I received my copy of The Locust and the Bird from J. Kals of Random House. Thank you!
Hanan al-Shaykh, a journalist from Beruit, writes this memoir of her mother. The voice of the work is not al-Shaykh's, but that of Kamila, her mother. al-Shaykh really gets into her mother's skin by using Kamila's voice while telling the story.
Well, how bad was Kamila's life? When her own father left the family, Kamila, her mom, and her brother would go to a field. "The wheat had been cut and the field was empty. Mother bent over the red soil and picked up the leftover grain that was scattered on the ground, after the reapers had done their work afternoon...The wheat gleamed like tiny bits of gold. But I was scared of the snakes that lazed in the shade under the stalks." These grains of wheat feed Kamila and her family, because they couldn't afford to buy any food!
Kamila moved to Beruit, moves into her brother-in-law's home, where she does housework and never goes to school. She later marries this brother-in-law (at age 13!) when her sister dies, but very unwillingly. Many years after giving birth to Fatima and Hanan (our author), Kamila divorces her husband and marries her first love. She never learned to read and had to fight male authorities when the second husband dies. She escapes her misery through the movies, enjoying the company of women, and her love for her second husband.
Kamila's story is one of survival in a patriarchal society. However, her decision to leave her first husband does have consequences, that she doesn't realize until the years pass.
This memoir includes photos and a family tree, and a picture of Kamila's telephone book. Kamila drew a "picture of a person alongside their telephone number..then Hanan spotted the dove I'd drawn next to her name - because she was flying off somewhere."
al-Shaykh was gracious enough to answer some of my questions in an E-interview. Check out her replies in blue.
Did your grandmother ever explain why the marriage between your parents was so important for her financial survival and that of Ibrahaim or even admit this fact to themselves?
No, my grandmother used to weep whenever she saw me or saw my sister Fatima, but rumours in the family, especially from Uncle Ibrahim circulated that my grandmother married my mother off so that the motherless grandchildren - rather than a strange step mother - would benefit from the money
Did your father ever explain why Kamila left home? Or did he retreat more into his prayers? How did the other family members treat you? Did Kamila ever ask what happened after the divorce?
My father never wanted to discuss anything about my mother and the divorce, but he never stopped describing her as "tarred and feathered" whenever we mentioned her name. Other family members ignored the subject, but we could sense they were against the divorce and the blame was always on my mother. I do not recall that we were treated differently by them but we were made fun of by the children in our neighbourhood. Kamila would hear us talking our new stepmother from hell and she would threaten to take her revenge.
Personality-wise, Kamila seems to be a teenager (self-absorbed, leaving child rearing to others to go out, etc,). Did she ever realize that leaving you and Fatima would affect you at that moment and later on? Did she “grow up” in her later years?
She never thought that leaving us would affect us. She was too young to realise that, but as she matured she started blaming herself until she was consumed by guilt.
Were you encouraged to have a relationship with your half-siblings?
I just loved by half-siblings, though I felt a pang of jealousy from my younger sister, Ahlam, because on one of my visits to my mother, I saw her wearing pink pyjamas.
Did Kamila ever tell you stories of her youth when you were a child? Did she encourage your education?
No, she never encouraged my education. Whenever my sister Fatima and I visited her, she would be busy with her life and new family. She started showing interest in me when I became a journalist.
The voice that you wrote the memoir was excellent. I felt that it captured Kamila’s feelings.
Do you have hope that your work will help the Muslim leaders to examine how women are treated and the role of arranged marriages?
My mother was so keen that I write her lifestory also because she wanted every single father, brother, uncle and grandfather... all the patriarchal society to treat their females as equals, and not as sub-humans as she was treated. But of course when the Locust and the Bird was published in Arabic in Lebanon and people read it, I felt that it shocked many women, especially the independents and the professionals and it echoed also the life of mothers and grandmothers of many ho were pushed into an arranged marriage.
How I wish that Muslim leaders would read this!