The Story of Zahra

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The Story of Zahra

by Hanan al-Shaykh


A novel set in Beirut during the first five years of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990); published in Arabic (as Hikayat Zahrah) in I960, in English in 1986,


War suspends social norms in the Lebanese capital and allows for the empowerment of an unattractive, middle-aged woman whose newly acquired taste for adventure leads to her murder.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Hanan al-Shaykh, one of the best-known Arab writers in the English-speaking world, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1945. Growing up in Ras al-Naba, a conservative and predominantly SrrTite Muslim neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, she experienced many restrictions both at home and in the Amiliah Muslim girls’ primary school. After transferring to the progressive Ahliyah School, she made friends with several girls who later also rose to prominence. In 1963 al-Shaykh traveled to Egypt, where she studied for three years at the American College for Girls in Cairo. During her stay in the Egyptian capital, she met with the popular novelist Ihsan Abd al-Qaddus, who encouraged her to write her first novel, Suicide of a Dead Man, which was published in 1967. Upon her return to Beirut, al-Shaykh became a full-time journalist, working first for d-Hasna, a women’s magazine, and then for the Lebanese daily, al-Nahar. She left Lebanon in 1976 for a six-year stay on the Arabian Peninsula, then moved to London in 1982, where she now lives. Al-Shaykh has published six novels, several short stories, and most recently plays. Her writings focus on women’s social roles in times of peace and war. Her third novel, The Story of Zahra, written in the Arabian Peninsula, reflects the conditions of violence she experienced during the first two years of the civil war. The bildungsroman, or novel of development, traces the stages in the life of a lonely, abused Shfite girl who flourishes in war. Because no publisher in Lebanon accepted the novel, al-Shaykh first published it at her own expense in 1980. Its translation into French in 1985 and then into English the following year gained al-Shaykh an international reputation. Her next novel, Misk al-ghazal (1988; Women of Sand and Myrrh, 1989), is likewise situated in the Arab world, but the following couple of novels, Barid Bayrut (1992; Beirut Blues, 1995) and Innaha Londonya azizi (2000; Only in London), concern Arabs on exile soil. While the latter two works deal with fabulously wealthy as well as impoverished exiles, the Story of Zahra focuses on a middle-class Lebanese woman and her curious sense of empowerment in wartime society.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

According to the 1932 census

Lebanon, a predominantly Christian country in an overwhelmingly Muslim region, has a tradition of friendship with Catholic France that dates back to the sixteenth century. This relationship was not restricted to Lebanon’s various Christian groups but also included its Druze—the self-governing religious group that broke from Islam in the eleventh century. Unlike other Arabs, therefore, the Lebanese were much less suspicious of the French mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) of the nineteenth century, which tried to subdue the Muslim populations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Greater Syria. After World War I, the Versailles convention parceled out the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean regions among the French, British, and Italians. Lebanon fell under French Mandate rule in 1920.

In 1932 the French conducted a census that still determines the political structure of the country today. The diversity of the population in terms of religion made it the decisive identity marker. Census figures indicated that the largest community was Maronite Christian, the next was Sunnite Muslim, and the third was Shfite Muslim. These three religious groups, along with 14 others (the least numerous of which is the “Protestant”), were allocated political office according to the numbers of their community in the 1932 census. Proportional representation of the different religious communities, or confessions, would continue thereafter. “Confessional-ism,” as it was referred to, became the organizing principle for the Lebanese political structure. The confessional system was legitimized by the national pact of 1943, which allocated political offices according to sect. Up to the present, the 1932 census dictates that the president of the country is a Maronite Christian; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim; and the speaker of the house, a Shfite Muslim (al-Shaykh’s religious affiliation).

Religiously the Maronites regard the Pope in Rome as their highest authority but differ from Roman Catholicism in their practices. The Shfites (from Shi at Ali —” the Party of Ali”) see legitimate authority as stemming from the Prophet Muhammad through his son-in-law Ali and Ali’s descendants. Sunnis look to the Quran and the Prophet’s “habitual behaviors” (sunna) for such authority.

