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from the December 2014 issue

Nom de Guerre: Butterfly

That evening, I was sitting on my bed. Tala was jumping up and down on her bed next to mine, making it squeak annoyingly. She was jabbering away but I wasn’t following what she was saying because I was busy building my own world inside my head. Tala kept running in and out of the room. I didn’t notice how long she was gone. I just sat there, lost in thought.

That is, until the time the sound of Salim sobbing came into the room before Tala did. As soon as I saw him, I hurried over to my school bag. I remembered that I’d saved a piece of chocolate in there that I planned to eat after Tala and Muneer went to sleep. Salim carried on crying as he ate the chocolate.

“Why is Uncle Rashid going to be sleeping in my dad’s bed?” he asked, as his tears and snot merged and slithered onto his lips.

I wanted to cry, too, but I thought it wasn’t the right time for that and I needed to look after Salim now.

I grabbed him a tissue so he could wipe his snot and tears before they got onto the chocolate. I replied the same way grown-ups do when they avoid giving an actual answer, even though it’s obvious they know more. “Let’s hide this question away in our wallet, because I don’t know what the answer is right now.”

He calmed down, stopped eating and seemed very curious to know where the wallet was. It was actually the first time I’d ever asked myself where it was. I could hear Tala outside, meowing along with Wadee, the cat.

“Come here,” I said to him.

We crawled under my bed. I told him that it was hidden here, under the bed, where no one would think of looking.

“Is it under the tiles?” he whispered to me, as we lay squashed beneath the bed. This saved me from having to invent another answer that would’ve seemed far-fetched and unconvincing.

“Exactly. It’s under the tiles, and I hid the key to the hatch at Sitti Amina’s in the camp, on the outskirts of the village,” I said.

I knew he was going to ask me about the key and I’d need to come up with somewhere far away for the place I’d hidden it. I knew that Salim would think of the tented camp, where Grandma Amina and Granddad Mubarak live, as far away. Very far away. The end of the world.

I could see his face clearly. He seemed very small and pale, and the corners of his mouth were stained brown. He looked scared as he asked me:

“What if the army goes to their house and steals it?”

“No. That won’t happen,” I answered confidently, puffing out my cheeks. I raised my eyebrows as I continued. “And even if they did reach their house, Sitti Amina has her secret hiding places.”

He fell silent for a while. He was preoccupied with licking the insides of the chocolate wrapper, but then he looked worried again.

“Who’s going to answer the questions if we put them under the bed?” he asked.

I scratched my head, trying to hide how uncertain I felt.

“Why, Salim! God, of course!” I said.

I crawled out from under the bed, pulling him by the hand to follow me out.

“God, up in the sky, knows everything that we don’t know,” I added. “He’s the only one who knows where your dad Saleh went, and all the other martyrs, too.”

He scooted back to lean against the bed. He seemed to have accepted my explanation and had forgotten all about crying.

“Yes, and God is in heaven where there are bananas and apples. My dad lives in a castle up there. He’s waiting until I grow up so I can go and visit him,” said Salim, sounding just like a grown-up who knows everything. His words ran together as he spoke quickly, hardly taking a breath.

I nodded and then couldn’t stop my tears from flowing, so I held him close so that he wouldn’t see me cry. I must have been clutching him so tightly that he felt suffocated because he tried to wriggle out of my grasp. He said he wanted to go out to look for Wadee and squirmed away, the way children do, leaving me to wipe away my tears and snot.

I hid another question in my wallet, without him knowing: Why has Salim grown up so quickly?

I also couldn’t understand why Saleh’s brother Rashid was now marrying Saleh’s widow Salma. I’d heard snatches of my mom’s conversation with our neighbor, Om Ali, about it.

“It’s absolutely normal. He has to protect his brother’s honor and take care of his own flesh and blood.”

It terrified me to hear the words “honor” and “flesh” in the same sentence. People often use the word “honor” in our village and when they do, they always speak in a very strange way, making honor seem like as much of a catastrophe as the occupation.

My mom uses that word a lot, especially when she’s talking about my relationship with Haya. She repeats it so often that I sometimes have nightmares where our friendship gets me into some kind of trouble to do with honor, or to do with my breasts in particular, and so I quickly try to remember our biology lessons on reproductive organs. I can never remember them exactly but, for example, it might involve Haya finding out about how I wait for Nizar to walk by outside on the street, standing on my tiptoes so that I can see him, or about how I keep thinking about writing him a letter (just thinking about it) or about how I once bought him a present—a cheap cologne—and a card to go with it that had a picture of two children hugging. Even though I didn’t actually give him the present and have kept it in my drawer ever since, and every time Tala tries to open the drawer I get into a huge fight with her . . . I’m still terrified Haya might find out.

Could she get inside my head and discover everything?

Yes. She can in my nightmares, and it’s always got something to do with the word “honor.” I wake up in a panic, feeling like I haven’t slept a wink and that the night has whizzed by in a flash. That’s when I wish school would let us children have a day off when we have a nightmare, especially as this happens all the time to Palestinian children.

But there was no way I could ask for a nightmare sick-day. Everyone would make fun of me, even the guidance counselor. So I have to hide this wish in my precious wallet, too.

Rashid is five years younger than Salma. If I hadn’t been in love with Nizar, especially when he wears his black trousers and his silver sweater in the winter, I would’ve considered making Rashid the man of my dreams. He’s very handsome, and he has dimples in his cheeks and his beard is always shaped so elegantly.

