In Search of the Sensual: Hanan al-Shaykh & Salman Rushdie
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Hanan and I have known each other very well for a long time. Usually we talk about children and dogs, but we’ll try and talk about books. I’m going to start by reading a little passage that Edward Said wrote several years ago which may get us kick-started: “In Lebanon, the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography as a remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing, reportage, and pastiche.”
The question is how to create literature, how to preserve its fragilities and its tough-minded individuality in the middle of an explosion. Hanan is the most brilliant of the women writers that Edward was mentioning. In a series of wonderful novels, plays, and other writings, she’s attempted to answer these questions that Edward posed in that little passage.
I know Edward Said was a friend of yours as he was of mine. I wonder if you want to say anything about his place in your thinking and what that meant to you.
HANAN AL-SHAYKH: I used to always follow Edward Said’s books and his reviews, and I never dared to approach him because he was so intellectual and I didn’t know how to talk to him. Whenever I saw him, I would hide. But after that article, we met. Edward Said was and still is, although he is no longer with us, a great influence on every acting writer or intellectual. He gave us hope.
RUSHDIE: Edward had different kinds of writing, and I always found the most powerful to be the most personal. He wrote that wonderful memoir Out of Place and another book, After the Last Sky. I felt an affinity with that personal writing of his and with the way your books work. Edward became a sensual writer when he wrote personally. Other times he was very analytical, but he suddenly displayed his sensuality. If I had to choose one word to describe your writing, “sensuality” might well be it. Are there other writers in the Arab world, or not in the Arab world, who were important to you when you were thinking about how and what to write?
AL-SHAYKH: I was more inspired by my family and neighborhood than I was by books. They used to tell stories all the time. In our house, we didn’t have many books. We had only the Koran and we never had a daily newspaper. But I had a neighbor who was older than me (I was twelve or thirteen years old), and I would go to the bookstore with him and read translated books.
I loved Jane Eyre. I thought it was amazing because the book started with the heroine talking about how she wasn’t beautiful. I come from a society where beauty is so important. If you are beautiful, you can talk and you have something to say. If you are not, then you are put aside. That’s why, when I started writing The Story of Zahra, I immediately thought I wanted to choose somebody who is plain and not attractive who has a soul behind her.
RUSHDIE: What about the theater? You’ve written many plays. Was there a tradition of theater in Beirut?
AL-SHAYKH: No, there wasn’t at all. There was a man who would read from The Thousand and One Nights. The theater in Lebanon at the time was mainly translated plays, especially French plays. I never thought I would be writing for the theater, but I remember the first person who said, “You should try.” It was Edward Said. Of course I said, “I don’t know how to write.”
It happened that the Arts Council at Hampstead Theatre in London wanted to encourage more women. I said I could try and I wrote three plays. Two were staged and the third one, I don’t think it has a future.
RUSHDIE: What about movies? Were movies important to you?
AL-SHAYKH: I loved them, especially the Egyptian movies. But you can’t imagine how difficult it was to go to a movie. We had to sneak and lie and pretend we were going somewhere else, and then we would go to the movie. I used to sit in the first row, and my sister and my cousin would say, “No, we can’t sit in the first row.” And I would tell them, “No, I want to touch the actresses. I want to talk to them.” I had great passion first for the Egyptian movies, and then later I became very choosy, especially admiring the avant-garde. I think when I wrote The Story of Zahra it was like making a French movie in a way, especially the scene between the sniper and Zahra.
RUSHDIE: It’s like a Godard movie.
AL-SHAYKH: Yes, a Godard movie: black and white, going down the stairs, and being frightened and trembling and thinking of the sniper and the war around her.
RUSHDIE: So you grew up in Beirut, which has been changed so much. Would you like to say a little about what it was like in those days?
AL-SHAYKH: The Beirut I knew—it is always in my mind—was rich, amazing. The streets were crowded with people—the vendors, the mosques, churches, and synagogues were all bustling. I come from a very, very pious family. But at the same time, Lebanon and Beirut were so open. We used to feel so free. I wasn’t very free to do anything, but the atmosphere was so open in Beirut. We would get all the cultures, all the schools. We had English schools, American schools, French schools, universities, everything. It was dramatically changed because of the civil war. The spirit is no more. It’s not only because the infrastructure was ruined; it’s because the spirit of it has gone.
