cover image Women of Sand and Myrrh

Women of Sand and Myrrh

Hanan al-Shaykh, Hanan Shaykh. Anchor Books, $15 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-385-42358-8

Four intertwined first-person narratives use poetic language to paint a hard-edged picture of an unnamed wealthy Arab desert country full of luxurious houses hidden behind high walls and women hidden behind veils. These women cannot drive or travel abroad without their husbands' permission, but they find small outlets that permit them to survive psychologically. An outstanding translation renders al-Shaykh's prose into fluid and elegant English. Suha is a Lebanese woman who has come to the desert with her young son because of her husband's job. Intelligent and educated, she finds both the heat and the culture stifling, and a sexual encounter with her friend Nur only adds to her discomfort and loss of identity. Nur reacts to the protected lifestyle she has enjoyed since birth by becoming spoiled and superficial, even demanding an abortion because she is unwilling to sacrifice her fashionable wardrobe. Suzanne, an American, has also followed her husband and his work, but once in the Arab country she becomes involved with an Arab man who calls her ``the Marilyn Monroe of the desert.'' He worships her until the day she expresses interest in her own sexual pleasure, at which point he accuses her of being a hermaphrodite. Tamr makes her first tiny steps towards independence by attending the Gulf Institute for Women and Girls, where Suha teaches. Tamr comes home with amazing stories for her mother about the oddities she finds there, like ``the American who went around smoking a cigarette in a holder.'' Al-Shaykh is a native of Lebanon whose sexually explicit The Story of Zahra was banned there. In this novel sex is at once a taboo and a driving force behind the lives of these four women as well as others in the community. Suzanne describes how men seek out women in the supermarket and track cars with unveiled passengers; and a ritual part of Nur's life is using a secret telephone in her bedroom to call a stranger with whom she has erotic conversations. All of the characters live in luxury and privilege but with a poverty of self-expression so chafing that it ultimately compels one of them to flee. (Aug.) .