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Hanan Al Shaykh


By admin - Posted on 17 May 2009

Hanan Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and playwright. She was born in Beirut in 1945 and brought up in Ras al-Nabeh, a conservative and unfashionable sector of the city. She first attended al-'Amiliyyah's traditional Muslim girls' primary school and then the more sophisticated al-Ahliyyah School. By the age of 16, she had already published essays in the newspaper al-Nahar. Between the years 1963 and 1966 she studied at American College for Girls in Cairo. Between 1966 to 1975, she was back in Beirut working in television as well as a journalist for Al-Hasna' -- a women's magazine -- and then for al-Nahar, before turning to write fiction. In 1976, Hanan left Lebanon because of the civil war. She lived in Saudi Arabia until 1982 and eventually moved to London where she currently lives with her family.

Hanan has published numerous novels and short stories and is considered a major force in Arabic Literature. She is one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world and has established critical success of her books in the United States and E urope. Her novels, which are all written in Arabic, have been translated into English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Italian, Korean, Spanish, and Polish.

During the four years Hanan lived in Cairo, she wrote her first novel Intihar Rajul Mayyit (1970) or Suicide of a Dead Man.

Her next novel, Faras al-Shaitan (1971), was written when she lived in the Arabian Peninsula. It included biographical elements related to her extremely religious father, aspects of her own love story, and her subsequent marriage.

A Girl Called Apple speaks of how the majority of Arab girls spend their lives waiting for a husband even though they are aware of their greater potentials. The novel talks about the pressure Arab families exert on girls to get married at a very early age because they would otherwise be considered "old".

Hanan first came to international attention with the publication of Hikayat Zahra (1980) or The Story of Zahra (1994). Because no publisher in Lebanon accepted the novel, she published it first at her own expense. It is a narrative of the Lebanese Civ il War which tells the story of a bewildered and directionless woman, Zahra, who finds in the war an opportunity to escape oppression. It is a story of a woman in a man's world made up solely of his wars, peace, religions, and laws. It is a story of a wom an in a world that terrifies and threatens her with its monstrous maleness. From Africa to Lebanon, from the South to Beirut, the Story of Zahra attempts to leads us through imagination to the end of a tunnel. The Boston Sunday Globe described the novel a s "an original, moving and powerfully written novel, illuminating the personal human tragedy of war and madness." Village Voice described it as "a classic by any standards". The Story of Zahra was banned in most Arab countries.

In the story, Zahra's family sends her to Africa to recover from two abortions and a nervous breakdown. She stays with her lecherous uncle, and to avoid his sexual advances she marries one of his associates. The marriage is loveless and she returns to war -torn Beirut. Chaos transforms her and she falls in love for the first time. But her lover is a sniper who shoots innocent passersby, and she becomes one of his targets.

Misk al-Ghazal (1988) or Women of Sand and Myrrh (1992) was chosen as one of the 50 Best Books of 1992 by Publishers Weekly. The International Herald Tribune described Hanan's artistry in this memorable book as lying "in the way she tells about religi on, sex, marriage, housekeeping as they really are in the great golden age of the desert." Hanan's intricate writing, sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted, is a desperate plea for liberation.

The story was set primarily in an expatriate community in an anonymous Middle-Eastern country. It tells the story of four contemporary women, each from their own perspective, who struggle to make full lives in a society where women cannot drive a car, wal k in the streets unveiled, and, if they do have jobs, must work in segregated areas. It's also a society where sex, because of all the constraints, becomes an unhealthy obsession. Two of the women are Arabs from the country in question, one is Lebanese, a nd the fourth is an American. Each woman has chosen a different path that reveals her struggle with the patriarchal order.

Suha, a well-educated Lebanese woman, came with her husband to escape the war yet longs for the freedoms she had in Beruit: Why should she be confronted in the markets because she isn't covered? Why is she forbidden to drive? What part does her anger at t his place and her overwhelming unhappiness with her husband play in her involvement in a lesbian relationship, or does it? She finds the stifling boredom worse than any bombing, and ashamed of a lesbian relationship with wealthy Nur, she returns to Beirut .

Nur, the daughter of a wealthy Bedouin, is the quintessential bored rich woman who seeks sensation at the expense of her marriage to a Western-educated, would-be reformer. Unhappy Nur wants only to be allowed to travel, but her husband has her passport. W ith all her money, she sits in a glass house and feels her dissatisfaction deepen.

Tamr, whose Turkish mother had been sent to a sheik's harem as a young girl and was married herself at 12, is encouraged by Suha to divorce and then, with the obligatory permission from her closest male relative, start a small, and of necessity women's-on ly, business. An eloquent and subtle plea for liberalization, as well as an evocative description of a society torn between tradition and the West. Tamr sees the freedoms men have and wonders why those doors are closed to her. Even when she does succeed i n opening a beauty shop, she is ever watchful for the self-appointed guards who will try to shut her down.

Suzanne, from the United States, is excused for many of her actions because she is not an Arab. She is the only woman who enjoys the Middle Eastern way of life. As a Westerner, she has more freedom but, more importantly, with her marriage failing--she sus pects her husband is gay--she enjoys the attention of the men attracted by her novelty. The unhappiness of her marriage is played out through a multitude of affairs. When her husband's job ends, will she be able to go back to the United States and be just another middle-aged woman?

