The Authors Telling Palestinian Stories Through Female Protagonists

Words by Hafsa Lodi

10 min read

From autobiographical Bedouin stories filled with death and displacement to a fictional snapshot of marriage and motherhood in the modern-day southern USA, MOJEH speaks to the authors behind two new literary releases centring powerful female Palestinian narratives

Sheikha Helawy

Sheikha Helawy is a lecturer on Arab Feminism at Ben-Gurion University and writes stories of Bedouin Palestinian women whose dreams are interrupted by political turmoil

“There were no great books in my childhood. But there were women as great as books,” writes Sheikha Helawy in the preface of her short stories collection, They Fell Like Stars From the Sky. This statement serves as a double-edged introduction to her work, which centres Bedouin Palestinian women living in a now-obliterated village, which was deprived of water and electricity before being demolished. Escaping through story books may not have been a privilege offered to these young women, who, on one hand, were uprooted from the only home they ever knew and, on the other, were victims of a gender hierarchy that governed their societies and bodies.

A lecturer on Arab Feminism at Ben-Gurion University, Helawy has first-hand experience with the ways in which political forces — and the patriarchy — have coloured the lives of Bedouin Palestinian women with layered and long-lasting strokes. She was raised in the forgotten village of Dhail El E’rj and in the 90s, at age 18, she and its other inhabitants were all forcibly displaced by the Israeli occupation to make room for an Israeli railway. But while her home may have been erased from the map, Helawy’s 18 short stories ensure that the female icons of her childhood live on.

They Fell Like Stars From the Sky was originally published in Arabic, in 2015 — the first of Helawy’s four short story collections. Translated into English for the first time by Nancy Roberts, Neem Tree Press released this new edition of Helawy’s work last month. Helawy believes that wars, revolutions and waves of asylum have opened a window to the west, where more news and social media attention is helping raise awareness about the Palestinian plight. Her literary work occupies a unique niche, juxtaposing the dreams and aspirations of females with the harsh realities of their existence, inspiriting them with an irrepressible urge for freedom.

“These stories may reflect some of the lives of women in the Bedouin community in Palestine, but they also carry a message of strength and survival, a message that I wanted to reach the world through translation,” Helawy tells MOJEH. “They simply flowed from my memory on a daily basis,” she adds, calling the book “an autobiography in the form of flashes.”

Her poignant and poetic prose is tinged with a touch of harshness — a matter-of-fact tone that insinuates how widely accepted the attitudes and occurrences she writes about were. Unfortunately, these aren’t only mindsets and customs of a past era. “I wish this truth was only in my memory, but unfortunately it is still alive and well, even to this day, besieging most women in our society like a knife held to their necks,” she says.

It’s with a haunting urgency that Helawy recounts these memories, perhaps a result of her village being deemed officially ‘unrecognised’ all those years ago, coupled with a dire need to piece together a reality that those in power would prefer erased.

They Fell Like Stars From The Sky & Other Stories by Sheikha Helawy

“It was like a medicine prescribed daily by a doctor for a midlife crisis; an identity crisis that suddenly exploded in my face, after I thought I had gotten over it,” she says. “They remained in the memory for many reasons while others were absent, stories that carried the pain of childhood and adolescence of a rebellious girl in a harsh and oppressive environment.”

Perhaps it’s the distance from the memories that allows Helawy to recount them with an almost detached, out-of-body tone, making the stories all the more gripping. In All The Love I’ve Known, Helawy opens the story with a statement that’s as ominous as it is impossible: “We don’t have girls who fall in love.” It’s the ‘sacred law’ of the village of Umm al-Zeinat, where girls painted with the glow of love — namely prettier appearances and louder laughter — would vanish; killed off for breaking the village’s fundamental rule for females. Warda and Dalal disappeared; Noura was swallowed up by the dusk, and Hasna, escaping this fate, ultimately leaves the village, not wanting to become a girl who “goes to live in the sky” as a punishment for being touched by love.

In this way, many of Helawy’s stories describe tragic ordeals but also highlight triumph, in the various forms it may take. Her aim is not to invoke pity, but rather, to interrogate the systems of oppression that these women are faced with, and celebrate the courage and agency with which they find ways to exist in spite of it.

Not only do her stories liberate female characters from her memories, but the book’s publication itself also leaves a legacy in the realm of Middle Eastern feminist literature that highlights sexist societal norms. “The girl is the property of the man, the family, and the tribe, and any behaviour that is not in line with their beliefs is considered an attack on the masculinity of every male in the family,” explains Helawy.

In some stories, men become the focal characters. One tells the tale of a husband who kills his wife after learning she had a pre- marital love affair, while another follows the psychotic ruminations of a man obsessed with the idea that his sister is dishonouring him. “Perhaps writing in the shoes of male killers is an attempt on my part to understand this mentality that controls many men in my environment,” says Helawy. “In fact, they are victims of an inherited mentality that is not easy for them to rebel against.”

