First aired on
Writers & Company (11/21/10)
The Lebanese playwright and novelist Hanan al-Shaykh is known for her surprising and somewhat controversial explorations of women's lives and sexuality. Her latest work brings that exploration especially close to home.
In The Locust and the Bird, al-Shaykh recreates the life of her mother in virtually every detail, from difficult upbringing to an unhappy marriage and illicit affair.
Raised in poverty and never taught to read or write, al-Shaykh's mother, Kamila, was forced into marriage at the age of 14. Her future husband was her widowed brother-in-law, a man 18 years her senior and father of three sons. She would eventually fall in love with a handsome young man closer to her own age and divorce her husband for him, but not before giving birth to two daughters — the younger of those being the author.
It was her mother who pushed al-Shaykh to write the story in the first place. Busy with her own career, al-Shaykh resisted for years. Then one day, she sat down and asked her mother to tell the story in her own words.
"In one sentence she captivated me," al-Shaykh told Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel. "I discovered that my mother, although she was illiterate, she was a novelist."
Written in her mother's voice, The Locust and the Bird provides a fascinating insight into the life of an extraordinary woman in 1930s Beirut. After resigning herself to a forced marriage, Kamila met and fell desperately in love with the handsome Muhammad. What followed was a series of secret trysts in movie theatres, where they shared a love of poetry and romance. Finally, when the author was seven, her mother obtained a divorce from her husband and the freedom to marry Muhammad. However, it meant she would never see her children again.
"Every single day was a struggle for my mother to win her freedom. And in a way, society was more tolerant than we expected," al-Shaykh later said. "In a way, she is telling people, especially in the West who have preconceived notions that all Muslim women and Arab women are oppressed, [...] there are women who can defy the traditions and the circumstances, and they can say no and fight for what they believe they have to achieve."