Walking on Sunshine

Hanan Al-Shaykh – The Locust and the Bird – 2010/001

The Back of the Book: New York, 2001 – As Hanan al-Shaykh travels through the streets of Manhattan to her daughter’s wedding her mind is elsewhere.  Remembering her own secret ceremony some tirty years ago, her thoughts turn to her mother, Kamila, who was sacrificed into marriage:  her absent mother who, in recent, reconciled years, has pleaded with Hanan, her daughter the writer, to tell this story.

Lebanan, 1934 – Kamila is nine years old when she is taken from the poverty of her childhood village in southern Lebanon to Beirut.  Though she has never learned to read or write, stories, poetry and films are her passion, and she longs to go to school.  Instead, she is to be a ‘stone-bearing donkey’, to lead a life of domestic servitude – and worse, what Kamila doesn’t know is that she has been secretly betrothed to her brother-in-law, Abu-Hussein, a man eighteen years her senior.

A welcome escape from the strict household, Kamila is apprenticed to Fatme the seamstress.  And it is from Fatme’s place that one day Kamila catches sight of a beautiful young man, Muhammad, sitting by a fountain.  At the age of thirteen, for what will be the first and only time in her life, Kamila falls deeply in love.

The following year, to her fury and anguish, her tears and screams futile, Kamila is married to Abu-Hussein.  That night, he forces himself upon his child-bride and a daughter is conceived:  four years later, Kamila’s second daughter, Hanan, is born.

In secret, but risking everything, Kamila continues to see Muhammad.  But in choosing to follow her heart, she must also, agonisingly, leave behind her beloved daughters …

Beautifully evoking the dusty streets of Beirut and the fabric of life in Lebanon, The Locust and the Bird is a remarkable and intensely moving memoir.  Told in a voice that is entirely distinctive and authentic, this unique portrait of the life of one woman gives us an astonishing insight into the lives of many others in the Arab world.

NotJustLaura’s Review: I first came across this book being read aloud on Radio 4.  I didn’t hear the whole thing but was fascinated by what I did hear of a child forced to marry her brother-in-law while in love with another man.  I did not know how the story might end or even what route it might take and I assumed it was fictio for, surely, such atrocities didn’t really happen?  Ms Al-Shaykh assures us that they do.

This is the story – the true story – of Ms Al-Shaykh’s mother, Kamila.  After the family falls on hard times, Kamila finds herself in front of a strange man to whom she must say:

You are hereby my witness.

Although she has no inkling, that is the beginning of her nightmare.  Meanwhile, she meets the man she loves and hopes to marry and therein lies the story.

Ms Al-Shaykh begings her book writing in her own voice as she explains how she came to write her mother’s memoir.  And it is here, right at the beginning, that the book falls down for she tells us the ending before she has even begun.  She then moves on to write as her mother, narrating her own life-story but, with the conclusion of the lovers’ story already achieved in those opening pages, the dramatic potential of Kamila’s story, and much f its power, is lost.

Kamila is not a sympathetic character much of the time, her love affair belongs to a culture which remains alien to me and the later stages of her life dragged by.  I feel that this book would have had far more impact if Ms Al-Shaykh had allowed Kamila to speak from the start and perhaps, added her own thoughts ad feelings at the end.  As it stands, this is a rather confused book and, perhaps, a wasted opportunity.

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