Butterfly is not your average schoolgirl; at least not if you went to school in the UK. One of her best friends calls herself Dalal Mughrabi after the female Fatah fighter who played a central role in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre. Another classmate, Fida, is nicknamed Al-Khansa after an Arabian poet who was known for odes that mourned the loss of her two brothers. One of Fida’s brothers died in the First Intifada, the other in the second.
It is these experiences of being a teenager living under occupation in Palestine that Butterfly paints for the reader in “Code Name: Butterfly”, a coming of age novel set in a small Palestinian village and which has been shortlisted for the MEMO Palestine Book Awards. Butterfly and her friends are only around 14-years-old and yet they are already so engaged in politics because they’ve already lived through more than most adults will ever have to. As she says herself: “In Palestine children have to prove they’re children.”
Butterfly’s own uncle was killed by settlers. Uncle Saleh was on his way to Nablus, she tells us, when he was ordered out of the car, made to turn around and was shot in the back. How, then, does Butterfly deal with the fact that not only does her father work in a settlement tending vines, but he brings home sweets for her from the wife of his boss?
It is questions like this that Butterfly must struggle with every day. Impossible questions and moral conundrums like how to feel when Salma, Saleh’s widow, marries her dead husband’s brother. Instead of confronting her family members, Butterfly hides her questions in the same place she hides her dreams – an imaginary treasure chest.
Over time Butterfly discovers that she is not the only one with secrets. Her sister weeps into her pillow every night until revealing that her fiancé is in prison. In fact it’s not long before she realises that adults have questions too and that they’re not always able to answer them.
As Butterfly becomes a young woman her mother scolds her for laughing at a party and asks her: Which mother would want their son to marry a girl who guffaws for the slightest reason? She tries on her mother’s dressing gown, pencils her eyebrows and paints her fingernails. She quarrels with her classmates, falls in love with the same person her friend has a crush on and asks why is marriage such a miserable affair?
When Butterfly’s treasure chest is too full it becomes a cocoon that allows her to turn from a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly – all the questions she stuffed into it during her adolescence actually helped her transform into the young woman she is today. The butterfly she becomes symbolises hope for the future and what any young woman can become with hard work, and her dreams.