Hanan al-Shaykh: By the Book
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
The novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, author most recently of “The Occasional Virgin,” avoids reading books longer than 800 pages “unless they are written by my friends.”
What books are on your nightstand?
“The Blue Flower,” by Penelope Fitzgerald; “Mothering Sunday,” by Graham Swift; “Autumn,” by Ali Smith; “Seven Types of Atheism,” by John Gray; “Al-Mawloudah,” by the Egyptian writer Nadia Kamel; “Red Birds,” by Mohammed Hanif; “Raising Sparks,” by Ariel Kahn.
What was the last great book you read?
“Death in Spring,” by Mercè Rodoreda. A rare, haunting novel about a village in Catalan whose brutal traditions are tamed and become a natural part of life, to an extent that even when there is a chance for some of its inhabitants to break away from this fatal violence and escape the power of evil they remain tied to it. But why? Is it because there is no escape from the horror of our world, which feeds on conflicts and violence? I was hypnotized, bewitched by the beauty of the prose (“From time to time snow tumbled from a branch, as though the branch had just taken a deep breath”), although I knew that it was leading me to something sinister but powerful, a realization of the reality of life and death, echoing similar realizations of mine during the Lebanese civil war.
Who are your favorite Lebanese writers? Are there any who aren’t as widely translated as they should be?
My favorite Lebanese writers are: Fouad Kanaan, who introduced nihilism and absurdity into Lebanese literature in the late 1940s; Alawiya Sobh, Rashid al-Daif, Hoda Barakat, Layla Baalbaki, Balqis al-Humani. My favorite Arab writers more generally are: Tayeb Salih, Latifa al-Zayyat, Ghassan Kanafani, Mohammad Shukri, Alia Mamdouh, Mahdi Issa al-Saqr, Abd al-Hakim Qasim, Ibrahim Aslan, Mohamed el-Bisatie. I recommend that Mohamed el-Bisatie (Egypt, 1937-2012) should be more widely translated because he is the poet of the contemporary Arabic novel, with a dozen novels to his name. He takes the Arabic novel to new territories in form, style, theme. He presents his readers with compelling images of ordinary life and offers them memorable characters and experiences. His novels explore the humanity and the noble yet fragile endurance of the marginalized.
What novel about the Arab world do you especially recommend to Western readers, and what nonfiction book?
I don’t think there exists such a novel about the Arab world as a whole — each Arab country has its own novel. I am going to present a mosaic of my favorites: “The Cairo Trilogy,” by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt; “Cities of Salt,” by Abdul Rahman Munif, Saudi Arabia; “The Ship,” by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Iraq; “The Long Way Back,” by Fuad al-Takarli, Iraq; “Dates on Their Branches,” by al-Bashir Khurayyif, Tunisia (not translated into English); “The Wedding of Zein,” by Tayeb Salih, Sudan; “The Loaf of Bread,” by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad, Lebanon (not translated into English); “The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, by Emile Habibi, occupied territories, Palestine.
In nonfiction: “A History of the Arab Peoples,” by Albert Hourani; “Silk and Iron,” by Fawwaz Traboulsi (not translated into English); “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes,” by Amin Maalouf.
You’ve lived in London for years and have at times objected to being labeled an Arab writer or a specifically feminist one. Tell us about a book we might be surprised to find on your shelves.
I have never objected to being called an Arab writer because I am one, and after so many years living in England I still write in Arabic. Yes, I did object to being called feminist, because I don’t like labels and everyone with half a brain is a feminist! You might be surprised to find this book on my shelf: “The Return of an Old Man to His Youth,” by Ahmad bin Suleyman (circa 1534). In 1968, when I was a journalist at al-Nahar newspaper in Beirut, I was perplexed to hear one colleague say every morning as I entered my office, which I shared with four young male journalists, “The return of the old man [in Arabic: al-shaykh] to his youth,” and then all four men would collapse into laughter. When I couldn’t contain my anger and frustration any longer, I hurried to the chief editor, who explained to me that there was an old manuscript which unfortunately contained my last name, al-Shaykh, and that it was quite erotic. I found myself asking him: “Can I find it in a bookstore? I would love to read it!” The book talks about how our ancestors tried to regain their lost youth and sexual potency with potions made of plants, insects, animals, certain foods and also, and especially, from stories. Women have their own sections in the book as well.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading and which do you avoid?
