The Locust and the Bird
My Mother's Story
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About the author
Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the contemporary Arab world’s most acclaimed writers. She was born in Lebanon and brought up in Beirut, before going to Cairo to receive her education. She was a successful journalist in Beirut, then later lived in the Arabian Gulf, before moving to London. A novelist and a playwright, al-Shaykh is the author of the collection I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops, and the novels The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, and, most recently, Only in London, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She lives in London.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
In a masterly act of literary transformation, celebrated novelist Hanan al-Shaykh re-creates the dramatic life and times of her mother, Kamila.
Married at a young age against her will, Kamila soon fell head-over-heels in love with another man—and was thus forced to choose between her children and her lover. As the narrative unfolds through the years—from the bazaars, cinemas and apartments of 1930s Beirut to its war-torn streets decades later—we follow this passionate woman as she survives the tragedies and celebrates the triumphs of a life lived to the very fullest.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
1932: Ever Since I Can Remember
It all began on the day that my brother Kamil and I chased after Father, with Mother's curses ringing in our ears. I hoped and prayed God would take vengeance on him. He'd fallen in love with another woman, deserted us, and married her.
Mother had been to court in Nabatiyeh to seek child-support payments, but it did no good. Kamil and I were hunting for him so that he would buy us food. We ran over the rocky ground to the next village where he lived. We searched in the market at Nabatiyeh, asking people where we might find him. The sound of his voice and his loud laugh finally led us to him; he was too short to spot in a crowd, much shorter than Mother. Following her instructions, we asked him to buy us sugar and meat. He agreed immediately, telling us to follow him. We tagged along, our eyes glued to his back, terrified of losing him among the piled-up sacks of burghul and lentils, camels, donkeys, sheep and chickens, hawkers and vendors peddling their wares. At times he disappeared and we'd panic, thinking we had lost him for ever; then he'd reappear and our spirits would soar. Finally he gave up trying to lose us. He told us that he had no money and could buy us nothing. He described how to find our uncle's cobbler's stall near by and then he vanished.
Kamil yelled Father's name as loudly as he could above the vendors' cries and the bleating of the animals.
'Listen, boy,' said a man selling sheepskins. 'That voice of yours is about as much use as a fart in a workshop full of metal beaters!'
We made our way back to Mother. She was waiting with her brother at his cobbler's stall. When she saw we were empty-handed, she frowned and swore she'd go back to court. We arrived home with no meat, no rice, no sugar. Mother made us tomato Kibbeh without meat. She squeezed the tomatoes and the red juice oozed between her fingers. Did the tomato pips feel pain and try to escape, I wondered? Didn't Mother say that Father had crushed her heart?
Mother kneaded the Kibbeh.
'Look how red it is, and there's burghul in it, just like real Kibbeh,' she said brightly.
Like real Kibbeh? Who was she fooling? Where was the raw meat to be tenderised? Where was our wooden mortar and pestle, which I would recognise out of a thousand? Real Kibbeh? Then why wasn't Mother extracting those white, sinew-like bits of thread and making a pile of them, leaving the meat looking like peeled figs?
The next day Mother took us to court and talked to a man called a sheikh, who wore a turban shaped like a melon.
'My husband's refusing to support them,' she told him, pushing us forward. 'How am I supposed to feed my children? By cutting off a piece of my own hand? How am I supposed to clothe them? By flaying my own skin?'
We listened as the man in the turban talked to Mother. He used one phrase that stuck in my mind: 'The payment due to you will be sitting right there, in the middle of your home.' I thought he meant it would happen literally; I didn't realise it was a figure of speech. The moment we got home I started pacing the floor, the way I'd seen older people measure things, even graves. When I'd calculated the exact middle of our home, I sat by the spot and waited for the lira to appear.
A neighbour came in to offer Mother advice.
'Let him have the children,' she said. 'Stop torturing yourself!'
'Get out of my sight!' Mother yelled, and chased her to the door. 'Before I throw you into the prickly pear bush!'
