Friday, 13 July 2012

My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly

Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha or My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly is hands-down my favourite Arabic story for young adults. It is written by Ahlam Bisharat and was published by Tamer Institute in 2009 as a chapter book of 54 pages divided into 5 chapters.  My Nom de Guerre is  Butterfly tells the story of a young Palestinian girl who remains unnamed throughout the book.  While we never get to know her name, we, as readers, really get to know her as the book is rich with all the lovely details that give a literary character depth.   And like all the best literary characters, our heroine is likeable but also complex and flawed. On the one hand, she is intelligent, perceptive and very sensitive to what is happening in her home, with her friends and in her society but she is also envious, melodramatic and as she herself admits, laime or devious.

“There are those who sometimes call me laime, but I don’t know what that word means.  Sometimes, I felt that laim means intelligent; at other times, I felt that it had a more negative connotation, meaning that someone who is laim is dishonest, but I am not like that”

The young girl observes the world around her and comes up with endless questions that she keeps in an imaginary bag.
“Yes, I have a bag where I hide the questions that I cannot find answers for or that I am too afraid to ask.  I also hide there my secret dreams because I don’t expect that others would understand the meaning of someone having a dream. They will make fun of me.”

In the story, we see her go about her daily life at home, with a father who works in an Israeli settlement as an overseer, an older sister Zeinab who cries herself to sleep and a younger sister Tala, who at times seems carefree and oblivious but at others seems to have grown up before her time.  The story describes her life at school and her relationship with her two best friends, Mais a staunch patriot who seems to know everything and Haya, the frivolous one who has started to shape her eyebrows much to the alarm of her school teachers and the mothers of her friends.  The three friends bicker and argue constantly, trying to outdo each other as if they were in a race to grow up and enter the world of adults with all its secrets.  Our heroine also falls in love and gets her heart broken in the most terrible way possible. 

The title of the book refers to the decision of the young girl to adopt a nom de guerre as if she were a revolutionary fighter.  She chooses Butterfly as her nom de guerre much to the amusement of her friends, which makes us wonder about where she would like to escape to.  At the start of the book, she wants to leave Palestine, but after a trip to Jordan, we get the impression that what she really wants is to fly to another world, another Palestine:

“Dear butterfly, grow two wings like those of seagulls for I would love for us to have a sea that you can fly over.  There used to be two seas in Palestine, a white sea [the Mediterranean] that was stolen and a dead sea that was stolen.  There also used to be a lake [Tabarias] and that, dear butterfly, has also been stolen.
I shed a tear!
Dear butterfly, rise in the sky like an airplane for my country is like no other in the world.  It has neither an airport nor an airplane, only checkpoints and winding roads.
I shed a tear!
Dear butterfly, tell me when will you and I become one body, so that we may scatter dreams in the sky, plant questions on the hills so that they bloom into poppies, narcissus flowers and wild thyme shrubs.
Dear butterfly, go to sleep on my breast so that I may sleep inside you.  I promise that one day we will be reborn for I am currently feeling sleepy.

Bisharat writes a story that is full of humour, and I have to confess to having a soft spot for funny books, especially those, like this book, that are also brave and honest.  Without being in delicate, Bisharat does not shy from shedding light on what girls go through physically and emotionally as they reach puberty, from growing breasts, getting periods, worrying about grooming and their physical appearance and of course having questions about sex. Take this passage as an example:

“ I used to often feel that Zeinab’s world is full of secrets, some of which she shared with our mother. She would get a stomach ache, and my mother would cover her with heavy blankets and would make her sage and fenugreek tea.  She would send my brother Abdallah to the grocery store, and he would come back with three yellow plastic bags with a black plastic bag inside them.  On each of the yellow plastic bags, there was a picture of smiling baby.  I would wonder about the link between Zeina and the smiling babies, because deep down inside I was afraid.  Maybe, that was because there is a link between babies and ird (honour) and Ird is something dangerous, judging from the way my mother and others spoke of it. I continued to feel afraid until my mother started to cover me with heavy blankets and make me pots of sage and fenugreek tea.”

It was this directness that got Bisharat and Tamer Institute in some trouble as her book got banned in a school district in Palestine, which objected to a passage in the book where Bisharat describes the attempts of the girls’ science teacher to explain human reproduction to her pupils and answer the questions of her precocious and sassy students.

Ahlam Bisharat, manages to pull off something that is very difficult: she writes a story that tells a personal story of a young Palestinian girl but manages to avoid (for the most part) slogans and hyperbole.  It is a ‘story of’ the young girl rather than a ‘story about’ military occupation.  Naturally, the traces of the Israeli occupation are everywhere as she and those around her grapple with the moral dilemma of working in a settlement in order to provide for their families, as rumours abound of community figures serving as informants for the Israelis, and where young men are sentenced to one hundred years in an Israeli jail and sometimes die too young.

Unfortunately, the illustrations provided by Bashar Al-Haroub let the side down.  They are drawn in watercolour but look like Rorschach inkblot tests and are badly reproduced.  I had trouble making out the details of the illustrations, and what I saw did not reveal much skill.  This is unfortunate, as the story did not really require any illustrations.  All it needed was an attractive front cover and better printing. 

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