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Muse, not politics, inspires novelist

By Samar FarahStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 2001

In Hanan al-Shaykh's new novel, "Only in London," Lamis, a middle-aged Arab woman and fresh divorcee, is still testing the waters of independence when she finds herself at a dinner party in London. One guest, a British man, asks Lamis about her former life in Iraq. But when Lamis tells him that her family didn't leave Iraq to escape the repressive clutch of Saddam Hussein, the guest is transparently disappointed.

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"[He] wanted her to come to this country only because of terror," says the novelist in a phone interview from her London home, and then explains:

"One of my plays was staged [in England] a few years ago. The reviews were so patronizing because the heroine was coming from Morocco only to make some money, and they didn't like that. That's why, when I wrote the scene with Lamis at the party, I felt I needed to say this."

It was hardly the first time al-Shaykh - one of the Arab world's premier female authors - found Western readers projecting stereotypes and preconceptions onto her characters.

"They wanted to see the oppressed, exotic women who are deprived sexually," she says about Western readers of her earlier novels. They were no doubt surprised by al-Shaykh's heroines, who range from the slightly pathological and self-mutilating Zahra in "The Story of Zahra" (1986) to the sexually liberated Asmahan in "Beirut Blues" (1995).

Al-Shaykh was born and raised in Beirut. She and her husband, who live in London, fled the city with their two children in 1975, just as civil war was erupting in the country - and near her street.

Although she had not written one novel while in Lebanon - and four have been translated into English - she continues to publish her novels first in Arabic. Following are more of her thoughts on being a female Arab intellectual and on the gulf of understanding between the East and West:

You're a storyteller, not a political activist. But do you find that readers expect a polemic quality from a female Middle Eastern novelist?

It is very true. Although you know, when you look at all my work, in a way, I don't point my finger, I don't scold ... but there is an undertone of ... political things.... I take inspiration from [Arab] society, from the neighborhood around me, from my childhood. And this is what it's immersed with: politics, social taboos, .... But it's undertone, because I'm not inventing these or trying to attract attention to what's happening.

Your stories don't fault religion or men as a whole for women's oppression. You write about individual characters acting in ways that are complicit with the whole structure that's in place.

Men are in a way [also] oppressed. Although they are behind the wheel of change ... they are suffering as well, living a double standard.... Women, they know that they are oppressed. But men, they know that they are free, but they can't use their freedom.

Do you think Westerners are able to pick up on cultural nuances that fiction allows you to explore?

Well first of all, [Westerners] get very surprised that I get away with [what I write]. That I write these things, and they don't kill me in the Arab world. I always say, because it's fiction ... they don't really pay attention to what I write. They used to feel, especially in the West, that I was breaking taboos.