Palestinian Bedouin women’s solitary voices are brought to life in this collection of translated short stories by Sheikha Helawy. Silencing Palestinian narratives is one major impediment which Helawy tackles skilfully, navigating the spaces where silence is forced upon the indigenous population and upon Bedouin women’s expression, in particular.
In the introduction to the book, translator Nancy Roberts notes that the stories reflect the experiences of women in the village of Dhail El E’rj, which was demolished by Israel in the 1990s and its residents, including Helawy herself, were forcibly displaced. Dhail El E’rj was one of the unrecognised Bedouin villages, with no access to basic needs such as water and electricity. Palestinian women’s voices require more space for their narratives to be articulated. For Palestinian Bedouin women, the need is perhaps greater, due to the additional silence as a result of Israel’s colonial apartheid enforced oblivion. Behind the collective displacement that is silent, a myriad of stories are present, which are also stifled as a result of cultural traditions, while around them, the colonisation of Palestine remains a permanent fixture.
Helawy’s short stories delve into seemingly simple happenings that leave the reader with much to ponder. At times, the female protagonists appear to defy their own cultural traditions – acts of rebellion which either bring satisfaction, repercussions or, at times, further musing about their identity. Most protagonists are adolescent girls, thus the female body and the psychological trauma associated with puberty are prominent in the book.
Helawy’s narration in They Fell Like Stars from the Sky illustrates the mother’s pre-occupation when her daughter defies societal norms by getting on a swing and injuring her thigh. The immediate concern of the mother is her daughter’s honour, upon which the honour of the family also rests. For Jawahir, the swing was an act of rebellion: “She knew instinctively that the swing bordered on the shameful. But no way was that going to stop her.”
Freedom is curtailed in several contradictory ways by the adolescents’ elders, from family to acquaintances from different walks of life. Barbed Question narrates an adolescent female’s bus trip to Haifa in terms of achievement and defying societal norms. Upon her return from Haifa, the female protagonist observes, “Before the question came, I turned towards the street and walked along with confident steps. But the question was more confident than I was.”
In the story Haifa Assassinated My Braid, the female protagonist seeks to distance herself from Bedouin society norms by insisting upon cutting her long hair. Yet, within the challenge, there is also an identity crisis, one possibly brought about through exposure to peers from neighbouring villages, who taunted her on account of her Bedouin legacy. Assimilation to “the Haifa girls”, however, failed to provide a resolution, as the story concludes: “But my hand still went looking for my braid, only to draw it back as if it had been stung.”
One particularly compelling story is All the Love I’ve Ever Known, in which the mantra “We don’t have girls who fall in love” in the village of Umm Al-Zeinat portrays an immense contradiction with life itself. “Of course, the statement “We don’t have girls who fall in love” betrays the belief that girls alone bear responsibility for love, and that, therefore, they alone are guilty of the sin it involves and the ignominy it brings.” Helawy portrays this burden by juxtaposing the shame associated with women who followed their heart and the normalisation when it comes to men. However, the protagonist’s realisation is more profound as she states, “When she asked herself one day what things she liked, the only answer she could come up with was that she didn’t like anything at all! The realisation frightened her but, at the same time, it reassured her she was a true Bedouin.”
Helawy’s stories read like personal narratives. Through anecdotes that may seem trivial at first, the protagonists’ identities are shaped and revealed, within the context of their families and society. What should have been kept secret, in some cases, becomes common knowledge and the subject of much speculation. A debate on whether a daughter should be sent to boarding school becomes directly correlated to the teenager’s developing body and the pre-occupation with femininity. In their way, quiet or otherwise, the women in this short story collection embark on their individual journeys of resistance, challenge and acceptance of their own identities and love, much reviled or shunned at face value, is the force that conquers.