The Occasional Virgin: Hanan Al-Shaykh's book tries to tell story of empowerment, but is let down by translation

Literary works of female writers from the Arab world have become visible in the last decade through their English translations. The entry of these writers into the Euro-American discourse is remarkable for two reasons: First, that more readers get to access the specificities of a geographical space they have mostly envisioned in their mind, and second, that it functions as accounts of counter memory, adding another dimension to the dominant narratives about the Arab world.

The market, however, facilitates and creates unreasonable demands that seek to tame these accounts vis-à-vis the use of language. It is not a covert fact that plenty of Arab writers are “rewritten” (to use Mashael A Al-Sudeary’s term). This rewriting is then a process meant to tailor the tale to the expectations of Anglophone readers. For Lebanese award-winning journalist, novelist and playwright Hanan Al-Shaykh, inadequate translations coupled with major leaps in ideas have damaged the potency of her story. This is especially evident in her recent book The Occasional Virgin.

 The Occasional Virgin: Hanan Al-Shaykhs book tries to tell story of empowerment, but is let down by translation

When The Story of Zahra (1986) was banned in many Arab countries, its bold portraits of female sexuality created quite a controversy in the media. Most of the other works that followed explored similar themes: war, conflict, religious conservatism and diasporic anxiety. In The Occasional Virgin, the trope of wily women who plot constant revenge is repeated. Huda and Yvonne, who are raised as Muslim and Christian respectively, are spared the perils of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) because of their emigration. They are glad they could flee, but deep-seated existential worries haunt them. They have blossoming careers and are out on a holiday by the Italian Riveria when the void in their personal lives surfaces through.

Largely an outcome of their interactions and experiences with religiously fanatic men and a conservative upbringing, their memories transport them to a tumultuous past. The seriousness of these emotions is not as well-expressed in Cobham’s translation. Consider these alienating phrases for instance: “The smell of sweaty feet rises into her nostrils”, “The tree of forgetfulness doesn’t grow where blood flows”, or “Sadness rises like bile in her throat and bewilderment is an octopus extending its tentacles inside her head”. Moreover, the author tries to lighten the mood by quoting from the Quran in ironic ways. At times, the explanation feels way too simplified for the ease of the supposed “Western” audience.

While in The Story of Zahra, women are shown to be powerless and sufferers at the hands of men (who seek absolute domination over the female sex), in The Occasional Virgin, it is all about vilifying the enemy. Some of the serious issues that women are struggling with (for example rights over their bodies, the right to wear/remove the veil) are turned into hilariously sloppy incidents.

Huda, whose identity as a Muslim woman is questioned with respect to her sexually active life, uses a strawberry hymen to fake her virginity. She thinks, “Those bloodstains must have travelled millions of kilometres all the way from China before they ended up on this bed." Her part of the tale has a forced sense of humour, even as she is passionately obsessed to avenge. She is also shown talking about her ensnaring abilities, in order to self-validate her “liberal” outlook in life. I was agitated by the message it seemed to convey, quite different from the kind of revenge we see in Shahrazad's story in Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights (2011).

Yvonne, on the other hand, is fraught with her desire for motherhood. As a swimmer, she loves to “dive off the cliff” (an activity her mother forbade in childhood). She finds herself convincing men about her identity, because they cannot imagine she’s from Lebanon.

Both Huda and Yvonne’s families would disapprove of their behaviour in London, but they derive pleasure from the fact that home is far away. At the same time, they are never able to negotiate between both worlds — the character of Hisham (representing rigid Arab mores) makes that particularly tough for the duo.

Financial independence is satisfactory but seldom cures the trauma from Yvonne's erstwhile family experiences. “Am I still Lebanese? Shall I turn the page of Lebanon and my family? Perhaps I have half turned it already. If I’d stayed in Lebanon, I wouldn’t be on my own now, I’d have got married and my family would have stuffed me with food like the white goose so that my bridegroom, the ghoul could devour me," she says to herself.

Except for the metaphor of the sea, Huda and Yvonne's friendship doesn’t come across as strong as it was (perhaps) intended to. Shaykh had previously written of the sea as “the only natural element that can shield me from my memories of leaving Lebanon because of the civil war and the continuing horrific news from the Arab world.” One feels compelled to ask why Shaykh employs ribald conversation and incidents to connect the war memories of these two women. Some pages of the book feel very monotonous due to this. The sole motto of their lives has become sexual revenge, and it tells us that they are still haunted by a vengeful sense of masculine fury that they so vehemently oppose.

Hanan Al-Shaykh had formerly shared that her audience was appalled at how a woman aged 72 could be so sexually graphic in her writing. I do not think sexual explicitness is the problem in The Occasional Virgin; the problem is Cobham’s translation and its haywire plot. It sets out ambitiously to show how two women empower themselves, but their confusion and clichéd reactionary responses to traditional Arab norms make for dreary reading. In a market that appropriates languages and stories from the Middle East, greater care is needed when translating works. The English version of Shaykh’s book is a lost opportunity.

The author is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and researcher

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Updated Date: Aug 04, 2018 16:28:57 IST