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The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story

Review

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story

I’ve never said this about a book I’ve reviewed, but
THE LOCUST AND THE BIRD is one of the best pieces of literature
I’ve ever read. The writing is flawless, the story is
completely captivating, and the fact that it’s all true is
remarkable.

Hanan Al-Shaykh writes this heart-wrenching account of her
mother Kamila in Kamila’s voice. Unlike most memoirists,
Al-Shaykh is filled with mixed emotions about the protagonist,
sharing --- and even hearing --- this story initially against her
will. Because she was abandoned by her mother at an early age, it
takes decades for her to open herself up to her mother’s
plight and to learn why her mother had let her go.

This is the story of a Lebanese girl born into poverty and
married at the age of 13 to her deceased aunt’s husband, 20
years her senior. Throughout (and before) this marriage, she is in
love with a young man named Mohammed, but is unable to be with him
because of her arranged marriage. We follow Kamila all the way from
childhood to her death, seeing her struggle to find her own
identity in her male-dominated world. Kamila spends her life
secretly viewing movies in the theater and feeling an affinity for
the heroines who are unable to be with the ones they love. Because
she is illiterate, the cinema is her guide to the outside world, to
possibilities and to misfortunes. She tries with all her might to
keep her life a comedy, but what unfolds on the page is true
dramatic tragedy, made light only by Kamila’s own sense of
spirit and joviality. With class differences, secret rendezvous,
political upheavals and damsels in distress, Kamila’s story
is itself worthy of the big screen.

What we do have, instead of a screen, are pictures. One picture,
at the back of the book, is referred to often throughout. It is of
Kamila and Mohammed, with Al-Shaykh and her sister etched out of
it. Naturally, Al-Shaykh grew up with this erasure breaking her
heart, as if her mother wanted to deny her existence. As we read
the pages, this picture comes to life. We realize its importance
and significance through the pen of one of its ghosts. It’s
as if we’re watching the end credits of a movie based on a
true story and are being shown pictures of the actual people the
actors played, reminding us that this is no fanciful
fabrication.

Al-Shaykh portrays Kamila as a multidimensional heroine. She is
at once benevolent and selfish, wise and naïve, and childlike
and old beyond her years. She does her justice by showing all sides
of her --- making her neither a villain nor a saint. Those of us
who have grown up with even a hint of poverty can understand her
obsession with material possessions, which give her not only the
feeling of social standing but something that is hers in a world
where she owns nothing --- not even her own children, or herself.
It will also naturally resonate with any of us who have lost a
parent at an early age --- either through abandonment, remarriage,
or any other means by which children do not understand their
parents’ separation from them.

For all of us, this story can be one of healing --- of seeing
our parents for the children they once were and for the obstacles
they had to overcome. Like Kamila, my father spent much of his life
lying in order to protect himself. My heart goes out to Al-Shaykh
for being able to hear her mother’s true story before she
died.

Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on December 30, 2010

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

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0307378209
  • ISBN-13: 9780307378200