Hanan al-Shaykh Only in London (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 288pp.
Hanan al-Shaykh is considered one of the leading contemporary Arab women writers. Born in Beirut in 1945, she lived in Egypt as well as in Saudi Arabia before she settled in London in the 1990s. Her vre includes novels and short stories as well as plays. Al-Shaykh writes exclusively in Arabic, but her work has been translated into English and several other languages. Her novels such as The Story of Zahra (Hikayat Zahrah, 1980), which was banned in most Arab countries, Women of Sand and Myrrh (Misk al-ghazal, 1988), which was named one of the 50 Best Books of 1992 by Publishers Weekly, and Beirut Blues (Barid Bayrut, 1992) have received international attention.
<1> We have entered a millennium in which, for the first time, the majority of people will live in cities. In view of the increasing complexity, particularly of post-industrial metropolises such as London, New York or Tokyo, there has been a growing trend of turning to literary representations of the city in order to 'read' and understand them better. What statistics and municipal reports often only hint at -- a city's problems as well as its possibilities -- writers, poets, and artists seem to bring to life, to put into context and to populate with people and their individual fates. The fin de siècle but also the Depression era and the post-World War II years were times when the genre of the 'urban novel' flourished particularly well in British as well as in American literature. Writers tried to capture the industrialisation of cities as well as their post-industrial decline. The political, economic and socio-cultural transformations of the last three decades have all been reflected in recent subject matters of the urban novel which has also been appropriated by urban migrant writers as the medium of their choice to negotiate issues of urban space, consumerism, and identity politics. Within this context, questions of escape, exile, and migration have been particularly foregrounded in urban migrant literature. According to estimates by the United Nations the current number of refugees lies at 20 million people or more. In addition, the International Labor Office estimates the latest number of migrants worldwide at more than 120 million people. Both figures are predicted to grow.
<2> These developments are addressed in various literary portraits of London especially by urban migrant writers: already in 1956 Sam Selvon depicted the difficulties encountered by the early Caribbean migrants who came to London in his classic novel The Lonely Londoners. In In the Ditch (1979) Buchi Emecheta recorded her own experiences as a poor single parent from Nigeria arriving in the British capital. Eleven years later Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia (1990) allowed its readers a glimpse into the life of South Asian immigrants in London's suburbs. Recently, Zadie Smith added her own acclaimed portrayal of London as an ethnic hotchpotch with her bestselling novel White Teeth (2000). Inevitably, there are as many experiences and images of London as there are people, and none of them can possibly be seen as prototypical. Which might be why writers keep on adding their own views of the city, always trying to capture another piece of London's ever-shifting nature. Just when it seems as if most of London's multiethnic cosmos has been explored in all kinds of literary portraits, along comes a work like Hanan al-Shaykh's latest novel Only in London (2001) and surprises its readers with yet another, very different glimpse of the multifarious British capital.
<3> 'Writing the city,' is not a new concept for al-Shaykh. Already ten years ago she inscribed her former hometown Beirut into the urban literary landscape with her novel of correspondence Beirut Blues (1992). But it took her almost ten years to be able to write about another city, namely London, her adopted hometown. Even though she already started to examine her relationship with London in her two plays Dark Afternoon Tea (1995) and Paper Husband (1997), it is only in Only in London (2001), that she directly focuses on life in Britain's metropolis. In fact, within the pantheon of the novel's four main protagonists London functions as a central character itself, not least revealed in the book's dedication to two individuals and "to London."
<4> Only in London opens with a prologue which not only literally throws together the novel's four protagonists, Amira, Lamis, Samir, and Nicholas, as they are caught in heavy turbulences on their flight from Dubai to London. This initial image also encapsulates the novel's main narrative of uprooting, migration, exile, and loss, experienced in different ways by all four lead characters. The plane serves as the perfect metaphor for the shrinking of distances between countries and cultures, and illustrates that the availability of cheaper airfares over the last four decades has played a significant role in the increased migration worldwide. At the same time, the fact that apart from Samir all characters are flying Business Class indicates their different social status within the Arab as well as the international migrant community, both of which al-Shaykh presents as far more heterogeneous than usually portrayed in government reports or the media.
