When I contacted Ahlam Bisharat, the author of My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, to ask her to answer some questions about her career as a writer and My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, she referred me to an interview she had given to Tayf magazine, a magazine about Palestinian children’s literature published twice a year by the Resource Centre of Tamer Institute for Community Education in Ramallah, Palestine.
In the fifteenth edition of Tayf magazine, there was a special dossier dedicated to My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, which included an interview with Bisharat, press articles about the banning of the novel in Tobas, and opinion pieces about the book. The rest of the issue included articles about other topics of relevance to children’s books in Palestine.
I have reproduced below a section of this rich interview, with the kind permission of Tamer Institute. The interview was available originally in Arabic, and I have translated the excerpts below into English. If you are interested to read the entire interview in Arabic or get a digital copy of this edition of Tayf magazine, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Ahlam Bisharat, you are a Palestinian writer and storyteller. How did you start writing for children? What was the beginning?
A: A few days before, I ran into Foufou as she was walking in the street in the morning. She had her hair tied in pretty little pigtails, and she was carrying a piece of paper in her hand. In the beginning, I thought that she had written on the paper a question to ask her classmates in kindergarten as her brother Majd does. Every day, Majd would write a question on a piece of paper to ask his classmates as they were lining up to go to class in the morning. Foufou’s paper, on the other hand, did not contain a question. She handed me the paper with full confidence, as if the writing on the paper said, “Foufou is the princess of the kindergarten.” Instead, I read there, “There is a little girl who hits Foufou every day, so Foufou cries every morning and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school.’”
Out of curiosity, I asked Foufou, “Who is this girl?”
She answered proudly, “Batoul.”
This is how I got into this very seductive predicament (of writing for children) as I would have conversations of this kind every morning with Foufou.
Q: Writing for young people, with all the challenges involved, is a bit of an adventure, in my opinion, especially in a Palestinian society which has yet to provide this age group with the necessary attention, whether socially or in literature. Given this reality, how did Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha, your first novel, get to see the light of day?
In such a reality, the birth of my butterfly was far from easy, and I became aware of how difficult it was during the birthing of this butterfly, which was similar to a process of labour and during which the wings of the butterfly would beat against the walls of its cocoon and make a loud noise. Its wings were weak at the beginning, and then they became more solid. I observed this transformation, and I made it happen because I fell in love with the creature that was hidden within this cocoon.
Q: Why did your heroine choose to hide her questions in a bag instead of sharing them with others? Does this have anything to do with the lack of confidence that young people have in other people at this stage of their lives? Or is it related to the fact that these are questions posed by an adolescent girl and that either these questions have no real answers or that these questions will not be considered acceptable in a Palestinian society that has girls under siege?
A: The heroine of Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha is an intelligent and adventurous girl, and she hides her questions because she feels that somehow they belong to her special world, especially as she does not find any convincing answers or people available to answer her questions. The butterfly wanted to take refuge in this process of searching for and discovering questions, especially since the mission of discovering a question is more dangerous and inspiring than the act of finding an answer for it. Answers create limits, while questions open up horizons of expectations. At this age in particular, the space of expectation is the only real place because it is a space of dreams and wishes that we as adult wish to regain but fail to do so. So we go back to search for the children inside of us, so that they may help us in this quest.
Q: In your novel, there is a focus on the heroine’s relationship with her father who works in an Israeli settlement, and this relationship causes the girl to voice certain questions. This is a situation that raises many questions in our society which rejects these settlements and considers their presence illegal and illegitimate. In your opinion, what is the role of your young adult novel in clarifying or justifying this thorny relationship between people’s rejection of these settlements and their (economic) need to work there? Did you introduce this element on purpose in order to reach a particular conclusion or communicate a particular message?
A: The butterfly and I share a question that might seem a bit naïve: “How can we be liberated from this occupation if we are shackled by the bonds of economic dependency?” Every day, we are deprived by the occupiers of a span of land*and a wish, but what I most afraid will be stolen from us is our wish to be free of this occupation. And this is what is happening at the moment. The occupation is letting us forget what we really want, and it is transforming us into creatures that live in a new reality that does not provoke any anger. As a writer, I have the responsibility to expose this great social deception that we are going towards, like lambs going to the slaughter as if they were merely going on an unpleasant trip. We have chanted many slogans and have raised many calls: No to Israeli products, No to working for the occupier, No to the Judaization of Jerusalem, No, No and No. We repeat all these no’s, but things go on as before, as if we have memorized these no’s by heart to the point where the heart no longer understands what our tongues are saying. You might ask, “But what have you done about this?” What I wanted to do is to regain this path that connects the heart to the tongue, or perhaps to liberate this space, the space of the heart. I want to take back this desire to be free and grant it to the coming generation, upon whom I insist on betting.
(*shibr in Arabic, a distance measured by a human hand from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger)
Ahlam Bisharat is a Palestinian writer and storyteller born in Tammoon village, Jenin in 1975. She holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Literature from the Faculty of Arts at An-Najah National University in Nablus. She began as a short story writer and won several awards for her work in this field. She has also published three picture books for children as well as the young adult novel, Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha (My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly). She is the recipient of several awards, including the Al-Awda Award for children’s literature given by the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refuge for the picture book Shubbak Al-Zinko (The Corrugated Iron Window). Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha was included in the IBBY Honor List for 2012, a biennial selection of outstanding, recently published books from more than seventy countries.