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The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh

The Locust and the Bird (2009)

by Hanan Al-Shaykh

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Grew on me as I went along. Loved the chain-smoking and Egyptian soap operas. ( )
  dmarsh451 | Apr 1, 2013 |
An author writes her mother's story.

What touched me most about this book was the fact that in telling this story to her novelist / journalist daughter, Kamila Al Shaykh managed to explain the reasons why she had felt compelled to abandon her two oldest daughters (one of whom is the author of this book) to their father and leave to marry her long time love, Mohammed. In fact, she stayed 7 years in her loveless marriage to her much older husband, the man who had been married to her deceased elder sister. She had been promised at the age of 11 and married to him when she was 14, bearing her first child a year later.
She lived in Lebanon and had come from a background of severe poverty and illiteracy She recognised the value of a roof over her head, but could not bring herself to love this man. He was extremely religous and would have been horrified had he known of the many things that she seemed able to do behind his back, including visiting her lover, Mohammed. Mohammed was her first love, who she had met before she was betrothed, and had always assumed she would marry once he returned from his studies, but her family decided otherwise.

Hanan Al Shaykh tells her mother's story in the voice of her mother throughout. The one exception is the introductory chapter where she describes her mother's pleas that she write the book, and her resistance to the idea. Mother and daughter had begun to build bridges by this time but for a long time they had been estranged.

I did not find Kamila a particularly endearing character, although it would be impossible not to pity her plight. She was extremely childish and spoilt, traits that she did not seem to grow out of. She was also very selfish, endangering many people who, knowingly, or otherwise, helped her to visit Mohammed - even her young daughters. Later in life she spent recklessly, always living beyond her means, encouraging constant visitors in her attempt to block out the past. All her children, however, grew to achieve a great deal in life, gaining qualifications and wealth that their illiterate mother would never have dreamed of.

The list of family members and aquaintances at the begining of the book was invaluable, especially as many had similar names and complicated relationships. It could, however, have been more comprehensive as several characters were not listed.

While a lot of the story of Kamila Al Shaykh's life was fascinating, I did not find the book a comfortable read, it was a bit leaden in its presentation, sticcato, rather like a diary, not gelling into a narrative.
It did produce an interesting book discussion though, so was worth reading for that reason. ( )
1 vote DubaiReader | Jun 16, 2011 |
Beautiful heartbreaking but also uplifting this memoir gives you an insight into the life of a plucky and extraordinary woman ( )
  ilurvebooks | Dec 9, 2010 |
Hanan al-Shaykh is the author of several books, which often focus on women's issues. In "The Locust and the Bird," she recounts the true story of her mother, Kamila. She clearly envisions the feelings of 13-year-old Kamila, forced to marry a much older man when she is really in love with Mohammed. At an age where most young women are just beginning to form their identities and goals for their future, Kamila becomes a mother.

Kamila possesses a great deal of spunk and is willing to defy the expectations of her family and society in order to pursue her love. She is ostracized for the choices she makes, and points out with irony that no one ostracizes her husband for forcing a 13-year-old into marriage. Kamila's voice challenges the traditional roles and expectations of women as she charts her own course. At times her character can appear shallow and selfish, but this serves to remind the reader that the mother of two is, in fact, a young teenager with similar hopes, fears and feelings to other teens.

The love story of Kamila and Mohammad is touching and one can't help but root for them. The story of Kamila's estrangement, and ultimate reconciliation, with the author is equally compelling. This is a short novel but it tackles many themes: mother-daughter relationships, romantic love, and the choices women face in a male-dominated society. It's definitely a worthwhile read. ( )
  Litfan | Mar 5, 2010 |
This is Ms. al-Shaykh's semi-biography of her mother, told after decades of a relationship marred by the mother's abandonment of her family in order to be with her lover.

On the positive side, it is a interesting work for its depiction of pre-1975 Lebanon, particularly the life of the abjectly poor, illiterate families living away from Beirut. We are exposed to the extended family systems that promise support but sometimes deliver betrayal as individuals climb over their relatives to escape poverty; the forced marriage, through trickery and actual coercion, of a girl at age 13; the patriarchal system that leaves divorced women nigh on desperate. For these aspects of the book, I would recommend it.