<5> Amira, whose loud shrieks and lamentations during the turbulence drown out all other passengers, also proves to be the domineering and most imposing figure for the rest of the novel. Born under the name of Habiba Mustanaimi into a poor family in Morocco, who "wished that this baby girl could return to the womb, and stay there while they prayed to God to change her sex" (p. 68), Amira went to London as a young girl, working as a maid and cleaner in various households. It is when she gets molested by men wherever she is employed, that she starts to think "seriously about her body and men and wealth" (p. 169) and decides to become a high-class prostitute for members of London's Arab community. During the course of the novel we witness the success and failure of her latest 'business' scheme: she pretends to be an Arab princess who, while at a bank or in a café, realizes that her weekly sack of money from the Kingdom has not arrived yet and is thus forced to 'borrow' money from chivalrous Arab gentlemen only to eager to help the young princess in her distress. Drawing on the classic folk tale of The Thousand and One Nights al-Shaykh presents Amira as a modern-day Shahrazad who also survives by continuous story-telling.
<6> The behaviour of the other female protagonist, 30-year-old Lamis, who during the turbulences kept her calm but "was shaking with terror" (p. 2) inwardly, can also be seen as emblematic as her vulnerable, insecure and anxious nature acts as the female counterpoise to Amira's melodramatic and boisterous character. Born in Iraq's holy city of Najaf, Lamis had to flee with her poor parents and a sister from Saddam Hussein when she was twelve. She spent her childhood as a refugee in Syria and Lebanon and at the age of seventeen her mother married her off to a rich Iraqi businessman with whom she moved to London and had one son, Khalid. Newly-divorced from a husband she never loved, she is emotionally torn between her happiness about her freedom, her longing for her 13-year-old son who continues to live with his father and her guilty conscience resulting from her parents' and Arab girl-friends' continuous reproaches.
<7> Already on the plane the third Arab protagonist comes across as if he has just stepped out of the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (about Australian cross-dressers) with his Versace shirt, his long brightly coloured scarf, his cowboy boots, affected feminine voice and a monkey in tow: Samir has left Beirut to escape from his wife and five children and most of all from his mistaken identity as a heterosexual male, a loving husband and caring father. His following adventures are literally monkey-business: at Dubai airport a beautiful young man had asked him to smuggle a monkey in a wicker basket to London, so that the man's sister, ill in a London hospital, could see the monkey she had raised one more time. As it turns out, of course, Samir has been tricked, and after the monkey has been relieved of the hidden diamonds, Samir is left with the capuchin monkey. Samir's naivety continues to be his overriding trademark and supplies the novel's with its more comic and even slapstick-like scenes as when the monkey ruins a wedding banquet or Samir tries to chat up an English policeman. On the whole, however, Samir's stories often seem too incongruous and far-fetched to genuinely engage its readers beyond an amazement at his simple-minded and hedonistic character and the occasional laugh at sitcom-like jokes, as when he is about to be taken to Middlesex hospital after he has fallen off a van and he cries out imploringly: "No! I've mended my ways. Take me to a normal hospital" (p. 238).
<8> Even though very different in terms of their national, cultural and sexual background, all three characters from the Arab world are linked by their -- often precarious -- status as migrants which remains an underlying theme throughout the novel as illustrated in the importance attached to their passports. While Amira and Lamis treasure their British citizenship, Samir continually tries to find ways to renew his visa. When Lamis loses her "precious British passport" (p. 2) during the turbulences, Nicholas finds it under a seat and hands it back to her. For Lamis this means that "the Englishman had given her back her life" (p. 2). Amira who had left Morocco just "after the Moroccan government stopped issuing passports to single women because they were rushing off to Europe in hordes like locusts" (p. 169), dreams of telling her brothers who despise her work as a prostitute: "I told you I'd be very rich. Look what I have in my purse. The water seller's daughter is now a princess with a British passport" (p. 141).
