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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

07 October, 2004

Only In London : A Novel by Hanan Al-Shaykh

This is one of those surprise packages –one picks up an attractive looking paperback, reads the blurb and conjures up hilarious images of a London that can be perceived only by an outsider, such as Hanan Al-Shaikh, a lady from Lebanon living in London and writing punchy novels in Arabic.

This Bloomsbury paperback is impossible to put down once you start reading it. Actually very few connoisseurs of literature would opt for reading a translation, with the unadmitted fear gnawing at the innards that all the bite and fire of the original work may have got diluted in translation. This book defies such a preconceived notion, a commonly held belief and kudos to Catherine Cobham who has done such a lovely job. The crisp freshness of narrative is sustained very professionally throughout this very humane tale of amazingly crazy characters.

We find four different characters from the Arab world thrown together during a flight to London, who do not even suspect that their lives will be intertwined terribly very shortly –there is beautiful but drifting Lamis, recently divorced from her Iraqui husband : Nicholas a young Englishman, and an expert on Islamic daggers working with Sotheby’s; louche and overtly dramatic Amira, a Moroccan who has adopted the world’s oldest profession so casually that bending or breaking the law does not bother her at all; and finally Samir the transvestite with a monkey hidden in his basket. Explosive material to begin with, and Hanan does wonderful jugglery with it.

It would be unsporting to spill all the beans here, but hats off to Hanan Al-Shaykh for drawing up a delightfully wonderful world, the Arab quartersin London, where the displaced persons lead their own lives –some sticking much more fiercely to the traditions, and some spending money on Anglicising themselves whether it is engaging a teacher to learn agneuninely British accent, or buying expensive dresses. Samir and his hilarious exploits with an uncontrollable monkey whose toilet habits become the centre of existence for a few people… that’s a story by itself.

The novel is not only comedy, or the black-hued comedy at that, but it is full of ethos and humane values which ultimately drag it almost to the brink of melodrama towards the end. A veritable feast for those who love to read the other side’s version : London through foreign eyes, with a liberal dollop of human drama unfolding leisurely throughout.

A wonderful book.


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