Sex, Lies, and Strawberries: On Hanan al-Shaykh’s ‘The Occasional Virgin’


Dig deep enough into frivolity, and you just might strike substance. Sound far-fetched? Well, it is. After all, if we’re talking about books, most of the time you’ll come up empty-handed; what appears frivolous at first blush tends to be precisely that upon closer inspection. But with a combination of inexhaustible patience, superior burrowing technique, and plain old-fashioned luck, chances are that one day you’ll end up with one that fits the bill. As it happens, The Occasional Virgin, by Hanan al-Shaykh, is that book—this reviewer did the requisite digging for you—or at least one of the precious few in circulation.

Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese novelist and short story writer, long resident in London, who writes in Arabic. (That said, her recent One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling was written in English.) Because of her years in the U.K. and her frank discussion of sexual matters in fiction often set in Arab countries—see, for example, The Story of Zahra and Women of Sand and Myrrh—al-Shaykh has had to contend with charges that she has divorced herself from the Arab world she continues to mine for stories and that her depiction of Arab women smacks of Orientalism. Such overblown accusations need not detain us here. In fact, an intriguing (and counterintuitive) aspect of The Occasional Virgin is that al-Shaykh has dulled the edge of much of her original Arabic-language material. This process appears to have begun with the book’s very title.

The Occasional Virgin is not a straightforward translation of an original Arabic-language work but an adaptation of two of the author’s books, an anemic novella titled Two Women by the Sea and the outwardly silly novel [The] Virgins of Londonistan, which feature the same pair of protagonists. Al-Shaykh merged the two stories, reworking, excising, and adding much material. The resulting text was then rendered into fluid and natural-sounding English by Catherine Cobham, who is not only a veteran translator but head of the Department of Arabic and Persian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Al-Shaykh knew full well that to effect a successful amalgamation of Two Women and Londonistan, the latter would have to swallow the former. Not just because it’s broader in scope and more consequential but because any variation on its title would prove catchier than something about a couple of women on a beach. Yet she dropped “Londonistan”—almost certainly because the term, a barb directed at the supposed cultural Islamization of London, would offend North American and British readers (who have been exposed to alarmist books such as Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan) far more than it did Arabs.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is The Occasional Virgin all about? Well, related by a third-person narrator equally comfortable inhabiting the mind of either of al-Shaykh’s 30-something protagonists, it’s a two-part story, with Part I adapted largely from Two Women, and Part II a reworked version of Londonistan. Following little of note in Part I, which is set on the Italian Riviera (but includes flashbacks to Lebanon), we meet up again with the pair in the U.K.’s capital a few months later. That’s where Yvonne, who owns and manages an advertising firm, lives; Huda, a Toronto-based theater director—who’s gathering information on whether she might stage a performance of One Thousand and One Nights in London—is visiting her. Al-Shaykh has them stroll through Hyde Park, where they pause to listen to the assortment of zealots haranguing people at Speakers’ Corner. What happens next sets the story in motion.

Huda, whose late father was an imam, can be described as lying somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. (Yvonne, born into a Christian family, isn’t much for organized religion either, but—as becomes apparent later—retains her childhood veneration of the Virgin Mary.) Nevertheless, when brought face-to-face with Islam-bashers at Speakers’ Corner, Huda pushes back. For example, referring to the Prophet Muhammad, she insists that “God’s messenger is the one who ordered the emancipation of slaves and made them free and forbade racism.”

As though Huda taking on the task of defending Islam weren’t ironic enough, al-Shaykh shrewdly finds a way to turn this encounter into—of all things—a confrontation between the spirited woman and a handsome but hectoring Muslim. While she’s at it, the author even manages to work in a dig at Islam itself.

It starts with a young man’s insistence that Huda, while fully engaged in singing Islam’s praises to the assembled crowd, should take care to employ specific and mandatory terms of reverence when citing the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad. As he is insufferable, and as Huda doesn’t take kindly to his schoolmarmish ways, she doesn’t oblige. Matters escalate, and before long the guy, an Algerian-Egyptian named Hisham with whom she converses in Arabic, issues a bloodcurdling threat: “Do you know that hens are slaughtered if they cry like roosters?”

What enrages Hisham so is Huda’s bemoaning of the fact that certain majority Muslim countries permit marriage between adult males and girls, “some of them as young as eight.” Left unsaid is that the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was of a similar age has long served as the justification for such laws. Hisham, of course, knows as much.

Soon afterward, the two women take their leave. Yet Huda is still incensed—and vengeful. Here, at long last (we’re almost halfway through the novel), the first stirrings of an enduring and much-needed conflict are felt. The remainder of The Occasional Virgin can be neatly divided into two sections (though the author enacts no such division): The first concerns Huda’s efforts to get the better of Hisham, and the second sees al-Shaykh shift her attention to the lovelorn Yvonne, who receives mixed signals from a man she takes a shine to at a wedding party, and later must decide how exactly to handle the bewildered Hisham when he starts dropping in at her office and then her home in a bid to determine the whereabouts of a now-vanished Huda.

