Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Pub Date: August 25, 2009
Translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen
Having lived for years in the west I know that many people here don't "get" the concept of arranged marriages. For many of us, falling in love is the only reason one should get married. Having someone pick a match out for you is more like a business transaction....where's the romance, the passion, in something like that, right? But for many, arranged marriages are a way of life. Falling in love amounts to nothing, it carries no weight as Kamila, a beautiful and impetuous girl from a village in in South Lebanon was about to find out.
Although Kamila was in love with one Muhammad, her family decreed that she should marry her dead sister's aging husband(the sister was bitten by a rabid rat) . Kamila was only 14 years old but was deemed a suitable match because she was strong enough to look after her husband's kids, cook his food and warm his bed. More importantly, her sister's widower was the patriarch of the family and it almost seemed as if Kamila was sacrificed to him for the sake of her extended family who lived under his roof. Kamila's husband, Abu- Hussein Muhammad, was pious and strict whereas Kamila was free-spirited and irreverent. She defied him every chance she got and no matter how hard the family tried, they were unable to tame her.
It wasn't long, however, when she managed to reconnect with the love-of-her-life, Muhammad and very soon the two were planning secret rendezvous in Muhammad's bedroom in the house he shared with his family or in darkened cinemas. I'd love to tell you what happens next, but I can't for fear of giving away the story.
Kamila's story is narrated to us in the first person but written by her daughter, well known Arabic writer, Hanan Al- Shaykh. Al Shaykh says that the first person narrative was a deliberate choice, she said, “My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.” I found this to be a tenderly-crafted memoir and even though the faults of our protagonist Kamila are quite glaring, you cannot help but fall under her spell, and that is a tribute to the writer who has made Kamila an utterly irresistible character.
Although the protagonist's personality towers over the book it doesn't dwarf it. I found myself thinking a lot about different issues that this book bring up, like "First Loves", are they really as special as they are made out to be or they over-romanticized? "Child Marriages", granted, this was Beirut in the 1930's but even they knew better than to allow a man to get his 15-year old wife pregnant? "Child Abandonment", at what point does a mother's happiness become more important to her than her children and how do you ever explain that to your children? "Illiteracy", what role it plays in establishing one's status in the hierarchy of life. Would Kamila's life have been any easier if she could read and write? "Legacy", towards the end of her life Kamila was frantic about having her life recorded, how important is it to us to be remembered fondly and accurately?
The cover art is striking and, to me it looks like a vintage movie poster. Because Kamila could neither read nor write, going to the movies was her only entertainment and the reader will note that she gleaned everything she knew about love and life from the movies. Which brings us to the interesting question of how much does art influence life? You will ponder over all these issues and more in this beautiful memoir, so if you would like your own copy simply write me a line here and I will be happy to put your name in a hat for a draw that will take place in about two weeks from now.
**************WE HAVE A WINNER*************
DRUM ROLL PLEASE........................................
It's Apu of "Apu's World". Congratulations Apu, please send me your address and I would be delighted to put a copy of this book in the mail to you!
What does the title, The Locust and the Bird, refer to?
The Locust and the Bird is a fable about a king who was taking a stroll in his gardens when a Locust flew into the wide sleeve of his robe. A bird, in hot pursuit, flew in after it. The king sewed up the sleeve, sat on his throne and asked his people: “What is up my sleeve?” No one knew the answer. But it so happened that a man named Bird, who was desperately in love with a woman called Locust, was standing in the crowd. He came forward, only the face of his beloved in his mind, and proclaimed to his king:
Wails and Tales.
My life story is one long revelation.
Only the Locust can capture the Bird.
This is a story my mother told me. The locust signifies famine, hunger, destruction and unhappiness. Birds signify spring, love, hope and song. All these states describe my mother’s life.
Why did you finally decide to write and share your mother’s amazing story? Did she read any parts of it before she died, and what did she think of it? Did you sit down with her on a couple occasions right before and while writing the book, or are most of these tales your recollections when she told them to you growing up?
My mother left me when I was seven years old. This was her way of telling me why. As she unburdened, her story became an epic tale.My mother was illiterate, so she couldn’t read or write. But when we knew the book was going to be published, she had second thoughts: she didn’t want people to know how poor she’d been. When she was a child, she had to comb the fields after the harvest to find corn to eat. But after I read her a couple of chapters over the phone, she gave me her blessing.Yes, we sat together many times so she could relate her story, and then we continued over the phone, between Beirut and London . She’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember something and ring me at four in the morning.
Movies play an interesting and pivotal role in the book. What do you think movies represented for your mother? Do you think books played the same role in your own life?
Movies educated my mother. She learned everything about life through movies; about history, wars, countries, love, human bondage and relationships. She mimicked the movies: dressing, walking and talking like the stars she saw on the screen. She even learnt that pearls are found in the sea, and not in the ground. She escaped her stifling world through movies, as I later, entered a magical world through books.
You are primarily a fiction writer, how was it writing a non-fiction book, and one so personal as the memoir of your mother? Was it easy or difficult to find her voice and put it on paper?
I never felt writing The Locust and the Bird, that I was writing non-fiction. I felt all along it was a novel, the only difference being, in that when you write a novel, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to end. In this book, I knew all along where I was heading. In my fiction I usually inherit the soul of my characters to such an extent that I inhabit them for a while, and the same thing happened when I was writing this, I stepped into her shoes. What made it easy, is that my mother had the spirit of a novelist, she was a natural storyteller, and she remembered small details, like the color of a stone. It didn’t come easily at first. I struggled with her voice at the beginning. I wrote the first chapters with myself as narrator, but that didn’t work, and then I tried writing in the third person, but it lacked immediacy. Then when I realised that my mother had been burdened all her life by her illiteracy, I realised I was her voice in the sense that I was simply a conduit, and I all I had to do was put the pen on the page, something she’d never been able to do.
Though The Locust and the Bird takes place in Lebanon , how is it a universal tale?
The Locust and the Bird is a universal story in the sense it’s about families, and everything that surrounds them: love, divorce, adultery, abandonment, poverty, injustice. But most importantly, for me, it’s a story about forgiveness.
There is a line in the book that your mother, “transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.” What did you mean by that line, and what does it say about your mother and her life?
My mother lied all her life, she was crafty and deceitful; but of course she did this to survive, and escape the confines of society and home. She used to be called a seductress, and I was worried, when I began the book, that she’d seduce me too, out of bravado, or to cover up the painful parts of her life. But in fact, she told me her story with an astonishing directness and honesty. And that’s when I got to know her for the first time.