x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

All about my mother

Books Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reads Hanan al Shaykh's latest work, a story of abandonment untainted by bitterness.

An Egyptian actress in Cairo: Egyptian cinema became a lingua franca, making young women like Kamila dream of glamour and a life of their own making.
An Egyptian actress in Cairo: Egyptian cinema became a lingua franca, making young women like Kamila dream of glamour and a life of their own making.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reads Hanan al Shaykh's latest work, a story of abandonment untainted by bitterness. The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story Hanan al Shaykh Bloomsbury Dh90 Hanan al Shaykh's latest book, The Locust and the Bird, begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. The action that plays out in between is an emotional roller-coaster: there's murder, abandonment, betrayal, starvation, theft, adultery and the spectacle of a teenage bride who, in a desperate attempt to escape forced marriage, tears up her wedding dress, covers herself in a burlap bag, rips out clumps of her hair, smears her face with soot from the stove, slaps her own cheeks and screams. Although it reads at times like a cinematic melodrama or a dime-store bodice-ripper, The Locust and the Bird tells the true story of Hanan al Shaykh's mother, Kamila, who was born in 1925, secretly betrothed at 11 and married off to a man twice her age at 13. Rebellious and strong-willed, Kamila took a lover, conducted a brazenly public affair, got divorced, remarried and left her children behind.

The Locust and the Bird was written by a daughter who was dragged along to the secret rooms of her mother's assignations and then deserted. Yet the book is remarkably free of bitterness. Shaykh's story extends its greatest empathy and emphasis to the relationship between her mother and her mother's lover, Muhammad, even though it was the same relationship that shamed and broke her deeply religious father, Abu Hussein, and left her without any mother at all for decades.

The Locust and the Bird could have easily hinged on guilt or blame. It would have been eminently readable as an accusatory reckoning between mother and daughter, an explosive test of wills. But in Shaykh's rendering, the affair between Kamila and Muhammad is constantly mediated by proverbs, folk songs, fairy tales, romantic and angst-ridden poems, lines of dialogue from Egyptian cinema and the lyrics of popular songs by Mohammad Abdel Wahab and his ilk. The real purpose of Shaykh's book, it seems, is to capture the power of language to enrich and retain experience.

Hanan al Shaykh is a novelist and playwright who began her career, like many of her contemporaries, as a journalist in Beirut. The first story she ever published in a Lebanese newspaper was an angry account of how her brother humiliated her by dragging her out of a cafe (she was there without familial oversight). No one in her family or in her neighbourhood actually read the piece, so they never knew its content, but they were all intensely proud to know that her name had appeared in print.

Shaykh was 16 at the time and wanted out of family life. Her first escape was to a boarding school in the port city of Saida, where she roomed with Leila Khaled (who years later joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and became the first female hijacker). When she turned 18 and had earned some money from her occasional newspaper columns, she convinced her father that continuing her education in Cairo was a good idea. A devout Shia with mildly Sufi inclinations, her father quoted the Prophet: "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave; and seek knowledge even if you have to go to China." Her father was naive. For Shaykh, Cairo meant freedom, and she scandalised the city by having an affair with a well-known novelist, much older and very much married.

When she returned to Beirut in 1966, she avoided the family apartment in a conservative, congested quarter of the city and lived on her own in a youth hostel instead. When she fell in love with the man who became her fiance, he asked her about her family. "Don't worry about them," she said. When they married - across sectarian lines, no less - Shaykh informed her father by telegram. Not able to read anything but the Quran, he heard the news from an acquaintance - at which point he slapped his face, pounded his chest and wept - before finding his daughter's painfully brief missive tacked to his door. To her mother, Shaykh said nothing of her marriage at all.

In a recent interview with the author Esther Freud, Shaykh explained that Lebanese novelists of a certain generation rarely had the privilege of writing books at home, whether they were men or women. Usually they worked as journalists and wrote novels on the side. (To an extent this is still true today: the novelist Hassan Daoud works for the newspaper Al Mustaqbal, while Elias Khoury edits the weekly cultural supplement to the Lebanese daily An Nahar.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Shaykh worked at An Nahar, writing profiles of influential women and interviewing politicians about their first loves. She completed her first two novels - Suicide of a Dead Man in 1970, The Devil's Horse in 1975 - in her spare time.

Then she wrote her third, The Story of Zahra, in London. The civil war had erupted in Lebanon, and Shaykh thought she'd be out of the country for a few months until the violence died down. The book was a ferocious response to the fighting, as seen through a young woman's adolescent experiences. Sexually explicit and blunt in its language, The Story of Zahra deals with abortion, molestation and madness, and a protagonist who falls into bed with a sniper. The book was rejected by nine publishers in Beirut. For the first time, Shaykh published an English edition first. Translations into 19 languages followed. Finally, the first Beirut publisher to reject the book came around and put out an Arabic edition. But from that point on, Shaykh became more widely read abroad than at home; while she has returned occasionally to Lebanon, she still lives in London.

Today, Shaykh is routinely referred to as a writer of women's fiction. Her novels, it seems, offer a topical blend of the exotic and the oppressed. In the late 1990s, the literary scholar Miriam Cooke named Shaykh one of the so-called Beirut Decentrists, a group of women novelists who, in Cooke's view, altered the discourse of Lebanon's civil war by filtering it through the details of everyday life, thereby dismantling the central historical narrative of the war as told by men: fighters, religious figures, politicians and male novelists who wrote muscular, mock-heroic books. This notion that women write the war story differently - that their fiction is inherently gendered - has probably done more harm than good in the context of Lebanon's literary canon. As more time has passed since the end of the civil war, sexual difference seems far less relevant than it might once have been.

