Magazine article New Internationalist

Hanan Al-Shaykh (Interview)

Magazine article New Internationalist

Hanan Al-Shaykh (Interview)

Article excerpt

HANAN AL-SHAYKH sighs wearily when I ask her about public appearances like the one she is about to do at the Toronto Authors' Festival. 'I do too many, but I think it is important that the Arab world gets represented by more voices than that of Yasser Arafat.' Hanan is a small dark woman with lively eyes and a quiet voice. Her shyness is in sharp contrast to the vivid, blunt prose she uses to explore how women survive in contemporary Arab society and the wars that periodically engulf it. Words obviously mean a lot to Hanan. As we talk she pauses to make sure she has chosen the right one--all her writing is done in Arabic, the language with which she is most comfortable.

Hanan identifies two types of war in her native Lebanon. Both feature in her most recent fiction--in The Story of Zahra and in her new novel Beirut Blues. 'One is the civil war,' she says, 'the other is the war against the old customs and taboos'. While the men fight the civil war, women bear the responsibility of maintaining the family. It's this experience, says Hanan, that's sparked a remarkable explosion of writing by women. 'An American scholar found 44 women novelists whose work reflecting this war experience has appeared in print since the conflict started.'

I remark to Hanan that I found parts of Beirut Blues quite humorous. She seems pleasantly surprised and the hint of a slightly mischievous smile plays at the corners of her mouth. 'I like that. My mother was a great comedian, always mimicking and imitating people. I am like her but it never used to show in my work. Now I am older I feel I can be humorous.' Hanan's humour is decidedly black--in one incident in Beirut Blues an unexploded bomb crashes through the wall of the Beirut apartment of the main character and her grandmother. They immediately grab it and decide it should be cooked for supper.

But Hanan is anything but amused when we get to the state of fictional writing and publishing in the Arab world. 'It is not at all in healthy shape,' she claims. 'To write frankly is bound to create problems.' As an example she mentions The Ring of the Dove, a book by an eleventh-century Arab philosopher now being censored in Egypt--one of the Arab world's more liberal regimes. She goes on to discuss a contemporary Egyptian novelist recently censored by his publisher. 'I know him, he isn't all that daring. …

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