The Locust and the Bird
My Mother's Story
By Hanan Al-Shaykh
(Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780307378200, 320pp.)
Publication Date: August 25, 2009
List Price: $24.95*
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“One of the most daring female writers of the Middle East” (San Francisco Chronicle) gives us an extraordinary work of nonfiction: an account of her mother’s remarkable life, at the core of which is a tale of undying love.
In a masterly act of literary transformation, Hanan al-Shaykh re-creates the dramatic life of her mother, Kamila, in Kamila’s own voice. We enter 1930s Beirut through the eyes of the unschooled but irrepressibly spirited nine-year-old child who arrives there from a small village in southern Lebanon. We see her drawn to the excitements of the city, to the thrill of the cinema, and, most powerfully, to Mohammed, the young man who will be the love of her life.
Despite a forced marriage at the age of thirteen to a much older man, despite the two daughters she bears him (one of them the author), despite the scandal and embarrassment she brings to her family, Kamila continues to see Mohammed. Finally, after nearly a decade, her husband gives her a divorce, but she must leave her children behind
The Locust and the Bird is both a tribute to a strong-willed and independent woman and a heartfelt critique of a mother whose decision were unorthodox and often controversial. As the narrative unfolds through the years (Kamila died in 2001) we follow this passionate, strong, demanding, and captivating woman as she survives the tragedies and celebrates the triumphs of a life lived to the very fullest.
HANAN AL-SHAYKH was born and raised in Lebanon. Her novels include Women of Sand
and Myrrh, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues, and Only in London, as well as a collection of short stories, I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops. She lives in London.
“[Hanan al-Shaykh] masterfully blends Arabic parable and Western resolve to enter her illiterate mother’s mind and heart, writing what [her mother] could not. 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
“While I was reading Hanan’s book, my regret as an author was not to have known Kamila, Hanan’s mother, the extravagant narrator of this book. What a Woman!!! What a storyteller!!! When I finished the book I had one major thought: this the kind of story one needs to be a real Lebanese in order to turn it into a movie. That was my other regret as a movie maker. But most of all I felt extremely lucky to spend time with someone so intelligent, full of humor and love.”
—Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis
“A vital novel about the lives of Arabic families. . . . [It] burns with truth on so many levels, it would be sad indeed if this book did not make its way into many, many handbags. . . . 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. [The Locust and the Bird] has a warmth that crosses cultures and feels like a pure, shining blast of sun.”
—Los Angeles Times
“A tale of female independence. . . . Deeply reflective and moving. . . . Al-Shaykh climbs into the body of her mother, skillfully re-creating the voice of a talented and charismatic storyteller. . . . Our unconventional mothers may make choices that damage our hearts, but as al-Shaykh shows us, those same choices can ultimately save us from a fate such as theirs. We can honor them by holding the nuances of their lives up to the light. We can become what they could not become. In doing so, we set them free.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“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
“Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the most courageous writers of the Arab world. Her novels, chock full of marvelous characters, conventional and unconventional, have drastically changed how women in the Middle East are perceived. This memoir, 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
“A riveting, deeply compelling character study, The Locust and the Bird combines real dramatic tension with historical and political relevance. Charming, egotistical, funny, vain, spell-binding, Hanan al-Shaykh’s mother Kamila defies religion, family, and tradition to create a life on her own terms, demanding true love and resisting oppression at all costs. This is a fabulously addictive read.”
—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Crescent
“Tender. . . . [The Locust and the Bird] courageously addresses both the themes of geographical separation and the jagged motifs of mother-daughter conflict. Finally, it draws them beautifully together. . . . I have never read a memoir which so clearly demonstrates art’s power to help us survive. Kamila’s tale, energetically translated by Roger Allen, gains extra poignancy from being dictated to her daughter; held inside her daughter’s tale. The daughter, giving birth to her mother, learns to love her.”
—The Independent (London)
“Frank and uncompromising. . . . Anyone wishing to put a face to a world that is as misunderstood as it is maligned will love this book. That vital human connection is here, regardless of religion or the passage of time. 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. To have it retold so beautifully is a great tribute to her.”
—The Times (London)
“A powerful book on the dangers of romantic love in mid-20th century Arab society.”
—The Guardian (London)
“The author beautifully captures her mother’s impish character, her ability to turn every occasion into a laugh. Her inability to manage money is ever present, as is her warmth and her humanity. The book follows Kamila’s life story, but the real depth of the story is in the understanding and love that develops between mother and daughter. The initial suspicion between them evaporates and a deep love develops.”
—The Irish Examiner
“This is a tale of many reckonings. . . . It is an adventure tale, a confession, a tragic romance. It is also an exposé of what happens to a vulnerable young Muslim woman, shaped by strict conventions, religious and social. It is the story of what ensues when that headstrong female attempts to buck the accepted mores, becoming outrageous, vociferous, scandalously in thrall to love and freedom, and fighting fiercely for her independence. It is a rhapsody to the courage of living one’s dreams, a rhapsody, too, to the courage of dealing with the flak that is endured as a result. . . . 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. . . . There are among other things marvellous insights into history and change in the Middle East through Kamila’s lifetime; that, and the music of survival through defiance, writ large and small.”
“Astonishing. . . . Spectacular. . . . [The Locust and the Bird] is Hanan al-Shaykh’s masterpiece. Kamila is Hanan’s most extraordinary character.”
—The Jakarta Post
“Hanan puts aside her old resentments to tell her mother’s remarkable and poignant story, and gradually comes to understand all her mother has been through, and how she survived.”