While Shfites formed the majority in Mount Lebanon during various periods of history, they were mostly found in the rural areas. Migrations to the suburbs of Beirut during the twentieth century “intensified sectarian loyalty at the expense of family allegiance, because Shf a replaced family as the channel for participating in local politics” (Fawaz, p. 109). Although they were not as numerous as the Maronites and the Sunnis in 1932, their numbers grew so swiftly that by the 1950s they had outstripped the other two religious groups. Since 1932 no new census has been officially taken, perhaps because it would substantiate the Shfite claim that they have long been the most numerous religious group. Under such circumstances the distribution of power would have to be radically changed, and the Shfites would be entitled to the leadership of the country and to all posts that are allocated to the major religious sect. The main character of the novel is Shfite and thus part of Lebanon’s demographically dominant but politically suppressed religious community. Zahra’s brother joins a militia that is “anxious to draw attention to the demands of the repressed Shfite minority [and]… to destroy imperialism” (al-Shaykh, The Story of Zdhra, p. 121)

Civil war

Lebanon gained full independence from France in 1945, the year of al-Shaykh’s birth. Within ten years, the political structure of the country did not match the demographic distribution. The first civil war broke out in 1958, in part over demands for a correct census to reallocate official positions in a proportionally representative manner. Power had continued to rest primarily in the hands of the Maronites, despite the fact that they were now outnumbered by the Shi’ites.

Lebanese officials asked the U.S. Marines to quell the unrest. Within six months, the war was “over,” and the status quo secured. However, dissatisfaction continued to simmer below the surface, and the number of Shfites in Lebanon grew. The rising numbers of Palestinians only exacerbated tensions. In 1970, the Palestinian leadership was expelled from neighboring Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization established a new military base in the Lebanese capital. The Maronites, particularly the Phalangists, the militia belonging to the Jumayyil clan, were the most adamantly opposed to the Palestinians, and in April 1975 the occasional confrontations between these two groups exploded into another civil war. Other groups were drawn into the fighting, which began with three main participants—the Phalangists became the driving force in a Christian confederation (the Lebanese Front); mostly Muslim parties formed a second confederation (the Lebanese National Movement); and the Palestinian resistance comprised the third force. The two confederations formed militias, as did other groups. In the first few months, for example, the war gave rise to the radical Shilte militia Amal (means “hope”), which opposed the traditional Shi ite leadership in Lebanon.

Lebanese women before the civil war

A traditionally patriarchal, feudal society, Lebanon in the present day has shown itself to be more open to education for women and to other modernizing influences than many Arab countries. Marriage within ethnic and sectarian communities may be preferred, but it is no longer the incontrovertible norm, as it was before the Second World War. The postwar period saw formerly rigid traditions begin to give way to some extent, especially in urban areas. City women enjoyed more rights in Lebanon than women in many other Arab countries. Although no woman held high political office, some upper-middle and middle-class women became active in the public domain—in education, media, and medicine. This was not generally true of rural and tribal women before the mid-1970s civil war. There were considerable differences among the lots of the urban, rural, and tribal women in Lebanon in this prewar period. Overall, though, few women worked and most of those who did were poor and single. Working-class women tended to engage in paid labor that could be performed at home. In the villages and in the Biqa Valley, peasant and pastoralist women’s work, though labor intensive, was rarely paid. With modernization came general changes in labor options. Reduced needs for physical human labor drove men into entrepreneurship and women into market-oriented production. During the 1960s, village women, especially Shfites from the south, started to migrate into the cities in their search for education and employment.

Lebanese women during the civil war

The 16 years of war, which claimed 150,000 lives or 6 percent of the resident population and displaced some 500,000 people, changed relationships between men and women. Many men left Lebanon; some were caught up in the fighting, some emigrated. Overwhelmingly it was men who left, because although the war did not make mass exodus necessary, it did prevent men from earning a living. Life in Lebanon was not unliveable, however. Indeed the incidents of violence were so scattered, sporadic, and long confined to specific areas in Beirut that civilians could spend years without witnessing an act of war. So women often remained in Lebanon to take care of family matters, while men left to find jobs and then sent home money. The number of female heads of household therefore rose exponentially. According to one scholar, during the war, “women’s major achievement was to hold together the collapsing structures of Lebanese society” (Shehadeh, p. 50).