So many people came to take revenge in Beirut or to help the Lebanese destroy their city. Who didn’t come to Lebanon? Who didn’t come to, in a way, rape Beirut? Many nationalities of many countries helped us destroy our city. I miss it so much. I miss the old city. My father had a tiny shop downtown in Beirut that I used to visit every day. Can you imagine a family with their daughter at nine or ten years old going from our district to downtown in half an hour? We weren’t scared; everything was very safe. There were many Arabs from Syria, Iraq, Egypt even, who, because of their regimes, used to come take refuge in Beirut. Nowadays, it is nothing like that. The literary scene is gone.
RUSHDIE: People used to call this wonderful, famous city the Paris of the East. I remember as a child growing up in India, my family’s friends from Lebanon would come and talk about the wonders of Beirut, and it was the place I always wanted to go. Is the vineyard still there?
AL-SHAYKH: The vineyard is still there.
RUSHDIE: Well, that’s important. Is there any sign now of rebirth in the aftermath of the conflict? Is there any sign of this world coming back to life—the literary world, for example? Or the spirit of the city, as you were saying?
AL-SHAYKH: Not now, I think. They are trying. But Lebanon is facing a very crucial time. They are at a crossroads over what happened after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. I’m cautiously optimistic because the new generation was brought up after the war, outside Lebanon, so they don’t have a grudge or the urge to fight like in 1975, but I’m still waiting. We’ll see what can happen.
RUSHDIE: This conflict, of course, has always been there in the background and sometimes in the foreground of what you’ve written. The Story of Zahra is an extraordinary book. In a way, it’s a book very clearly divided into halves. The first half has to do with intimate dangers.
AL-SHAYKH: In a war.
RUSHDIE: Yes, in a strife. And the second half has to do with the strife outside?
RUSHDIE: She’s a damaged girl in many ways, Zahra. Even from the beginning, you say she’s not attractive, she’s constantly laughed at for having acne and picking at it and so on, so you deliberately created a character—
AL-SHAYKH: I wanted to show how society treated unfortunate women. Also, when I thought to write The Story of Zahra, I was in London because I left at the beginning of the war. I started thinking, What went wrong in Lebanon? I felt it’s not the political faction, not the warlords; it is us now. It was as if the war had a big X-ray machine and we were entering one Lebanese after the other into this X-ray machine and seeing each other for the first time. What do we consist of? Our society, our ideas, our ideals—everything has to be questioned. I felt how the old traditions dealt with womanhood, how they dealt with men who were very prominent and very free. On the surface, it was a very open society, but deep down there were many, many issues: issues of religion, of virginity, and so on. So I thought, This is what I want to do. If the war hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have really felt that I needed to talk about a person like Zahra who was damaged by society and by her upbringing and by her dictator-father. And talking about the father, I’m also talking about the warlord in Lebanon.
RUSHDIE: He works on the tram lines. You use that as a wonderful metaphor by saying “these old tram lines.” He’s a rigid figure who is the Lord of the Trams and can’t get off his rails, and is oppressive in many ways to her. She is a person who was abused as a girl, which deranges her in a certain way, and then she comes into this world of larger derangement.
AL-SHAYKH: In the beginning, she thinks the war is freeing her, helping her, because there is no father anymore. When she sees her father frightened, she feels relaxed for the first time and secure that he doesn’t have the upper hand. For the first time, she can really look at herself and think, I am a human being, I am an individual, I can do whatever I want. When this book was published and translated in the West—it was translated into languages other than English—many readers didn’t think Zahra was a strong woman because they were relating to her from their preconceived ideas. But I think Zahra was a very prodigious girl because she said no to many things and she became more trapped because she was saying no to her father and her society.
RUSHDIE: From the beginning, you’ve always written directly and explicitly about women’s sensuality, women’s sexuality, and you also—even though men are often coarse in their behavior toward women in the books—switch the perspective, and you are able to see inside the man’s point of view. You deal very explicitly with what is normally hidden in many Muslim countries—explicit treatment of sexuality and sexual relations.
