Hanan al-Shaykh tells Kamila’s story of life in Lebanon beginning in the 1930’s. Kamila and her brother are raised by their divorced mother in extreme poverty. There is no money to buy food, so they scavenge the harvested wheat fields to find enough wheat to make a loaf of bread. Eventually, they find their way to Beirut and live off the generosity of extended family. Kamila is forced into marriage at an early age, but already is in love with another, Muhammad. She has two children with her husband, then makes the decision to divorce her husband and marry Muhammad, which means abandoning her children. She and Muhammad have another five children. Her daughter, Hanan, grows up to be an accomplished author, and Kamila wants her to write her life story.
Where to start with Kamila? She is definitely an enigma. She’s fiercely passionate about her love for Muhammad, and fiercely hates her husband. She abandons two daughters and aborts at least two more children, yet feeds the beggars and spends what little money she has to buy coffee for her Coffee Club when she barely has enough to feed her family. She is articulate and dictates moving letters to Muhammad, yet she never learns to read or write. She is childlike throughout her adult life, then suddenly seems to grow up in one visit to her childhood home. She is never really a likable person, yet I was captivated by her.
In the end, the best description of the book is a quote: “And here is Hanan, writing about her mother, who loved and suffered, who ran away, who raised her fist against the rules and traditions of the world into which she was born, and who transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.’”
I really liked the writing itself. It is poetic yet fluid, and full of foreign idioms and sayings that will make you smile.