"The Story of Zahra" by Hanan al-Shaykh

This was a tough one to get through - not only because of the disturbing but daring subject matter - but also the language, which is highly “literary” in the sense that “Literary” has become a genre unto itself these days. To be fair, it could be how the original Arabic was rendered into English. It isn’t bad writing it’s just “dense” writing which sometimes makes it a bit of a chore to get from page to page. While I have no issues - generally speaking - with this kind of prose it does sometimes distract the reader from the actual story being told, which can, at times, get lost behind the colorful sentences and “literary” craftsmanship. And the story being told here is a really good one too - but sometimes it can take a backseat to the narrative style.


The Story of Zahra concerns itself with a young Lebanese girl and her experiences before and during the Lebanese civil war. The novel opens with Zahra as a very young girl who witnesses her mother’s infidelity (and her subsequent savage beating by her father). Seeing such a thing at an impressionable age does a lot to effect her future relationships. She first becomes involved with a married man. Later, she flees to Africa (the specific country is never stated) to live with her uncle, who is a member of the Lebanese Popular Syrian Party (a group which advocates a “Greater Syria”) living in exile after being involved in a failed coup attempt. It is here in Africa that Zahra hopes to reinvent herself. Instead she finds herself victim to her uncle’s sexual abuse and eventually marrying her uncle’s friend, who does not approve of Zahra’s more “free spirited ways”. The marriage falls apart and Zahra suffers a mental and emotional breakdown.


She returns to Lebanon, at the height of the civil war. Her hold neighborhood is now in ruins, many of her old friends and neighbors have either fled or have been killed and her brother has joined the fight. She hunkers down in her virtually abandoned apartment building with her parents. Up on the roof of her apartment building, a sniper - who has no specific political agenda and is seemingly picking off people at random - has made his perch. Zahra becomes sexually involved with him - her attempt to take time away from him killing people - and an interesting relationship develops between the two. A situation like this can only lead to tragic results. The story is steeped in Lebanon’s recent political history and some knowledge of it would be helpful to get the story’s full impact. The insanity of war and the divisions it creates among friends and family is all clear to the reader but the focus of the story lies more in Zahra herself. Issues concerning isolation and displacement and most especially the issue over control over one’s body and the place of women in Lebanese society via a healthy dose of symbolism, usually referring to Zahra’s physical attributes (she is often depicted as not being all that attractive, suffering from acne).


Ultimately, the interesting story being told here often gets lost behind it’s highly “Literary” prose, which can be distracting at times and make it a tough slog to get through and it would have been preferable to me to have the story trump style rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, it’s a good read, and those interested in this period of Lebanese history should read this. 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com