Copies of a pink booklets entitled in English “A Beauty Parlour for Swans” and in Arabic “Saaloon Tajmeel Lil-Baja’’’ have started to appear on sale alongside the cakes and sandwiches at the open air café in Kensington Gardens, West London.
The bilingual booklet consists of a new short story by the Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh in both the original Arabic, and in the English translation by Christina Phillips. The story is set in Kensington Gardens and is narrated by a 19-year-old Kuwaiti girl who has slipped into the gardens to secretly meet a young Lebanese man.
Hanan, a long-time resident of London, was commissioned to write the story by the Park Stories project of The Royal Parks, which administers London’s eight royal parks. The project commissioned eight prominent fiction authors to each write a story set in one of the parks. The stories can be bought singly or as a boxed set from the parks’ cafés and kiosks and from bookshops and online sites.
Al-Shaykh and her husband left Lebanon in the mid-seventies as a result of the Lebanese civil war, and they lived for a time in Saudi Arabia before settling in London. The fact that Al-Shaykh is the only writer of non-British origin to be invited to participate in Park Stories reflects the esteem and affection in which she is held in British literary circles.
Al-Shaykh is one of the few Arab fiction writers to portray the lives of Arab émigrés in London. Her novel “Only in London” focuses on Arabs in London and much of the action takes place in the Kensington Gardens-Hyde Park-Edgware Road area. The English translation was published in 2002 by London publisher Bloomsbury, and shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Al-Shaykh’s novels and stories have been translated into some 16 languages. Her works in English translation include the novels “The Story of Zahra”, “Women of Sand and Myrrh” and “Beirut Blues”, and the short story collection “I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops”. “A Beauty Parlour for Swans” gives voice to the interior life of an Arab woman, and is written with the author’s characteristic perceptiveness, delicacy and unique humor.
At the start of June, Bloomsbury published the long-awaited English translation of her memoir “The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story”, first published in Beirut in Arabic by Dar Al-Adab in 2005 as “Hikayati Sharhun Yatoul”. The excellent translation was undertaken by Professor Roger Allen of the University of Pennsylvania.
Al-Shaykh’s relationship with her mother Kamila was for years overshadowed by her mother’s divorce from Hanan’s father, whom she had been forced to marry at the age of only 14. She subsequently married the love of her life, Muhammad, and was separated from Hanan and her sister who were only seven and ten years old. Not surprisingly, Hanan felt abandoned by her mother. It was only towards the end of Kamila’s life that the barriers between the two women came down and Hanan came more fully to understand and accept the circumstances of her mother’s life.
“The Locust and The Bird” is described on its cover by the South African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature J. M. Coetzee as “extraordinarily brave”, and it has been winning high praise from critics. On the afternoon of 19 June the London Review of Books Bookshop is organizing an event at the British Museum at which the British novelist Esther Freud will interview Al-Shaykh about Arab women’s role in society. The interview is part of World Literature Weekend.
Kamila grew up in southern Lebanon and Beirut and as a young girl she fell in love with the handsome poetic Muhammad. But then her married half-sister died after being bitten by a rabid rat and at the age of only 14 Kamila was pushed into a marriage with her widowed brother-in-law Abu-Hussein who was 18 years her senior.
Kamila had two daughters with Abu-Hussein, one of them Hanan, but after a few years she and Muhammad renewed their friendship and started to meet clandestinely. Eventually Muhammad asked Kamila’s father and brother for help in getting Abu-Hussein to agree to a divorce. Kamila’s divorce was seen by some as scandalous, and after their mother’s remarriage to Muhammad, Hanan and her sister rarely saw her. Kamila went on to have five children with Muhammad, who died at the age of 38 after a car crash.
Most of the memoir is written in the first-person voice of Kamila who says that in the end she sought peace, “confronting Hanan at last with my past, asking her to write it down. Only then did I start to see its wrinkled layers gradually turn smooth, with each word I uttered, with every place I remembered.” Kamila’s personality comes across vividly as mischievous, witty and romantic. She adored cinema from an early age, and her imagination was fired by films. She grew up in a milieu where women’s popular culture was rich in songs, proverbs, and oral tales. One of the things the bookish Mohammad first admired about her was the way she expressed herself, but she never received a formal education, having to work for the family an early age, and remained illiterate.
Al-Shaykh writes: “My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.” - SG