Needless to say, the money never appeared, not in the middle of the house or anywhere else. One day, Kamil and I were playing with some children at the front of the house. Mother was busy in the vegetable plot picking some of the beans she'd planted and hunting for wild endive and chard. Father arrived and asked us to go with him to the market so he could buy us clothes, meat, sugar, molasses and sweetmeats. We were so hungry and excited that we forgot to tell Mother. Without even putting on our shoes, we rushed to Father and ran along behind him.
As we walked he kept adding to his promises.
'I want to buy you some new shoes as well. They'll be so shiny you'll see your faces in them!' he said.
He took us along a path between rocks, thorns and a few trees. But we knew this wasn't the way to the market; the path led to the neighbouring village, where he and his new wife lived.
'So she thinks she's smarter than me?' he told his new wife when we arrived at their house. 'They can live here. Then there'll be no expense and no headaches either.'
It was a long night. We tossed and turned, yearning for Mother. I worried that she must be imagining a hyena had pissed on our legs, enchanting us and stealing us away to its lair, where it would tear the flesh from our bones. Or perhaps she thought that the earth had opened up and swallowed us. But my brother assured me that the children we'd been playing with would tell her that we'd gone with Father. We fell asleep clutching each other, listening to each other's heartbeats, missing the sound of our cows in the night.
In the morning, I found I could not read Father's wife's expression. But at home, I had no trouble understanding Mother. I knew that I loved her. I also knew that, because Mother didn't like Father's wife, I wasn't obliged to like her either. I stared at her eyes, trying to discover the secret of their green colour - they were the first eyes I'd seen that weren't black. Did she put green kohl around them? Mother had black eyes - she ground black stones and used the grinds to line her eyes. We missed Mother so much that we couldn't swallow our breakfast of molasses and sugar. We had to sip tea with each mouthful.
My brother and I sat close to each other, staring and yawning, waiting for evening. Time passed slowly. It was the summer holidays and Father wasn't teaching in the second room of his house, so we didn't even sit and watch the lessons. We had never asked if Mother could send us to a teacher in Nabatiyeh; we knew that she couldn't afford it.
We made up our minds to run away just before sunset. There was no forethought; it was just the idea of another night in bed without Mother sleeping between us, a hand stretched out to touch each child, that made us leave. We waited on the porch until Father's wife put down a dish of lentils by the stone bread-oven. As soon as she disappeared inside to knead her dough, my brother grabbed the dish of lentils and poured the contents into his djellabah, gasping at the heat. Then we ran barefoot, back the way we'd come, over the brown and red stones, over the sparse vegetation, never stopping to worry about thorns or the scalding lentils. We kept running - not hand in hand as my mother used to instruct us. 'Promise me, you won't let anybody separate your hands, even angels,' she would say. I didn't even stop when I spotted, amid the rocks, a bush bearing a tomato the colour of anemones. Only when the fig trees and the big pond came into view did we slow down and begin to relax. When we spotted a grey rock called the camel (because it looked like one) we were certain we were on the way home. Thorns got inside my dress; they pricked my skin and hurt like hornet stings, but I wanted to see Mother and eat some of those lentils so badly that I ran even faster, as though I was swallowing the ground itself.
Darkness fell suddenly, as if the camel had blocked out the sun. We were terrified that Ali Atrash was going to jump out at us. Ali Atrash was the local madman; he walked with a wooden box tied so tightly against his chest that it seemed almost a part of him. When he breathed or cried out, the box jerked up and down. People said he'd once had a stash of gold coins, but awoke one morning to find them gone from the wooden box in which he hid them. When suspicion fell on his own brother, Ali Atrash went out of his mind. From that day on, he was scared of young children throwing stones at him. But they did it because they feared his madness. He would yell at them, nonsensical things like, 'Gold from the earth, gold from the earth!'
I tried to reassure my brother, telling him that Ali Atrash wouldn't harm us because he knew we were the children of a woman the locals called Little Miss Bashful. She had always treated him kindly, taken his hand when she met him, brought him to her house, sat him down on the threshold, bent over his shoeless feet and pulled out the thorns with her eyebrow tweezers, and given him food and drink.
Could he see us in the dark, we wondered? We each held our breath until we saw our house in the distance and knew for sure we were home. But before our joy could be fulfilled, we spied a figure wandering back and forth. I was sure it was Ali Atrash, but instead it was Mother waiting for us. When she saw us, she cried out and burst into tears. We whooped with pleasure.
