Butterfly without Fins, A Novel from Palestine
We interviewed Palestinian writer Dima Saleh about the inspiration for her novel Butterfly without Fins. Her answers are below.
Why did you decide to start writing?
Writing for me is not a decision I made, but more of a necessary act, like when someone feels like there is something inside them that they need to get out – I would compare it to giving birth! I started writing poetry when I was an adolescent, but I didn’t have the courage to show it to anyone at that time. In 2007 after I got my MA I felt that I needed to write and publish, so I began using a modern dialogue forum through my blog.
What was your inspiration for the topics you explored in your book?
I don’t know if I can call what I wrote a “book” because I have not yet found a publisher. But it is a novel called Butterfly without Fins. And this is a title that is important to me, because it describes the situation of a girl who tried to live in her society but couldn’t – like a butterfly forced to live in the sea. The title has personal meaning because I’m one of the people who came back to Palestine after the Oslo Accords – a “returner.” This has made me feel like a butterfly without fins; like a stranger in my own home country. Additionally, I lived my childhood and my teens moving from country to country, which made my life experience distinct from that of other girls who have lived their whole lives in Palestinian society. Because of this, I was never perceived as a pure or true “Palestinian” girl, and sometimes, I was not even perceived as a true “returner.”
What messages do you try to relay to readers through Butterfly without Fins, and what do you really want people to take from it?
Through my book, I’m trying to send a lot of messages to the readers. First of all, I am talking about Arab women in general and how they are suffering in a patriarchal society that renders them fearful of being single forever, and therefore places undue emphasis on marriage, and at an early age. Woman in Arab society have a specific age range for marriage: between 14 and 20 years old in villages and 16 and 25 in cities. However, there are growing changes in some cities, where the average age of marriage has climbed to 28 to 30 because of the economic situation and men’s need for partners who have careers and can help with life expenses.
Secondly, I wanted to address the war at Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon, as there are very few articles or novels written about it. The war took place in May 19, 2007, when Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) accused a group of Fatah al-Islam militants of taking part in a bank robbery earlier that year, and suspected them of hiding inside the camp. The ISF attacked the camp by shelling it. Most of the inhabitants fled to the nearby Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp (doubling that camp’s already dense population), or fled further south to Tripoli, Beirut, and Saida.
I was in Lebanon at that time and I saw how my aunt and a lot of refugees suffered.
Thirdly, I aimed to tell the world about the conditions of the Palestinians during the second Intifada from my point of view as a student at Birzeit University. In the novel, I mentioned the sweeping, the curfews, the barriers, and the events that were both sorrowful and funny. I explained my experience as one of the students who couldn’t visit their families for more than two months because of the Israeli siege.
Fourthly, I am trying through my novel to change the patriarchal beliefs and traditions that are pervasive in Palestinian society, which I believe are causing suffering for women.
Finally, through this novel I want to send a message to the people outside Palestine to say: Although we Palestinians are under occupation, we are resisting to keep alive, to love and to feel.
Do you think it’s important for the world to pay attention to the writings of Arab women? Do you have particular authors or books that you would recommend?
Definitely the world should pay attention to the writings of Arab women because nobody can describe the issues that Arab women face except them.
I grew up reading Nawal El-Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist writer who influenced my beliefs and made me aware for a lot of norms in Arab society that need to change.
Patriarchal societies do not give free spaces for a woman to express her feelings and criticize the wrong practices against her. As a result, the women who have challenged social norms and written on taboo subjects have been threatened by Islamists and political persecution.
Sometimes, it is better for female writers in conservative societies to use fake names or to write their analysis in an indirect way because it is safer.
I recommend anyone who is interested in Arab female writers to read Nawal El-Saadawi, Ghada Al-Samman, Ahlam Mosteghanemi, Suad Mohammed Al-Sabah, and Salma Al-khadra Jayyussi. I also recommend Palestinian writer Suad Amiry, who wrote the famous book Sharon and My Mother in-Law: Ramallah Diaries. This book is distinctive to me because it was written by a female writer who ignored the eternal conflict between men and women and talked about the war in a sarcastic manner. I also recommend reading the work of Lebanese author of contemporary literature Hanan al-Shaykh (especially Scent of a Gazelle) and Syrian writer Haifa Beitar.
Finally, I want to say that writing is a powerful weapon to resist injustice and spread peace in the world. So women, let us write and express our feelings!
More by Dima Saleh:
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.