<9> Although commuting between England and an Arab country, Oman, the novel's fourth protagonist, the thirty-five-year-old Nicholas, does not share his fellow passengers' fears of deportation as he is English. Having been trained at Sotheby's, he now works for an Omani collector of Islamic daggers and he perceives "a life shared between the two places: London and Oman" (p. 45) as ideal. His character partly provides the site where different stereotypes of Arab people, and particularly women, are being addressed and questioned: "The more contact I have with other cultures, the more I find us naive. We really don't understand the political situation in your country. And the more I travel, the more I discover ways in which we English are odd. In my childhood, I thought we were quite normal; yet now I think of the English as being introverted, shy, clumsy. We lack self-assurance. We have so many taboos -- over money, wealth, religion and especially sex" (p. 161).
<10> Finally, the book's fifth 'character', London itself, functions as the connecting link between all four lead characters whose ways part after they disembark at Heathrow. Even though Amira and Samir become great friends, soulmates and "as close as a comb is to hair" (p. 270) and Lamis and Nicholas fall in love, struggling with the challenges of a cross-cultural relationship, each protagonist's life leads into very different directions. Clearly, Amira's and Lamis's stories take centre stage and their choices of breaking out of the stereotypical molds reserved for female Arab migrants are very different. As Nicholas observes at one point: "Even though most of the Arab women living in London insisted they were modern and didn't conform to the Oriental stereotype, he felt that an invisible barrier separated him from them once he began to work at Sotheby's" (p. 46). Amira in her pragmatic and enterprising frivolity coupled with her hidden romantic nature, "wearing her pink nightdress and sunglasses ... and pink slippers trimmed with feathers" (p. 188), almost comes across as an Arab British version of Truman Capote's ambiguous Holly Golightly. Whereas Lamis in her journey from devoted wife and mother to a mildly emancipated woman who has left her husband and son seems to retrace the steps of Ibsen's Nora Helmer when she wants her friends to see her as "someone who was happy to be divorced, free: neither repressed nor reckless, but balanced and composed" (p. 58).
<11> But even though the female characters' stories are rendered in greater emotional genuineness, there is a certain equality in regard to the space each protagonist is given to tell his or her story. Formally reminiscent of film structures -- Robert Altman's Short Cuts as well as Egyptian soap operas -- each of the nine chapters is made up of three or four subchapters which introduce us to yet another one of Amira's clever schemes, Lamis's tentative explorations of the city, Samir's misguided adventures and Nicholas's thoughts on the differences between Arab and English people. Even though all four paths together never cross again, it is each individual's love of a personified London and what it stands for that provides a common structure for their lives. For all of them London means freedom. Amira's dream of going to England is born when she is about to commit suicide as a young girl but meets an English tourist in her hometown: "She walked along with the tourist and felt as if London were walking beside her ... Habiba thought how nice 'London' was, and how well mannered, and she no longer wanted to take her own life" (p. 170). When Lamis arrives at her London flat "she collapsed on the floor, intending to kiss it as she'd thought of doing when she landed at Heathrow, like an exile returning home" (p. 7). Samir, who has never been to London before, "inhaled the London air and looked up at the sky. 'I'm free!' he cried" (p. 32). Freed from the restraint of family life and the proverbial closet regarding his sexual orientation, for him "London was freedom. It was your right to do anything, any time" (p. 149). Even Nicholas, who grew up in a small town in Hampshire, escapes to London right after his history studies at Oxford. When Lamis asks him whether he really felt as a Londoner now, he answers: "I wish. Anyone who looks in an A to Z isn't a true Londoner" (p. 185).
