al-Shaykh recalls that when she and her sister used to walk by, women ‘would not call us by our names but as the daughter of the divorced woman.’ Half-jokingly, al-Shaykh tells me that she taught her older sister to say: ‘my name is Fatima,’ instead of accepting the label of being the divorced woman’s daughter. Divorce when al-Shaykh was a child, and often now as well, was uncommon and frowned upon. But, when al-Shaykh’s mother and father went to the Sheikh to arrange the divorce there was none of the usual hesitation on the part of the Sheikh, none of the elaborate convincing of the wife to stay with the husband for the good of her children; instead, he consented to the divorce right there and then. At a time when divorce was unseemly and scandalous, it might seem perplexing that al-Shaykh’s mother, Kamila, was able to divorce her husband so apparently easily. The reality was that Kamila’s extraordinary divorce was the result of an extraordinary marriage. At the age of 9, Kamila was engaged to her deceased sister’s husband; she was married when she was a young teenager, and had given birth to her first child at the age of 15.
‘The Locust and the Bird,’ first published in English in 2009, is Kamila’s memoir, told through al-Shaykh’s writing on behalf of her illiterate mother. In the closing lines of the epilogue, al-Shaykh writes: ‘My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.’ And, even knowing that al-Shaykh was the one who literally put pen to paper and wrote Kamila’s story, it is hard when reading ‘The Locust and the Bird’ to believe that it is not Kamila’s writing. Initially, al-Shaykh had begun to write the memoir through her own voice before she said to herself: ‘No, poor mother of mine, she should be talking.’ The frank honesty of al-Shaykh’s writing is remarkable. While talking with her I found myself having to constantly remind myself that Kamila and al-Shaykh are not the same person, that the events of her mother’s life are not her own. Hanan al-Shaykh speaks of being aware of the shift in her relationship with her mother through the writing of the memoir; she says that when writing she ‘felt as if I were her mum.’ Throughout writing her mother’s truth, al-Shaykh lived her mother’s life through childhood, through her first marriage, her second, her widowhood, and her final years. She grew with her until mother and daughter switched places.
It took years for al-Shaykh to agree to write her mother’s story. Perhaps some of the childhood resentment lingered, or perhaps she felt as if she already knew all that her mother had to say. In the introduction to the memoir, al-Shaykh explains the disconnect in her relationship with her mother, a disconnect she reiterates in her interview with me. ‘She thought I misunderstood her,’ al-Shaykh tells me, ‘she was, in a way, critical.’ Perhaps, al-Shaykh did understand her mother; it is no stretch of the imagination that her mother was critical. I know the feeling all too well. Aren’t mother-daughter relationships often difficult? How many of us can claim to truly know our mothers, and how many of us allow ourselves to be known by our mothers? The relationship between Kamila and al-Shaykh began to change when al-Shaykh became a mother herself, revealing that she had a new appreciation for her mother once she had her own children. At some point during the ever-tumultuous transformation from girlhood to womanhood, she realised that she no longer resented her mother but was proud of her, and, ultimately, she was happy that her mother had left her father. She does not see her mother as careless and unfeeling for leaving her and her sister, but as a brave woman who decided to ‘go into battle for the freedom of her choices.’
It was only after I had read ‘The Locust and the Bird,’ that al-Shaykh’s other books began to come together for me. Books such as ‘Beirut Blues,’ ‘Women of Sand and Myrrh,’ and ‘The Story of Zahra,’ are all hailed for their exploration of violence, sexuality, and most of all their portrayal of women and women’s issues. These topics drew me to al-Shaykh’s books, but readers are compelled to stay for the plain, simple honesty of her writing, and the love with which she writes, the love of a daughter and the love of a mother. Kamila, even though illiterate, was a storyteller, and an honest storyteller at that. Motherly love abounds not just in her literary voice, but in the voice I hear over the phone - halfway through our call, al-Shaykh suddenly sees my WhatsApp profile picture and exclaims, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty!’ I stumble around for a response, grateful that it’s an audio call and that she can’t see my bright red cheeks.
