A novelist, playwright and short story writer, Hanan- al-Shaykh is one of the most critically acclaimed writers of the Arab world. Her works, which have been translated into several languages, deal with the role of women in society, power relations between both sexes, and the institution of marriage.
Born in Beirut in 1945 to a conservative, Islamic family, she frequented a religious-oriented primary school. It was only later, at Ahliyyah School, that she began to write as a way to bypass the restrictions to her freedom and the oppression exerted by her father and brother. By sixteen, she had already published essays in the al-Nahar journal. At the American College for Girls in Cairo, she began to write her first novel, Intihar Rajul Mayyit, which would later be published in 1970.
Before choosing to focus on fiction, she worked as a journalist in Beirut. In 1976, the war forced her to leave Lebanon. She left for London, where she has been living since 1982.
Her international fame came with the novel Hikayat Zahrah (The Story of Zahra, 1980), written in London, the publishing of which she funded herself due to reluctance on the behalf of Lebanese editors. The Story of Zahra is the inebriating and provocative tale of a young Lebanese girl during the civil war which, upon its publication, was banned in the majority of Arab countries.
In the following years, she wrote Women of Sand and Myrrh, which was considered one of the 50 best books of 1992 by Publishers Weekly, as well as Beirut Blues, Only in London, I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops and The Persian Carpet, all translated into English.
As well as bravely challenging the concepts of sexuality, obedience and modesty, Al-Shaykh’s work also celebrates the aspects of Arab culture that strengthen the position of the mother, refusing to victimise them. Hikayati sharhun yatul: riwayah (The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, 2005) was inspired by the story of her own mother, Kamila, who was forced to marry at a very young age and who abandoned her family in order to live with her lover, Muhammad.
Her latest project, dated from 2011, was a “reimagining” of nineteen tales from A Thousand and One Nights, which she adapted into a theatre play and a book.