The Story of Zahra (Hikayat Zahrah) by Hanan al-Shaykh

On July 2nd, 2007 we discussed The Story of Zahra (Hikayat Zahrah) by Hanan al-Shaykh.

Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world. Her books are rich portrayals of characters caught in family and political situations, and The Story of Zahra is no exception. This is a deftly written story of a young woman growing up, discovered sexuality, and the upheaval of Lebanon during the civil war.

The Story of Zahra is a powerfully haunting portrait of innocence destroyed by violence both at home and in the larger world. It is also a very frank presentation of a woman with a very complicated sexuality and decidedly unpoetic history of relationships. Zahra is not the archetypical strong Arabic heroine. She is fraught with self doubt and mental health difficulties. Unable to connect with her family or to the roles she is supposed to play in society, Zahra is somewhat adrift throughout the book, finding herself only in the moments where the world mirrors her madness.

Some readers felt as though al-Shaykh plays with the symbolism of Zahra as Lebanon – from a young girl who is betrayed & used by those closest to her and an adolescent romanced by ideology yet confused about her position to it, to an exile who represents the longed for country to her fellow expatriates and a victim seduced, then destroyed by the violence of war. Without being too heavy handed on symbolism, one can easily see how Zahra’s personal struggle with mental health is in itself a reflection of the society’s madness and self destruction – her path towards relative liberation and stability only coming at the midst of the chaos of war-torn Beirut. Whether Zahra was Lebanon or merely reflecting the upheaval of her surroundings, one defiantly feels as though the country itself is a vital character throughout the book – loving, suffering betrayal, and falling apart in much the same manner as the central character.

Given its frank portrayal of sexuality, The Story of Zahra was banned in most Arab countries. Because no publisher in Lebanon accepted the novel, she published it first at her own expense in 1980. Some of her Lebanese readers rejected the book because it “gives a very wrong impression about Arab culture.” Boston Sunday Globe praised it as “an original, moving and powerfully written novel, vividly illuminating the personal human tragedy of war and madness.” The Story of Zahra was translated by Peter Ford.

About Hanan al-Shaykh

Hanan Al-Shaykh was born in Beirut and brought up in Ras al-Naba, a conservative and unfashionable sector of the town. She first attended Alamillah traditional Muslim girls’ primary school and then the more sophisticated Ahliyyah School. She started to write, as she once said, to release her anger and frustration towards her father and brother, because they were able to restrict her freedom. By the age of 16, she had already published essays in the newspaper al-Nahar. Between the years 1963 and 1966 she studied at the American College for Girls in Cairo. Back in Beirut she worked in television, also as a journalist for Al-Hasna’, a women’s magazine, and then for al-Nahar from 1968 to 1975.

During the four years al-Shaykh lived in Egypt, she made her debut as a writer with Intihar rajul mayyit, which was published in 1970. It has nothing in common with a typical first novel – instead of being autobiographical it is narrated by a middle-aged man. Through the narrator’s obsessive desire for a young girl, al-Shaykh examines power relations between the sexes and patriarchal control. Her next novel, Faras al-shaitan (1971), was written when she lived in the Arabian Peninsula. It included biographical elements related to her extremely religious father, aspects of her own love story, and her subsequent marriage. The narration moves freely in time, and depicts the personal development of the heroine, Sarah, against the background of southern Lebanon. In 1976 al-Shaykh left Lebanon because of the civil war. She lived in Saudi Arabia until 1982, when she moved to London.

Her works include: ‘The Persian Carpet’ in Arabic Short Stories, 1983 (trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies) ; Misk al-ghazal (Women of Sand and Myrrh) , 1988 (trans. by Catherine Cobham) ; Barid Bayrut (Beirut Blues), 1992 (trans. by Catherine Cobham) ; Aknus al-shams an al-sutuh (I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops), 1994 (trans. by Catherine Cobham) ; Only in London, 2000 (trans. by Catherine Cobham).

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