Hanan al-Shaykh on the Launch of ‘The Virgins of Londonstan’

The Beirut International Arab Book Fair may not be as big as Arabic book fairs in Riyadh, Sharjah, or Cairo, but, by virtue of being Beirut, it draws in some of the region’s biggest writers:

Among this year’s visitors was novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, who launched her latest novel, The Virgins of Londonstan, at the fair.

According to the Daily Star Lebanon:

The book continues the stories of two Lebanese women, Hoda and Yvonne, the protagonists of Shaykh’s 2003 novel “Two Women by the Sea.” Set in London, where the two women meet years on, it explores the importance of religion in the lives of the city’s immigrant population.

Al-Shaykh told India Stoughton at the DSL that she was inspired to revive the characters while walking in Hyde Park, near Speakers’ Corner.

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“I was walking on a Sunday,” Shaykh told the DSL, “and by accident found myself in Speaker’s Corner. Then I saw a religious man arguing with a black man – I discovered later he was from South Sudan.”

The discussion concerned race and religion, and al-Shaykh inserted herself.

As she did it, she told the DSL, “Immediately I saw Hoda and Yvonne standing with me. I said, ‘Yes. I need to continue their story.”

Hoda and Yvonne have a similar discussion at Speaker’s Corner and the book takes off from there. Al-Shaykh said she’s seen a change in the topics discussed at Speaker’s: “there used to be people talking about politics, about the economic situation. … I remember the first time I came to London, in 1964, I visited Speakers’ Corner and there were so many varieties of minds talking – about art, about many things, not about religion. .. But now everyone is talking about religion.”

It didn’t seem, from the interview, that Al-Shaykh would return to writing about characters in Lebanon, as she did in her seminal novels Beirut Blues and The Story of Zahra: “If I want to write about Arab characters living in the Arab world I think I have to spend more time here. I can’t just write about the things I can remember. … I have to be contemporary.”

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