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November 13, 2009

Book Notes - Hanan Al-Shaykh ("The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Hanan Al-Shaykh's The Locust and The Bird is a unique memoir, a mother's life written by her estranged daughter, told in the first person. Not many authors could pull this off, but Al-Shaykh, widely regarded as one of the Arab world's finest writers, does so with incredible effect.

Kamila (Al-Shaykh's mother) can neither read nor write, so she dictates her story of a forced marriage, search for true love, and rebellions both great and small in the name of freedom. The Locust and The Bird is not only a well-written, moving and entertaining story, but is also one of the most socially and historically important books I have read this year.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"'The Locust and The Bird' is billed as a story of undying romantic love - the cover art reinforces this notion - but it is, at heart, a tale of female independence. The two are often confused, especially when a girl's only viable example of freedom is the right to marry for love. And should such a love turn tragic, it may still be unclear to her that the love of her life - however erudite and enlightened - was merely a symbol of the independence she craved, a conduit through which she might achieve it."

In her own words, here is Hanan Al-Shaykh's Book Notes music playlist for her book, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story:

The Locust and The Bird is my mother's story, she insisted for more than 25 years that I listen to it. I eventually wrote it, since my mother was illiterate, and was not taught how to read or write. I thought I knew a fair amount of my mother's past...

She was forced to marry my father at age 14, gave birth to my sister and me, continued to see the boy she loved secretly, then left home, deserted me and my sister, and started a new life with a new family .

I uncovered truths I was not aware of. I found myself in front of a passionate woman, witty, imaginative, brave and willful. She had survived poverty, tragedies, and cruelty, yet she fought her family and the traditional patriarchal society for freedom of choice. I found myself granting her my blessing, learning how to love her deeply time and time again.

I discovered while I was listening to my mother's story that songs and films had taught her the beautiful language she didn't learn, how people talk and converse with each other, and what strong feelings one can get from listening to a certain songs and how ultimate the power of music, songs, and films helped her to survive.

1. "Weepin' Willows Blues" by Bessie Smith

The song particularly helped me while writing the first two chapters. Although my mother was between seven and nine years old when she lived in a village in South of Lebanon and wouldn't have heard any western songs, I can imagine my mother singing:

I went down the river
Beneath a willow tree

When her mother used to take her and her brother to the Litany River to bathe them by the pink oleander trees.

The raw, heart-rending voice of Bessie Smith singing not a song's tale but a song which compensates your personal grief. While Bessie Smith and her brother roamed the busy streets, she singing and he playing the guitar for one coin or two, my mother and her brother were chasing after their fathers in the fields or in the market in order to buy them food and shoes.

2. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" by Fred Astaire

By now my mother has left her village in the south and lived in Beirut.

She loved every thing about it. The horn blazing of cars, the juice seller clanging his little cymbals, the train, vendors selling candy floss and chocolate, shops displaying clothes and gold, big posters, and big billboards showing films playing in movie theaters.

My mother was fascinated with films, Arabic films and the films of Laurel and Hardy, she watched them secretly. In addition, she saw once women dancing the Charleston. The beat and tempo of this song powers the entire buzz and the excitement of the big cities, it does pump in you a great energy. My mother used to dance the Charleston every time she heard western music even to the rhythmic sound of tap-dancing.

3. "Ya Wardet Al-Hoob Al-Safi (Thou Rose of Pure Love)" by Mohammad Abdul-Wahab

Oh, thou rose of pure love
God bless the hands that have nourished you
I wonder, oh, I wonder, oh I wonder.


The White Rose was the first Arabic films my mother saw, and the first song she sang. It was modern, nothing to do with the field songs she used to hear, that she was accustomed to hear while she lived in the South. She learned from that song that love always suffered, and certainly love did not lead to marriage, but to forced arranged marriages, and how the rich will never marry the poor or even middle-class people. Hearing the song spinning in my head took me to the power of words and how they effected my mother, how she wanted to be sent to school but to no avail and how watching this film made her realize that she was not happy or rather satisfied with this sterile life her family lived. With no imagination and music and certainly without any concern for each other's welfare, my mother wished she could run away and live with the actors from the movie.

