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The Locust and the Bird

The Locust and the Bird

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Written by Hanan al-ShaykhAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hanan al-Shaykh

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • On Sale: April 6, 2010
  • Price: $16.95
  • ISBN: 978-0-307-47231-1 (0-307-47231-0)
Also available as an eBook.
about this book

“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 mother’s 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 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 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 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.

“Al-Shaykh’s poignant family history, narrated in the voice of her mother, Kamila, transports us to Beirut in the nineteen-thirties. At eleven, the beautiful and strong-willed Kamila is illiterate, her family penniless. She falls in love with the handsome Muhammad, but at fourteen is married off to an older man. . . . Later, Kamila runs away with Muhammad, abandoning her daughters. Al-Shaykh writes in the prologue that this book is largely an attempt to come to terms with that decision. Through telling her mother’s story, she learns to appreciate the sacrifices demanded of so many Arab women in their bid for freedom.” —The New Yorker

“I’ve never said this about a book I’ve reviewed, but The Locust and the Bird is one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. The writing is flawless, the story is completely captivating, and the fact that it’s all true is remarkable. . . . Kamila [is] a multidimensional heroine. . . . For all of us, this story can be one of healing—of seeing our parents for the children they once were and for the obstacles they had to overcome.” —Shannon Luders-Manuel,

“Courageously addresses both the themes of geographical separation and the jagged motifs of mother-daughter conflict . . . I have never read a memoir which so clearly demonstrates art’s power to help us survive. Kamila’s tale . . . gains extra poignancy from being dictated to her daughter. The daughter, giving birth to her mother, learns to love her.
—Michele Roberts, The Independent (London)

“It is an extraordinarily brave act for a writer to undertake to inhabit, fully and sympathetically, the life her mother lived.”
—J.M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace

“A riveting, deeply compelling character study that combines real dramatic tension with historical and political relevance. Charming, egotistical, funny, vain, and spellbinding, al-Shaykh’s mother defies her religion, family, and tradition to create a life on her own terms. A fabulously addictive read.”
—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Crescent

“Frank and uncompromising . . . 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 [her story] retold so beautifully is a great tribute to her.”
—Sarah Vine, The Times (London)

“Al-Shaykh is one of the most courageous writers of the Arab world. This story of her irrepressible mother might help explain the origins of al-Shaykh’s singular ability to trailblaze.”
—Rabin Alameddine, author of The Hakawati

“A powerful book on the dangers of romantic love in mid-20th century Arab society.” —Will Hodgkinson, The Guardian (London)

“The author beautifully captures her mother’s impish character, her ability to turn every occasion into a laugh. Her inability to manage money is ever present, as is her warmth and her humanity. The book follows Kamila’s life story, but the real depth of the story is in the understanding and love that develops between mother and daughter. The initial suspicion between them evaporates and a deep love develops.” –The Irish Examiner

“This is a tale of many reckonings. . . . It is an adventure tale, a confession, a tragic romance. It is also an exposé of what happens to a vulnerable young Muslim woman, shaped by strict conventions, religious and social. It is the story of what ensues when that headstrong female attempts to buck the accepted mores, becoming outrageous, vociferous, scandalously in thrall to love and freedom, and fighting fiercely for her independence. It is a rhapsody to the courage of living one’s dreams, a rhapsody, too, to the courage of dealing with the flak that is endured as a result. . . . The book is that rarity - a memoir told in the round but through one set of eyes, so that we understand, increasingly, everyone’s motives, their saving graces, while ever more deeply seeing the flawed yet magical world through the sensibility of its subject. . . . There are among other things marvellous insights into history and change in the Middle East through Kamila’s lifetime; that, and the music of survival through defiance, writ large and small.” —Tom Adair, The Scotsman

“Astonishing. . . . Spectacular. . . . [The Locust and the Bird] is Hanan al-Shaykh’s masterpiece. Kamila is Hanan’s most extraordinary character.” —Charles R. Larson, The Jakarta Post

“Hanan puts aside her old resentments to tell her mother’s remarkable and poignant story, and gradually comes to understand all her mother has been through, and how she survived.” —Booklist

“I’ve never said this about a book I’ve reviewed, but The Locust and the Bird is one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. The writing is flawless, the story is completely captivating, and the fact that it’s all true is remarkable. . . . Kamila [is] a multidimensional heroine. . . . For all of us, this story can be one of healing—of seeing our parents for the children they once were and for the obstacles they had to overcome.” —Shannon Luders-Manuel,

“A tale of female independence. . . . Deeply reflective and moving. . . . Al-Shaykh climbs into the body of her mother, skillfully re-creating the voice of a talented and charismatic storyteller. . . . Our unconventional mothers may make choices that damage our hearts, but as al-Shaykh shows us, those same choices can ultimately save us from a fate such as theirs. We can honor them by holding the nuances of their lives up to the light. We can become what they could not become. In doing so, we set them free.” —Susanne Pari, San Francisco Chronicle

“The writer masterfully blends Arabic parable and Western resolve to enter her illiterate mother’s mind and heart, writing what [her mother] could not. The Locust and the Bird conquers the distance between mother and daughter, revealing the tragedies that can ensue when cultural machismo forces brave women into impossible choices.” —Jayne Anne Phillips, More

“A vital novel about the lives of Arabic families. . . . [It] burns with truth on so many levels, it would be sad indeed if this book did not make its way into many, many handbags. . . . The language is lustrous, and the translation so smooth I had trouble believing it was originally written in Arabic. . . . Forgiveness—not anger—saturates this book like a perfume; every character is desperately, vulnerably human. Al-Shaykh’s triumph is that she retrieves her mother’s wisdom—a wondrous lesson for grown daughters everywhere. [The Locust and the Bird] has a warmth that crosses cultures and feels like a pure, shining blast of sun.” —Laurel Maury, Los Angeles Times

"While I was reading Hanan's book, 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!!! When I finished the book I had one major thought: this 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