Strains of sectarianism and feudalism have long dominated Lebanese politics Historically the most powerful families have been members of the Druze and the Maronite communities But tensions arise even within confessional communities, particularly when political office is at stake. There are three prominent Maronite clans: Jumayyil, Charnoun, and Frangieh. Each has competed for the presidency of the country, sometimes by resorting to extreme violence Although in the twentieth century the less populous Druze have not wielded as much power as the Maronites, in the past there was heavy competition for control of Lebanon, particularly between two Druze families, the Jumblatts and the Takieddines. More recently, Sunnis and Shutes have likewise relied on strong families, such as the Hariris (Sunni) and the Berris (Shi’ite) Rivalry for political power in Lebanon has thus been both inter- and intra-confessional.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel revolves around a Shfite family living in Beirut. The relationships between parents and children and among young people in the city are examined before and after the outbreak of hostilities in Beirut. The story operates on many levels and uses several different voices, but in the center is a bewildered and directionless young woman, Zahra, who finds in the Lebanese civil war an opportunity to escape oppression and assert a measure of control over her life.

The first part of the novel, narrated by three voices, establishes Zahra as a physically unappealing woman. Plagued with acne, Zahra constantly picks at her scab-encrusted pimples. She escapes male predators by fleeing to the bathroom. There she can pick and squeeze her lesions at leisure.

Zahra is the quintessentially abused woman. In the first half of the novel, narrated alternately by Zahra, her uncle Hashim, and her husband Majid, she totters from one abusive situation to another. Zahra is raped by peers, molested by the men in her family, and traumatized from bearing witness to her mother’s lascivious affair. Again, her only solution when in crisis is to escape to the nearest bathroom and lock the door.

At the invitation of her uncle Hashim, Zahra travels to Africa where Hashim has lived since the early 1960s. He was involved in a failed coup d’etat and cannot return to Lebanon for fear of arrest. Zahra takes on a symbolic significance for her uncle, reminding him of Lebanon, becoming a Lebanon he can finally possess. Meanwhile, Hashim’s incestuousness reminds Zahra of another relative’s unhealthy interest in her body.

Wherever Zahra turns, she seems to be at the mercy of those who would use her body for their own needs and pleasures.

To escape her uncle, Zahra marries Majid, another needy exile. She quickly realizes that once again she has been turned into a vehicle: this time she represents a middle-class Lebanon that the working-class Majid could not have aspired to in Lebanon. At the moment, however, that Majid feels most confident of possessing a socially respectable wife, he loses her. She flees back to Beirut, where war has just broken out. For the first time, Zahra imagines how to retain control of her body and destiny. She feels more in command of her own life than ever before, attributing this newfound sense of power to the war: “It begins to occur to me that the war, with its miseries and de structiveness, has been necessary for me to start to return to being normal and human” (The Story of Zahra, p. 138). There is a physical improvement too—Zahra begins to lose her unsightly pimples.

In the second part of the novel, Zahra takes over the narration. Her female voice virtually erases the male voices that dominate the first part. Zahra does what was unimaginable before the war. She volunteers to work with a hospital that is handling war casualties; no longer does she focus solely on herself. Her relationship with her mother changes. Formerly utterly dependent on her mother, Zahra now sees through her mother’s deceit. She understands the consequences of having to silently witness her mother’s trysts and suffer her mother’s mockery. Not only did Zahra’s mother fail to love her; the child was also made to pay for her need for maternal affection. During the war, however, the situation changes. The normally fearless, egocentric mother is suddenly full of fear whereas the daughter is no longer afraid.

Zahra’s new self-confidence extends beyond the home and relationships with known individuals. She ventures into a domain typically thought of as male—that of armed struggle. Stepping up to danger, Zahra dares to do what no other woman, or even man, has thought to do, by going out to meet a sniper who holds sway over an entire neighborhood. Not only does she create a lull in his shooting; she also initiates a sexual relationship with him. For the first time, the formerly exploited woman experiences sexual pleasure.

Zahra returns regularly to the sniper’s perch on the roof. Over time the impersonality and violence of the first encounter, when all she wanted was to stop the shooting, are replaced by a measure of tenderness and friendship. He provides a sheet for their lovemaking, for example. The sniper also discloses some information about his past, although he never does reveal his political affiliations to her. Only when Zahra insists does the sniper tell her his name—Sami. Finding herself pregnant with their child, she asks his name so he can assume another identity in her eyes: that of her baby’s father. She starts to dream of marriage with him. In her eyes the sniper Sami becomes a family man, not the emblem of the war’s senseless savagery that he in fact is. So Zahra refuses to abort the fetus. She initiated the affair with little personal interest in the sniper, but given time and the pregnancy, her thoughts turn to the possibility of a normal life outside the logic of the war. Sami wants no part of the dream, though. Pretending to acquiesce in her decision to keep the baby, he lets Zahra go. But once she is back in the street, he shoots her.

