Hanan alShaykh is one of my favorite Arab Women Writers. Well, she is actually one of my favorite writers period. She just happens to be an Arab, and a woman.
I read I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops, a book of short stories, a couple of years back, and I absolutely loved it and I easily bonded with each character in each story, although each one of them came from a very different background.
I wanted more, so I started reading her novel Beirut Blues which is written in the form of letters from the female protagonist to different friends, relatives, and acquaintances, depicting the ordeal, struggle, and the determination of the citizens of Beirut in the years of the civil war. Not sure what went wrong there, but I did not enjoy the novel, and after reading the first couple of letters, I just dropped the book and never went back to it. The problem could have been the fact that I did not find the book in the original Arabic, and I was reading its English translation.
Recently, I was advised by my daughter to read Women of Sand and Myrrh set in an "unnamed" gulf country. It tells the story of four women (two expats and two natives), and how their lives intersect and impact each other in different ways. The story is divided into four parts, each is narrated by one of those women, similar to the structure of Miramar, Naguib Mahfouz' classic novel. This time, I was not able to put the book down until I finished it.
The Women of Sand and Myrrh revived my fascination with al-Shaykh's work so I immediately picked up The Locust & the Bird, My Mother's Story which is a biography of Hanan's mother Kamila, and her fight for the freedom of her heart and body, after being coerced, at the age of thirteen, into a loveless marriage to the much older husband of her deceased half-sister. Even after having two daughters (Fatima & Hanan) by this husband, and in a complete defiance of the extremely strict and hostile mores of her Shiite family, Kamila insists on a divorce & abandons her two daughters to marry the love of her life. Fascinating and intriguing to say the least.
I am currently reading and enjoying The Story of Zahra. Next I plan to read Only in London.