'We've come home, Mother!' yelled Kamil. 'We've brought some lentils. I want you to have them.'
Mother began to sing, as if she was keening, and wrung her hands. She ran towards us, and we to her, until she wrapped us in her arms, weeping, kissing us and inhaling our scent.
'The bastard kidnapped you,' she kept saying. 'May God snatch him away too!'
She took us inside, and my brother scooped the lentils on to a plate. Mother had prepared some green beans and we ate with gusto. Then the three of us settled on the mattress. Mother sat, blowing on my brother's scalded thighs and my bleeding feet.
'Mother,' I asked, 'how did you know we would run away and come home?'
'I'm your mother, aren't I?'
I lay there, listening to the cows mooing in the back yard. I reminded myself that they snorted whether or not I was home, without knowing what was going on. Their huge eyes stared into the darkness as they lay down for the night. I stared hard through the darkness too, anxious to reassure myself that I was with Mother in the house and not with Father and his wife. This house would always stay where it was; I could see the bureau, the mirror, the living room, and the window.
I only felt sleepy when Mother finally lay down between me and my brother. The wind whistled and brushed the trees. The mooing soothed me to sleep, as if the cows were singing me a lullaby.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“A tale of female independence. . . . Deeply reflective and moving.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“The Locust and the Bird conquers the distance between mother and daughter, revealing the tragedies that can ensue when cultural machismo forces brave women into impossible choices.”
—Jayne Anne Phillips, More
“A vital [work] about the lives of Arabic families. . . . [It] has a warmth that crosses cultures and feels like a pure, shining blast of sun. . . . Al-Shaykh’s fictionalized account of her mother’s life burns with truth. . . . 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.”
—Los Angeles Times
“[A] poignant family history. . . . Through telling her mother’s story, [Al-Shaykh] learns to appreciate the sacrifices demanded of so many Arab women in their bid for freedom.”
—The New Yorker
“It is an extraordinarily brave act for a writer to undertake to inhabit, fully and sympathetically, the life her mother lived.”
—J.M. Coetzee, Nobel Prize-winning author of Disgrace
“What a Woman!!! What a storyteller!!! . . . I felt extremely lucky to spend time with someone so intelligent, full of humor and love.”
—Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis
“A richly tragic and rivetingly original tale. . . . Al-Shaykh's suspenseful, intimate biography throbs with the sense of wonder an Old World survivor experiences when colliding with the new. This voluptuous, deft dissection of a love that transcends borders, class and generations is a delight.”
“Courageously addresses both the themes of geographical separation and the jagged motifs of mother-daughter conflict. . . . I have never read a memoir which so clearly demonstrates art’s power to help us survive.”
—The Independent (London)
“Al-Shaykh is one of the most courageous writers of the Arab world. The story of her irrepressible mother, might help explain the origins of Hanan Al-Shaykh’s singular ability to trailblaze.”
—Rabih Alameddine, author of The Hakawati
“Extraordinary. . . . Hanan adeptly and generously captures the thoughts and concerns of a young woman growing up, the hard way, in Lebanon half a century ago.”
—Time Out (London)
“Frank and uncompromising. . . . Kamila’s trials are the trials of all women who have sought to be free; her choices some of the toughest yet made in the name of independence.”
—The Times (London)
“A riveting, deeply compelling character study that combines real dramatic tension with historical and political relevance. Charming, egotistical, funny, vain, spell-binding, al-Shaykh’s mother defies religion, family, and tradition to create a life on her own terms. A fabulously addictive read.”
—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Crescent
“A powerful book on the dangers of romantic love in mid-20th century Arab society.”
—The Guardian (London)
“Astonishing. . . . Spectacular. . . . [The Locust and the Bird] is Hanan al-Shaykh’s masterpiece. Kamila is Hanan’s most extraordinary character.”
—Charles R. Larson, The Jakarta Post
“An adventure tale, a confession, a tragic romance. . . . The book is that rarity—a memoir told in the round but through one set of eyes, so that we understand, increasingly, everyone’s motives, their saving graces, while ever more deeply seeing the flawed yet magical world through the sensibility of its subject.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.