Topics such as sex and sexuality in the Arab world are often perceived in the West to be revolutionary and ground-breaking when they are, quite simply, not. Arab literature has a long history of exploring sexual relationships and sexuality, a history that has fluctuated, yes, but a history that cannot be denied. Yet, there remains a great deal of focus from readers and critics on sex as explored in al-Shaykh’s writing in particular, as if she has somehow paved the way. Perhaps it is because she does not differ from other writers in the content of what she writes, but rather the way in which she writes. Her writing is incredibly lacking in one area: embarrassment. She tells me: ‘At an early age I used to think about love, sexuality, and desire,’; she would ask difficult and uncomfortable questions, not realising that she was meant to be ashamed. ‘What if they sleep with each other? Why are you upset? Why do you think it [sex] is an extraordinary thing?’ were among those questions. She remembers walking through her neighbourhood as a child and seeing a man throw his trousers at a woman washing clothes outside; instead of doing as she was told, the woman threw them back and said, ‘you only take them off when they have to be washed.’ Not realising the sexual undertone of the retort, al-Shaykh had rushed home to ask, only to find that no one was willing to acknowledge her question.
Hanan al-Shaykh’s writing astonishes: not because she says anything necessarily new, but because she is able to talk about sexuality entirely frankly, without embellishment and smoke screens. From her point of view, her discussion of sex in her writing isn’t subversive as many argue. She writes what she observes, plain and simple. She laughs as she tells me that after the publication of ‘Women of Sand and Myrrh,’ she found herself constantly being asked about the lesbian relationship featured in the novel, and indeed if she identified as a lesbian herself. The portrayal of a lesbian relationship was not a deliberate ploy to engage in subversive writing, but was written as a part of al-Shaykh’s fundamental belief that ‘there are so many formidable women and one should be talking about them,’ queer women included.
When ‘The Locust and the Bird,’ was published, the reaction in the West and in the Middle East, unsurprisingly, was drastically different. In the West, readers were both fascinated and appalled by the circumstances of al-Shaykh’s mother’s marriage, sold for 5 gold coins to her brother-in-law; engaged when she was 9; married when she was still a child; dragged to her husband’s room on her wedding night and raped. ‘It’s as if she was dragged to the slaughterhouse,’ al-Shaykh says. It is a story that would make any female reader who has been lucky enough to avoid a similar fate deeply grateful for her own lot in life. Western readers were equally amazed to read about Kamila’s affair throughout her entire first marriage with the man that she would eventually marry following her divorce. A few hours after we had finished our interview, al-Shaykh called me again, having suddenly remembered an anecdote that she wanted to share. She tells me that she can remember during the publishing process of the memoir, a French editor had asked her why her mother hadn’t been killed for her adultery. The question was clearly amusing for her, and she asks me if I thought people in the West imagined that adulterous women were constantly put to death in Lebanon? Maybe in the West, she muses, people kill their daughters for adultery more than we do. Why else would an editor have made such an assumption? In Lebanon, on the other hand, the strongest reactions to the book did not concern the horrific circumstances of Kamila’s marriage, nor her affair; instead, readers were incredulous that al-Shaykh showed no shame for her family and her poverty, that she would write so openly about their life of financial struggle. ‘She’s so frank, she’s not shy,’ they say about al-Shaykh in Lebanon, according to the writer herself. Perhaps it is because, as al-Shaykh tells me, her mother had no voice. She could therefore never hesitate in using her own.
I had asked al-Shaykh at the beginning of the interview how she felt about the multi-purpose label of an ‘Arab, feminist, female writer.’ By the end of the interview, there was no doubt in my mind that these labels are true, yet reductive – in no way could they do justice to the writer or the person. Hanan al-Shaykh is an Arab, but more specifically she is Lebanese, and more specifically than that, she is part of the Lebanese diaspora in London. A Lebanese woman who loves her home country but is no longer nostalgic for it. Feminist, undoubtedly true of al-Shaykh, but it still misses the mark. Her love for women is founded from the love for her sisters, the women in her family, her mother, and her daughter, but where in the label of feminist does it show that type of love? And yes, female. After an hour of talking with al-Shaykh, and having spent hours alone with her voice while reading, I can’t help but agree that she’s right. ‘Rebel’ really is more fitting.
HELENA MURPHY reads Arabic and Persian at St John's and is eternally disappointed that she is not more like Helena Bonham Carter.
Art by Isabella Lill