AL-SHAYKH: It had to do with the war; the war fed me as well. When the war broke out in Lebanon, and when I started writing Zahra, I felt free. I want to write what I’m feeling, to expose everything.
What brought us to this war? Why are we in this bloody war? It’s because of stifling traditions, our customs, and religion as well. This is why I wanted to expose everything. In the Arab world, in the Muslim household, people seek ideas, but it’s a very rigid society. At the same time, sex was everywhere. When I was a child we had a neighbor who always wanted to wash clothes in the garden. She loved to wash the clothes of her family. One time, I was sitting—I used to love her garden—and her husband gave her his trousers to wash and she threw them, and she said, “No, I’m not washing that! You only take them off to be washed!” And I didn’t understand; I was so young. So I went home, and asked, “Our neighbor said this. What did she mean?” Then I knew what she meant.
I also remember my grandmother—I don’t want to be vulgar, but this is an amazing story; I have to say it. I was very slim when I was young and my grandmother, whom I loved so much, was worried about me. She always said, “Hanan, you should eat, eat, eat. You don’t want to stay like this because one day, you will get married and you will have to have children and your womb has to become bigger. You have to eat, you have to eat. You don’t want to stay like an ant’s cunt.” Can you imagine? My grandmother telling this to her granddaughter who was ten years old.
You also can’t forget about our tradition. Our old manuscripts were so daring. They talked about sex, about rulers who loved young men, young boys; they talked about explicit things.
RUSHDIE: One of the sad things about the modernist way is that there’s a disconnect with the old tradition. The same thing happened in India. There are old temples with erotic carvings; the local villagers won’t go because they say the carvings are pornographic and obscene. You say, “These are not American temples! These are not foreign temples. These are temples carved by people in India; it is the tradition of India.” They say, “No, no, no. They’re too vulgar.” In your books, I think that loss of the erotic is foregrounded. How did readers react? With pleasure or with horror or condemnation?
AL-SHAYKH: It varies. In London, there was a Lebanese woman whose daughter used to play with my daughter and when she knew who I was she said, “But you are a nice woman! You are normal and a nice woman! Why would you write this book?”
RUSHDIE: I get that a lot too.
When Zahra sees a man she thinks is a sniper, she interposes her body. She uses her own sexuality as a way of stopping him.
AL-SHAYKH: Yes. At the beginning.
RUSHDIE: At a certain point in the book, when she’s pregnant, he denies that he was a sniper. He says he never was; he was just on the roof admiring the view or whatever it was. It’s unclear whether he is telling the truth. At the end of the book, when she is in the street and she is shot, she believes that he is killing her, maybe because she has said that she is pregnant. Again, we’re seeing the story from her point of view, and so we see also that she believes that she has been killed by this man. Do you have a view about whether it’s him?
AL-SHAYKH: You are reminding me that when the book was published—in Arabic, of course—I was in Saudi Arabia and an aunt of a friend of mine called me and said, “I can’t sleep. Did he kill Zahra?” An elderly woman! “Did he kill Zahra? Was he a sniper? The son of a bitch!” And I said, “What do you want? I want you to go back to bed.”
RUSHDIE: I’m with her.
AL-SHAYKH: He was a sniper, and when he knew that she was pregnant, he killed her.
RUSHDIE: But it’s very good to leave it ambiguous like that because you really want to know, but the book doesn’t tell you. It reminded me of a story about a moment in a Pinter play when the actor who was acting with Pinter wasn’t clear about a particularly ambiguous passage, and said to Pinter, “Could you explain what’s supposed to be happening here?” And Harold looked at it and gave him back the text and said, “The author’s intentions are not clear in the text.”
AL-SHAYKH: I wanted to leave it that way. It was like a film; this is how I imagined the whole thing.
RUSHDIE: It’s Anna Karenina.
AL-SHAYKH: Yes, in a way.
RUSHDIE: Let’s go on to The Women of Sand and Myrrh. Does that book feel like a long time ago? In terms of your writing, do you still feel close to these books, or do you feel that you’ve moved on from some of them?