4. "Dakalt Marra Fi Jinena (When I Entered a Garden Once)" by Asmahan

Finally, after my mother tried in vain to run away from her forced marriage to my father following every trick she and her cut and sew teacher thought of and failed. When she was pushed into my father's room, and felt like a fish being netted. She sank her teeth into her arm so deep that she struck bone. This song has a strange drum beat of war, and as if someone was taken away to be hanged; it echoed my mother's fate.

Though the song was sung in a dreamy melody, about two birds which were in love, one of them left in hot pursuit after another bird.

5. "Ashiq Al Rooh (The Soul's Lover)" by Mohammad Abdul-Wahab

I sneaked with my mother into the movie once to watch a film called Ghazel Al Banat, as soon as the lights went off her lover Mohammad appeared. I was captivated by this song because of the two trumpets, they sounded like nothing I heard before. Than there was the clarinet and the violin, all western instruments newly introduced to the monotones of the Arabic music instrument, the "Oud".

While I was mesmerized by this beautiful melody, my mother and Mohammed did not stop whispering and sighing as they sat hand in hand wishing that the film would never end, so they could stay glued to each other for ever and ever.

I had wished the same but for another reason, I was worried if we ultimately go home my uncle would question and interrogate my mother over and over again wanting to know for sure where we were.

6. "Mishima" by Philip Glass

That repetitive tune in this piece is like a mantra: "I love you but how can I ask for a divorce," it captured my mother's secret relationship with Mohammed. My mother's fear of asking for divorce, her panic that one day Mohammed would lose hope and marry another woman, her mortification that one member of her family would catch her with Mohammed.

Her lover started to become restless in this relationship. Even depressed, he wanted her to be his wife. They both would try to break up, for hours, for one day at the most, and then rush to embrace each other like one wave meeting another.

This tuneful minimalist has certain desperation; something is bound to happen, as if the green, peaceful field one is admiring would sprout danger in no time.

7. "La Poupee' Qui fait non" By Michel Polnareff

I played this French song over and over while writing my prologue in the book.

I had to go back to the '60s in time to capture the era and see myself as a journalist, as a music lover, and as a daughter who was uninterested in her mother. I used to carry this record and a portable record player everywhere I went. I would wake up in the morning to listen to it, and then listen to it in my work, and in the coffee shop. Once I visited my mother and instead of conversing with her, I kept listening to this record, and didn't stop until I saw my mother become so irritated by this "wailing and weeping" as she had described it.

I saw my mother as a child, moody, uncompromising, pulling her hair for hating this song. This made me laugh instead being cross with her, she seemed extremely funny.

8. "Lady D'arbanville" by Cat Stevens

I was called to the hospital. I uncovered my mother's feet; they looked like pure white porcelain. Touching her icy feet, I whispered to her that she was an angel, waiting for the other angels to take her away in her lovely gown and her new shoes. Then the song came into my mind:

My lady D'arbanville
Why do you sleep so still?
Why does it grieve me so?
But your heart seems so silent
Why do you sleep so still?

9. "Mano Dayak" by Tinariwen

When I finished writing the book, I felt I wanted to reach my mother and celebrate together. This song was the one which took me to her, or brought her to my flat where I was playing the CD Aman Iman (water is life). Electric guitars, chorus, singing root music, African Rhythm, from the Touareg, North Easter Mali mingled with Irish melody and ululations of women so wild that it takes one's breath away.

My mother and I sang with the group, yes foreign words to our ears, but we felt the impact with every word, we danced, she the Dabke' (Lebanese folk dance) and I jumped, shook, and swayed.

Hanan Al-Shaykh and The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Barnes and Noble Review review
Bookreporter review
Books and Other Stuff review
Counterpunch review
Critical Mass review
Guardian review
The Independent review
Laila Lalami review
Literary License review
Los Angeles Times review
Lotus Reads review
Mary of Many Colors review
More.com
The National review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Saudi Gazette review
Senior Women Web review

Guardian essay by the author
Lewis Burke Frumkes interview with the author
More.com list of the author's favorite books
Smith interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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