Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird

In The Locust and the Bird, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh tells her mother’s life story, in her mother’s voice. Kamila, Hanan’s mother, is born to a destitute family in southern Lebanon in the late 1920s. They move to Beirut to live with an older half-sister, Manifa, though they are expected to earn their keep by selling wares door-to-door. In Beirut, Kamila discovers the world of music, fashion, and Egyptian movies. She also meets the love of her life, a cultivated man named Mohammed. When Manifa dies unexpectedly, the illiterate Kamila is married off, at the age of thirteen, to Manifa’s widower. They have two children (one of whom is the novelist) before Kamila manages to be reunited with Mohammed, whom she marries and to whom she bears several children.

Translated by Roger Allen, The Locust and the Bird is in some ways a tragic story, but it’s also an inspiring story, in which a woman manages to survive by her wits alone. Kamila is constantly trying to figure out ways to outsmart the men in her family. This is because, she tells us, “most of my friends were scared of every man in their family — even distant relatives — and this included the rich and the grand, like my glamorous cousin Mira.” Although Kamila’s struggles are occasionally rendered with minimal empathy and psychological depth, the story is engrossing. Reading this book, one comes to understand why Al-Shaykh has written so many novels with feisty heroines fighting back against male domination.

Photo credit: Al Ahram.