The novel ends with Zahra speaking beyond her death: “He kills me with the bullets that lay at his elbow as he made love to me. He kills me, and the white sheets which covered me a little while ago are still crumpled from my presence…. Although I try, I can hear no sound from my own voice” (al-Shaykh, The Story of Zahra, p. 183). Her narration slips into that of the author, who articulates her death. Her lover, the sniper, has killed her.

War and feminine empowerment

Zahra’s empowerment seems destined to end when it does. The conclusion of her story suggests that the Lebanese civil war did not promote conditions for healthy survival or lasting empowerment on the part of women. In Lebanese postwar society, as in many other postwar societies, women experienced a return to their prewar status quo in most respects. But Zahra’s case is also atypical. She ventures onto fighting ground to stop a sniper, in itself unusual, and her imagination transforms him into something he is not. She does gain personal strength by standing up to the fear-inducing sniper, but only temporarily. In fact, her particular tragedy indicates that sexual exploitation of a woman can occur even when the woman initiates the abusive relationship.

Zahra initiates this relationship by trespassing into a place where only men, in fact militarized men, usually go. Her trespassing is itself significant. It structures a counter-narrative to the standard “war story” of the pre-twentieth and twentieth centuries, a story that usually focuses on the experience of men and that firmly distinguishes between the places of men and women. In most historical writings, women are excluded from the armed conflict part of a battleground, which has long been thought of as male space. The Story oj Zahra suggests how incomplete the conventional war story is, how much truth it erases when told in standard fashion. Recent revisionist accounts


Wartime Lebanon saw women’s roles in society change, Jocelyn Khweir narrates her real-life experience as a leader in the Lebanon war, insisting on the “role military training and combat fighting play in a girl’s self-confidence and sense of accomplishment” (Khweir in Shehadeh, p. 221), The war relaxed some of the more stringent patriarchal norms that restricted women’s access to public space in peacetime Lebanon, a reality that is reflected by the developments in The Story of Zahra. At the same lime, the war created a new moneyed elite in reaMife Lebanese society, less defined by old* time feudal associations between notable personages and their separate cadres of followers than in the past This moneyed elite was defined instead by its accumulation of war capital. Meanwhile, the lines separating social classes were becoming more permeable than ever before, a development likewise reflected in the novel.

of war, whether historical or literary, indicate that the binary of men at the front and women on the home front is, and probably always has been, a fiction: in the Lebanese civil war, some 5 to 10 percent of the fighting corps consisted of women (Shehadeh, p. 150). More than 100 militias participated in the struggle and it is known that women played some role in a few of them. Unsurprisingly they often took on tasks that were extensions of those performed at home—preparing food, providing medical care, serving


Along with the United States and Brazil, West Africa has been a key destination for Lebanese laborers abroad. The Lebanese are in fact the major Arab population in West Africa, In The Story afZahm, the protagonists uncle, Hashim, has been living in Africa since the early 1960s Emigrants from Lebanon had by 1992 formed sizeable communities in various African countries, from the North (Egypt), to the South (South Africa), to the West {Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone, and more)

1962 population Dispersal of Lebanese in Africa.
Ivory Coast80,000
South Africa60,020
Guinea Conakry3,008
Sierra Leone2,900
Guinea Bissau1,050

(Adapted from Rats, p, 4)

Certainly individuals emigrated from Lebanon but the main pattern has been for whole families or communities to emigrate from a specific part of the home country to the same location, especially in West Africa. In the mid-to-late twentieth century/for example, most Lebanese in Senegal came from the Lebanese town of Tyre.

