The Los Angeles Review


Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

“Women are a bridge to the future,” the Syrian freedom fighter Zeinab intones during a clandestine meeting in Malu Halasa’s new novel. “Women are the donkeys of tradition. Women are caregivers and self-obsessed. They suffocate and love. They abuse and they suffer. The killer or the victim, which one are you?”

The same question might be asked of the title creature, Umm al-Khanaazeer, literally “the mother of all pigs,” who is smuggled into a small town in Jordan and kept secretly as a breeder sow before the start of the novel that bears her name. Umm al-Khanaazeer’s descendants are made into forbidden pork products which are then sold to Christians as well as unobservant Muslims and Jews. The Mother herself remains in a hidden barn, fattened and walled off from the sausage machine grinding up her children, even narrating portions of the novel with human intelligence. Ultimately, she is slaughtered, because that is usually the fate of women in the culture depicted in this difficult, rewarding novel: hidden, bred, exploited, and destroyed.

Women and men perform the dance of power intricately in this book. Women assemble in tiny homes and secret cafés to laugh and scream about oppressive norms, whether these persist in the village or in neighboring countries. In one marriage, a woman experiences genuine pleasure with her husband, without shame; in other marriages, a man might refer to his wife only as Umm-Omar, “the mother of Omar,” rather than by her given name. Women keep their husbands and sons from disaster, power the movement to help refugees, and teach each other how to survive scrutiny of every color and accessory they wear in public. Meanwhile, men are alcoholics, driven by greed, foolish, or murderously devoted to their faith. Hardly anyone finds a reasonable middle path to walk.

Appropriately, there is no safe conclusion to the story, no point where marriages are repaired, a shopkeeper stops trading sexual favors for goods, or the beautiful blouse a cousin brings from America may be worn on the street without reprisal. The book ends with a wedding, like a Western comedy might, but also in violent death, like a Western tragedy might. The contradictions of female identity, abuser or sufferer, killer or victim, remain unresolved.

The most fascinating part of Halasa’s depiction of life in Jordan is the heterogenous religious beliefs swirling in the air. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims mingle daily, if uncomfortably. In an early scene, only a recording of a Fiddler on the Roof medley played by the marching band of the Emir of Kuwait can soothe Umm al-Khanaazeer. Such surreal cultural mashups infect every aspect of life in the book. But this blend of beliefs can be deadly as well as funny. As a terrorist instructs a young freedom fighter:

“Have you ever considered, little sister, that we both fight on the same side? Everywhere our people suffer. At this very moment some are bombed or tortured or live starving under siege. Life without fear is the preserve of the wealthy, never the poor. In this world, an individual is powerless.”

In the next breath, he says that sharia is the only way back to stability and power.

Halasa’s long expertise at nonfiction peeps through in Mother of All Pigs, her first novel, as some scenes fall flat, and some dialogue conveys information or exposition without grace. It’s a slow-starting book, and quite challenging at first to keep all the characters and their familial relations straight. We meet Hussein, his stepmother, her daughters, their cousin, her great-uncle, his shop-boy, and so on, all within the first thirty pages. The political views, and the personal histories, of these people bring them each to life, but it takes time to get there.

However, once the characters become clear, and the backstory slows to a trickle, and the genuine action begins, the novel soars, like a bird of prey, surveying all beneath it with incisive vision. In the next moment, the characters’ choices and interactions fascinate and worry the reader as potently and intimately as those of real-life friends or family members. Halasa causes us to know these people closely, to mourn and celebrate with them.  She forces the Western reader to imagine life in a small Jordanian town, to truly think about what refugees must withstand, and to listen well to the stories and aphorisms of Arab life. Western storytelling does not compare in complexity to what a father imparts to his son, a veteran, in his sickbed.

“One day Abu Nuwas asked for his master’s blessing so he could compose and recite his own poems in public. The experienced Khalaf al-Ahmar said that he would gladly do that, but first Abu Nuwas needed to undergo a trial by words and memorize one thousand verses. The undertaking was long and difficult, but Abu Nuwas was eventually successful. To celebrate, he honored his master by giving him a lavish feast over the course of several evenings, during which the younger poet recited the verses he learned by heart. After Abu Nuwas declaimed the last triumphant couplet, he again asked his master for his blessing. Khalaf al-Ahmar was undoubtedly impressed, but before he could agree, one more small task was required of the poet-to-be, whose life and career would eclipse that of his master’s. He had to forget each and every one of the verses he committed to memory.”

Al Jid fanned the hot bowl of the water pipe with his open hand until the embers glowed.

“In his great wisdom, Khalaf al-Ahmar explained that for immortal composition, one needed to know everything and to forget everything.” The old man regarded his wounded son. “Memory and forgetfulness will enable you to live your life.”

Yet Halasa has written a book that’s hard to forget, one that opens the vistas of the Western mind insistently, necessarily. The deviousness and caution of daily life for a woman; the despair and nepotism of daily life for a man; the death and disaster that hovers at an uneasy distance in the Holy Lands nearby. All these Halasa depicts in urgent prose, in colorful scenes, in unavoidable violence. 


Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator (