Novelist and journalist Hanan al-Shaykh offers an intimate perspective into the lives of four women living in the Middle East in the novel Women of Sand and Myrrh (1989, translated 1990) Shaykh's other novels include Story of Zahra (1980, translated 1992), Beirut Blues (1992, translated 1996), I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops (1994, translated 1998), Only In London (2000, translated 2002) as well as several other published short stories and essays. Born in Lebanon in 1945, Hanan al-Shaykh was raised in Beirut before attending a university in Cairo. She now resides in London.
Women of Sand and Myrrh is divided into four parts each corresponding to the lives of four seemingly dissimilar women living in an unnamed desert in the Middle East. The first character introduced at the novels start is Suha, a wife and mother far from her home country of Lebanon. Through the course of Suha's narrative and flashbacks, she introduces the reader to the three other speakers: Tamr, Suzanne and Nur. Suha struggles with her identity through the obligations as a wife and mother in a country that is unfamiliar and oppressive. Suha senses, "the feeling I'd started out with of losing my sensitivity to the life going on around me was growing stronger, as was my awareness of the complete absence of women, at least from the outside world" (16). Suha observes the sociopolitical aspects of the city she lives in, which facilitates an understanding of the culture to the reader. She is also torn between her love for her husband and son and her love for another woman, further complicating her identity, relationships and her position in society.
Tamr's narrative focuses on her familial relationships and educational aspirations. Included in Tamr's story are her mother and aunt's marital history, which provide a detailed, personal and somewhat innocent account of arranged and otherwise difficult marriages. The inclusion of the two women's past relates to Tamr's trying marriage and divorce. Tamr is the most convicted and active in the pursuit of her goals when compared to Suha, Suzanne and Nur. Tamr's character is evident when, "The dejection which had taken hold of me was transformed into a kind of daredevil courage. 'My name is Tamr daughter of al-Tawi,' I declared, not caring if anyone heard me or not" (105). Tamr's strong will is not stifled by societal oppression and she continues fulfilling her ambition.
Suzanne is an American living in the desert with her son and estranged husband. She is consumed by her relationships with a series of lovers and is obsessed with acquiring gold jewelry and any other form of wealth. Her fragile identity is based on her admirer's view of her, "Nobody would ever understand that I was scared of going back because the roar of the cities destroyed people and I was scared of being destroyed" (233). Her fear of being "destroyed" is evidence of her slight existence hidden behind wealth and drama.
Nur is the spoiled daughter of wealthy, detached and self-absorbed parents. She herself is self-indulgent and unaware of the full repercussions of her whims. Nur's constant search for entertainment in attempts to mentally escape the confines of her situation leads to destruction.
Materialistic luxury, familial ties, marital fulfillment, sexual discovery and cultural expectations are central to Suha, Tamr, Suzanne and Nur's lives. All four women long for freedom and individual identity, although they are unable to openly identify this need. In the relationships between Suha, Tamr, Suzanne and Nur, each woman wants to influence or be influenced by the other(s). Suha finds Nur's lighthearted disposition desirable and wants to acquire it or be affected by it. Suzanne wants to be the "Marilyn Monroe of the desert" by flaunting her American novelty for the benefit of the other women.
Women of Sand and Myrrh is intriguing in that it presents a very personal, hence vulnerable perspective of the main speakers. This honesty in writing creates a believable and seemingly realistic depiction of the lives of women in the Middle East. The reader is left to make the comparison between their own lives and the discontentment that drives them.