Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1945, Hanan al-Shaykh has lived in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (where her underground reading group managed to tackle Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong), but London has been her home since the early ’80s, in a sunny apartment in Mayfair filled with paintings and photos. And London is where her books are now mostly set, including her latest, The Occasional Virgin, about two 30-something friends—one Muslim, one Christian—who have known each other since childhood. As the novel opens, Huda and Yvonne are vacationing on the Italian Riviera, behaving in ways their families would not approve. But it is in London that their quest for fun and love unfolds as they decide that if you can’t escape your past, you should try to avenge it.
A British citizen now, like her husband and children, al-Shaykh agrees that writing about Lebanon is getting difficult. She is “bicultural,” writing about the Arab world from the perspective of a Londoner. “I need to go back and live there for a little bit,” she says over lemon and cinnamon tea. “I need to see the nuance of what’s happening. Sometimes I write about a character who’s living there and who comes to Europe and is caught between two worlds.”
Al-Shaykh plans to go to Beirut, a stay that she believes will benefit her now-frail husband, a retired engineer she met and married there. She is Muslim, he is Christian. “We eloped,” she explains, laughing at the memory. “It was a civil marriage. My father knew only when a friend told him congratulations and he asked why.” Al-Shaykh had, however, told her colleagues at the newspaper where she worked: “My editor was very happy and he wrote something in the paper—my husband comes from a very prestigious family, all writers and poets. We’d met at a party.” And her father? “He was reconciled when we got home.”
It’s an extraordinary story in a life of extraordinary stories—the stuff of fiction, one might say. Al-Shaykh has at times needed all her storytelling skills to navigate some tricky situations, both in her own life and in her novels. There’s surely no denying that Huda is cut from the same resilient cloth as the author, though al-Shaykh has never duped young Muslim men the way that Huda does, luring a young man into sex to which he agrees on condition of a fake marriage—“I have married you before God and His Prophet,” they each say with a hand on the Koran. He has assumed her claims to virginity are fake because she’s not veiled, but after their tussle, he sees blood and is contrite. But the blood, like Huda’s virginity, is fake—a scenario inspired by a five-page article “about virginity and strawberries” in a Hong Kong magazine.
“Why are women so afraid? Why can’t women just say ‘I’m not a virgin—fuck off if you don’t want to marry me,’ ” expostulates al-Shaykh, who wanted to expose what she sees as the hypocrisy of the Muslim position on sex. “People are wasting their time—look at what’s happening in the name of religion! In the eighth or ninth century, yes—but now there’s technology.” Religion, she thinks, is surely now superfluous, yet it has become important in an “unhealthy” way. “Of course I’ve read the Koran and you can explain it the way you want. It’s threatening sometimes, very peaceful other times.” The misunderstandings come down to politics, and politics is to be blamed for the rise of ISIS: “I don’t think they’re a religious group—they just want power. I don’t think they believe in religion.”
Al-Shaykh has been reprimanded for not covering up, to which her riposte was that many young Arab women cover their heads yet wear tight trousers—how does that not attract attention? How does she account for the fact that so many Arab women choose to cover up completely? “I think it started after 9/11, and now I feel it’s like a fad, a fashion accessory. They shouldn’t allow it—it’s very dangerous. And who are you? If you cover yourself up, you’re saying you don’t exist, that you’re not there.”
Growing up Shia, al-Shaykh was expected to wear a head scarf but eventually confessed to her father that she’d been pretending—she kept it in her schoolbag. “My father cried—he said, ‘I don’t want to see you in hell.’ I told him not to worry—he’d be in heaven so he wouldn’t see me! He laughed and said I should be a lawyer.” Her father, like Huda’s father, was “pious but not a fanatic” though he spent five hours a day in the mosque, which gave his business partner the opportunity to cheat him. As a result he lost his livelihood yet refused to go to the law, saying, “God is my lawyer.”
It was a complicated family, because her mother divorced him after falling in love with another man. Her father remarried, but al-Shaykh never got on with her stepmother and managed to persuade her father to allow her to leave her Muslim school and go to an evangelical school for her secondary education. From there she went to Cairo for boarding school and then college. These moves were funded by al-Shaykh’s first excursions into journalism: “I was 17 and I thought of something brilliant—I’d go to politicians and ask them about their love life. I played so many tricks to make one of them accept to be interviewed—I fooled three politicians, and each one thought I’d interviewed the other.”
The results were published in a newspaper and, emboldened, she approached a leading Egyptian magazine for more work and ended up falling in love with its 44-year-old, married publisher, “a star.” They flew to Europe, caught on camera as they left—and for the first time, al-Shaykh found herself in the papers. She returned to face her father and brother, both furious and forbidding her return to Cairo—she was 18! “I pleaded and pleaded and pleaded, and then I had to lie—the biggest lie ever, and they believed me.” Nasser was in power, and the regime was taking money from the rich, she explained to them—she was only helping a friend get money out of Egypt, but they mustn’t tell anyone or they’d all be in trouble.
There is something effortlessly exotic about Hanan al-Shaykh. The voice perhaps—accented, mellow, slightly husky—and the heavily kohled eyes. She laughs easily and, even when she’s being serious, a sense of mischief is never far away. Probably because she’s caused quite a lot of it and seems unlikely to stop now. Her novels are vivid and fun-filled; so is she. It was in Egypt, then a much freer country, like Lebanon, that al-Shaykh wrote her first novel, Suicide of a Dead Man—a distraction from her degree, which she never finished. Instead she returned to Beirut as a journalist, writing about women’s issues. She met her husband, and when civil war broke out, they left Beirut for Saudi Arabia, where he had a job and she could write. There, “I educated myself, listening to music and reading in English—Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all of Henry Miller, and even Portnoy’s Complaint. I had underground book clubs—one day at my place, one day at another—and we’d discuss books.” The sojourn provided material for the 1989 novel that would establish her: Women of Sand and Myrrh, a major success in feminist circles.
“People call me a feminist and I have no problem with that,” al-Shaykh says. “I was always interested in women’s issues, but I just write about things I know, things around me. I just wanted to live as I pleased.”
Liz Thomson is a journalist, broadcaster, and author who has spent 30 years chronicling the international book trade. Her current project, the Village Trip, is a series of live events celebrating the history of N.Y.C.’s Greenwich Village.