Barid Bairut (1992) or Beirut Blues (1995) is a novel of correspondence, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War. It is an intimate and engaging portrait of a Muslim woman named Asmahan who writes ten let ters in an effort to make sense of her life and to preserve her fond memories of Beirut as it existed before civil strife destroyed it. The letters were addressed either to specific persons, both living and dead, or places.

Salman Rushdie described "Beirut Blues" as "an unforgettable portrait of a broken city." The Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that "Beirut Blues" is "as much a novel of passion as a novel of pain" Hanan's vision is "unbelieving and yet full of faith." Ms. Magazine stated that the book "reads like a blues song to a city that is both lover and captor, holding the inhabitants hostage to a seemingly senseless civil war." The Washington Post described the letters as "songs of lamentation, tracks in a blues albu m about the gruesome juxtaposition and absurdities of life under siege". Below is an example of one such powerful letter:

My Dear Land,
We're setting out for you, but we still haven't reached you. I can picture you lying under the sun and rain; you are the only thing lost in the war which is still physically present. I haven't visited you since you were occupied, since your trees were cut down, and they changed your features. How hard I tried to make my grandfather leave you! But he preferred to expose himself to kidnapping, even to death, in order to stay close to you. How can someone be so attached to the inanimate? But I suppose you're alive: you bear fruit, grow thirsty, and cold: you're changeable and not always compliant, for with your great open spaces or a small handful of your soil you've modified and shaped humanity; you've produced my family and been privy to the minutest secre ts of their souls. You whispered my family's name and the echo picked it up and went shouting among the mountains and valleys, across the plains and around the telegraph poles, until it reached Beirut; you stayed where you were, but kept close to us even in Beirut.

In her latest stunning collection of seventeen short stories, Aknus al-Shams 'an al-Sutuh (1994) or I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops (1998), Hanan offers details of the complexities of contemporary Arab life. The stories deal with the contact between East and West, facets of life in Lebanon, occasional facets of Lebanese life in Africa, and aspects of the lives of people residing in the highlands of Yemen or in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Tenuously poised between the cultures of the East and the West, be tween the safety of traditional values and the lure of modernity, Hanan's characters struggle to define themselves and their relationships in an increasingly confusing and often hostile environment. In the title story, a young woman painfully compromises her principles and her selfhood in an attempt to please an English youth. 'A Season of Madness' features a bitterly unhappy housewife who concocts an ironically successful scheme to convince her husband she is insane. Laced with pathos, insight, and gentl e humor, the 17 stories that constitute this delectable collection provide the reader with a provocative glimpse into the multifaceted complexion of the modern Arab world. In her short-stories Hanan criticized patriarchal notions of how Arab women should behave, but also praised Arab cultures that give women a measure of power to negotiate their own realities.

In one of the stories, the protagonist idealizes such aspects of British life as freedom in general, particularly free love, and British cultural life, only to face the reality of beggars on the street, heaps of piled-up trash, homosexuality and AIDS, the use of illicit drugs, and British young people's messiness and propensity for taking advantage of her adherence to Arab hospitality codes. But the protagonist is also aware of the flaws of her own society, such as the pervasiveness of poverty, gossip, an d hypocrisy, the monotony of life, and the oppressiveness of a male-dominated society. In the end, however, she opts, like the author herself, for the British way of life.

In another story, the protagonist, an Arab woman, is married to a Westerner, thus presenting a conflict therein. Because she entertains ambiguous feelings about her home country, she vacillates between her love for that country and her love for the West. While she enjoys the narrow streets, the noise, and the chaos of the old city where she had grown up, she has nonetheless "a poor opinion of Arab men in general." And although she immerses herself in her old culture and wishes to live there forever, she is fatally attracted to Western speech, fashion, music, and film.

In fact, Hanan blazes a new trail in Arabic fiction here in that she is open about sexual matters and innovative in some of her fictional techniques. On the first matter, she is perhaps the single most uninhibited Arab writer concerning sexuality issues, particularly when it comes to woman's sexual gratification. Where she writes graphically and explicitly on such matters, the describing of non-marital sexual activities has been a taboo subject in Arab writing, particularly by women writers. Al-Shaykh is equally open about presenting aspects of Arab folklore, magic, superstitions, and the practice of communicating with the supernatural.

The fictional technique in which she excels is her ability to create mood through providing minute details and meticulous description. Passing moments, therefore, become immortalized in print. Possibly, that is why she is likened by s ome to Katherine Mansfield, who was accomplished at capturing temporary moods, as in her story "The Fly." But more poignant, I believe, is Hanan's similarity to the Sherwood Anderson of Ohio in her creation of unusual or "odd" charact ers in such stories as "A Season of Madness," "Qut al-Qulub," and "The Keeper of the Virgins." In sum, one can say that the present collection of short stories is rich in insightful details, psychological depth, and cross-cultural encounters.

In her most current publication Only in London (2000), Hanan explores the lives of people caught between the ways of East and West.

Another novel is The Praying Mantis.

Hanan also wrote two plays: Dark Afternoon Tea (1995) and Paper Husband (1997).

She now lives in London.

By Lina Beydoun The Sweet Briar Seminars

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