Muse, not politics, inspires novelist

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.

"[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.

I never really felt that I was breaking taboos. First of all, I don't belong to a regular, traditional Lebanese family because my mom left home when I was five years old....

My father, was very, very pious (never a fanatic Muslim), and he wasn't a domineering father....

But people, either friends or people close to me, they say, 'Hanan, you are really very, very frank. Why should you be that frank?' I say, 'Well, it's my heart and my mind when I sit to write, and I can't lie.... I cannot limit my character or myself no matter how frank I'm going to be.'

How did your Dad respond to your books?

My mother is illiterate. She was never taught to read and write.... My father, he knew only how to read the Koran.... He never read anything I wrote, but he was very, very proud.

Because of the small market for fiction in the Middle East, you might have more readers in the West. Do you keep that in mind when you're writing?

In my novels, I never think who my reader is.

The novel takes over, the writing takes over. ....It's an act that's very, very private. There are no readers at such a point. But I'm aware now that I have foreign readership more than in the Arab world. Not because I'm living [abroad], but because they are still banning books in the Arab world.... But when I say that, I don't think this is the only reality. The reality is, intellectually, people in the Arab world, they still like soap opera books more, and they prefer poetry.

How are young women in Lebanon today different from your generation?

Well, we were actually more emancipated. We didn't think of marriage, we didn't think of children. We were so rebellious. We were eating in coffee shops and trying to liberate ourselves from the traditions of the family. And now, all of them want to get married to rich men. Of course, [some are] intellectuals, but not many, not like in my age.

A big concern at the American University of Beirut is keeping young talent from leaving Lebanon. Do you feel any guilt for leaving? Your main character in "Beirut Blues" deals with that.

Actually, no, I'm so happy I left. Sometimes I feel guilty when my son tells me he has no roots. But I'm really a coward. I can't take pain at all. I can't take chaos, because my imagination goes wild.... I was the first one from my family and my friends and neighborhood who left [Beirut]. I'm not nationalistic at all I think, and I was just thinking of myself and my children.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle to getting Westerners to understand the Middle East?

There is a big abyss between the [East and West]. When Edward Said (professor of literature at Columbia University and a prominent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs) was in London recently, he told a story about a Swedish journalist who told him he was going to buy the Koran to [learn about Arabs]. [Said] said 'please, read [Arab] fiction. We don't read the Bible to understand the West.'

There is a big division, really. For example, the Arabs don't know Americans are very pious.... The West, instead of thinking the Arabs have their own culture, look down on them. But I don't blame them. In school, they don't teach you about the Arab world.

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