Feed on

While Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Occasional Virgin and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah are two very different novels, there are also many similarities between them. One of the earliest similarities was a section about Huda’s hair – “This hair-washing involved an elaborate process of applying oil and allowing it to soak in, then washing it, spreading shea butter on it – which felt disgusting – and then rinsing, applying conditioner, wrapping each strand around rollers and sitting under a dryer, then brushing out each strand using a hand dryer. After this, she no longer had curly hair; instead it hung straight down over her shoulders, shiny as an aubergine… Huda secretly envies Yvonne’s hair” (4-5). Like in Americanah, this section focuses on the pressure on non-white women to have the same type of hair as white women.

Later, Yvonne asks, “Do you think we’re still unmarried because we live outside Lebanon? I mean because we’ve changed – because we aren’t completely at home either with foreigners or Lebanese?” (32). Here readers see that Yvonne is not fully comfortable with her identity. Is she more Lebanese or has she become more like foreigners after leaving her home country? This identity question is something that many immigrants struggle with, and it is also something that Ifemelu and other characters deal with in Americanah.

The novel also deals with religious issues and stereotypes in a way that is similar to the way Adichie dealt with race in Americanah. When talking to Roberto, Huda wonders, “Will he choose Yvonne, because I’m a Muslim?” (36). She then thinks about her experiences with people who do not understand her religion. “But what about the Canadian she’d thought she was in love with, until he’d asked her in all seriousness if had to convert to Islam if he wanted to kiss her? And the woman who came to her flat to measure the windows for new curtains and asked if the glass chandelier that hung at an angle was tilted to face Mecca?” (36). She has also faced more serious misunderstandings, speaking of “the many who were convinced after 9/11 that she would understand its perpetrators and harbor at least a little admiration for them – those who were extremely diplomatic whenever the subject came up, until they heard Huda criticizing them, and extremists in general, declaring that she didn’t really believe in any religion” (36). Later on, Huda talks to an English woman who tells her about her neighbor who wears a burka. “I’m sorry to say that I’m scared each time I see her, and I only feel reassured when I hear her voice,” the woman says. “Sometimes I think she might be a man! Maybe she’s like the terrorist who managed to escape from a London mosque hiding behind a chador and burka, or the thieves who wear burkas and rob jewellers’ shops!” (98). It is easy to see how the discrimination Huda faces is similar to that Ifemelu faces about her race. Both deal with people who may mean well but add to the negative stereotypes they already deal with.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.