I like Rashid’s beard, but I don’t like my uncle Mostafa’s beard because it’s very long and coarse and it was scratchy when he kissed me last Eid al-Adha.

My uncle Mostafa keeps his beard long and unruly because he’s religious and he says that he’s following the way of life, or Sunnah, of the Prophet, peace be upon him. There are certain things about my uncle Mostafa I don’t like and I think he should change them, or at the very least tell his wife to stop being so wasteful. I haven’t asked him why he doesn’t tell her, and instead I hide my curiosity away in the wallet, too.

“Have you run out of razors, Uncle?” I did ask him once, teasing him.

He laughed, and so did my dad and Sidi Mubarak. Uncle Mostafa’s laugh is the best because he’s got a gold tooth that sparkles like the star at the end of a sorcerer’s wand.

I gathered up my courage and asked him:

“How come Sidi Mubarak doesn’t grow his beard long?”

My grandfather, Sidi Mubarak, is a religious man—and Sitti Amina, my grandmother, isn’t wasteful at all—but I do know that ever since I first opened my eyes to this world I have never seen Sidi Mubarak grow a beard.

Sidi Mubarak, my dad, and my uncle all laughed, and no one answered me. Did they think I’d just told a joke?!

Rashid is handsome, but Salma is neither ugly nor beautiful. I’ve never been able to figure out whether she enjoys life or not. But I could tell that Salma got depressed after her husband Saleh was martyred. Before that she was normal, just like everyone else. She wouldn’t laugh, but she’d smile at least and she cared a lot about her appearance. I used to bump into her in the street sometimes and I’d notice her eyes were lined with kohl and she had on lipstick. I remember that I liked her lipstick color the last time I saw her before Saleh was killed. That was a year ago or more. I still remember the color clearly. I don’t know why I remember that specifically, but I don’t think it’s strange that I do because I remember some things and forget others, and the things I remember aren’t necessarily the most important ones.

Tonight is Salma and Rashid’s wedding, and Salim is sad. But he’s had the chocolate now, at least. I think my mom sent him over to me because she knows that I have my ways of cheering him up. My mom trusts me, although she would never admit it.

Salim is now playing with Wadee. As for me, I refused to go to the wedding with my mom, even though there’s nothing for me to do at home and I’m actually really bored. I just felt that I’d be upset if I went and I don’t really approve of this marriage that no one consulted me about except for Salim.

There’s another reason why I didn’t go. I didn’t want to miss the chance to see Nizar walk by on his way back from university. I always keep an eye out for him and the fact that he went out means that he has to come back at some point. And when he does, he might give me some kind of signal—something more than just looking over at me and smiling like he usually does.

I would say that, recently, I’ve found myself living for those moments when I see Nizar walking by. I notice every move he makes. This is all I care about. School’s over, and I don’t see Haya or Mais anymore to hang around and chat. And there’s only ever depressing news on TV. Muneer and Tala take over the TV in the mornings to watch kids’ shows on Channel 3, and in the afternoon my mom puts on her soap operas, and they’re full of people crying. She’s always so tense when these are on.

“As if we need any more tragedies!” Zainab and I joke. “Haven’t we got enough on our plate with all the infighting in Palestine on the one hand, and the fighting with the occupation on the other?”

To be honest, most of this is usually Zainab talking. I just try to back her up by nodding and repeating some of what she says, or adding something vaguely related.

“Parrot!” Tala giggles, making fun of me.

Then a fight usually erupts between us. Still, I can always see my mom’s point of view and I understand how she finds comfort for her grief in the sorrow that the Arabic channels present.

“Thank you, O Arabic channels, for offering us comfort!” Zainab and I say, sarcastically.

In the evening it’s my dad’s turn to commandeer the TV. He watches news on a Hebrew channel and Al Jazeera but he doesn’t bother with any of the various Palestinian factions, as he calls them. I’m absolutely forbidden from asking my dad why he listens to the enemy and not the Palestinians, and not only that—he curses them, too.

So I don’t ask him. Instead, I hide the question in my wallet along with another: Does my dad support the occupation forces, as Haya and Mais keep trying to hint at me? In other words: Is my dad just like Haya’s dad and granddad?

These questions have really started to suffocate me. I feel like my head and the wallet are about to explode. Whenever I try to tell my mom what’s going on inside my head, she always says I shouldn’t dwell on it, that it’s just how things are, and that they can’t get any worse. She also says that if everyone started chattering and bickering away without weighing their words, then it would just be fighting everywhere, which would make the occupiers happy.

To avoid making the occupiers happy, I need to really stretch my wallet to fit everything in it. It occurred to me that it could get so big that it could fit me in it, too. With time, I liked the idea more and more and I made the wallet grow really huge. I tried to look up facts about cocoons because it seemed to me that it was just like one. Thanks to my wallet I can be in a larval state as a caterpillar and then spread my wings as a colorful butterfly. And off I’ll fly.

But first, I guess I’d be an egg inside the wallet? Are people born from questions, like insects and chickens are born from eggs?

I thought about this, but the question was very strange and it made me feel like my head was about to explode.

But all this helped establish my connection with the wallet. It began with questions and dreams and ended with a butterfly. The butterfly became my favorite symbol and I thought about how I could use the word: maybe I could call my future daughter “Butterfly”?

But I knew that wouldn’t work at all, so I dismissed that idea after just two dreams. And then I decided instead to adopt “Butterfly” as my nom de guerre. 

With thanks to Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp for valuable insights on the translation of this piece. 

From اسمي الحركي فراشة,  © by Ahlam Bisharat. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Nashwa Gowanlock. All rights reserved. 

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