<12> In this way Al-Shaykh doesn't tell one story from four different points of view but presents us with a variety of stories through which she examines issues such as prostitution, cross-dressing, divorce, and cross-cultural love. Even though already quite controversial in themselves, their offensiveness is heightened by being put in the context of London's Arab communities. In this respect, Only in London is even reminiscent of Tayeb Salih's classic novel Season of Migration to the North (1989) with its frank portrayal of sexuality in documenting the experiences of the Sudanese Arab Mustafa Sa'eed in London after the first world war. But whereas both novels emphasize and instrumentalise the issue of migration, both, in terms of content and form, Only in London clearly benefits from al-Shaykh's gendered and multi-ethnic approach. Only in London provides an intimate glimpse of one of London's hitherto neglected migrant communities, perfectly captured in Samir's amazement on his way from Heathrow into the city. In view of all the Arab shops and restaurants along Edgware Road and their inviting signs announcing "Come in and you'll find what you're looking for. We speak Arabic" (p. 23), he can't believe he is still driving through London but is convinced that Beirut's Mazraa Street has moved to London. At the same time, however, there is also a continuous emphasis on the heterogeneity within the so-called Arab community. Thus when Lamis watches a group of Iraqi protesters in Trafalgar Square, she feels more like a spectator than a compatriot and is relieved that "she was not one of ... the Iraqi refugees who appeared in the news in a suburban church in London (p. 120) and she remarks that "There are different classes of Iraquis ... even of refugees" (p. 121). Amira goes so far as to refuse to sleep with Iraqis after their invasion of Kuwait and also stops sleeping with Kuwaiti clients "because they drove other Arab nationals out of Kuwait" (p. 255).
<13> Furthermore, al-Shaykh situates her four protagonists within the larger demographic fabric of this multi-ethnic metropolis. Al-Shaykh favours a playful use of assumed national habits and stereotypes of both, London's English and its Arab citizens. Ironic references to Arab women's love of jewellery and their "cult of the single brand: the Chanel bags, the Chanel buttons" (p. 59) are set against English "women in Laura Ashley dresses and flat sandals" (p. 260) who wear "hats like tea cosies" (p. 142). English men's assumption that they are not supposed to make eye contact with Arab women because they have been "stamped with a skull and crossbones, and the words 'Danger, Keep Off'" (p. 105) is contrasted with Arab men's belief that "English women were oozing with lust for Arab men" (p. 93). By pointing out the exoticising gaze and prejudices on both sides, al-Shaykh lets her characters conclude that certain cultural gaps are often not as wide as formerly assumed. When Lamis is allowed to visit the top of the British Telecom tower, even though it is stil closed to the public, she knows that "the British were like the Arabs after all: they found loopholes in the regulations when necessary" (p. 263) and when Nicholas observes an Arab man negotiating a price with an Arab prostitute in English, he feels that "Edgware Road seemed suddenly very much part of London after all" (p. 51).
<14> Also, formally al-Shaykh shows that the present-day English kingdom and the present-day Arabic kingdom are not that far apart after all as demonstrated, for example, in her use of English and Arab proverbs: "It was raining, as the English say, cats and dogs, and as the Arabs say, hard enough to split the sky in two" (p. 239). Moreover, al-Shaykh's references to popular culture and consumer items throughout the novel indicate that Arabic cities such as Dubai and Cairo are as much affected by cultural and economic globalisation as London. What sets this urban novel apart from its trendy contemporaries, however, is that al-Shaykh is not so much concerned with the semiotics of the city, but approaches highly controversial issues with a most tender, poetic and emotionally compelling language. Her regard for the beauty of languages in general, but particularly of Arabic and English, is also expressed in her characters. Whereas Amira has mastered several different languages, dialects and accents, Lamis's "heart pounded with affection for her language ... The letter sin -- 's' -- was like a wave of the sea, a carnation flower, a bird's wings" (p. 124-125) when, together with Nicholas, she reads a century-old Arabic manuscript in the British Library. But she is also eager to finally learn English properly, as Nicholas's "English words were flowing into her ears. They broke up into separate letters and slid in, one by one, feeding the little hairs with delicious food so that they demanded more" (p. 97).
<15> Apart from an overall enjoyable read, the reader is also left with the hope best expressed by Nicholas's father who tells his son that "there's a willingness for dialogue, whatever the religion, whatever the nationality" (p. 79).