‘The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story’ by Hanan al-Shaykh


When we read about the Arabic world today, we see it most often through the prism of headlines, which wash out complexity as bright light washes color from a photograph. On those rare occasions, then, when a vital novel about the lives of Arabic families is published in English, we may not know what to do with it -- and leave it lying on the shelf.

One hopes “The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story” will avoid this fate. Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh’s fictionalized account of her mother’s life burns with truth on so many levels, it would be sad indeed if this book did not make its way into many, many handbags. (I say handbags because this is very much a woman’s book.) It’s about true love, the way a young girl’s dreams of the cinema can teach her to use her beauty as both shield and weapon, and how family obligations can weigh down a life. The language is lustrous, and the translation so smooth I had trouble believing it was originally written in Arabic.

Passion is the novel’s center; Kamila, Al-Shaykh’s mother, fled an arranged marriage to be with the man she loved. “I . . . saw a young man sitting by the edge of the fountain, as though a genie had conjured him,” Kamila says, recalling the instant she saw her darling -- it’s a scene straight out of the movies that are her only escape from drudgery. Kamila was 13; Muhammad was 17. Her beautiful singing voice pierced his heart, and it was love at first sight. But unbeknownst to the pair, she was already engaged to her brother-in-law Abu-Hussein -- her half-sister’s widower would marry her the following year, and by the time she was 17 Kamila would bear him two daughters, one of which is the author.


Kamila met the love of her life, however, because pious Abu-Hussein sent her to apprentice with a seamstress -- he wanted his child-bride to be a clone of his dead wife, the selfless Manifa. But instead of becoming a master dressmaker and obedient little mouse, the uneducated girl turned into a wayward, feisty beauty who would not be kept down. When she learns she’s engaged, her rebellion hits her family like a wrecking ball.

The wedding night has predictable horrors -- “my husband straddled me like I was a little donkey, and I’d bitten my own arm down to the bone” -- and Kamila has a child’s reaction to the birth of her own little girl (“My baby was the soft toy I’d never hugged”), but the story’s heart is Kamila and Muhammad. Once she becomes a mother, she’s free to wander, and like any besotted teen, she finds her way to her beloved’s door.

And like most young smart alecks, she’s a prankster. Kamila dumps a bucket of yogurt over her head when her husband stops her from drinking it. She steals from her family to buy herself the lovely things she sees in movies. “Word spread about my exploits,” she declares, “but people tolerated me because I was young and funny.” Most of all, she slips away to be with Muhammad. “Every time I set eyes on him, my heart began to pound. Places became intimate and beautiful. . . . Someone loved me and understood me.”

The central tragedy is not the forced marriage, but that Muhammad is a poet and Kamila is illiterate. Co-conspirators read his letters to her, and the lovebirds cannot share the books so dear to his heart. Once Kamila leaves Abu-Hussein to marry Muhammad, she’s faced with endless pregnancies that prevent her from learning to read, and gentle Muhammad doesn’t understand how their verdant sexual life -- which she adores -- creates a second prison for his bride.

When Muhammad dies, the tragedy grows. Relatives who are supposed to care for her steal from her with ease because she cannot read, but Kamila is clever. She turns her coffee hours into a kind of club for women with problems, relies on her social networks and perfects her ability to control men. When the Sharia court refuses her the right to be the guardian of her own children, for instance, she returns with her brother’s beautiful, green-eyed wife. “As I wept before the sheikh, my sister-in-law was equally busy batting her eyelids at him. The sheikh promptly signed the papers.”

Behind Kamila’s tale is a more subtle story: Al-Shaykh is a writer on a quest to learn from the illiterate mother who abandoned her. Yet forgiveness -- not anger -- saturates this book like a perfume; every character is desperately, vulnerably human. Al-Shaykh’s triumph is that she retrieves her mother’s wisdom -- a wondrous lesson for grown daughters everywhere. Her novel has a warmth that crosses cultures and feels like a pure, shining blast of sun.


Maury is a New York-based writer and critic.