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‘I write first and foremost for an Arab audience’

By and
Hanan al-Shaykh is of the Arab world’s most acclaimed writers. She is a journalist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright and novelist, whose work has been translated into 28 languages. ‘Only in London’ was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Her latest novel ‘The Occasional Virgin’ is a romantic comedy for our multicultural age that follows the amorous adventures of two female friends, Huda and Yvonne.

Lucy Scholes: Although The Occasional Virgin is set in Europe – initially on the Italian Riviera and thereafter in London – we’re treated to flashback scenes of both central protagonists’ childhoods in Lebanon. How important was it for you that your readers understand the women Huda and Yvonne have grown up to be as the products of their upbringings and earliest experiences?

Hanan al-Shaykh: The flashbacks to Huda and Yvonne’s childhoods are not only important, they’re absolutely essential in order for the readers to be able to understand their complexities and their personalities as adults. Huda is a Muslim whose father was a religious cleric. Her mother was like a Muslim guard or a soldier observing every step Huda took. Although she was brought up in a household that believed the afterlife is more exciting than life on earth, Huda is a free thinker with a knowledge of liberal aspects of Islam that go beyond any popular beliefs. She passes through many metamorphoses: daring, wily, denying her femininity, religious and promiscuous.

Yvonne, meanwhile, is from a Christian family brought up in a small town by the sea in the north of Lebanon in a milieu more liberal than Huda’s but, like Huda, she is fighting a battle to win her right to be equal to her brothers in every aspect: for example when she dives from the highest rock, or wants her mother to love her as much as she loves her brothers, and not less just because she’s a girl.

LS: Did you draw on any of your own childhood memories for these sections of the novel?

HA-S: I did draw on some of my own childhood memories and also on my memories of some girls and boys who lived in our neighbourhood. I went back to my early memories of my obsession with the sea, and wondered how come Beirut was known as a city on the Mediterranean and yet I never saw the sea face-to-face until I was eleven years old. Another memory was sneaking to the women’s roofed-in sea for the first time, wearing a borrowed bathing suit. The whole description of the trip – the tram, the aunt of one of the girls who took us, the woman who admitted us, the bathers – everything was still alive in my memory, even the time when my family found out I had gone to the sea because the rotten smell of my dirty, abandoned bathing suit gave me away. My father wept like a child and kept repeating that I would give him a heart attack, just like the daughter of the cleric who saw his daughter in a bathing suit and dropped dead soon after. I took this real-life incident and used it in the story of Huda and her father. In reality, as a child I was very much affected by the story of the cleric and his daughter and I remember how I would try all the time to be so crafty with everything I did so that my secret life would remain hidden.

LS: Huda is a theatre director who’s working on a modern adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights. This, I assume, is based on the theatrical retelling that you adapted for the stage. Could you tell me a little about this project, and what the significance is of referencing it here?

HA-S: Unlike many Arab (or other) writers, it wasn’t a story I was interested in until the British director Tim Supple asked me to collaborate with him on a dramatisation. I remember reading 6,000 pages (due to the fact that there are many versions of the Nights in Arabic) in order to retell some of the stories and invent three new ones of my own. Unfortunately, the play did not transfer to London after being shown at the Toronto and Edinburgh festivals in 2011, but it did find its way into my novel, and this made me very content. Folk tales are important in the Arab world because the tellers were teaching us indirectly about life and the nature of human beings, values, ethics, social and moral codes, love and betrayal. They shaped our societies, showing us how to live and how the complex society portrayed in One Thousand and One Nights, for example, allowed relationships between humans and jinnis, or between human beings and animals. As a female Arab writer, I was enchanted by the discovery that women in those ancient societies were far from passive, and instead were strong and vivacious!

LS: The friendship between Yvonne and Huda is central to the story, and in recent years narratives about female friendship have become extremely popular – from TV shows like Girls to the Elena Ferrante novels – were you at all influenced by this trend, and if so, did any particular fictional relationship inspire the one you write about?

HA-S: I invented Huda and Yvonne a long time before reading anything by Elena Ferrante, and I have never seen Girls. The first part of The Occasional Virgin, ‘Two Women by the Sea’, was published in Arabic in a longer form in 2003 and then translated into German. Then in 2012 I was taking a walk in Hyde Park when I found myself in the heart of Speakers’ Corner, and all of a sudden Huda and Yvonne were standing next to me being very involved with what was going on. I liked the fact that Huda and Yvonne were so different from each other, and yet they were drawn to each other instead of trying to be like each other.

I think their differences strengthen their friendship. How? Each one can see the other clearly and objectively. They both suffered in childhood from their families and traditions, from seeing their country torn apart by a war and from being in the diaspora, in a new culture. Their situation was more or less the same – not feeling at home in their adopted countries because they had not made peace with what they had left back home. Personally, I relied, and still rely, so much on close friendship.

I remember how when I fled Lebanon with my two babies because of the war in 1975, I was cushioned by the presence of the old woman who lived in the flat next door to me in London. I could not express myself very well except in Arabic so we did not talk much, but she left me three apples from time to time next to my flat door, which strengthened our friendship.

LS: As a portrait of the Arab diaspora, your three main characters – Huda, Yvonne and Hisham – portray a complex and multifaceted modern Middle East. Are you consciously trying to educate Western readers and discourage any outdated stereotypes we might still be holding onto?

HA-S: I never try to educate anyone, and it is important to note that I write in Arabic and publish my work first in the Arab world. If Western readers come to learn of an Arab world that is more rich and colourful than the stereotypes suggest, then so much the better. I do not deliberately write or not write about stereotypes. I love to invent and write about characters whom I find imaginative and interesting to my story. When I read my work in English, I observe how many stereotypes I overturn, precisely because it was not my intention to do this. There are so many: the filthy rich Arab, the veiled passive Arab woman, the fundamentalist, the pretentious Arab, the boring Arab, the timid Arab, the Omar Sharif Arab, the Bedouin Arab, and on and on. I think I show the multiplicity of the modern Middle East instinctively.

LS: On which point, you have something of a reputation for challenging assumptions that many of us hold about the lives of women in the Arab world. Why is this in particular important to you?

HA-S: As I just explained, I write first and foremost for an Arab audience, or with no particular audience in mind. It is important to me to write about what I know, what I feel, with great honesty, and the last thing on my mind is trying to shock or challenge my readers. You ask me to elaborate on the variety of women in the Arab world! How can I do this? Can one elaborate on the variety of British women? Or Chinese women? Or Dutch women? I am concerned as a writer with individual characters and not with trying to create types.

LS: I don’t want to spoil the plot for readers, but there’s a scene in which Huda sets out – and succeeds –to seduce Hisham under what can only be described as false pretenses. This seems quite daring for a variety of reasons, but I found myself wondering what I would have made of it had the power dynamic between the characters been the other way round, especially given the current conversations about consent and sexual assault. Were you thinking about any of this when you wrote the book, and if not, has what’s happened since with the #MeToo movement given you cause to look at this aspect of the novel differently?

HA-S: Both Huda and Hisham have sex under false pretenses: he lies to himself and to her when he has the idea of their temporary marriage with the blessing of God and his prophet, and she seduces him as revenge for his hurtful and hostile attitude and the fact that he was so horrible to her only because she did not fit the picture he had in his mind of a Muslim woman.

The #MeToo campaign is about countless women who have experienced predatory men. I remember when I was a journalist in Lebanon before the civil war began in 1975, one of my colleagues, who was much older than me, grabbed me by my hair and tried to kiss me at the door of the communal bathroom. I pushed him, screamed at him, ‘Shame on you, just wait and see what I’m going to do to you.’ I raced to my boss and told him what had happened. He asked me to relax and said he was going to talk to our colleague. I remember very clearly how I waited in the hallway, not daring to enter the office that I shared with four male colleagues, eavesdropping to try and find out if my boss was talking to him or not. I then went to the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and told him what had happened. He called my boss immediately and asked him to move me to another office, one I would share with only a female secretary. Nothing more happened, except that every time I went past the door of my former office, I would hear ‘Just wait and see what I’m going to do to you!’

The phrase goes faster in Arabic and it had become their nickname for me. There’s an episode in my novel The Story of Zahra which echoes the #MeToo movement, but The Occasional Virgin has a different perspective: I talk about a kind of ideological revenge played out in a sexual way in order to emphasise hypocrisy rather than power.

LS: The Occasional Virgin has been expertly translated into English by Catherine Cobham. Could you tell me a little about the translation process, how much input you have, and what you think makes for a good translation? Does the end result still feel like the same novel it started life as, or do you now consider it a different thing, something collaborative?

HA-S: Catherine Cobham not only understands the Arabic language, she also understands its nuances as well. When we talk I do not need to explain things to her. To be a good translator you have to have this sensitivity. She translates the whole book, asks me questions and incorporates my answers. I read it and tell her about any misunderstandings I come across, and that’s all! The book she translates stays mine. I wonder if she feels that it becomes hers in the English language? I have never asked her!

The Occasional Virgin is published by Bloomsbury

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