War and Writing
Novelist, short-story writer and playwright Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the most widely read Lebanese authors, with millions of readers in the Arab and the Western worlds. Her novel The Story of Zahra became an international best-seller.
We can't generalize about women in the Arab world. We have to divide Arab women into categories. The Eastern woman is different from the Saudi Arabian or the woman in the Gulf and so on. Even in one single Arab family you have all these different mentalities: the pious, the fanatic, the modern and the emancipated trying to get along.
When I was growing up in Lebanon my generation was more politically aware. It was not only thinking of marriage and consuming; it was also thinking of changing society. Now when I go to Lebanon I see girls going topless at the beach, and they think that's revolutionary. Needless to mention they're as oppressed as before only they don't know it. They're not fighting for any rights; they're just trying to maintain a profile within society, to get married, to have money and to bring up children without realizing that they're not really equal to men. They look very emancipated, but in reality they depend on men 100 percent. Men have the upper hand.
In my generation, on the other hand, we were all fighting before the war against that. We fought our families and our traditions. We fought misogyny and machismo. The surprising thing is that today's women in Lebanon are perhaps better educated and more informed than my generation, but they are very subdued.
I started writing when I was 15 in Beirut, first in a student newspaper and then in the newspaper al-Nahar. Lebanon was very cosmopolitan at the time. After the end of the Second World War the Arab countries were going through a flourishing period. Society and education were modernized, there was some open-mindedness, people started to travel in the West and things were looking up. When Nasser came to power the political situation changed across the whole the Arab world. One coup came after another, one revolution after another. People all of a sudden became nationalistic, especially in places like Palestine. However, instead of succeeding in revolution this change took the Arab world backward. In the end there was a domino effect and most Arab countries were ruled by a bunch of dictators. The Arab individual felt hopeless.
If this had not happened, I would have chosen another novel to write. I always felt myself to be liberated from my family and my background. I traveled to Egypt when I was very young to get away from my father, who was very pious.
But it was the war in Lebanon that liberated Zahra, the heroine of my first big novel, because everything collapsed around her: society, traditions, beliefs. It was death or life in Lebanon in the 1970s.
For literature, the subject of war is the most useful: you cannot lie or camouflage things. You're really writing from the heart about reality and truths; you're exposing the real side of human beings when they're faced with this big question of life or death. Although this is a horrible subject one has really to go down to the core of it. You have to humanize the inhuman aspect of it in order to understand it.
In a way, the war made me think of the other war, which goes on in us: the war with tradition and modernity. If the war had not happened maybe I wouldn't have felt the need to go deep and expose so many ugly things like rape and incestuous sex. The war provoked me, pushed me to write. I did not know anyone like Zahra, she was a combination: a creature of my imagination and of history. In a way it's as if I went to a laboratory and created that creature. But people identified with her because through her story things come up that happen all the time in the Arab world where you always find characters who suffer silently.
WE ARE ALL FEMINISTS: Sometimes I feel like I'm cornered by women because they want me to address some kind of issue. But I always write about things that matter to me, I'm not talking about women's liberation. I'm a novelist and I want to meet my artistic ends. People in the Arab world, but especially in the West, try to portray me as a feminist writer defending Arab women; they pigeonhole me. I don't accept that. They don't do the same, for example, with men Arab novelists who portray women very successfully in their books. No one sees them as "feminists." I think every person who has integrity is a feminist whether a man or a woman.
ON LANGUAGE: I'm very attached to my language because I've always written in Arabic. I lived in the Arab world until I was 30. The language was born with me. In a way it's fascinating that 22 Arab countries all speak and write Arabic. They speak it with different dialects, but they write and they read the same. In a sense that gives me a strong audience, except for the few Arab countries where my books are banned. At the same time, unfortunately, nowadays the Arab world is not reading fiction as much. They prefer life-style magazines and television.
I'm generally happy with the translations of my work. They represent the spirit of my text to a certain extent. It's all there, though sometimes it misses the luster. It's like a Persian carpet upside down. The knots, the colors, the patterns are all there. But it's upside down and the luster is not as brilliant. Sometimes it's very hard for the translator to detect the cultural messages conveyed by the language.
