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Iante Roach

On friendship and feminism

The pair came together on stage last week as part of Hay Festival Beirut

Hanan al-Shaykh and Nidal Al Achkar

Hanan al-Shaykh is arguably the leading female author of her generation in Lebanon; Nidal Al Achkar is arguably the leading actress and theater director of hers. The pair came together on stage last week at Madina Theater, as part of Hay Festival Beirut, to read stories from Shaykh’s new adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights: A New Re-imagining: complex stories of humanity that, according to the author, touch on “all aspects of life: justice, injustice, gender issues, strife, the cunning of women, city-dwellers and people from the countryside, hate, love… it also contains very bloody stories, of unbelievable darkness and wickedness, alongside highly charged erotic ones.”

 

NOW met with the women to talk about their longstanding friendship, feminism, freedom of expression, and the challenges they have experienced as women in the arts from the 1960s onwards.

 

Shaykh and Achkar go back a long way. Shaykh first became aware of the latter’s work in the 1960s, when her talent was attracting the attention of many critics. Then a journalist, Shaykh interviewed her and followed her career avidly: “she is the person who began real, alive theater in Lebanon, a theater that dealt with Lebanese society and its problems from within, very different from the previous tradition. She was interested in Arabic playwrights and made us realize that theater does not only come from Europe, that there is much more to theater than Shakespeare, comedy, the theater of the absurd… She is an extremely courageous woman, and her play Edrab al-Haramiyeh (The Strike of Robbers in English), which was stopped by the government, is only one example.”

 

In turn, Achkar reveals that she has been a fan of Shaykh’s “for a very long time, both as a woman whose personality fuses femininity and strength to the utmost degree, and as an author, with her modern and sophisticated style – an excellent example of al-sahl al-mumtana (inimitable simplicity in English) – and her stance. When she first wrote, her boldness appalled people.”

 

Shaykh, whose Shiite family comes from Nabatiyyeh, grew up in the Ras el-Naba’a neighborhood in Beirut. She left Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, eloping with her future husband (a Christian) to Saudi Arabia and later to England, where she has lived ever since. Her family found out about the marriage in the press!

 

The author dispels common myths about her strict Shiite upbringing and her position as a feminist Arab author. “My father was devout, but not a fanatic – just imagine that he let me go alone to Egypt to pursue my studies at the age of 17! Though he wanted me to wear the hijab, I rebelled and convinced him that it wasn’t for me. I used to think he was strict, but now I realize how much freedom he gave me. He was very loving and a little naïve, he would believe me in everything. For instance, he saw me holding hands with a boy, and I convinced him that the boy was simply helping me to cross the road unharmed. Initially, he was upset about my marriage, but he came to love my husband (whereas the rest of my family was happy and relieved, as they feared no one would marry me, with my strong character!). My husband’s family had no qualms whatsoever about our interfaith marriage.”

 

Asked whether she would define herself a feminist, Shaykh replies forcefully: “they pigeon-hole you! Maybe I am, I don’t know. My novels talk about women, strife, society issues – yet so many male Arab authors do the same and are not called feminists!”

 

Strong female characters appear in many of Shaykh’s novels – such as Ruhiyya and Asmahan from Beirut Blues. “My female characters come from here, from there, from everywhere,” she explains, “some are women I met, others are members of my family, some I thought I knew, but I don’t know if they really exist. Ruhiyya from Beirut Blues, for instance, a character I adore, was inspired by Billie Holiday, the nickname of my mother’s dress-maker, who smoked cigarettes and was very outspoken and extremely alive.”

 

Shaykh reveals that she wished to return to Lebanon in 1982-83, “when the situation was really not very good. However, I thought of my children, who were very young at the time. I wanted them to continue living in a peaceful world, and feared they wouldn’t learn anything but fear from living in a state of war. I believe in secular society, and after a long experience of the UK’s real democracy I don’t think I can live anywhere without similar political conditions.”

 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of freedom of expression in the Arab world have never stopped her from “writing what I feel like writing: I am audacious, I do not censor myself, and luckily I have a Lebanese publisher, who was very interested in my adaptation of the 1001 Nights and did not censor it even though I warned him that it was very daring.”

 

Achkar, who is not only an actress and theater director, but also an author and founder of Madina Theater (in 1994), has been seminal for modern and contemporary Lebanese theater. She announces to NOW that she is currently working on two big projects. She will act in a new play which will be directed by Madina Theater director Nagy Souraty. It will premiere in October 2013. “All I can tell you about my role is that she’s a timeless woman,” she says with mischievous eyes. She will also be directing a big show in 2014, which she has adapted from ancient Sumerian texts, brought to her attention by her father some 40 years ago. “The play will deal with the Sumerian universe, from its beginning with the creation of the first cities and the search for eternal life to its end. According to Sumerian traditions, the universe was created by a woman.”

 

On her experience as a woman in the arts in Lebanon from the 1960s onwards, Achkar says “it has been a continuous struggle, yet easy because of my very open family, all my friends, and all the writers have been with me from the start. I had a golden beginning and was able to continue thanks to my confidence and the love my family gave me, even though it is a tough world. I enjoy the struggle and I enjoy succeeding and being the first woman to found an open, civil society theater, which fosters freedom of expression.”

 

The combined efforts of the seemingly delicate Shaykh and the dramatic and clearly forceful Achkar, who have both contributed immensely to the development of theater, literature, and the condition of women (whether artists or not) in Lebanon, created one of this year’s best and most enchanting theater and storytelling performances in Beirut. One hopes that they will continue collaborating and achieving such ‘inimitable simplicity,’ the result of constantly striving, and that they will continue to take Beirut audiences along on the journey with them.

Author Hanan al-Shaykh (left, via Hanan al-Shaykh) and actress Nidal Al Achkar (right, via karlbaz.com)

Asked whether she would define herself a feminist, Shaykh replies forcefully: “they pigeon-hole you! Maybe I am, I don’t know. My novels talk about women, strife, society issues – yet so many male Arab authors do the same and are not called feminists!”