Malu Halasa's Debut Novel, Mother of all Pigs, Highlights a Complex and Evolving World

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

It’s surprising to discover that Malu Halasa began work on her novel Mother of all Pigs not in 2013 or 2014, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, but in the 1990s. 

Yet a second look reveals the decades in each of the novel’s layered conflicts. The book is set in contemporary Jordan, which has been both refuge and battleground in many regional conflicts. The novel has detritus and survivors from many of them, including the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, the Palestinian dispossessions, the US bombing of Afghanistan, the US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war, as well as, most recently, the rending apart of Syria. 

The London-based Halasa, who experienced some of these conflicts as a journalist living in the region, says many things have changed since she started writing Mother of All Pigs. But some things, such as the role of patriarchy in Jordan, have not.

The book that Halasa has mulled over for decades is about “the tensions inside the family and the social tensions outside,” and it centers on the women of the extended Sabas family. There is Mama Fadhma, who has watched most of her children and stepchildren leave for the US; Fadhma’s step-daughter-in-law Laila, an ambitious schoolteacher and mother; Fadhma’s daughter Samira, who lost her way after a failed affair, then found it again through work with Syrian activists; and the painfully naïve American niece, Muna.

The book begins and ends around one overloaded weekend, when the larger community pressures the Sabas family to shut down their pig-butchery business. At the same time, Samira is carrying a package for her Syrian-refugee friends, an old military acquaintance arrives, and the visiting American cousin, Muna, changes the family’s dynamic.

Halasa hastens to say that she isn’t Muna, although both the author and her character are half-Jordanian, half-Filipina, and both were raised in the United States. While the novel is not autobiographical, there are other points of intersection. One of Halasa’s uncles, for instance, owned a pig farm in the mountains of Jordan. 

There is also a real-life model behind the book’s “Marvellous Emporium,” the site of some of the book’s blackest humor. The fictional store is owned by Abu Za’atar, Mama Fadhma’s treacherous brother. Here, you can find anything from an overstock of golf shirts, to food beyond its sell-by date, to spare parts from defunct air-conditioning units, to several generations of Russian and US-made weaponry. 

Inside the (real) Marvellous Emporium

Halasa discovered the “real” Marvellous Emporium in Zahlé, Lebanon in 1979, when she was living in Damascus and working for Rolling Stone. At the time, she was trying to get an interview with Yasser Arafat, who was then in Beirut. With Lebanon at war and the PLO in the thick of it, access was difficult. But someone in the Palestinian Fatah party had given Halasa access to a car, and she could “catch a ride with him from Damascus, and we’d use a military road, between Damascus and Beirut.” They’d stop at the store in Zahlé, where “he would fill the car up with everything.”

In the novel, the Marvellous Emporium is a place for Abu Za’atar to spin webs and earn piles of money. But it’s also a place where history gathers.

“In places of war, there are always going to be these points where goods and services are brought together,” Halasa said. “I wanted the Marvellous Emporium to be that point, where war and corruption happens, but also a kind of history machine.”

Working at cross-purposes with Abu Za’atar is his niece Samira, perhaps the book’s most sympathetic character. After a failed love affair, she dropped out of school and sat around the house. Everything changed when she met a group of Syrian women in a coffee shop.

“Samira kind of falls into the company of Syrian activists,” Halasa said. This makes her not unlike the author, who co-edited the collection Syria Speaks (2014), and who for a while was “always surrounded by Syrian activists.” 

Although in different ways, for both Samira and the author working on Syria “has been a life-changer.”

Nearly all the women undergo major changes in the course of the novel. Mama Fadhma goes from being trod upon to fighting for her daughter and daughter-in-law. Samira takes bold steps in her political work and her personal development. Laila learns to chill out. It is perhaps only Muna, the American cousin, who remains untouched by events. Perhaps like her country, Muna remains as naïve at the end as she was at the beginning. 

The internal life of a giant sow

Even the mama pig, who is one of the key characters with a point of view, grows during the course of Mother of All Pigs. Halasa says that, while writing, she spent time at the Hackney City Farm, studying pig psychology, and also met with Sharon and David Groves, prize-winning pig exhibitors on the Isle of Wight.

One of the shocking aspects of the pig’s point of view is that it takes time to realize we’re in the mind of a farm animal. She’s kidnapped and dragged to Jordan, and, at first, we think we’re with a human victim. “Part of the novel is that we’re talking about people being tortured, renditioned,” Halasa said. “And here we have a character who’s been kidnapped.”

“There’s a kind of brutality in the way human life is, and animals often get the brunt of that—although now humans are getting the brunt of it as well. So there’s a continuation of this kind of violence,” Halasa said. “That’s why I wanted to give the pig that internal monologue.” 

Visibility for the region’s mixing

Although Muna isn’t one of the more powerful characters in Mother of All Pigs, her presence does allow the book to talk about what it means to be half-Arab. There are a number of fictional works that feature half-Arab, half-Anglo characters. Yet those who are half-Arab, half-Asian rarely appear in literature. Outside of Saud al-Sanoussi’s Bamboo Stalktranslated by Jonathan Wright, it’s hard to think of another book that features a half-Arab, half-Filipino central character. 

“There are many mixed Middle Eastern families,” Halasa said. “We just did a five-minute film for Mother of All Pigs, and we shot in one of the shisha cafes on Edgeware Road” in London. Among the onlookers was a Singaporean-Yemeni. 

Yet “nobody really knows about” these families, she said. There’s an idea that “the Middle East should be one way,” she said, but, “it’s very complex, mixed, changing all the time.”