ARAB WRITERS IN EXILE: There are many Arab writers in voluntary exile, but there are also many back home, especially Egyptian writers. But, of course, many writers, Algerians in particular, were forced into exile. In Lebanon the situation is different. I used to live in Saudi Arabia and things were quite open at the time. Then the situation changed and only now, once again, are things opening up again. When I go to conferences or the Frankfurt Book Fair I see many Saudi women and men writers, and that's encouraging. There was a time that Saudi writers used to write under a different name. There was censorship and fear. But thankfully that seems to be changing.
But I hear other voices too. Living in the West was such a different experience for me. Although it took me a very long time to start writing about the West, I am now. If you are a novelist you cannot live in any country and be oblivious to its surroundings. My work is changing now because I am away from Lebanon. Of course, at the same time, I don't recall myself to be anything other than an Arab writer. I'm a Londoner, but half of me remains Lebanese. Complicated! The English intellectual circles label me as an Arab writer, a Lebanese writer, an Arab woman writer. I've always had a label. In the beginning it used to irritate me. But they are right!
My mother remains my strongest connection to Lebanon. She represents my country of origins, my past and my history. She's my memory. It took me a while to make sense of her story. My new novel, It's a Long Story, is about her. It's a story that sheds light on my mother and at the same time on many Arab women who lived before World War II. It tells about how women really did not count at the time, even for their own families. It tells how my mother was pushed to marry my father when she was so young. She gave birth to me and my sister when she was only fifteen. She always wanted her story to be told because she suffered a lot. And by doing so, I am revisiting my country of youth.
THE NEW CLASHES IN LEBANON: I could not believe when the war ended; nobody wanted to know any more about it. The Lebanese just wanted to turn the page and start a new one without addressing the issues. The people who started the war and who were a great presence during it should be in prison today. There should have been trials, but nothing has happened after 15 years of war!
When I was a journalist in Lebanon in 1972 and 1973, I interviewed the last executioner, a man who used to hang people. Later I found out he opened a restaurant! It was like a change of regular jobs.
One month after the civil war ended in Lebanon only one man was found guilty and was executed, everybody else went on with their lives. Hundreds of people were killed left and right, and then ONE man was punished for all the crimes! After that nothing happened. When Beirut Blues was published in Lebanon in 1997 people did not react to it. All my books are being widely read and taught in Lebanon except Beirut Blues, which talks about the war, the division of Beirut into East and West and the Hezbollah. This book was important in many different ways and it was not even reviewed. They didn't want to deal with what it represented.
Now, it seems, people finally want to address issues: it's either their country or they are the sister country or the baby country of Syria. Before the war, before 1975, Lebanon was very independent. Then it became a satellite of Syria. In a way Syria was controlling Lebanon. The crisis now, I think, is maybe for the better; it will clarify things for the Lebanese. The Lebanese must think: Are we a country on our own, an independent country, or are we not?
Of course, Lebanon should be independent like any other Arab country. It's a beautiful country. If you go back to history, Lebanon always depended on somebody else; from the Ottoman Empire until now—the Turks, the English, the French and the Syrians. At one point the Lebanese wanted to unify with Egypt.
I remember I was very young when my teacher said, "Lebanon is really different. Our army is not like any other army because we are like Switzerland, we are the Switzerland of the East!" I was very happy to hear that as a youngster because that was a wonderful illusion. To become like Switzerland you have to depend on yourself.
FRANCE'S HEADSCARF POLICY: I fully agree with the French policy banning headscarves in public schools. I don't want any girls to wear a veil. When I see a girl of 6 or 7, or even 13 and 14, wearing a veil, I think it's brainwashing. It's not about freedom; it's about brainwashing. There is a 17-year-old girl in England who recently took her school to court for not allowing her to go to classes wearing Muslim attire. She finally won the case. I was very angry. My English friends were very surprised with my attitude. They said to me, "Hanan, she's free to wear what she wants," and I said "no." It's like I became the fundamentalist! First of all, this girl is being brainwashed or she's trying to attract attention. Do you allow the Japanese girl to come to school with the Geisha look? No. It's a costume. Why should it be allowed? Likewise, the veil is part of a strange costume. It's not about understanding Islam. I don't want any girl really to put it on until she understands what it really means.