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Shaykh, Hanan al- (1945–)

Shaykh, Hanan al-

Hanan al-Shaykh is considered one of the most important Arab women writers at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


Al-Shaykh was born in 1945 in Beirut, Lebanon, to a family of Shi'ite Muslims. She graduated from the American Girls College in Cairo in 1966. She then worked in Beirut as a journalist in television and for the women's magazine al-Hasna and later for the prestigious newspaper al-Nahar. She left Lebanon for Saudi Arabia in 1976 because of the Lebanese civil war, and lived in Saudi Arabia until 1982. Eventually she moved to London in 1984, where she resides today.


Name: Hanan al-Shaykh

Birth: 1945, Beirut, Lebanon

Family: Married with children

Nationality: Lebanese; resides in London

Education: Graduated from the American Girls College in Cairo, 1966


  • 1966: Works as a television and print journalist in Beirut
  • 1976: Leaves Lebanon for Saudi Arabia
  • 1980: Publishes Hikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra)
  • 1984: Moves to London
  • 1992: Publishes Barid Bayrut (Beirut Blues)
  • 2001: Publishes Only in London


Al-Shaykh first distinguished herself by writing prose fiction that exposed some of the repressive patriarchal traditions of her society. She did so by introducing characters, often women, who unabashedly explored themselves, their families, and their communities. She faced brief periods of censorship and occasional negative reviews. Although some of her fiction is set in the broader Arab world, two of her most prominent novels are situated in Lebanon during the Civil War of 1975 through 1990. Al-Shaykh has become an important voice in critical studies of the war itself. The renowned Hikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra, 1980) is a relentless psychosexual drama that manages, primarily through its complex protagonist, to narrate an insane society in violent civil disarray. Al-Shaykh's stark imagery and gripping plot mesmerized readers. Her follow-up novel, Barid Bayrut (Beirut Blues, 1992), structured as a series of letters by another memorable female protagonist, extends the depiction of the Lebanese wars and fortifies the ideology of nonpartisanship, as every militia, army, confessional (religious/ethnic), and national group is subject to critique and to ridicule. Al-Shaykh's focus is on nuanced reactions, complex relationships, and multiple points of view. Her war novels offered new ways of imagining Lebanon in this destructive era.

Since living in London, al-Shaykh has participated in local productions of her experimental plays. One of her publications, Only in London (2001), explores some of the issues of Arab émigrés in Europe.


With a keen sense of humor and a fresh Arabic writing style, al-Shaykh's works have extended the possibilities for Arab women writers. Because of good translations into English and other languages, Al-Shaykh's readership is growing outside the Arab world, where she is regarded as one of the major Arab writers of the second half of the twentieth century.


Al-Shaykh is still writing, but it is clear that history will record her as one of the most important Arab novelists of the last few decades of the twentieth century.


Cooke, Miriam. War's Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

"Previously Featured: Life of a Woman." Lebanese Women's Association:

Salem, Elise. Constructing Lebanon: A Century of Literary Narratives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

Zeidan, Joseph. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

            &x00A0;                                   Elise Salem

                         updated by Michael R. Fischbach

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