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My review of “Codename: Butterfly” by Palestinian author Ahlam Bsharat in Arabic and English

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been working slowly through the book “Codename: Butterfly” by the Palestinian author Ahlam Bsharat. The book was originally suggested to me by @arablit on twitter and I got it in its original Arabic version as well as the more recent English translation from Neem Tree Press.

Teenage literature in occupied Palestine

“Codename: Butterfly” takes place in a small village in Palestine. Our hero, whom we only know as Butterfly is a young girl living with her family. We follow her in a crucial period of her life: the beginning of adolescence. This means that we get to see the world through the eyes of a child who is in the process of becoming an adult.

Butterfly is a girl who asks herself a lot of questions, big and small. For the most part, however, she doesn’t share them with anyone. Why did the widow of her uncle get married to the brother of her late husband? Would it be wrong to eat the chocolate that dad brings home from his work at the Israeli settlement? Is it okay to pluck ones eyebrows to fit in?

Butterfly keeps all of these questions to herself. She locks them up in an imaginary treasure chest, but one day, she fears that it might so stuffed with unanswered questions that it will explode.

“Codename: Butterfly” is a bildungsroman, or a “coming-of-age” novel about a young girl on her way to becoming an adult. The story has been told so many times before, and every grown-up in this world will recognize it upon reading it. It is also, essentially, the main topic of all teen literature. This time, however, the familiar words are told from another perspective than the one we’re used to. Occupied Palestine. Some things are different, yet most things, oddly, remain the same.

Great young adult literature that young readers will identify with

Growing up is a confusing experience, we all know that.
When Butterfly asks her questions about life, death and the troubles of everyday life, she puts them in her treasure chest, where they add up little by little. Butterfly thinks of way that insects or birds eventually break out of eggs. In the same way, she thinks of the questions in her treasure chest as something that gradually develops like a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly in its cocoon. One day the cocoon breaks open and the child that one were will fly out as a young adult. This is universal, and since its a story that everybody lives through, young and old, its hard not to identify.
While some of Butterfly’s questions are different from those that western children might put in their own imaginary treasure chests, most are the same. This is hugely important, especially at a time when Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are casually simplified and generalized in media as well as political discourse. The main point of the book isn’t do discuss politics, but to merely point out that we all have our humanity in common.

Codename: Butterfly doesn't discuss politics, but points out that we're all human. Click To Tweet

Culture differences, gender roles, family and the community in Codename: Butterfly

Some of the themes of Codename: Butterfly aren’t themes at all. A novel written by a Palestinian for other Palestinians, or Arabic speakers to read, doesn’t necessarily or consciously use subjects such as gender roles, family and religion as themes. They’re just part of the story. But these implicit elements of the story do manage to stand out once the book is translated to English and the audience changes.

Things that at first make for a harmonious backdrop of the story suddenly seem to stand out and become discussion worthy subjects. One such is the question of honor, exemplified by two marriages, none of which seeming particularly happy.

The one is the “arranged” marriage of Zaynab, Butterfly’s older sister who goes to Saudi Arabia to get married according to the wishes of her parents. This happens despite her romance with Omar, a young man, now in prison for standing up to the Israeli occupiers. The other by Butterfly’s aunt getting married by the brother of her late husband in order for him to “protect the honor” of the widow of his late brother.

In Europe these kind of marriages get a great deal of media attention and they’re considered the mother of all things wrong in the Arab world. This book, however, doesn’t judge – it’s up to the reader to draw conclusions. It shows the state of things in the way that it has always been, and although it’s the reason of some serious heartbreak in the story, it seems to be a part of a harmonious status quo. These subjects can be discussed to the end of time, but there’s something refreshing in seeing it from the perspective of a young girl who hasn’t yet been colored by popular opinion. The questions are simply added to the treasure chest that builds up her personality.

A warm recommendation for teachers, students and everyone else!

I greatly enjoyed reading this book, which I read one sentence at a time: First in Arabic, then in the excellent English translation, done by Nancy Roberts. The book is worth recommending to everyone. It’s a short read aimed at young adults, and to a certain extent young girls, but everyone can get something out of it.

Codename: Butterfly a short read aimed at young adults, but everyone can get something out of it. Click To Tweet

Other than the familiar narrative of the transition from child to adult, the book also paints a picture of life in occupied Palestine, which many might be interested in. It is at times very funny, and written with great humor, and at other times quite tragical. I like how the story jumps back and forth between the serious questions of life and the charming and comical things that happen in-between. Like Butterfly’s way of observing the world around her, from the mischief of her little sister, to the boring and way-too-depressing soap operas that her mother watches in the TV. In a way, this might be a good way to characterize an adolescent perspective on the world. The story is told in a way that resembles the aimless fluttering of a butterfly caught by a breeze.

The story is told in a way that resembles the aimless fluttering of a butterfly caught by a breeze Click To Tweet

I imagine a teacher reading this book with his or her class. I think that there’s a lot of topics worth discussing in it, and it provides a view of the world that may challenge western teenager’s set values and ideas of the rest of the globe. More importantly, it reminds us of the human side of a people and a society that can sometimes seem alien and very far away, especially in a modern everyday full of easy distractions.

So if you’re a teacher or a school librarian, go get a class-set of this book and use it as a resource!

Using literature to study languages


My main objective with reading this book in Arabic and English was to push my Arabic competences a little further. I’ve been studying Arabic on-and-off for a few years now, and find it quite challenging! Reading great literature, that is written for young readers helps a lot. Teenagers don’t have a long attention span, and their vocabulary is quite limited – just like me in Arabic! I couldn’t have done it without reading the translated story in parallel, though.

I read with the Arabic and the English book side by side. First I read a sentence in English, then in Arabic, trying to make sense of the words and figure out which words correspond. The translation isn’t always literal, so part of the effort lies in figuring out how fixed expressions are translated, and how the word-order and the way of saying things sometimes changes. All of this means, that you cannot use this method as a beginner, because you need at least a budding degree of independence in your Arabic to not be completely lost. I underline the words that I don’t know in Arabic while I read, and as they come up again and again, I start to recognize them.

I hope to read this book one or two times more – perhaps I’ll give it a try without using the translation as a crutch and see if I can manage. It might be a good idea to do it quickly while the unknown words are still fresh in my memory.
Then I’d like to read the book while listening to its audio recording, and perhaps listen to the recording by itself too.

You might be thinking to yourself that this way, I’ll end up reading the book cover to cover several times, and that’s indeed what I intend to do. I used the method with great success while learning French, when I read through ”L’étranger” by Albert Camus at least 10 times. It’s a lot of work, but with great literature, it’s a great and enjoyable way to study languages.

Buy Codename: Butterfly from Amazon:

Arabic version

English translation