I love to read any genre of fiction except thrillers, books over 800 pages long (unless they are written by my friends), science fiction and silly romances.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The beauty of the prose, the originality of the theme, the honesty of the writer. I love to feel that I am there in the story, with all my senses engaged, and not just reading about the action, whether I am taken on a fast ride or taken gently by the hand. I look also for strong pathos.
What’s the best love story you’ve read?
The story that was written by my stepfather, Muhammad, which I discovered among his papers. It was about a young man who was walking in the hustle and bustle of downtown Beirut in the 1940s when a pair of marble white legs made his heart troubled and he became all eyes, following the pair of legs: “Their whiteness descended from heaven and swallowed the commotion of the buses, street vendors, movie theaters, the hungry eyes of prostitutes, even the hand which pushed him aside, out of the way of the tram which nearly ran into him. ‘Are you blind? The tram nearly cut you into a hundred pieces.’ ‘But I am already dead,’ my stepfather replied, ‘I need the girl with those white legs to revive me.’” Muhammad sent his short story via a go-between to my illiterate mother, guessing that her neighbor would read it to her secretly on the rooftop, as usual. Upon hearing his words, my mother sighed, “It’s just like we are both in the movies.” She didn’t tell the neighbor that eventually she would leave her pious husband, my father, and her two daughters, my sister and me, and marry her lover Muhammad.
Who is your favorite fictional hero, or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Hero and heroine: Prince Myshkin and Jane Eyre. Antihero: Whatsitsname in “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” by Ahmed Saadawi.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
“Kalila Wa Dimna,” an eighth-century Persian folk tale recounted by two jackals, which was translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa, and the adaptation and retelling of stories from “One Thousand and One Nights” for children. My favorite story was “Tambouri’s Shoes.”
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
“Boredom,” by Alberto Moravia. As I was reading it in its Arabic translation in the mid-1960s, I told myself, “So one can write about anything, even about his own boredom, himself, or social alienation.” I loved the narrator’s tone, as if I was hearing him talking to me, as he was talking to Cecilia. One year later, I started working on my first novel, “Suicide of a Dead Man,” about a married man who has existentialist issues, and who falls in love with a 17-year-old girl.
If you could require the president of Lebanon to read one book, what would it be?
My novel “Beirut Blues,” in order for him to remember the Lebanese civil war that divided the Lebanese and forced people to flee and live far away from the country where they were born.
And the Lebanese prime minister?
The best book about economics. Still searching!
And the British prime minister?
“A Hope More Powerful than the Sea,” by Melissa Fleming, the story of a Syrian woman refugee in search of a better life. It will help the prime minister relate to refugees as individuals and not as a mere word.
If you could meet a writer, dead or alive, who would it be? And what would you want to know?
It would be Hanna Diab, a Syrian from Aleppo, the consultant and editor of the French Orientalist Antoine Galland in the 18th century. Galland was trying to gather the stories of Alf Layla wa Layla (“One Thousand and One Nights”), and translate them from Arabic into French. I would ask him: “Dear Hanna, why did you add your own five magnificent stories and relate them to Shahrazad? Was it because you thought that the collection needed more imaginative stories in order to be complete or were you just surprised to find that you had a dormant gift for storytelling? Or was it because you had a great respect and admiration for Shahrazad and thought that by telling Galland that these were your stories you were in a way saying that you were as good or even better than her?”
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
“The Story of Zahra”: It is Lebanon, my childhood, my youth, my pain and my departure out into the world.
Is there a book you wish you could write but feel you can’t or never will?
Yes: “In the Footsteps of Ibn Battutah.” He was a scholar and travel writer in the Middle Ages. I wanted to call it “Battutah’s Daughter.”
Who would you want to write your life story?
No one but me!
What do you plan to read next?
“House of Names,” by Colm Toibin.