Of He­roes & Hu­mans

Bespoke - - ASIDE - WRITER: In­dia Stoughton

were my favourite au­thors, who with words, could cre­ate en­tire worlds (though it prob­a­bly took them longer than seven days to do that). They con­trolled the birth, life and death of their char­ac­ters. They had the power to make me laugh like a lu­natic on the bus (and then en­dure the re­main­der of the ride red with em­bar­rass­ment) or to burst into tears and won­der aloud at their cru­elty. (Philip Pull­man, you know what you did.) Per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing then that I chose to make my living as a writer – though not from writ­ing fic­tion, which is still hal­lowed ground. So I re­main in awe of the nov­el­ists who have helped to shape my view of the world. One of th­ese in par­tic­u­lar, and with re­gards to Le­banon and the Mid­dle East, is Hanan Al-shaykh. It was when I was study­ing Ara­bic at the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh that I first came across her work. Dur­ing a course on the his­tory of the Le­banese civil war, I stum­bled across ‘The Story of Zahra’. The novel plunged me into the ter­ri­fy­ing, claus­tro­pho­bic world of war­rav­aged Beirut. I felt Zahra’s child­ish fear and con­fu­sion at wit­ness­ing her mother’s af­fair, un­der­stood the com­pul­sion that made her pick at her acne, feared and hoped with her when she fell in love with a sniper. It taught me more about war than any of the lists of dates and names I was obliged to mem­o­rise. Then my mother met Hanan Al-shaykh her­self at a read­ing and gave me a signed copy of her ‘One Thou­sand and One Nights’. Al-shaykh’s take on the sto­ries was hi­lar­i­ous. Three beau­ti­ful sis­ters pick up a porter in a mar­ket­place and take him home, get him drunk and ask him to guess the name of their pri­vate parts: “the basil that grows on the bridges,” “the husked sesame,” “the inn of Abu Mas­rur.” Al-shaykh’s other nov­els were just as bold and en­gag­ing. She en­thralled me with her writ­ing but she also con­founded my pre­con­cep­tions. Here was an Arab woman who, as far back as the 1970s, was writ­ing about sex and death and mas­tur­ba­tion, mad­ness, abor­tion and vir­gin­ity. Though Al-shaykh left Le­banon in 1975, mak­ing Lon­don her home for the past four decades and her in­flu­ence is now in­ter­na­tional, she con­tin­ues to write her nov­els in Ara­bic. She may have be­come known for her strong fe­male char­ac­ters and their sur­vival schemes in a pa­tri­ar­chal world, but her books aren’t fem­i­nist man­i­festos. Writ­ing from both the male and the fe­male per­spec­tive, Al-shaykh ex­plores the com­plex pres­sures placed on both sexes and the rea­sons such power struc­tures en­dure. Her books taught me a lot about her world but they also raised ques­tions that were more uni­ver­sal in na­ture, and hu­man. Then came the day when I was asked to in­ter­view Al-shaykh for a story. I was a ner­vous wreck. What do you say to a god? As it hap­pens, she’s as mod­est and ap­proach­able as any­one I’ve met. Pe­tite and cheer­ful with a con­ta­gious smile, she in­stantly made the con­nec­tion be­tween me and my mother, who’d men­tioned in pass­ing that I lived in Beirut at that book sign­ing al­most two years ear­lier. It’s hard to feel in­tim­i­dated by some­one when they’re ask­ing af­ter your par­ents’ health and ex­press­ing in­ter­est in your work, life and views. I think she in­ter­viewed me for a good five min­utes be­fore I got around to her, by which time I was at ease. When I saw her again a year later, at Beirut’s Arab In­ter­na­tional Book Fair, I re­alised I wasn’t the only one who hero-wor­shipped her. I was chat­ting to two tal­ented, cre­ative, suc­cess­ful women, founders of their own pub­lish­ing house, when Al-shaykh walked by. The two women were star-struck. Af­ter the au­thor moved on, one of them ex­plained to me that Al-shaykh had al­ways been an in­spi­ra­tion be­cause of her dar­ing and re­fusal to self-cen­sor, even when it meant that her nov­els were banned in her home­land. Per­haps some of that brav­ery has rubbed off on me? Th­ese days I’m no longer scared of my he­roes, I’ve re­alised they’re hu­man too. Hav­ing said that, I’m still not sure I want Al-shaykh to read this story of mine.

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