AL-SHAYKH: Unfortunately, I was feeling that I moved on from them, but what’s happening nowadays brings me back to them.
RUSHDIE: Because this book felt incredibly contemporary. It was first published twenty years ago. And the condition of the women in this book . . .
AL-SHAYKH: Now, it’s the same. Or worse.
RUSHDIE: Do you want to say something the condition? You don’t name the country in this book. One can guess that—
AL-SHAYKH: It’s Saudi Arabia, yes. I didn’t want to name it because at that time there were many books that were naming the country, and I wanted to keep writing literature. I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, she’s writing about Saudi Arabia and wants to attract attention to the book.” That’s why I didn’t name the place.
It was amazing the way I thought about writing this novel. I was at the airport on my way to follow my husband, who is Lebanese—because of the war, he had to work in Saudi Arabia and Ghana. The first five minutes at the airport I saw my personality as if I had become a shadow. Not Hanan, not the writer, not the novelist or the mother. I wasn’t a woman at all. This is when I thought, Ah, I have seeds of the novel. Of course, living with women more than men gave me insight about Saudi women—both the very rich ones and the very modest with low income.
I thought, the whole time I was writing the book, that I was leading a double life. In my mind, it’s my real self, Hanan the writer, who is writing this book. When I close the door to my office and I’m at home and surrounded by closed windows (we weren’t allowed to open the curtains and have the sun enter the sitting room; we had to be literally enclosed), I have a split personality. This room, my office, is my true self. When I leave it, I am like the other women in Saudi Arabia.
I think this book created lots of attention in the Arab world. There wasn’t any book written by an Arab novelist that talked about these moods and women—as if everything were camouflaged or put in boxes.
RUSHDIE: It’s not camouflaged at all. It’s very steamy, this book. No one appears to think about anything but sex all the way through it.
AL-SHAYKH: I’ll tell you why. In Saudi Arabia, you think about sex continuously—every single person, more than in Europe, more than clubs in Soho. Even if you want to buy sanitary napkins, you hesitate. You say, “Shall I? Shall I not? If I want to buy it, what is the owner of the shop going to think of me? I better not.” Sex was everywhere because it was forbidden. It was everywhere, in the air. The women in my book really want to breathe, and they think through sex they can breathe because maybe if we could have a relationship, we would get something. We miss this taboo.
RUSHDIE: There is also a very explicit lesbian relationship in the book, which on one side appears to be the woman who is genuinely interested in women, and on the other side, it appears to be because there’s just nothing else around.
RUSHDIE: And the men, also.
AL-SHAYKH: Yes, the men! It is an unhealthy society. It is a very closed society—very oppressive, very unhealthy.
RUSHDIE: And how erotic it gets. People get love potions to capture other people’s husbands. I can see why you thought you had a book.
AL-SHAYKH: When it was published in the Arab world, it was banned from a few Arab countries. I remember there was an Arabic bookshop in London. They called me, laughing, and said, “Listen, somebody came to buy this book, and said, ‘I want the book of Hanan Al-Shaykh.’ ” And they said, “Which one? She has three or four novels.” And she said, “The one she loves women in.”
RUSHDIE: The book after that is an extraordinary novel, Beirut Blues. It’s a very important book. I read it again before we had this conversation and I thought it was perhaps even better than when I read it before. I actually reviewed this book; it was just about the last book I ever reviewed. After this, it was impossible to review other books. It’s a portrait of the city in that time we were discussing, that time of its devastation. It’s a lament in the way that you have been speaking of here, a lament for a broken city in a broken world. Incredible beauty. In the middle of that, it’s also rather old-fashioned. It’s a novel in the form of letters, an epistolary novel. The novel began like that. What we would consider to be the first modern novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, is also a novel written in the form of letters. It’s nearly one thousand pages long—quite boring, actually. All letters.
I was thinking about Saul Bellow. One of the great things about Herzog is the fact that he sends mad letters everywhere. And here is your heroine, Asmaran, coming back to Beirut into the middle of this catastrophe. She’s writing letters to everybody she can think of. You had, at that time, also left Beirut and were living primarily outside. Although, of course, you would go back.
