Synopses & Reviews
“One of the most daring female writers of the Middle East” (San Francisco Chronicle) gives us an extraordinary work of nonfiction: an account of her mothers remarkable life, at the core of which is a tale of undying love.
In a masterly act of literary transformation, Hanan al-Shaykh re-creates the dramatic life of her mother, Kamila, in Kamilas 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 Mohammed, 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 Mohammed. Finally, after nearly 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 decision 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.
"Al-Shaykh, a Lebanese journalist and author of six novels (including Story of Zahra), finally succumbs to her illiterate mother Kamila's haranguing to write her story. The result falls somewhere between memoir and biography as she recreates and undoubtedly takes literary license with her mother's history. Kamila and her brother grow up in poverty, estranged from their father, until their mother moves them to Beirut to live with their older siblings from her first marriage in the 1930s. Soon, one of their sisters dies of rabies and the family marries 14-year-old Kamila unwillingly to the widower, Abu-Hussein, 18 years her elder. Kamila torments her husband to show her displeasure, but bears him two children by the age of 17. Her starry-eyed love of the cinema is all that assuages her unhappiness but also fuels her affair with a man her own age, Muhammed. After the 10-year affair has shamed both their families, she is granted a divorce from Abu-Hussein but must leave her two daughters behind, including the author, Hanan. Kamila has five more children with Muhammed. Though at times Kamila's life feels overly condensed, the author's journalistic talent reveals itself in her ability to get past her own abandonment to paint Kamila as a vivid, willful girl who lived as though she were the heroine of a great film." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
was born and raised in Lebanon. Her novels include Women of Sand
and Myrrh, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues, and Only in London, as well as a collection of short stories, I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops. She lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. Movies play a key role in Kamilas life and in this book. What did movies, especially The White Rose
, represent for Kamila? Were they just a source of pleasure and escapism, or something more? Like books, movies are a powerful form of storytelling. What does The Locust and the Bird
suggest about how stories shape and give meaning to Kamilas and to our lives?
2. Have you read anything else by Hanan al-Shaykh? She is a novelist, primarily. What fictional elements do you think she brings to this book? Why did she decide to tell her mothers story as a memoir, as truth, rather than fictionalize it?
3. The author was abandoned by her mother when Kamila left her husband for her lover. Do you think telling this story was a way for the author to forgive her mother for that betrayal? In writing her mothers story, was the author finally able to understand her mother, and thus forgive her?
4. Why does Hanan finally decide to tell the story of her mother? Why does she use the voice of her mother, in the first person? How does this affect the reader?
5. Why are there two voices-Hanans in the beginning and ending and Kamilas in the body of the book? Why does the author bookend the book in her own voice rather than her mothers?
6. Though The Locust and the Bird is set in Lebanon in the mid-twentieth century, how is this a universal tale?
7. There is a line in the book that Kamila “transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.” What does this mean and what does it say about Kamila?
8. Is Kamila an appealing, likable character? Which aspects of her character do you identify with or like the most and which do you like the least? Did your reaction to her as a little girl affect your reading experience later in the book? Would you have liked to have known her? Do you trust her, as a person and as the narrator?
9. What are the roles of women in the story? Compare and contrast the various women: Kamila, her mother, her daughter Hanan.
10. How do the portrayals of Abu-Hussein, Kamilas first husband, differ in the prologue (in Hanans voice) and the rest of the book (in Kamilas voice)? Why?
11. Describe how Mohammad and Kamila court each other and fall in love, despite the difficulties presented by the Muslim community in 1930s Lebanon.
12. How does Kamila resist and fight the rules and traditions of the religion and the socioeconomic class into which she is born?
13. Why does Kamila choose romantic love over all else? Do you find her courageous or crazy to have given up so much for love?
14. Describe the family and society Kamila was born into and grew up in. Why does her mother (who is herself fairly brave in the beginning of the book) force Kamila to marry her own brother-in-law at age thirteen?
15. What does the author suggest about the relationship between past and present, and between national and personal history? What role does Kamilas family history, and the stories of her childhood, play in shaping the adult Kamila? What is the influence of Lebanons political and historical events of the twentieth century?
16. What does the title mean? Who do you think is the locust, and who the bird? How do the title and the story of the locust and the bird connect with Kamilas drawings, in particular the use of the rose and the dove at the end? What do Kamilas drawings represent?