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The Locust and the Bird
My Mother's Story
Written by Hanan al-Shaykh

The Locust and the Bird
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Category: Biography & Autobiography - Religious; Social Science - Women's Studies; Religion - Islam - General
Imprint: Anchor
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: April 2010
Price: $16.95
Can. Price: $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-47231-1 (0-307-47231-0)
Pages: 320


1932: Ever Since I Can Remember

It all began on the day that my brother Kamil and I chased after  Father, with Mother's curses ringing in our ears. I hoped and prayed  God would take vengeance on him. He'd fallen in love with another  woman, deserted us, and married her.

Mother had been to court in Nabatiyeh to seek child-support  payments, but it did no good. Kamil and I were hunting for him so  that he would buy us food. We ran over the rocky ground to the next  village where he lived. We searched in the market at Nabatiyeh,  asking people where we might find him. The sound of his voice and his  loud laugh finally led us to him; he was too short to spot in a  crowd, much shorter than Mother. Following her instructions, we asked  him to buy us sugar and meat. He agreed immediately, telling us to  follow him. We tagged along, our eyes glued to his back, terrified of  losing him among the piled-up sacks of burghul and lentils, camels,  donkeys, sheep and chickens, hawkers and vendors peddling their  wares. At times he disappeared and we'd panic, thinking we had lost  him for ever; then he'd reappear and our spirits would soar. Finally  he gave up trying to lose us. He told us that he had no money and  could buy us nothing. He described how to find our uncle's cobbler's  stall near by and then he vanished.

Kamil yelled Father's name as loudly as he could above the vendors'  cries and the bleating of the animals.

'Listen, boy,' said a man selling sheepskins. 'That voice of yours is  about as much use as a fart in a workshop full of metal beaters!'

We made our way back to Mother. She was waiting with her brother at  his cobbler's stall. When she saw we were empty-handed, she frowned  and swore she'd go back to court. We arrived home with no meat, no  rice, no sugar. Mother made us tomato Kibbeh without meat. She  squeezed the tomatoes and the red juice oozed between her fingers.  Did the tomato pips feel pain and try to escape, I wondered? Didn't  Mother say that Father had crushed her heart?

Mother kneaded the Kibbeh.

'Look how red it is, and there's burghul in it, just like real  Kibbeh,' she said brightly.

Like real Kibbeh? Who was she fooling? Where was the raw meat to be  tenderised? Where was our wooden mortar and pestle, which I would  recognise out of a thousand? Real Kibbeh? Then why wasn't Mother  extracting those white, sinew-like bits of thread and making a pile  of them, leaving the meat looking like peeled figs?

The next day Mother took us to court and talked to a man called a  sheikh, who wore a turban shaped like a melon.

'My husband's refusing to support them,' she told him, pushing us  forward. 'How am I supposed to feed my children? By cutting off a  piece of my own hand? How am I supposed to clothe them? By flaying my  own skin?'

We listened as the man in the turban talked to Mother. He used one  phrase that stuck in my mind: 'The payment due to you will be sitting  right there, in the middle of your home.' I thought he meant it would  happen literally; I didn't realise it was a figure of speech. The  moment we got home I started pacing the floor, the way I'd seen older  people measure things, even graves. When I'd calculated the exact  middle of our home, I sat by the spot and waited for the lira to appear.

A neighbour came in to offer Mother advice.

'Let him have the children,' she said. 'Stop torturing yourself!'

'Get out of my sight!' Mother yelled, and chased her to the door.  'Before I throw you into the prickly pear bush!'

Needless to say, the money never appeared, not in the middle of the  house or anywhere else. One day, Kamil and I were playing with some  children at the front of the house. Mother was busy in the vegetable  plot picking some of the beans she'd planted and hunting for wild  endive and chard. Father arrived and asked us to go with him to the  market so he could buy us clothes, meat, sugar, molasses and  sweetmeats. We were so hungry and excited that we forgot to tell  Mother. Without even putting on our shoes, we rushed to Father and  ran along behind him.

As we walked he kept adding to his promises.

'I want to buy you some new shoes as well. They'll be so shiny you'll  see your faces in them!' he said.

He took us along a path between rocks, thorns and a few trees. But we  knew this wasn't the way to the market; the path led to the  neighbouring village, where he and his new wife lived.

'So she thinks she's smarter than me?' he told his new wife when we  arrived at their house. 'They can live here. Then there'll be no  expense and no headaches either.'

It was a long night. We tossed and turned, yearning for Mother. I  worried that she must be imagining a hyena had pissed on our legs,  enchanting us and stealing us away to its lair, where it would tear  the flesh from our bones. Or perhaps she thought that the earth had  opened up and swallowed us. But my brother assured me that the  children we'd been playing with would tell her that we'd gone with  Father. We fell asleep clutching each other, listening to each  other's heartbeats, missing the sound of our cows in the night.

