There can’t a bigger statement of daughterly love and forgiveness than penning down the tale of the mother who abandoned you as a child to run off with her lover. Yet that’s exactly what Hanan Al-Shaykh did in this book, writing her mother’s true story in the first narrative, a translucent, fearless and unrepentant voice. This is the story of a woman born to poverty in the early 20th century south Lebanon, abandoned by her father and given off by her own mother as a child bride to her dead sister’s husband.
But this girl (Camila) is no loser and the book tells the story of her triumphant spirit. At a time where girls are expected to be grateful for the food and shelter their family provided them, Camila tears off her wedding dress and daubs her face with soot to show her resentment against her forced marriage. She sneaks to the cinema where films give her much needed escapism and help her overcome her illiteracy by teaching her about romance and passion. The love of her life, the much better educated Mohammed, serenades her during their illicit encounters in the orchards of Aley and even at his family’s home only a few blocks from the house she shares with her husband, kids, mother, siblings and nephews.
Eventually, Camila leaves her two daughters and husband to marry Mohammed, and has more children with him. His career goes well as an internal security officer, but like many great love stories this one is destined for a tragic end: Mohammed dies in a car accident. But Camila doesn’t give up. She travels the world visiting her children in Kuwait and the US and turns her living room in Beirut into a social salon, a “psychiatrist’s couch” as Hanan Al-Shaykh puts it.
I cried my eyes out at the end, when Camila’s sad yet inspiring life comes to an end. Not only was her particular story touching, but it also told of the Lebanon that my grandparents talk about. Their way of life, their difficulties and the struggle of so many women who came before us and to whom we owe so much. A beautiful, highly recommended read.