Yvonne’s experiences, both at the wedding party and with Hisham, are nothing special and not worth lingering on. It’s Huda’s earlier encounter with Hisham that provides spark. Igniting that spark is the fact that Huda, far from behaving like the proverbial rooster this time around, uses her feminine wiles to strike back at her antagonist. Having heard Hisham say something about planning to attend a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy that afternoon in order to protest the Syrian regime’s violence against its people, Huda, without yet having worked out a plan, resolves to waylay him there. Meanwhile, as a lark back at her house, Yvonne introduces her friend to something called a “strawberry” by its manufacturers. This, Huda realizes, is what she must use to catch her holier-than-thou bête noire in a compromising position.

The “strawberry” in question is what a sexually active woman intent on appearing virginal inserts into her vagina to trigger the flow of “blood” upon intercourse. So when Huda, having homed in on her quarry at the demonstration and convinced him that she’s feeling ill, manages to get him to take her to his home, the stage is set for both a rounding out of Hisham’s hitherto one-dimensional character (a university student working as a doorman, he proves quite considerate and helpful) and the actualization of her ruse.

Huda doesn’t have to exert much effort to seduce the excitable Hisham—though he catches her off guard by proposing an on-the-spot marriage. All they must do for it to pass Islamic muster, he maintains, is recite a verbal formula. After a brief hesitation, Huda accepts. The next step is for the two to consummate the union. That, after all, is the reason Hisham proposed to her in the first place. Meanwhile, Huda hopes things turn out thus:
He sleeps with her, discovers she’s a virgin and regrets calling her names and treating her so hatefully, is maybe even sorry that he tried to shut her up, subdue her, sorry for believing that every Muslim woman who didn’t cover herself was a fallen woman with no place in society.
As for the thorny matter of sex, Huda has girded herself. “All I’m going to think about,” she muses, “is the strawberry waiting to explode, and the satisfaction of having my revenge on him when he sees my virginal blood and his arrogance and self-righteousness melt away.”

Before we get to that exploding strawberry, let’s touch on another subject having to do with sex that crops up between the two newlyweds round about this time—at least in Londonistan. At one point, Huda informs Hisham that Muslim martyrs looking to spend eternity having sex with dozens of houris, the beautiful and perpetual virgins of paradise, will be sorely disappointed. According to Huda, there exists a consensus among Arab scholars of the Arabic language that the plural term houris (in Arabic, “hour,” classically rendered in full as “hour ‘ayn”) refers to grapes.

Here’s the problem: This assertion was made by the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg in a German-language book, one that has—even after being translated into several languages—hardly caught on with Arab linguists or Islamic jurists. Moreover, Luxenberg’s fascinating claim is that the term is Syriac, and that the Quran, which Muslims hold to be a God-given Arabic-language original text, cannot be understood without taking into account the Syriac roots of much of its then-newfangled terminology. Huda doesn’t go anywhere near this explosive issue. But why did al-Shaykh have her claim, falsely, that it is Arab scholars of the Arabic-language, as opposed to Luxenberg, who assert that the houris are grapes? Ignorance? Wishful thinking? Or, most intriguingly, an indirect attempt to stimulate further discussion among Arabs and Muslims of the taboo subject that is the historical origins of the Quran?

Also, why is this whole exchange regarding houris and grapes missing from The Occasional Virgin? Unclear. Jumping back into the sack with Huda and Hisham, however, we discover that it isn’t the only thing that’s missing. Who would have thought that the English-language adaptation of two Arabic-language works of fiction would include less sex than the originals? In Londonistan, a priapic Hisham prevails upon Huda to have intercourse with him no fewer than four times within five hours of their “marriage.” In The Occasional Virgin, however, al-Shaykh has them sleep together just once.

The result isn’t simply a tamer encounter. Al-Shaykh changes the very nature of Huda’s enterprise. In Londonistan, Huda seems to wing it; yes, she aims to seduce Hisham and have him pop her strawberry, but it isn’t initially clear to the reader (and possibly to Huda herself) how she plans to use the guy’s subsequent shock to her advantage. What she comes up with is nothing short of a masterstroke. Huda makes use of a strawberry each and every time she has sex with Hisham, who can’t for the life of him understand why she keeps bleeding anew. He deflowered her the first time, and she’s not menstruating, so what’s going on?