On the other side, Hanan al-Shaykh's mother, Kamila, failed to appeal, even marginally. It was easy to summon compassion for her, to understand the cries of, "don't judge her so, look at her life!" Yet, that was not enough. I found it impossible to feel any respect, much less liking, for the self-centered girl and, then, woman. For this particular type of story to have worked for me, I needed to feel at least some tiny modicum of fondness for the subject but all I could feel was distaste for a thoroughly unpleasant person whose goal in all things large and small seemed to be self-gratification regardless of the cost to those around her. The language the author used, somewhat simple and emotionless, also contributed to the lack of engagement.

I don't begrudge Ms. al-Shaykh taking the opportunity but the book felt a trifle self-indulgent, as if she was focused on making amends for her part in the failed relationship rather than crafting a tale for the reader. Since those exorcisms have little relevance for me, sitting outside of the personal relationships, I was left only with a rather dry story about someone I disliked.

I can only give this a minor recommendation for its glimpse of Lebanon before its Civil War tore the country apart. ( )
  TadAD | Nov 8, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
"The Locust and the Bird" is billed as a story of undying romantic love - the cover art reinforces this notion - but it is, at heart, a tale of female independence.

Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh's fictionalized account of her mother's life burns with truth on so many levels, it would be sad indeed if this book did not make its way into many, many handbags. (I say handbags because this is very much a woman's book.) It's about true love, the way a young girl's dreams of the cinema can teach her to use her beauty as both shield and weapon, and how family obligations can weigh down a life. The language is lustrous, and the translation so smooth I had trouble believing it was originally written in Arabic.
This tender memoir, The Locust and the Bird, taking off from the folklore motif of the attraction of opposites, 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.
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.
added by jlelliott | editThe Times, Sarah Vine (May 28, 2009)
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To my sisters and brothers
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I am in one of the three black limousines roaring through the streets of New York City, like barracudas on speed. (Prologue)
It all began on the day that my brother Kamil and I chased after Father, with Mother's curses ringing in our ears.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307378209, Hardcover)

Amazon Exclusive: Marjane Satrapi Reviews The Locust and the Bird

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran and now lives in Paris, where she is a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers throughout the world, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. She is the author of the internationally bestselling and award-winning Persepolis and Persepolis 2. She co-wrote and directed the Academy Award-nominated animated film version of Persepolis. Read Satrapi's exclusive Amazon guest review of The Locust and the Bird:

While I was reading Hanan Al Shaykh’s new book, The Locust and the Bird, 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! She reminds me of my beloved grandmother (who is in many of my books), and many other women of her generation that I knew, who were manipulative in order to survive, who lied in order to establish the truth, and, most of all, so full of life and passion. When I finished the book I had one major thought: this book needs to be made into a movie, but this is 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

(Photo © Maria Ortiz)

Amazon Exclusive: Hanan al-Shaykh on The Locust and the Bird

My mother was a phenomenon to all those who knew her. She lived her hard life in a peculiar comic way. My mother lied, stole, betrayed, abandoned her children. Loved, hated and said no to her family, to her society. She was also beaten, cursed, starved and adored. She lived in Beirut. Her flat was like a hotel lobby, a psychiatrist’s couch, a stage. Young and old gathered around her as if they were in the presence of a comic guru. She took anti-depressants: "the only way to cope with her popularity," she told me once. I knew that she first took them to help ease her guilt for abandoning my sister and me.

Though I never blamed her for leaving me at the age of 6, and for not being interested in me, nonetheless, I found myself building a wall between us. Throughout the years she never stopped explaining to me the reason for leaving my father to marry her lover. When I eventually listened to her story I found myself, as a novelist, face to face with a treasure wrapped in a tissue paper. --Hanan Al-Shaykh

(Photo © Hanan al-Shaykh)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In a masterly act of literary transformation, celebrated novelist 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 Mohammad, 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 Mohammad. Finally, after 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 decisions 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."--book jacket.… (more)

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