Home > 2010, 21st Century, Book Club, Halasa Malu, Jordanian Literature, Novel > Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (2017). French title: La mère de tous les cochons. Translated by Benoîte Dauvergne.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa was our Book Club choice for February. (Yes, I’m late again with the billet). Set in Jordan, it features the Sabas, a Christian family who lives in the suburbs of Amman. They all live under the same roof. We follow Hussein and his wife Laila, Mother Fadhma, Hussein’s step mother and Samira, Hussein’s step sister. Muna, a cousin from the family branch who emigrated to the USA, is coming over for a vacation. We also get to know Abu Za’atar, Mother Fadhma’s brother and one of the richest entrepreneurs in town. He’s a master as smuggling merchandises across borders.

Hussein runs a butcher’s shop and sells pork. Abu Za’atar perceived that it would be a big competitive advantage to sell pork to Christian families and be the only one to do it. They imported oum al-khanaazeer, the Mother of all pigs through the black market and she was the sow they use to breed piglets. Hussein and Abu Za’atar run the farm together and make the chops, ham, etc. that they need for the butcher’s shop.

With the war in Syria, there are a lot of refugees in Jordan and their settling in Hussein’s town changes the fragile dynamics between the communities. Hussein had a consensus on opening hours: a time for Jewish customers, a time for Muslims and a time for Christians. Everyone can buy what they want without seeing each other. This consensus is shattered by radical Muslims coming from abroad and fed by ISIS.

Through Mother Fadhma, Laila and Samira, Malu Halasa explores the fate of women in Jordan. The old Mother Fadhma has been exploited all her life. She has raised twelve children, not all her own. She was treated as a commodity by her family and of course, couldn’t choose her husband. Of all of her children, only Hussein and Samira remained in Jordan. The others have all immigrated to America and rarely come to visit. Mother Fadhma made a lot of sacrifices and her lifer never belonged to her.

Laila didn’t choose Hussein as a husband but considers herself lucky that he encourages her to keep working as a teacher. She had ambitions but they were trampled by real life: small town, three children, a teacher job and a husband who does his best to make enough money to support his family.

Samira is single and she found a new meaning in her life: she joined a group of women who help Syrian women refugees who suffered from the war. She secretly goes to political meetings and hangs out with women who help her win a bit of freedom.

And Muna, the American cousin? She arrives in Jordan to see how life is near the Syrian border. She has no idea of the actual culture of her father’s country: she brings clothes to Samira and Laila that they will never wear because they’re inappropriate in Jordan. I wondered what she was doing there, except being a plot instrument, the candid eye, the pretext to explain to Western readers things that are obvious for the locals.

I had high hopes for Mother of All Pigs. I was curious about this story of the only butcher selling pork in the area and about the women’s fates.

I was disappointed and struggled to finish it. Apparently, The New York Times reviewed it and said “’It has always been the same ― what men enjoy, women endure.’ So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition.”

It’s true even if I obviously missed the pungent and witty part. The structure and writing didn’t do it for me. It was too much of a patchwork and I never engaged with the Sabas the way I did with the families in Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I never managed to understand what the writer really wanted to say. The novel seemed to be too much of a patchwork and I saw the small pieces, found them lacking and never managed to sew them together in a way that showed me a coherent story and picture. And I hated the chapters with the sow’s stream-of-consciousness. What was the point of that?

Malu Halasa is American, and like Muna, has a Jordanian father and a Filipino mother. She doesn’t live in Jordan and the reader feels it. She has probably been there quite a lot but not enough to sound like a local writer. I also felt that her novel, written in English was intended for Western readers. In the end, it doesn’t have the same authenticity as a book written by a Jordan writer.

For me it was a missed opportunity.

PS: I’m not sure I understand the English cover. Who is that supposed to be? Samira?

  1. March 17, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Well, it certainly has a striking title.
    Maybe it might have been better told as a straightforward narrative?

    Like

    • March 19, 2020 at 9:28 pm

      Sorry for the late answer, the last few days have been a bit hectic here.

      And this title is to be taken literally: this sow is the mother of all pigs in this city.

      Perhaps my billet wasn’t clear: not all the narrative was from the sow’s POV, only some chapters. I didn’t like them and didn’t see what it brought to the story.

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      • March 20, 2020 at 3:42 am

        I can imagine how frantic things might be: while I know some people are plunged into having nothing to do because everything is cancelled, others are busier than ever, having to adapt the way they do things. Who would ever have thought that the whole world could be thrown into such chaos. Hope you and the family stay well, Lisa x

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  2. March 17, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    Umm. Even if I wasn’t vegan, I think I would struggle with this….

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    • March 19, 2020 at 9:37 pm

      Sorry for the slow answer, the last few days have been a rollercoaster.

      I’m not sure my billet was clear: the whole story isn’t told from the sow’s POV. We navigate between Hussein, Laila, Salima, Mother Fadhma…

      I think the idea of this butcher’s shop was a very good one because pork is good device to show in a very concrete way that these communities have different ways of living and one community’s customs, like eating ham, are hard limits for the others. It’s a fragile balance to keep peace and live together.

      There is much to say about women in such countries and the impact of the Syrian war on its neighbors. I don’t think this novel reached its target, at least not with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. March 17, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    That’s such a shame, it sounded so promising. Like Lisa says, maybe it was trying to do too much.

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    • March 19, 2020 at 9:39 pm

      Probably, yes. The pitch was good but the execution didn’t work for me.
      It’s a shame because women condition in these countries is worth writing about.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vishy
    March 20, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    It looks like the premise was wonderful, but the book didn’t deliver on that. Very sad. It is interesting that some of the chapters are narrated from the sow’s point of view. It looks fascinating in principle, but sad that the author couldn’t pull it off. Loved your review, Emma! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    • March 22, 2020 at 8:26 am

      Some literary critics like it, so it’s certainly not a bad book.

      I was disappointed precisely because the premise was interesting and could turn into a great book. Others at Book Club couldn’t even finish it.

      The global feeling was that the narration was disjointed and as I reader I could gel with the group of character.

      To use a culunary analogy: for me, the literary sauce was full of lumps.

      I still can’t fathom why she included these chapters from the sow’s POV.

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