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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Author Hanan Al-Shaykh confronts cliches about Arab women in new book 

The Lebanese writer’s latest novel was inspired by a frustrating encounter at Speakers’ Corner in London

Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh, centre, is 'at it again' and returns to the adventures of Huda and Yvonne in her latest novel. AFP
Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh, centre, is 'at it again' and returns to the adventures of Huda and Yvonne in her latest novel. AFP

Hanan Al-Shaykh couldn’t hold back. On one of her regular walks around London, the bestselling Lebanese author came across a preacher at the famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, arguing with someone from South Africa about how Islam viewed black people. Not liking the way this confrontation was going, and wanting to right a few wrongs, she dived straight into this very public row to warm applause and laughter from the crowd.

“I had to correct the preacher – who thought I was Chinese by the way – and told me I didn’t know anything about the Quran or Islam,” she says with a laugh. “The whole experience was so bizarre I knew I had to go back home and start writing straight away.”

Which, naturally, she did. In fact, when she was giving the preacher a piece of her mind, she genuinely felt the guiding hand of her favourite characters from 2003’s Two Women By The Sea. Huda and Yvonne, in that novella, are on a seemingly carefree holiday in the Italian Riviera, but almost immediately dredge up painful childhood memories about Lebanon. But they take no prisoners, are unrepentantly liberal, proud of being emigres and generally great fun. At that moment in Hyde Park, Al-Shaykh knew it was time to take up their story again.

“I wanted to go to be with them again, see what’s happening with them, how they were trying to live within another culture and language – and how they change in the journey from the place they were brought up in to the places they adopt in Canada and England,” she says. “They are grateful that they have left Lebanon actually, that they have made it in the West.”

In fact, Two Women By The Sea wasn’t translated into English fifteen years ago, so that book actually makes up the first half of The Occasional Virgin’s English edition. The second half takes up Yvonne and Huda’s story in London at Speaker’s Corner (inspired by Al-Shaykh’s own experience). The tale then spirals quickly into an increasingly ludicrous scheme to make the preacher pay for his narrow-minded ways.

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh
The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

There’s a plot point with a strawberry, which feels like it should be straight out of 1001 Nights, hardly a surprise given Al-Shaykh recently worked on a retelling of the famous folktales that was adapted for the stage and performed at the Edinburgh International Festival.

1001 Nights blew my mind in that process,” she says. “I became entranced by it – it’s a book that refuses to die. It has everything about life, the human condition, tyranny and exile within its pages, and echoes everything that has happened, is happening and will happen.

“But yes, when I was speaking to my American publisher about The Occasional Virgin, they told me I was still under the influence of 1001 Nights. I had to tell them the plot point with the strawberry is absolutely true,” she says, laughing again. “Seriously though, it’s up to other people to interpret the book – I wasn’t deliberately channelling 1001 Nights – it’s also been called a story of a friendship between two women and I never thought of it as that either.”

Huda and Yvonne’s friendship is certainly contradictory. One is brought up Muslim, the other Christian. Huda is stronger mentally, Yvonne a bit more needy. Although not all the moments of quasi romantic comedy and outrageous drama quite hit home, the profound reflections on their childhood, family hurt and guilt – and their place in a world dominated by religion – certainly do.

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In that sense, there are echoes of The Locust And The Bird, the brilliant memoir Al-Shaykh wrote for and about her mother. She was forced into marriage in Lebanon, bore a child at 14 (and then had Hanan at 18) and had an affair with a man she later married (and abandoned her children for).

“The atmosphere is maybe similar,” Al-Shaykh says. “Although my mother literally forced me to write that book because she wanted me to forgive her – which I already had done, actually. I never condemned her – I just missed her. As far as The Occasional Virgin goes, in Arabic it was received very well in Lebanon and the Arab world. I had some amazing reviews – although some people were surprised at how a woman of my age [Al-Shaykh is 72] could be so open and explicit.” The Arabic book doesn’t contain the first half made up of 2003’s Two Women by the Sea as the English edition does.

“‘Hanan Al-Shaykh is at it again’,” was one of the reviews, she says, giggling. “But I think people liked that it’s a courageous book and that I write what I think. In the West with this translation I really hope that people are surprised and delighted by Huda. “In the end, I’m just asking people to set aside their ideas about how they think a whole group of people live their lives and treat people like individuals.”

So, talking about confronting preconceived ideas, will she be going back to Speakers’ Corner for intellectual debate? “Oh no,” she says. “The topics people would discuss used to be so varied, but it’s sad now. It’s just people ranting about religion.”

The Occasional Virgin is published on June 14