In the prologue to The Locust and the Bird, an astonishing account of her mother’s life, Hanan al-Shaykh—the justly-praised Lebanese novelist—describes how her mother, who was illiterate, would have family and friends read her daughter’s writings aloud to her. No passive listener, Kamila would later engage her daughter with critical, if not barbed, questions about what Hanan had written, seemingly extending the painfully complicated relationship between the two of them, picking at details and obviously opening old wounds.
But there was more to these comments than Hanan initially realized. Responding to a series of political articles about important Lebanese “society matriarchs and grandes dames,” Kamila remarked to her daughter, “Those women were privileged. Maybe nobody encouraged them to do what they did, but at least they were not oppressed. But what about the women who are treated as less than human because they are born female? You don’t need to go out looking for such women. Here I am, right in front of you! Why don’t you interview me? I could tell you how my father sold me for ten gold coins. I could tell you how I was forced into marriage at the age of fourteen, how I was promised to your father when I was only eleven years old.”
Hanan soon realizes that the request is her mother’s strategy to repair the relationship severed between the two of them, which began when her mother divorced her father to marry Muhammad, who was young, unlike her first husband (an arranged marriage) who was old enough to be her father. Kamila was compelled to give up her two daughters for the divorce to be agreed upon. As Kamila tells her daughter decades later, “I was singled out, vilified, because I had divorced my husband and married the man I loved.” All this in a village in Lebanon circa 1940.
Marital bliss? Certainly not right away. Both Kamila, and her second husband Muhammad, were ostracized by their community, rejected by their families. It takes the birth of a son (preceded by a daughter) for Muhammad’s own family to accept his wife. Another major complication is that Kamila is not only illiterate but also cannot count—as a female in a poor family, she had been denied any education. Thus, unable to count money, she cannot manage the family budget. Strangely, Muhammad, who is highly educated and holds an important government job, makes no attempt to educate his wife in such matters.
Despite their original, passionate liaison—for which Kamala was willing to commit adultery, there are only brief periods of happiness in their marriage. Kamila’s first husband had raped her on their wedding night when she was fourteen, and Muhammad keeps getting her pregnant. When she is 34 years old and he is 38, Muhammad dies from injuries suffered in an automobile accident. She’s left with five children (not counting Hanan and her sister, who are still living with her first husband) between the ages of eight months and eight years and is still unable to manage money.
Kamila’s emblematic story of being a female in traditional Muslim society actually begins much earlier, when she is still a child and her recognition that she is nothing more than a “stone-bearing donkey” whose duties are always to take care of the male children in her extended family. They are the privileged ones who go to school, while all around her the women are exploited and abused. One of her sisters dies from rabies, another from a burst appendix. Her reward for revealing that she has had her first period is the forced marriage soon afterwards.
But always, Kamila fights back in her own way with remarkable courage and fortitude. Her rape results in her first pregnancy and the birth of Hanan’s older sister. But after that birth, Kamila refuses to sleep with her husband for four more years and only then because she believes that her lover, Muhammad, may have impregnated her. She carries on her affair with Muhammad for many years, modeling their relationship on that of the star-crossed lovers she observes in any number of middle-Eastern movies of the time. She goes through childbirth seven times and aborts two other pregnancies.
Kamila sums up her life after Muhammad’s tragic death: “It was clear to me now that I hadn’t been living a cinematic life, the life I’d imagined I’d had with Muhammad. In the end, what use had it been to me that Muhammad was acquainted with ministers and Members of Parliament, that he could recite love poetry by heart? What use had Muhammad’s huge office been to me, with assistants left and right? During our marriage, my endless pregnancies and exhaustion had left me isolated from friends and relatives. I’d seen the world through his eyes. After his death, it was as if I started out all over again. I had to learn how society was constructed and what went on in shops and offices by dealing with the humdrum business of everyday life.”
And Hanan, who was educated in Cairo and admits that she hardly knew her mother until she became an internationally-acclaimed novelist, what about her? The tensions between the two of them continued well after the birth of Hanan’s own two children, but then the pain finally began to dissipate because of Kamila’s insistence that Hanan give her the voice she had never had. The channeling of her mother’s point-of view is spectacular. The Locust and the Bird (the title is based on a traditional folk tale) is Hanan al-Shaykh’s masterpiece. Kamila is Hanan’s most extraordinary character. Hanan understands this. As she tells us at the end of her story, “My mother wrote this book.”
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.