Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the most acclaimed award-winning writers in the contemporary Arab world whose work has been translated into 21 languages and is now published around the world. She is the author of eight novels, notably, The Story of Zahra; Women of Sand and Myrrh; Beirut Blues, described by Salman Rushdie as a sensuous, unsentimental portrait of a shattered universe; Only in London, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; Two Women by the Sea; and more recently, the much praised memoir of her mother's life: The Locust and the Bird and The Occasional Virgin.
She is also the author of a collection of short stories: I Sweep the Sun off the Rooftops and A Desert Rose, and three plays: Dark Afternoon Tea (1993); Paper Husband (1997), which was played at the Hampstead Theater in London; and A Fly on the Wall.
In 2011, she published Sahibat al-Dar Shehrazad (One Thousand and One Nights), a retelling of the stories from One Thousand and One Nights, collaborating on a theater project with director, Tim Supple. A resounding success, according to the New York Review of Books who described it as “charming, al-Shaykh brings her tales to life with a wonderful earthy immediacy, informal and intimate." “The book is a treasure box," echoed the Independent.
She was born in 1944 in Beirut and grew up in Lebanon. She started her writing career at 16, publishing essays at An-Nahar newspaper. She then moved to Egypt to continue her studies at the American College for Girls in Cairo. During these four years in Cairo, she made her debut as a writer with The Suicide of a Dead Man. When she returned to Beirut, she resumed her journalistic career with Al Hasna' women's magazine and featured a series of interviews for television with 21 prominent women in the country. She witnessed the beginning of the Lebanese civil war that inspired her to write Hikayat Zahra which was praised by the Boston Sunday Globe and propelled her to fame. In 1975, she fled war-ravaged Lebanon with her two young children Tarek and Juman and went to London. She later joined her husband between 1977 and 1983 in Saudi Arabia and wrote Women of Sand and Myrrh which was translated into French and won her the literary prize of Elle magazine.
Al-Shaykh's passion and interest in the Lebanese/Arab psyche and the plight of the repressed women's condition in the Arab world is evident in all her writings, particularly in The Locust and the Bird, a family history about an arranged marriage, survival, and love. She was among the few writers to denounce the traditional conformity with Arab religious society, the alienation, and the loss of identity as reflected in Two Women by the Sea.
Edward Said saw al-Shaykh as the “premier woman writer in Arabic who has done more than any other to explore the misperception of Arab women's lives, and an artist who has a calm assurance, not embattled or polemical." This calmness and comfort she owes to her loving family that provided her with the support and ability to devote herself completely to her work.
Her most recent literary activities, including workshops in Beirut colleges and universities; conferences and talks in the UK, Europe, and the US; her participation in book reviews; and her affiliations to international literary bodies have had an undeniable impact in influencing and shaping the mind of the young generations of today.
She is a fellow of the Royal Literary Society in the UK and an active member of the Circle Pen International.
Al-Shaykh lives in London and is married to Fouad Malouf, philanthropist and trustee emeritus at the International College Beirut, where he served as the board's vice-chairman and was a very active board member for more than 25 years.