Huda lets him stew in his uncertainty until the fourth time, when she confronts the befuddled sod with the purposely outlandish theory that she is in fact a houri. Though she ends up interpreting her supposed newfound status in different and contradictory ways, one proves especially provocative; she suggests that the virgins of paradise can no longer cope with the number of martyrs streaming through the pearly gates, so God has dispatched some of them to earth, where they might satisfy Muslim men who have yet to turn militant, let alone die.

This is all absent from The Occasional Virgin, if not simply because Huda and Hisham have themselves a tumble only once. Whereas their repeated lovemaking in Londonistan provides the perpetually virginal Huda with an opportunity to ask Hisham why people believe in miracles that took place long ago but doubt those (such as her hymen reconstructing itself) that happen before their very eyes, and to imply that carnal bliss is attainable here on earth and doesn’t require martyrdom, The Occasional Virgin proves considerably less revolutionary. True, Huda has formulated more of a plan to begin with. And yes, thanks to her use of the infamous strawberry, she gains the sought-after advantage over Hisham. But because there’s no more sex, she is unable to milk it. She must content herself with berating him for having considered her promiscuous on account of her attire, manner of speech, and style of comportment.

Yet there is admittedly one aspect of al-Shaykh’s paring down of the sexual element that emerges as more effective: Hisham’s crisis of conscience regarding their sham marriage, which in both versions of the story he decides he wants to turn into a legitimate union—replete with witnesses—posthaste. Because Hisham’s mistaken belief that he took Huda’s maidenhead is what prompts this sudden overriding concern (more on the reason for his anxiety shortly), it makes better sense that it should seize hold of him following a single roll in the hay, which is of course the case in The Occasional Virgin, as opposed to only after the activity’s fourth iteration.

At any rate, what’s the upshot of all this, you ask? Though lacking the slyly subversive quality of Londonistan, does The Occasional Virgin leave the reader with anything to think about?

It does. In our day and age, the notion that a never-married woman’s virtue derives from her virginity enjoys a good deal less currency than it once did. But it hasn’t gone bankrupt just yet. How to deal with those (not all of whom are named Muhammad, Ali, or Hisham) for whom it retains value? Al-Shaykh chooses humor—including oblique mockery. It’s all rather mild (again, the Arabic-language Londonistan is spicier), but it’s what makes The Occasional Virgin more than occasionally clever. A good thing, too, because the rest of the novel is superficial and boring.

Huda is arguably at her least virtuous when pretending that intercourse with Hisham marks her initiation into sex. Hisham, of course, falls for the deception. But that’s not the half of it. All of a sudden, his opinion of Huda undergoes a radical transformation. Indeed, he comes to behold her with a kind of reverence and is consumed with guilt. He even resolves to retroactively make their sham marriage official, though it’s clear that they have no future together and that, if they do marry, divorce would constitute the next logical step.

The reason for Hisham’s agitated state is simple. The guy is wrongly convinced that until he slept with the intelligent, accomplished, and attractive woman in question, she was a virgin. Why does this matter? Because it means that, despite Huda’s lackluster approach to Islam, she is still in some visceral sense loath to disregard certain of its strictures. “When I discovered that you’d preserved your virginity up till then,” explains a chastened Hisham, “I was sure you’d held fast to your religion without being conscious of it.” This in turn endears her to God. And as has by now become readily apparent, Hisham—obsessed as he is with being an observant Muslim bound for heaven—is desperate to remain in God’s good graces!

Everyday Splendor: David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

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Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri.

Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.”

But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell.

During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts.

To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence.

Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son.

Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”

Äppärät-chic: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

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“Oh, dear diary. My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” Bemoaning his fate thus is 39-year-old lovable loser Lenny Abramov, the bookish and neurotic Russian-Jewish-American protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s feverish, boisterous, wildly funny yet also contrived and histrionic new novel: Super Sad True Love Story. And Lenny’s philosophical lament, equal parts rueful and self-deprecating, does not begin to encapsulate his troubles. The not-too-distant future world in which he feels himself an anachronism is a place generally negotiated with the aid of an äppärät, an electronic communication and data-collecting device with which Lenny hardly feels comfortable. His need for genuine human interaction instead of the äppärät-generated classification of humans according to everything from their credit to their “Fuckability” ratings, not to mention his preference for books over text-scanning—again courtesy of those infernal all-purpose äppäräts—sets him apart.

