Inspired by an encounter at London’s Speakers’ Corner, the acclaimed writer returns to two women from a previous book for her latest novel The Occasional Virgin (Bloomsbury). Like al-Shaykh, Christian Yvonne and Muslim Huda both grew up in Lebanon but have left traditional worlds behind and forged successful paths in the west. We meet them reflecting on their childhoods by the sparkling Italian Riviera before following them to London and their individual quests for romance, revenge and fulfilment.
You were inspired to write this book following a confrontation at London’s Speakers’ Corner. Can you describe what happened and why it compelled you to write?
I was walking in Hyde Park when I found myself at Speaker’s Corner. It was quite a circus; people laughing, debating, singing. I stopped at the biggest gathering, a debate between a man from South Sudan and a preacher I believe was from Bangladesh who was claiming that God’s love for the blacks is mentioned in the Koran. The Southern Sudanese black man insisted on seeing the mention in the Koran itself. I knew that the preacher was wrong because I had read the Koran when I was in elementary school in Beirut. So I found myself intervening and explaining that there was a saying by the prophet Muhammad which is: “An Arab is no better than a non-Arab, unless he is more pious.” The preacher’s group got upset with me for correcting him while the Sudanese was happy. I was inspired by the atmosphere, the other groups around, the rest of the speakers. A whole range of topics was raised, from religion to the toxic effects of women’s hair colour on the oceans!
The book picks up the story of two characters who first appeared in your 2003 novel Two Women By The Sea. How easy was it to re-create them in your mind or had they never gone away?
The two main characters in my novel Two Women By The Sea, whom I had left stranded by the sea some time ago, caught up with me in Hyde Park. They were challenging the speakers, giggling, looking for handsome men, and then plotting to take their revenge from an aggressive fundamentalist. Two Women By The Sea is about two Lebanese women. Huda is a Muslim young woman whose father was a religious cleric and who lived in a household that believed that afterlife is the life and not the one we live on earth. Yvonne is from a Christian family, who lived by the sea in a town in the north of Lebanon. Both women have issues. Huda was still grappling with religion and the consequences of a strict upbringing. She was traumatised by what it had done to her when, as a child, she was caught playing doctors and patients. Yvonne’s predicament was how much she had suffered from her mother who favoured her brothers. I remember that I wanted my two women characters to reflect on their early lives as soon as they plunged into the sea – the painful memories of their childhood and upbringing, coming afloat from time to time, with their tumultuous lives and struggles with peace and love.
What does the sea mean to your two main characters?
For Huda, the sea was the forbidden delicious fruit, because she was not allowed to wear a swimsuit and learn how to swim because of her strict Muslim upbringing, while the sea for Yvonne was a source of energy, competition, strength, freedom and equality with men.
The Occasional Virgin explores identity through religion, upbringing and location but none of these things define your characters. Is writing an important vehicle for you to explore your own identity or, at age 72, do you know yourself well enough?
Yes, I do know myself very well. I say this in all modesty – I have been always in touch with myself. Who doesn’t? Writing is what I did for the past 50 years. I was 20 years old when I wrote my first book, The Suicide Of A Dead Man. What defines my characters is their complexity, their struggle with their identity, where they have come from and how they reconcile with whom they have become.
You stayed in Beirut during the civil war of the 1970s. How did that shape your writing?
I stayed nearly seven months of the war and then fled in October 1975 with my two-year-old son and my six-month-old daughter. I was terrified, especially from snipers in our area, and became obsessed that I was going to be killed by a sniper’s bullet every time I ventured out to try and buy powder milk for my baby girl. Yet I stayed on as I tried to convince myself to wait out the war, that it would soon die of fatigue. Then I saw one morning a yellow flower which grew on top of a cactus that had been barren for years. The yellow flower looked like a butterfly eager to fly. This is when I took the decision to fly myself with my children to where there was life – to London. Two or three months later I started writing my third novel, The Story Of Zahra, about terror and violence in wars, the actual war and another inner war with other traditions and taboos.
There is no longer civil war in Beirut, where you were born, but there is still instability. Has it recovered its cosmopolitanism, or might it in the future?
I do not believe that despite the continuous instability in the country that Beirut has ever lost its cosmopolitan character. European film festivals are rife and educational and cultural institutions such as the American University of Beirut or the French Universite St Joseph have been continuously attracting foreign professors and auditors. If you walk down Gemmayze or Hamra streets or the downtown area of Beirut with their restaurants, bars and fashion boutiques, you will mostly hear more foreign languages being spoken than Arabic.
As a journalist in Lebanon you wrote a ground-breaking series of 21 interviews with trailblazing women. Has the change these women pioneered been as significant as they, or you, might have hoped?
Lebanese women have always been pioneers of social, civic and cultural changes and continue to do so. Lebanese women are innately courageous and strong. Recently a young artist, Nada Sehnaoui, fought and led huge demonstrations against government corruption. Another one who belonged to an activist civilian movement also staged a big protest against the takeover of a public beach by private investors. Women lawyers in the country are very verbal and audacious and do not hesitate to engage in public confrontations to defend their rights or those who are underprivileged.
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