RUSHDIE: How did it feel to return to that catastrophe? And was Asmaran your way of understanding what was happening? How did the book come to be?
AL-SHAYKH: I had been away from Lebanon, and after The Story of Zahra, I wrote a collection of short stories. I talked about the war as well. I said, “I’m not going back in life; I’m going to proceed. I’m not going to think about civil war and that’s it.” But every time I went to Beirut, I felt that the city had changed rapidly. When I didn’t know a certain street, I became so upset with myself, and I said, “No, I really need to sit and write about the Beirut I knew and what’s going on.” This is how I started writing it. I felt that I could not write as if I was still there like the other Lebanese writers who were in Beirut. Because I was away in London, this is how it should be: letters.
I wanted to understand the war. With The Story of Zahra, the war was new and I didn’t know a lot about it. When I wrote Beirut Blues, I understood why Beirut became East and West, and about Hezbollah, about the factions, how there were new factions.
RUSHDIE: There are terrible ironies in this book. One of the people she’s writing to is her friend who’s abroad, and she’s saying “You can’t understand anything from over there.” In a way, she’s quite contemptuous toward her for being out. There’s the kind of pleasure in return: now you know who you are because you’ve returned. Yet she falls in love with somebody who will then take her away again.
AL-SHAYKH: He didn’t succeed in taking her away. He thought he was taking her away, but she chose not to go. She said, “If I leave, then all the years I’ve lived in Beirut are going to disintegrate. How can I do that to myself?” You have to choose between staying and leaving. I was feeling guilty because I left and many friends of mine stayed behind.
RUSHDIE: It seems to me that one of great tragedies of the current situation is the number of Arab writers who are forced into exile. An enormous number of the most prominent Arab writers are, whether by choice or necessity, not living in their country of origin.
AL-SHAYKH: In Iraq and Syria, this is the biggest tragedy. People, intellectuals, writers were forced to leave their country. When they left their country and took refuge in Europe and the United States and in other countries, they were threatened as well. They couldn’t, at the beginning, write what they wanted to. There were spies everywhere.
RUSHDIE: A culture that exiles its best imaginative voices—what effect does this have on the culture?
AL-SHAYKH: It is a tragedy. It’s really sad when all the intellectuals are leaving their countries. But at the same time, it’s very difficult for them to stay. I think intellectuals and writers and artists are the first ones to flee. They have to practice life as it should be. I hope there will be a change, but I’m not optimistic.
AUDIENCE: In Islamic tests, it’s written that God gave man one part of desire and women nine parts. Both of you have discussed how there’s been a denial of that. Do you see a reclaiming of women’s sexual identity by writers and artists who live in the Middle East, or is it only the realm of writers outside?
AL-SHAYKH: Unfortunately, the majority of women in the Arab world are going back to religion. If you see them, even in universities, you only see, like Zorro, a mask—you see only the eyes. I don’t think they are questioning desire. They aren’t questioning that they shouldn’t show anything, even their names, and they shouldn’t use nail polish because it’s against religion. I think Islam was hijacked by sorcerers and politicians. The Islam I grew up with wasn’t like that at all.
AUDIENCE: I spent some time in Syria and Jordan recently, and when I came back, I found it hard to be objective because my experience there was so great. I know it’s influenced a lot because I’m a man, but I was taken into people’s homes and welcomed. There’s a lot of focus on the problems in the Arabic world. Do you think there is a need to shed light on more of the positive aspects?
AL-SHAYKH: Of course. I think this is the role that intellectuals and novelists should play because they can mend bridges between cultures. In the Arab world, they misunderstand the West. It goes two ways.
RUSHDIE: One of the things that we’ve been talking about in this festival is the hunger among American readers for information that the news doesn’t give us, for stuff we don’t get on the TV or the radio or in the press. We find out how many people were blown up today, things like that, but we don’t find out what the world is like. I think it’s interesting that readers in this country are turning to books for these answers. Like Khaled Hosseini’s book about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner, and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. This is something that creative and imaginative writers are able to do. It’s one of the great services that literature can perform in this world.