Yet to be fair, Shaykh does walk a fine line between what could be considered prototypical chick lit and enduring literary fiction. The Locust and the Bird, for example, is all plot, a page-turner that can easily be read in one sitting. The action begins in 1932, with Kamila and her brother tumbling far below the poverty line in South Lebanon. Their mother and father have divorced, and the former is fighting for child-support from the latter. Unwilling to take full custody of the children, the father seems content to let them starve. After a few years of scraps and leftovers - stolen lentils, kibbeh without meat (a horror in Nabatiyeh), tiny loaves of bread baked from the bits of wheat left behind by farmers - Kamila's mother brings her and her brother to Beirut, where they are reunited with their half-siblings, two boys and two girls from their mother's previous marriage (her first husband was murdered by a gang of thieves as he tried to escape Ottoman conscription).

In Beirut, Kamila falls in love with city life - the marketplace, the gold souq, the fashion boutiques, the vegetable sellers, the juice stands, the brothels. One day, she is floored by the sight of a billboard the size of a building, advertising a film, The White Rose, starring Mohammad Abdel Wahab. Her affair with Egyptian cinema begins. But at the time, Kamila doesn't even know what Egypt is, much less understand the Egyptian dialect when she sneaks into a movie theatre with her half-sister Manifa.

Kamila expects to go to school in Beirut, but the family sends her out to beg in the streets. When her two half-sisters suddenly die, one after another, the family sends her to apprentice with a seamstress named Fatme. She assumes she is destined to learn a trade. Fatme opens her eyes to the world, and introduces her to a bookish and vaguely aristocratic young man named Muhammad. But at the same time, Kamila is tricked into an engagement with her recently widowed brother-in-law. The sewing lessons are no more than preparation for domestic servitude. At the first drop of menstrual blood, Kamila is married off, though not without a few rounds of spirited rebellion, including the soot-smearing incident and a run for Nabatiyeh (where her father betrays her again).

From there, The Locust and the Bird follows the ups and downs of Kamila's miserable marriage, her horrifically innovative means of terminating pregnancies, her longing for Muhammad, their reunion a few years later and the consummation of their adulterous affair. Even after Kamila gives birth to her first and second daughters, she ducks out to meet her lover (naming Hanan after an Egyptian film she sees with Muhammad so soon after the birth that she lactates in the theatre). As her children grow up, she begins taking them with her (though she scratches them out of the photographs she has taken of Muhammad). When the relationship is discovered, years of wrangling follow until finally, Abu Hussein grants Kamila a divorce. In no time, she marries Muhammad and they enjoy a few years of bliss (though she winds up pregnant most of the time).

The Locust and the Bird throws up tragedies and traumas on every page. A neighbour, for example, douses herself in kerosene, lights a match and burns herself to death. Another joins a rogue political party and is soon forced to flee for West Africa. In the background, Lebanon achieves independence in 1943 and suffers a civil war in 1958. Spies, secret police and assassins linger on the margins of the story. Fragments of social, political and cultural history shift around like tectonic plates.

One can, for example, read Kamila's story as a tragic tale of a woman oppressed by a traditional misogynistic society. Or as an account of how Egyptian cinema became the region's lingua franca, making young women like Kamila dream of glamour, romance and a life of their own making. Or as a document that meticulously reconstructs an image of Beirut, its downtown crisscrossed with tramlines and popular with all social classes, as it was before the destruction of the civil war. Or, finally, as a meditation on the very compulsion to write, to tell.

When Hanan al Shaykh became famous, her mother was, as she had always been, unable to read or write. Neighbours and friends had to read aloud the stories her daughter wrote in newspapers and books. Many of those stories were only thinly veiled as fiction, and they scandalised Kamila all over again (they spoke of her adultery, her desertion, her occasional theft and her chronic irresponsibility). But mostly these stories irritated her for not being complete. She began pestering her daughter: "Why don't you write my story? Why are you still nibbling from other people's dishes?"

At first, Shaykh thought her mother was seeking forgiveness and rapprochement, neither of which was she willing to extend. But as time passed and her mother's health began to deteriorate, she realised Kamila was seized with a kind of desperation. She had never been allowed to study or go to school. She had never put pen to paper, and she had been fooled and robbed and deceived all her life because of her ignorance. (It wasn't until well into adulthood that she learnt to decipher the denominations of banknotes.) She tells her daughter she doesn't want to be defeated by pieces of wood and lead, her creative description of a pencil. If she can just get her story told, she seems to suggest, she'll experience a kind of emancipation.

Except for a prologue and epilogue that frame Kamila's story within her own, Shaykh casts the entirety of The Locust and the Bird in her mother's voice. The richness of the imagery and the careful manner in which she unpacks one intricate story after another - these are Kamila's descriptive tools. Without overstating or sentimentalising the point, Shaykh makes clear that illiteracy is her mother's greatest indignation. Shaykh, meanwhile, shapes the book with an impressive subtlety. Kamila does not always come across as likeable. She is selfish, lazy and obdurate. Her first husband, Abu Hussein, changes over time, softening from a brute to a humble old man who is lost without religion. Only Muhammad, Kamila's lover and husband, remains something of a mystery. A few years after they married and made their relationship legitimate, Muhammad was killed in a car crash. It's a sign of both bravery and compassion that Shaykh lets this tragedy rise above all the others, including her own.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review. She lives in Beirut.