Hanan al-Shaykh’s latest novel — The Virgins of Londonistan — was released in late November at this year’s Beirut Book Fair. Reviewer Mishka Mojabber Mourani found it to be a flirtatious tour de force:
By Mishka Mojabber Mourani
The women in The Virgins of Londonistan are Sheherazades, very much like their creator. The novel runs along classic lines, although it is structured in two parts, the first a prologue that establishes the setting with respect to Al-Shaykh’s 2003 novel Two Women by the Sea. That book begins the stories of two Lebanese women: Yvonne is a Christian girl from north Lebanon while Huda is a Muslim from the south. They meet at a conference and become friends.
This novel — The Virgins of Londonistan — has a strong plot line: Exposition, rising action, crisis, minor resolution, more crises, climax, and resolution. The novel’s plot moves fast, driving the reader to discover how the adventure that brings together three incongruous characters — Huda, Yvonne, and Hisham — could possibly be resolved. Until the last page, Al-Shaykh leads us toward an ominous conclusion, but resolves it unexpectedly.
Like many of her previous novels, this one explores a number of themes that feature strong women, the diaspora, and issues of identity and belonging. A key theme is the importance of narrative, of telling stories and how they define us. The main characters tell stories about themselves. Al-Shaykh seems to be saying that the more stories we invent, the more we liberate ourselves, assert ourselves. By creating the necessary distance to frame a story, we also liberate ourselves from our pasts and from the preconceptions held about us.
The novel delights in contrasting traditions and modernities. For instance, one of the characters talks about the ancient art of cupping as a cure for evils that befall people. At the same time, the novel emphasizes the effects of technology and globalization. An interesting thread that brings the plot together is the omnipresence of mobile phones and how they have the potential to change lives. There are no geographic boundaries in this narrative: It is set in Italy, England, Algeria, Canada, Lebanon, and Iceland, making a brave, candid, often hilarious exploration of fundamentalisms, traditions, and taboos.
Not a novel of “good” and “evil”
This is also a novel of manners: It depicts the mores of the twenty-first century without getting involved in the issues of right or wrong. Although the beginning of the novel presents the fundamentalist character, Hisham, in an ominous light, we realize that the man is not violent or evil — just misguided. That said, there is an implication that flirting with fundamentalism can be dangerous. The novel is morally ambiguous: it does not ask the reader to condone the women or condemn them. Neither does is judge Hisham: the shy, naïve, ignorant caretaker who shuns experience and, with it, any real knowledge of the world, other people, or even himself.
We can’t help feeling sorry for Hisham as he falls prey to Huda’s and Yvonne’s machinations, and we also can’t pass judgment on the two capable, astute women of the world who are successful in their careers, independent, and yet lonely.
An exploration of religion, and also…
The novel explores religion, its practice and its effect on individual lives deftly. It does not criticize religion, but rather addresses misconceptions about it. Huda, as the daughter of a Muslim cleric, a shaykh, knows the Quran and the Hadith and is able to counter all Hisham’s misconceptions with evidence from scripture.
But although the novel looks at religion, it is not a prudish text. Rarely does a novel — particularly one written in Arabic — feature explicit sexual scenes as of the first few pages. Like the masterly biography of her mother, Hanan al-Shaykh confronts taboos face on without false shame or coyness. This is a novel of liberation that portrays the condition of Lebanese women, be they Muslim or Christian, as they come into their own economically, socially, and sexually.
Hanan al-Shaykh tackles issues head on: Displacement and exile, being a mature, single Arab woman, economic independence, the hijab, sexual taboos, the importance accorded to virginity, traditional religious practices, interpretations of Islam and Christianity, and more. Her approach is bemused, iconoclastic, often hilarious. She questions the humanity of fundamentalisms, and her wily women have the upper hand as she explores and manipulates taboos and superstitions.
Yet Al-Shaykh is uncompromising in her criticism of practices that affect children: One striking story is the use of peppercorns to punish innocent childhood games. Al-Shaykh skillfully uses this incident to imply that the innocence of children is corrupted by retribution. Huda’s sexual abandon is linked to her childhood suffering, just as Hisham’s child-like fundamentalism is portrayed as a kind of perverted innocence marred by the fear of chastisement. These childhood punishments are linked in the novel to the obsession with virginity in traditional cultures.
Finally, a major theme that flows through the novel is that of the Lebanese diaspora and post-war identity. Huda and Yvonne are members of the Lost Generation of women who were born when the Lebanese Civil War began, and who found themselves part of the diaspora. In a recent Daily Star Lebanon review, Hanan al-Shaykh was quoted as saying, “If I want to write about Arab characters living in the Arab world I think I have to spend more time (there). I can’t just write about the things I can remember. … I have to be contemporary.”
Al-Shaykh has her finger very much on the pulse of women who found themselves displaced by the war. There is no idealization of those circumstances in the novel. These two women are not models of behavior or of anything else for that matter. They are doing their best to live their lives independently and, like most people, they are flawed. They are two women who have missed the proverbial boat in terms of the traditional criteria for eligibility for marriage: they are in their late thirties, and have not had much success in the emotional commitment department, though they are successful professional women.
Huda was born and grew up in Lebanon and ended up in Canada, whereas Yvonne moved to the UK. Their ties to Lebanon, however, are enduring. Huda, we are told, always has a proverb ready, a subtle reminder that she is carrying her culture with her: You can take the woman out of Lebanon but you cannot take Lebanon out of the woman, as it were. Although they come from different religious communities, they are linked by their friendship and by their memories of their home country.
An eye-catching cover
A note about design: The covers of Arabic novels are not often striking. This is not the case with this one, designed by Najah Taher. Almost virginal in its whiteness, the image intrigues: We see a slim woman’s body, the torso and face not included in the frame. Attention is drawn to the pink, stylish shoes decorated by pink roses. The legs are not those of a young woman, but they are shapely. The pose is coyly playful: The woman appears to be dressed in a white bridal dress, but it is so short as to be wicked. We deduce that the woman is well-to-do, chic, savvy, and naughty. Taher has captured the essence of the novel in a masterly fashion.
The Virgins of Londonistan is very aptly named. The concept of virginity is well developed in the novel, as is the appropriation of London by immigrants from various cultures, notably from the East. The novel starts with a scene at Speaker’s Corner — an allusion to the culture of free speech that prevails in London. The irony of London being a haven of liberty and security for disenfranchised people while harboring people who wish to duplicate their cultures is not lost on the reader.
Reading The Virgins of Londonistan is an adventure. It is a naughty yet important book. Hanan al-Shaykh addresses the taboos of traditional and fundamentalist societies with courage and humor. In many ways, this novel will prove as striking as her ground-breaking novels The Story of Zahra and The Locust and the Bird. It is a tour de force worthy of a modern day Scheherazade.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s (@MishkaMM1) most recent book is ALONE TOGETHER, co-authored with Aida Yacoub Haddad. It is published by Kutub – Beirut, 2012. ISBN: 9789953554167; you can read more about the bilingual project here. Mourani is also the author of the memoir BALCONIES, which is distributed by Lebanon’s Dar an-Nahar.