I don’t get to London as often as I’d like to, so when I find a book dealing with this city, I buy it as a (weak) substitute. When I saw ‘Only In London’ by Hanan Al-Shaykh in the English corner of a German bookshop I thought I’d found a twin of the Buddha in Suburbia. How off the point I was I found out at home when I read the Note on the Author. I learnt not only that Hanan is an Arabic woman’s name, but also that Hanan Al-Shaykh is one of the leading contemporary Women Writers in the Arab world. She writes in Arabic, her novels have been translated into nine foreign languages. ‘Only In London’ was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I was intrigued and looked the author up on the net. I don’t share the objection to translations many dooyooers cultivate, if you don’t know a foreign language well, you’ll never learn that there’s literature worth reading outside your own culture. Hanan Al-Shaykh was born in Beirut in 1945, where she made her debut as a writer, studied in Cairo, and back in Beirut worked in TV as well as a journalist. In 1976 she left Lebanon because of the civil war, lived in Saudi Arabia until 1982 when she moved to London. “Until now Hanan Al-Shaykh’s novels have been firmly grounded in Arab soil. They told of the lives of men and women, particularly the latter, in Arab countries as they struggle for survival and freedom in closed societies often caught in the upheavals of internecine hostility and development. In her new book we’re still in the Arab world, but the location has shifted to London, that small area that stretches along Edgware Road to Marble Arch, down Park Lane and its luxury hotels.” A turbulence in a plane on its way from Dubai to London during which they console each other brings the four main characters from three different Arabic countries and a
n Englishman together. When the plane has landed they share a minibus to the city where they part after exchanging phone numbers and the promise to meet occasionally. They don’t honestly mean to, but their paths cross again. The character the novel begins and ends with is Lamis, a 30-year-old Iraqi woman who fled with her family to Lebanon when she was a child, there she was coerced into a marriage to a rich Iraqi twice her age who she followed to London. She bore a son, but after thirteen years walked out of the marriage which was run by her mother-in-law. She was in Dubai to establish a business, but failed and therefore returned to London. She’s determined to assimilate, to learn the language perfectly, to study the English society until she finds a place in it. When she meets Nicholas again by chance, the Englishman who was in Dubai on business as an expert on Islamic daggers, a passionate love affair begins (explicit description of their sexual encounters). For the first time in her life a man sees her as an individual human being with an independent mind. She finds the liberation she’s been dreaming of, enjoys the situation immensely and wants to prolong it, wants it to become a permanent state, at least for the time being. This is no contradiction since she doesn’t know herself yet and what she wants to do with her life. Nicholas, however, dreams of total commitment, i.e., marriage, and when she hasn’t given up her flat after three months and moved in with him, he feels rejected and disappears out of her life clandestinely. Will they get together again? Will they be able to bridge their different cultural backgrounds? Hanan Al-Shaykh doesn’t really interweave the stories of her main characters, she lets them meet only to be able to switch from one field of human experience to the next. We can’t experience every life-form ourselves, most of us stay within close boundaries su
rrounded by like-minded human beings; to see, learn, understand what else is possible - this is one reason why we read literature. The other ‘pair’ , the word ‘couple’ would be as wrong as could be, are Amira, a fat and funny high-price whore with the proverbial heart of gold from Morocco with an Arab clientele (explicit description of their sexual encounters), and Samis, an odd-job gay drag queen from Lebanon where he’s got a wife and five children. He’s come to London to deliver a capuchin monkey to a terminally ill Arab woman who wants to see her pet once again, or so he thinks. Truth is that the monkey has been force-fed grapes containing diamonds, when it’s shat them the smugglers disappear and leave him with it. He and Cappuccino find shelter with Amira. When he hasn’t come home after three months and doesn’t explain why, his wife and kids come to London to find it out. Bizarreness in abundance! (Again! It somehow seems to find me.) Besides sheer entertainment the novel offers insight into different cultures, brings up the idea of self-reinvention and the question whether total assimilation is possible and desirable, stresses the importance of language and brings home the knowledge that there is much more than just words necessary to immerse in a different culture - I think that’s quite a lot for 6.99 pounds, and I consider ‘Only In London’ a good and recommendable bargain.