For my final paper I chose to read and analyze another story by Nuha Samara, author of “Two Faces, One Woman,” which we read for class, and which I quite enjoyed. As it turns out, finding any other stories by Samara is next to impossible, and so I finally gave up on that idea.
In looking over the stories we’d read, I came upon “A Girl Called Apple,” and, having been fond of that one as well, I decided to see what else I could find by its author, Hanan al-Shaykh. I found a couple of stories in Cohen-Mor’s Arab Women Writers — “Sun, I Am the Moon” and “The Persian Rug” — and while both were good, I wasn’t particularly moved to write 7-8 pages about either. Sticking with al-Shaykh, I looked into her other writings, and I finally decided upon her novel The Story of Zahra.
The Story of Zahra concerns a young woman (the Zahra of the title), raised in an unhappy family, who moves from one terrible circumstance to the next in search of freedom. Zahra refuses to be trapped or oppressed by the culture into which she was born, and in seeking to avoid marriage (forced or otherwise) she even goes so far as to constantly pick at the acne on her face in an effort to make herself ugly and undesirable.
After a passionless and unhappy affair with a married man, which results in two unwanted pregnancies and two secret and painful abortions, Zahra flees her native Lebanon to stay with her uncle, Hashem, who lives in exile as a result of his role in a failed coup d’etat. While in Africa — once more seeking escape, this time from the sexual advances of her uncle — Zahra marries, and finds her situation not at all improved. Finally, after a nervous breakdown, hospitalization, and electroconvulsive therapy, Zahra returns to Beirut and finds herself in the midst of a civil war.
Zahra’s story is told mostly through her own perspective, and reads very much like a reel of fragmented thoughts unspooling out of her head and directly onto the page. There is a sense of unconscious expression in Zahra’s narration, which makes it sometimes difficult to follow and keeps her reliability in question. That effect rings true with al-Shaykh’s own experience of writing the novel, which, as she stated in an interview, poured with such ease from her pen, and with so little conscious guidance, that she would make handwritten notes at the end of each day’s work to assure herself on the following day that she had in fact written it.
Zahra’s narrative is broken partway through the book by two chapters: one dedicated to her uncle’s story, the other to her husband’s. Not only do these tangential narratives intersect with Zahra’s own and allow the reader to observe her from outside of her own subjective viewpoint, but they also illustrate a point brought up many times throughout the semester: that the oppressively patriarchal social structure creates men who have no idea how to be men, and therefore fall back without question on the standards set for them.
Following the two chapter interruption, Zahra’s story resumes. Returning to Beirut, she finds it ravaged by civil war, but in the midst of the war she also finds her long-sought-after independence. As in Nuha Samara’s “Two Faces, One Woman,” the chaos of war disrupts the social norm, and like that story’s heroine, Zahra takes advantage of the disruption to enjoy her freedom and to explore the sexuality that she has spent a lifetime repressing. As a symbol of her love for a war that has facilitated her personal liberation, Zahra even begins a passionate affair with the very personification of that war: the rooftop sniper who holds the neighborhood in a state of constant fear.
Zahra herself, according to an article by Anne Marie Adams, can be seen to mirror the progression of the Lebanese Civil War, with the familial strife of her childhood reflecting the seething pre-war political tensions, her adolescent flight to Africa reflecting the exile of so many revolutionaries, and her breakdown and return to Beirut reflecting the eruption of violence.
The Story of Zahra is a seemingly simple novel detailing the oppression of a young woman caught within a rigidly patriarchal system. Its author, however, would reject that somewhat reductive interpretation. Indeed, the book is as much about the devastating effects of war and the meaning of national identity as it is about gender politics.