In The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story, the contemporary Arab author Hanan Al-Shaykh writes the biography of Kamila, her mother. Al-Shaykh tells the story of her mother’s childhood in 1930s Lebanon, her forced marriage at the age of 14, her illicit love affair with the man who later became her second husband, her divorce from her first husband, her second marriage, her widowhood and its aftermath. The narrative construction is unusual in that Al-Shaykh tells her mother’s story from her mother’s point of view, through her mother’s voice.
We experience the Arab world through Kamila’s lens. She is a child forced into a marriage with her much older brother-in-law after the death of his first wife. Although she is defiant and resourceful, she is also immature. She never seems to grow up or to assume the responsibilities of an adult—even after giving birth to seven children. Denied access to schooling, she remains illiterate all her life. Her knowledge of the world and how it operates is influenced by what she sees on the movie screen. She confuses the real world with the glitz of Egyptian movies and the lives of Egyptian movie stars. Struggling with debt after the death of her second husband, Kamila does what she has been doing all her life: she relies on her good looks and charm to get her through her difficulties.
In her later years, Kamila comes to regret the choices she made in life, including abandoning her two oldest daughters in order to be with the man she loves. But in spite of her remorse, she does not come across as a sympathetic or endearing character. She is self-absorbed, selfish, and has no qualms about using people—especially her children—to achieve her goals.
Because Kamila is illiterate, she has to rely on those around her to shape her worldview. As a consequence, she espouses a narrow worldview with very limited options. It is not surprising she is incompetent when it comes to managing a budget, running a household, or raising children. She has never been taught. And what female role models she does have were denied the same opportunities, rendering them equally incompetent.
Kamila’s tragedy lies in the fact she is never allowed to reach her potential. She has a romantic spirit that longs to soar. She loves the language of poetry, composing poems and committing them to memory but unable to write them down. Her family insists on keeping her illiterate, a situation she regrets all of her life. Forced into an unwanted marriage to a man nearly two decades her senior, castigated as a fallen women when she finally divorces him and marries the man she loves, she spends most of her adult years pregnant with one child after another. There is little room for individual growth or development under such challenging circumstances. But Kamila has the last word when she convinces her daughter to put pen to paper and write her life story.
Unfortunately, Al-Shaykh’s biography of her mother rambles, its prose simplistic and choppy. It reads like a diary—a series of unfocused, disconnected, episodic events that lack coherence or an organizational plan. But the book does have value in that it illustrates the deleterious impact on women when society denies them choice and opportunity for growth and development.
Throughout history, different cultures have oppressed girls and severely constrained their mobility and intellectual development. Whether they were kept barefoot, ignorant, or pregnant; subjected to the horrors of female infanticide, foot binding, or genital mutilation; bartered or sold off to an early marriage or prostitution, girls and women have historically been treated as pawns to be used and abused for the economic benefit of their families.
Kamila is no exception. Her childhood, upbringing, and experience severely hamper the range of possibilities available to her as a young girl growing up in that environment at that time and in that place. Unfortunately, many young girls throughout the world continue to experience the same harsh restraints—restraints that deprive them of the ability to thrive and flourish. As such, The Locust and the Bird serves as a cautionary tale of wasted potential and thwarted aspirations.