How We Met: Hanan al-Shaykh & Carmen Callil

'Carmen saw a hose pipe in the garden, went over and drenched herself; everybody clapped'
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The Independent Online

Hanan al-Shaykh, 63, is a Lebanese novelist and playwright, whose novels include Only in London, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Her work, which challenges traditional women's roles in the Arab-Muslim world, was initially banned in many Arab countries. She lives in London

When I came to London in 1975, I met an Australian poet called Peter Porter and he told me I should meet Carmen Callil of Virago. I said, "What is Virago?" – I had no idea. It was 1994 by the time I met her at the Adelaide Literary Festival. I saw her in the lift and didn't know who she was, but she struck me as a strong woman who knew what she was doing. She had an aura; everyone wanted to talk to her.

We started talking about books and her Lebanese ancestry and I felt immediately that she liked me, but she also wanted to check how I wrote – she read one of my novels in a night while we were there and told me she liked it.

After that we started to see each other regularly. Both being Lebanese helped – I don't have to explain myself to her, as she knows all my cultural references. And we are both interested in the world of the exiled and the immigrant. Carmen's grandparents were immigrants who came from Lebanon to Australia; my own father tried to emigrate to Australia, but he fell from his horse and was concussed and couldn't take the boat. When Carmen's grandparents came to Australia, they brought live yoghurt with them so they could make milk into yoghurt – and when I moved to London, I did the same thing. It shows how if you are born somewhere, no matter how you change, something remains of the country of your origin.

We are both rebellious at heart. We both left our homes when we were young to get our freedom. Carmen knows what she believes in and will say it but I am more hesitant. We both went to Palestine and had similar feelings about what we saw but we showed it differently – I walked through Hebron crying, whereas Carmen became angry and confronted a soldier.

She is so determined. We both have houses in France and one day we went to Eze, a medieval village [not far from Nice] that is so high in the mountains I thought it could only be for eagles. We went up by car and had breakfast in the village while the sun rose, then we descended on foot. It was a rough walk, very hot, and we were with people younger than us, but Carmen was the first to arrive. When she got there she saw a hose pipe in a garden and went over and drenched herself – she didn't care who it belonged to; everybody clapped. That spirit is why she has achieved so much.

Carmen Callil, 71, is an author and publisher. In 1973, she co-founded Virago Press, the publishing house dedicated to women's writing. She lives in west London

I was at the Adelaide Literary Festival in the early 1990s when I saw this utterly beautiful little creature – exquisite is the word for Hanan. She was with another beautiful creature and I wondered, who is this wonderful little duo? The other half turned out to be the novelist Donna Tartt. We often laugh that the reason the three of us hit it off so well was we could look each other in the eye – we are all under 5ft 4in.

I immediately took to Hanan because my paternal grandparents were Lebanese, so I knew everything about Lebanon. Or I thought I did until I met Hanan. But I understood where she came from and she understood where I came from.

Having said that, Hanan is Muslim, whereas my family are Maronites – Roman Catholics who come from a particular place called Bcherri, which is high up on the mountains where the cedars are. When I told Hanan that was where my family were from she said, "Oh Carmen, they produce the most ferocious women in Lebanon," and we shrieked with laughter.

One of the bonds that took me straight to Hanan was that we had both been stereotyped. Hanan wrote like an angel, with wonderful humanity and humour, yet she was always told she was a feminist and was writing to the detriment of the Arab race. When I started Virago, I, too, had a bell jar put over my head – I was a feminist and that was all. So we were able to compare bell jars and laugh about it.

Since we met, I can't think of a time when we haven't been in touch. We often sneak off to eat together in London. English people love Lebanese food, but not as much as we do. It's probably my greed speaking here, though, because Hanan eats like a bird.

Hanan sees so many things in the same way I do – our political beliefs, for example. I've just returned from Palestine and been feeling very grim about the things I saw, and she has been very sympathetic: she went last year and understands my experience.

People like Hanan and I are outsiders – we choose to be. There are things about me Hanan understands that nobody else does.

When I picture her, I see her as a painting. She is always such a delight to see – layered in cashmere and an Arab dress in winter, and in diaphanous little things in summer. She will be beautiful when she is 100. Many people have pursued her over the years but she isn't the sort who requires adulation; she lives inside herself, in her writing. n

'The Locust and the Bird', by Hanan al-Shaykh (translated by Roger Allen) is out now on Bloomsbury at £14.99

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