The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh

The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh

The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh is the story of the writer’s mother, a charismatic woman living her life as best she could in the 20th century in Beirut.

Through the story of Kamila we can learn about society a lot, a fate of women totally dependent on man, entailed in traditions and duties, their emancipation, their desire of love and constant fear of male members of the family.

The narrative construction is not typical, Al-Shaykh retells her mother story by using her voice, and reading it from her point of view. That makes a feeling of reading a diary, some episodes are mentioned and some not finished, but still, it gives a unique atmosphere. Kamila as an 8 years old girl together with her brother Kamil from the village in the South of Lebanon moves to Beirut with their mother who couldn’t support their living anymore. They move into her daughter’s house from her first marriage. Kamila and Kamil feel strange that their mum has already four children but they quickly must adjust to life with many relatives and live a life under their conditions. Soon they need to work to ear their keeping and they found the way through it. Kamila was thinking that her brother-in-law in his goodwill sends her to get a profession as a seamstress and not realizing that as an 11 years old girl she was already engaged with him. In the meantime, she falls in love in Muhammed a four years older boys who introduce her to the world of poetry and films. She sneaks to the cinema and learns the world from the Egyptian movie stars. She confuses the real world with the glitz of lives from the films she watches but she learns there too. Unfortunately, access to schooling was never offered to her, she remains illiterate all her life and relies a lot of things she learns from movies. By the age of fourteen, she is forced to marry her brother-in-law and soon after she becomes a mum. She doesn’t know how to hold her baby but she knows that her love for Muhammad is still strong. She continues to see him, despite being married, having two children and a brother Ibrahim, who spies and treats her like his property, it was more than her husband did. Kamila was prepared to wait until her elderly husband dies before marrying the love of her life because strong society traditions she couldn’t even think about getting divorced.

“The word ‘courage’ was an ointment to salve my wounds. Muhammed and I had both been ‘brazen’; we’d challenged society. Everyone was whispering about our scandal and my divorce, though no one had stopped for a second to consider the scandal of forcing a fourteen-year-old girl to marry her widowed brother-in-law.”

Finally, she divorced her husband and marry Muhamed but the prize for that was leaving her two daughters with him and a rejection from a family and friends.

“My coffee-morning friends cut me dead, as did the neighbours. I fought back with the only weapon I had: my love for Muhammad. I thought about the sheer misery of those women I’d once known so well, women who, unlike me, had never tasted the sweet pleasure s of love and passion. Their spouses never watched a film the way Muhammad and I did; they didn’t understand songs and fall under their spell; they never recorded their thoughts, wrote down proverbs, memorized poetry and recited it by heart. I decided Muhammad was enough for me and rejected the rest of them as they rejected me.”

But life by the side of love of her life wasn’t easy neither. She was constantly either pregnant or nursing, exhausted and simply struggling with all the housework. Their life improved when Muhammed had been promoted but still, they couldn’t keep freshness and innocence of their love like they used to.

“Your voice isn’t what it was,’ he said regretfully. “It’s almost as though it’s been strangled by rope”. He meant that my love for him was demising because I couldn’t sing as passionately as I had before.”

But she never gives up, always finds inspiration from the poetry and movies she keeps watching and radio programs she likes to listen to. She seems frivolous and ignorant but she loves drinking coffee with her many friends and tends her plants on the balcony where she observes life on the streets. She invented a Women Club where she allowed all divorced, single and any other women who needed company and chat. Her apartment was always full of relatives and friends and I am sure that if she could read she would create a book club too. She couldn’t count or manage a household budget but she never refuses help to anyone in need. The tragedy of her life was that she never was given a chance for a better life yet in her ignorance she tried her best, never failing to make people laugh. She spends many years in the US amazed that language and different culture can also be a big barrier not only an ability to read like she was convinced all her life.

Although Kamila’s life seems like a long gone past we know that until now she shares the experience with many women across the globe, who are not allowed to go to school, can’t have profession and independence from men and are forced to marry in the very young age.

This book is a vivid memoir of Hanan’s mother but also it mirrored the situation of all the woman who is deprived of the opportunity of getting an education. “We go up and down; we run hither and thither; we roam here and there and everywhere and we end up exactly where we began. And here I am, back in my place near Muhammad, to be with him for ever”

Reading this story has made me feel how Beirut, once named the “Paris of the Middle East” has been like, how vibrant, colourful and full of good food has been. How strong love can be, that Muhammad who loved poetry, literature and writing letters could spend his life by the side of women who could not even write her name. He kept promising to teach her to read but life was too bustling and too short to do it. There are so much life and tragedy in this story and I really loved this book and I’d like to recommend it to anyone who fancies trying something different than usual read.

Reviewer: Monika Barrera
Review rating: 5/5
Date published: March 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Language: English (Translated from Arabic)
Genre: Biography
ISBN 1408800845