Overall the emigrants and their descendants have gravitated to two occupations: retail salesmen (in the late twentieth century, trade was over whelmingly mate; the Lebanese women were housewives) or middlemen. The middlemen might purchase produce from African farmer, then sell it to European firms, or they might purchase goods from the Europeans for retail sales to the Africans In West Africa, the exact nature of the economic experience depended to some degree on the country. Hot only did the Lebanese predominate in the general merchandise trade in Sierra Leone, for example, they also gained a large measure of control in the diamond trade In Senegal, the Lebanese specialized in retail sales of cloth, it was common in (aie-twentieth-century West Africa for the Lebanese cloth shops to be clustered onto one or two streets of a town, suggesting an insutar tendency that was borne out In the group’s social life In contrast to the earlier waves of immigrants to the Americas, who assimilated into the larger population, the Lebanese in West Africa remained tenaciously separate from it Almost always, the men and women married not only other Lebanese, but other Shfite, Sunni, Maronte, or Druzz Lebanese.

as clerks. Usually the sexes were segregated in the militia, which organized for women a separate Women’s Affairs Department. A few women actually served as fighters, training alongside men in the use of light arms.

Just as there have always been men away from the battlefield so there have always been women in the killing fields. The undermining of this gendered separation of space, in Lebanon, as in the rest of the world, has become important, not only for accuracy’s sake but also for the ramifications generated by setting the record straight.

Literary context

The Lebanese civil war was a time of accelerated literary activity, especially among women. During the first seven years of the war, before the Israeli invasion of 1982, a school of women writers called the Beirut Decentrists published novels, short stories, and poetry about the war. Al-Shaykh belonged to this school, along with various contemporaries. Emily Nasrallah’s Iqla aks al-zaman (1980; Flight Against Time, 1987), Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1978; Sitt Marie Rose, 1982), Ghada Samman’s Kawabis Bayrut (1979; Beirut Nightmares, 1997), and Claire Gebeyli’s many poems in newspapers all address the senseless violence. A number of these poems focus on women’s attempts to exert some control over the “unruly boys,” or male fighters, and describe the alarm of the women once they realize these boys are no innocents but intensely dangerous. Adnan lyrically details the slaughter of a woman teacher called Sitt Marie Rose. The Christian militiamen who perform the execution in front of a class of deaf and dumb children cannot tolerate the relationship between a fellow Christian and a Palestinian who is neither of their faith nor of their nation. The writing of the Beirut Decentrists calls for an expanded sense of commitment to their country, a humanist nationalism that insists on the need to stay on the land and nurture it as one would a child. Their writings contrast with those of male authors, like Ilyas Khoury, who describe the war as a revolution, a justifiable explosion on behalf of a worthwhile cause. Among all the female characters in this literature, Zahra stands out as the one who is the most transformed by her encounter with violence.


A number of Arab critics expressed dislike for The Story of Zahra because of what they considered its pornographic bent. According to Elise Manganaro, al-Shaykh is unpopular in her native Lebanon because she “does not fulfill a folkloric criterion deemed suitable for the government educational curriculum, nor has she been able to claim a voice from within the larger public” (Manganaro in Shehadeh, p. 122). But critics in the West reacted differently. Here the novel was received as a powerful portrayal of the tragedy of war, particularly in the Lebanese civil war: “It is Hanan al-Shaykh’s… The Story of Zahrah… that… using a Shi’i girl as its focus, reveals in most graphic and accomplished detail the full scale of the insane destruction that the armies of the various political and religious subgroups rained upon each other” (Allen, p. 189). A testament to its evocative power, the praise points to the novel’s effectiveness as a war novel despite its unconventional war story.

—miriam cooke

For More Information

Accad, Evelyne. Sexuality and War. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Adnan, Etel. Sitt Marie Rose. Trans. Georgina Kleege. Sausalito, Calif.: Post-Apollo Press, 1980.

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

cooke, miriam. War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

——.Women and the War Story. Berkeley: California University Press, 1997.

Fawaz, Leila. Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth Century Beirut. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Ghandour, Sabah. “Hanan al-Shaykh’s Hikayat Zahra.” In Gender, Nation, and Community in Arab Women’s Novels. Ed. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Paula W. Sunderman, and Therese Saliba. Syracuse: Syracuse Universe Press, 2002.

Hiro, Dilip. Lebanon: Fire and Fmbers: A History of the Lebanese Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Nasrallah, Emily. Flight Against Time. Trans. Issa J. Boullata. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1997.

Rais, Marina. The Lebanese of West Africa: An Example of a Trading Diaspora. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch, 1988.

Samman, Ghada. Beirut Nightmares. Trans. Nancy N. Roberts. London: Quartet, 1997.

al-Shaykh, Hanan. The Story of Zahra. Trans. Peter Ford. London: Quartet, 1986.

Shehadeh, Lamia Rustum, ed. Women and War in Lebanon. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

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