And another thing: the world teeters on the brink of financial ruin. Which is too bad, not least because Lenny has just met the woman of his dreams, fellow confused American Eunice, during a sojourn in Rome, Italy. And he knows it: “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”

Super Sad True Love Story comprises Lenny’s diary entries alongside Eunice’s text-messages, sent via her äppärät to family members and friends. Intriguingly, such a format enables Shteyngart (who is about Abramov’s age, was born in Leningrad to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States when he was a child, and has written the acclaimed novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan) to explore the versatility of language, whether masterfully employed or scandalously abused. Shteyngart clearly savors the adventuresome possibilities of English, possibilities made nearly infinite in this book by the profusion of infectiously silly youth argot, pompous and pseudo-scientific technical jargon, grammatically convoluted but always colorful dialects, and self-pitying meditations—sometimes uproarious, other times poignant—on the mystery of love and the evanescence of life. Indeed, aside from satirizing the corruption of American society by consumerism and its subversion by militarism, Super Sad True Love Story celebrates the power and beauty of words. Shteyngart endows Lenny—who finds himself in a world considerably more illiterate than our own—with an innocent, almost primordial logophilia: “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data.”

Back in New York City after his sabbatical in Rome, Lenny resumes work at the Post-Human Services division of a huge and—unbeknown to him—possibly sinister company. His department’s ambitious task is to make eternal human life possible. For Lenny, who suffers from an acute fear of mortality, his work is also very personal. He desperately hopes to qualify for the dechronification and cell-regeneration treatments necessary for immortality, thereby joining his visionary boss Joshie on the road to foreverdom. He may never prove eligible; his credit’s pretty good, but he hasn’t been fanatically monitoring and tweaking his triglycerides and pH levels and whatnot. Still, he has an unrelated reason to rejoice; Eunice unexpectedly moves in with him despite being unsure as to whether to pursue a relationship after their dalliance in Rome. Eunice is 24, Korean American, pretty and petite, and alternately grossed out by and drawn to the shambolic, technologically inept, emotionally cloying, and physically unimpressive guy who’s nuts about her and quite willing to put her up for as long as she likes while she avoids moving back in with her family and abusive father in New Jersey.

It’s in the States that the reader becomes exposed to the full measure of madness hinted at by Lenny’s ordeal at the US embassy in Rome. America, where television seems limited to Fox Liberty-Prime and Fox Liberty-Ultra, has become virtually a police state. The country is governed by the Bipartisan Party, with soldiers of something called the American Restoration Authority patrolling the streets, ready to quell unrest by Low Net Worth Individuals (so-designated because of their poor credit ratings and meager assets) as well as disgruntled members of the National Guard, who are fed up with official neglect at home after having served in a disastrous invasion of Venezuela.

Readers of George Saunders’s novellas and short stories may find the socio-economic landscape of Super Sad True Love Story somewhat familiar, what with the hegemony of corporations and the crazed consumerism of citizens. But Shteyngart charts his own course. The economy, run by gargantuan corporations such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, is being bought out by China, itself run by the Chinese People’s Capitalist Party, at whose head sits the all-powerful Chinese Central Banker. Already, yuan-pegged dollars are worth a lot more than the plain old kind. Meanwhile, sexuality has become so commercialized that one can watch a political commentary show the gay host of which interrupts his observations to engage in live sex. And while the United Nations no longer exists, in its place can be found the United Nations Retail Corridor, which features stores such as JuicyPussy (and JuicyPussy4Men) selling transparent onionskin jeans and nippleless bras.

Much of this is quite funny—if over-the-top—in addition to being scathing. Ironically, however, the source of its humor is also the book’s greatest weakness. The broader the satire—and Super Sad True Love Story is pretty broad, even when compared to Shteyngart’s earlier two novels—the more one-dimensional and artificial many of its characters. For example, Lenny’s youth-obsessed boss Joshie, his media-crazed friends Noah and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, his and Eunice’s fathers—his rabidly right-wing, hers motivated almost solely by shame and status—embody societal phenomena rather than the complexities of real people. To be sure, Lenny and Eunice do not fit this mold, what with their delightfully complicated personalities, together with the fact that Shteyngart has neither completely dissociated them from nor submerged them in the respective cultures of their origin. But, to the detriment of the story, they remain surrounded by caricatures.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, for someone given to frenzied social parody, whatever drama is conscripted for the sake of ballast will be similarly overwrought. Shteyngart’s sense of humor largely abandons him and he begins to take himself much too seriously when, two-thirds of the way through, the story veers toward violence and socio-politico-economic breakdown. Forget dystopia; what we have here is much closer to Armageddon than the atomization of humankind Lenny previously found so soul-destroying. This time, though, it’s the avarice of a privileged and blithely murderous section of humanity, rather than the retribution of a vengeful god, that sets everything ablaze.

Make no mistake. Super Sad True Love Story boasts two tormented but appealing protagonists locked in a deliciously tortuous love affair. It is indeed super sad, though thankfully untrue and difficult to imagine as prescient, while proving by turns incisive and hilariously exaggerated in its skewering of American society’s excesses. But its own excesses, the product of a willfully cynical attitude on Shteyngart’s part toward the future trajectory of American culture and politics, prevent the story from transcending the restrictive confines of satire, and eventually madden and exhaust even the most amenable and patient reader.