In the morning, I found I could not read Father's wife's expression.  But at home, I had no trouble understanding Mother. I knew that I  loved her. I also knew that, because Mother didn't like Father's  wife, I wasn't obliged to like her either. I stared at her eyes,  trying to discover the secret of their green colour - they were the  first eyes I'd seen that weren't black. Did she put green kohl around  them? Mother had black eyes - she ground black stones and used the  grinds to line her eyes. We missed Mother so much that we couldn't  swallow our breakfast of molasses and sugar. We had to sip tea with  each mouthful.

My brother and I sat close to each other, staring and yawning,  waiting for evening. Time passed slowly. It was the summer holidays  and Father wasn't teaching in the second room of his house, so we  didn't even sit and watch the lessons. We had never asked if Mother  could send us to a teacher in Nabatiyeh; we knew that she couldn't  afford it.

We made up our minds to run away just before sunset. There was no  forethought; it was just the idea of another night in bed without  Mother sleeping between us, a hand stretched out to touch each child,  that made us leave. We waited on the porch until Father's wife put  down a dish of lentils by the stone bread-oven. As soon as she  disappeared inside to knead her dough, my brother grabbed the dish of  lentils and poured the contents into his djellabah, gasping at the  heat. Then we ran barefoot, back the way we'd come, over the brown  and red stones, over the sparse vegetation, never stopping to worry  about thorns or the scalding lentils. We kept running - not hand in  hand as my mother used to instruct us. 'Promise me, you won't let  anybody separate your hands, even angels,' she would say. I didn't  even stop when I spotted, amid the rocks, a bush bearing a tomato the  colour of anemones. Only when the fig trees and the big pond came  into view did we slow down and begin to relax. When we spotted a grey  rock called the camel (because it looked like one) we were certain we  were on the way home. Thorns got inside my dress; they pricked my  skin and hurt like hornet stings, but I wanted to see Mother and eat  some of those lentils so badly that I ran even faster, as though I  was swallowing the ground itself.

Darkness fell suddenly, as if the camel had blocked out the sun. We  were terrified that Ali Atrash was going to jump out at us. Ali  Atrash was the local madman; he walked with a wooden box tied so  tightly against his chest that it seemed almost a part of him. When  he breathed or cried out, the box jerked up and down. People said  he'd once had a stash of gold coins, but awoke one morning to find  them gone from the wooden box in which he hid them. When suspicion  fell on his own brother, Ali Atrash went out of his mind. From that  day on, he was scared of young children throwing stones at him. But  they did it because they feared his madness. He would yell at them,  nonsensical things like, 'Gold from the earth, gold from the earth!'

I tried to reassure my brother, telling him that Ali Atrash wouldn't  harm us because he knew we were the children of a woman the locals  called Little Miss Bashful. She had always treated him kindly, taken  his hand when she met him, brought him to her house, sat him down on  the threshold, bent over his shoeless feet and pulled out the thorns  with her eyebrow tweezers, and given him food and drink.

Could he see us in the dark, we wondered? We each held our breath  until we saw our house in the distance and knew for sure we were  home. But before our joy could be fulfilled, we spied a figure  wandering back and forth. I was sure it was Ali Atrash, but instead  it was Mother waiting for us. When she saw us, she cried out and  burst into tears. We whooped with pleasure.

'We've come home, Mother!' yelled Kamil. 'We've brought some lentils.  I want you to have them.'

Mother began to sing, as if she was keening, and wrung her hands. She  ran towards us, and we to her, until she wrapped us in her arms,  weeping, kissing us and inhaling our scent.

'The bastard kidnapped you,' she kept saying. 'May God snatch him  away too!'

She took us inside, and my brother scooped the lentils on to a plate.  Mother had prepared some green beans and we ate with gusto. Then the  three of us settled on the mattress. Mother sat, blowing on my  brother's scalded thighs and my bleeding feet.

'Mother,' I asked, 'how did you know we would run away and come home?'

'I'm your mother, aren't I?'

I lay there, listening to the cows mooing in the back yard. I  reminded myself that they snorted whether or not I was home, without  knowing what was going on. Their huge eyes stared into the darkness  as they lay down for the night. I stared hard through the darkness  too, anxious to reassure myself that I was with Mother in the house  and not with Father and his wife. This house would always stay where  it was; I could see the bureau, the mirror, the living room, and the  window.

I only felt sleepy when Mother finally lay down between me and my  brother. The wind whistled and brushed the trees. The mooing soothed  me to sleep, as if the cows were singing me a lullaby.

From the Hardcover edition.