While patriarchy may seem to be the primary obstacle for these Bedouin Palestinian females, the occupation is an ever-present cloud looming over their heads — and not one to view lightly, emphasises Helawy. “There are many lenses through which one can write about the occupation, racism and lack of justice, including writing about the conditions of women,” she says. “Talking about the occupation is not in the background of these stories, but rather, beyond the direct word.” Shop Now

Etaf Rum

In Evil Eye, Palestinian-American author Etaf Rum writes of an ancient curse plaguing a Palestinian family

Award-winning author of A Woman is No Man fame, Etaf Rum released her second novel, Evil Eye, last month with HarperCollins. The title alludes to the idea of a family curse that’s been ingrained in Yara by her mother, a Palestinian immigrant to the United States. Yara is now a mother herself, living in the southern USA in a family that might look picture-perfect on her Instagram grid, but in reality, leaves her unfulfilled and wanting more. She attributes her feelings to the curse — a superstitious sentiment that that Yara’s mother often laments, having dreams of becoming a singer but instead giving birth to six children and suffering an abusive marriage. Yara vows to create a different sort of life for herself, but can’t help feeling like another female cog in the ongoing cycle of cultural expectations.

Yara goes through the motions of life busily, as if on autopilot, fearing that if she pauses, memories of the past will engulf her. “Everything in her life had been a succession of things she hadn’t really wanted to do,” writes Rum early on in her novel. “Suddenly the person she wanted to be felt far away, and it seemed that she would always be out of reach.”

Intensely self-reflective and interspersed with anecdotes about displacement, immigration and belonging, Evil Eye speaks to the experiences of many women who have longed to break free from the boxes that society places them in. A traditional hamsa hand pendant emblazoned with an evil eye serves as the anchor of the story; a symbol connecting the past with the present and a reminder of the elusive curse that burdened Yara’s mother and threatens to consume her too.

Recounting memories of Yara’s grandmother’s life in Palestine, who was kicked out of her home and forced into a refugee camp, makes Evil Eye an intergenerational novel, albeit told from a single character’s voice. Juxtaposing the tragedies and tribulations of her elders with the comforts of living in America, Yara is encumbered with guilt and depression. “She wants to be light; she wants to be open; she wants to be a present mother who doesn’t have this emotional baggage, but it’s like the trauma is trapped in her body,” Rum tells MOJEH.

Rum believes that the way we view the world is naturally passed down to us by our parents. “They are also struggling with the messages that have been handed down to them from their parents,” she explains. Yet what many lack is the self-awareness and accountability in managing how we repeat the patterns of our elders. “Unless we dig really deep and question the decisions we make as mothers for our children, we are absolutely passing down toxic traits, perhaps less toxic than the ones that were passed down to us. But it’s almost impossible to heal in just one generation,” says Rum.

She adds that motherhood was an important theme for her to explore in her new novel, partly because of her own life stage. “I’m also a mother of two and I share a lot of similarities with Yara in being the daughter of immigrants, and wanting to do better,” she reveals.

At times coming across as somewhat villainous, Yara’s mother is both a victim and a perpetrator of patriarchy — a complexity that Rum consciously wrote into the story. “The patriarchy often pits women against each other, even mother and daughter, and I wanted to explore the idea that we are so ingrained in this system that keeps women small and keeps them living unfulfilled lives,” says Rum. “It was really important for me to let this mother-daughter relationship play out in all its uncomfortableness and negativity, because I think it’s a common issue in immigrant families.”

Evil Eye by Etaf Rum

Yara is different from her mother in that she made the decision to marry, chose her husband, and has the freedom to work. Freedom from her parents is in fact what motivated her to marry in the first place, but she realises that going straight from her parents’ house to her husband’s may not have signified true freedom at all. Her passions and dreams seem inherently inhibited by her role as a Palestinian wife and mother, and while her American colleagues seem to have it all, her culture seems to hold her back, despite her claims that she is not a stereotypically oppressed Arab woman.

An incident at work leads Yara to the office of a therapist, who encourages her to write letters to her mother to express what she can’t say face to face. Rum illustrates how therapy can be positive and productive, and through these letters, readers see a different dimension to a toxic mother-daughter relationship that has only added to Yara’s layers of guilt and shame. “She has a lot of repressed emotions and unhealed trauma,” says Rum. “She was taught to be silent as a woman, and it seemed like writing would be one of the ways in which she could explore her emotions on paper and outside her head.”

Even with a comparatively modern husband and two young daughters, Yara’s life is one of loneliness — that is, until she finds an unlikely confidant in a colleague who helps her become vulnerable and explore the feelings she has kept bottled up for so long. “We really can’t do it by ourselves — we cannot unpack this trauma on our own,” says Rum.

While she has inherited a complex relationship with motherhood, Yara’s daughters — and the fear of what she may pass down to them — are her ultimate motivation to seek healing. “She decides to learn how to break free of these old narratives and limiting beliefs, because she wants to save her daughters, and their children too,” explains Rum, describing the cycle of inherited trauma — one that’s only further compounded with Palestinian heritage.

After all, Yara’s Palestinian-American identity is critical to how she copes with both her memories and daily life, and Rum effectively weaves the realities of Palestinian history and present-day circumstances into Yara’s story. For while her novel may speak of a superstitious curse, she emphasises there’s a much greater calamity that has afflicted an entire population of Palestinians.

“They have been cursed for the past 74 years,” says Rum, stating that she feels a responsibility to raise awareness about the Palestinian occupation through her work: “Every single thing that I ever write, from now until the day that I am not on this earth, will acknowledge the trauma of the Palestinian people, until the world acknowledges the trauma of the Palestinian people.” Shop Now

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