- What’s So Great About Home?: Roots, Nostalgia, and Return in Andrée Chedid’s La maison sans racines and Hanan Al-Shaykh’s Hikāyat Zahra
This essay addresses the theme of displacement in Hanan al-Shaykh’s Hikāyat Zahra (1980) [The Story of Zahra] and in Andrée Chedid’s La maison sans racines (1985) [The House without Roots].1 These two novels written in different languages, one in Arabic and the other in French, are by “Lebanese” authors living in different locations—one in London, and the other in Paris. Bringing these works together may seem odd to some, all the more so when critics encounter a problem in placing Chedid’s and al-Shaykh’s writing within a literary tradition, genre and context, and in classifying them as authors having one kind of identity rather than another.
Ambiguity and multiplicity pertain to Chedid’s identity as a writer. Michelle Hartman explains that Chedid is not immediately classified as “francophone,” as are most non-Europeans who write in French. She is rejected in some Arab circles as non-authentic yet hailed in others as an Arab author, famous in both the West and the Arab world. Critics like Bettina Knapp locate Chedid within the French literary tradition, though her work is infused with Middle Eastern sensibility.2 In Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East, Evelyne Accad labels Chedid as a writer of the Lebanese civil war and groups her with other women writers such as Etel Adnan and Hanan al-Shaykh, in contrast to male writers. Accad also places Chedid within the category of some North African writers of French such as Abdel-Kebir Khatibi and Driss Charaibi who deal with issues of trans-cultural identities, and of living in the hyphen, but who, unlike Chedid, express their discontent about it.3
Al-Shaykh, like Chedid, puzzles the critics. Miriam Cooke thinks of her as a Beirut Decentrist, a group incorporating women writers such as Etel Adnan, Daisy al-Amir, Claire Gebeyli, Laila Usairan, and Emily Nasrallah. As Cooke points out, they form a group of women writers who lived through the Lebanese civil war and wrote about it in English, Arabic, [End Page 491] and French in non-heroic terms. Physically scattered all over Beirut, they moved intellectually in different circles and became increasingly feminist in their orientation.4 Other critics, such as Mona Amyuni, reject Cooke’s classification of al-Shaykh as a Beirut Decentrist because none of her works were written while in Lebanon. Still others view al-Shaykh as a feminist, though she refuses this nomenclature. She states: “If I considered myself a feminist, then I would label myself. And I prefer not to label myself because I feel when writing about women that I am writing by extension to all human beings.”5
Notwithstanding the above, I propose in this essay to give La maison sans racines and Hikāyat Zahra the general description of a literature of displacement. This literature is neither bound by temporal and spatial factors, nor by any established generic grid, though I am mindful of the objection of critics who argue that “[g]eneral concepts of deterritorialization and displacement can function as useful strategies only to the extent to which their specific manifestations are historicized, for without such contextualization they become new universal categories that homogenize minority identities and cultures.”6 This literature also tackles displacement in its multiform guise. This twofold displacement calls for a comparative analysis of the novels at hand and renders it all the more cogent when displacement in all its forms has undoubtedly become a salient feature of the contemporary world. In Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question, Angelika Bammer states: “The separation of people from their native culture either through physical dislocation (as refugees, immigrants, migrants, exiles, or expatriates) or the colonizing imposition of a foreign culture—what I am calling here displacement—is one of the most formative experiences of our century.”7 Consequently, it has also become a transnational theme in literature and a discursive theoretical site in postcolonial studies. Thus being the case, I will analyze the constellation of themes intertwined with...