Books

How writing reconnected me with my Bedouin past

Sheikha Helawy hid her origins after leaving her home in northern Palestine. Writing helped her rediscover her roots

Illustration two women embracing

Illustration: Laurel Molly

I was born in Al-Ray – Dhil al-Araj, a Palestinian Bedouin village formed of sheds isolated from the rest of the world and cut off from basic government services. Among pine forests at the foot of Mount Carmel in northern Palestine lay my village. Later, when I realised that my village was classified as an “unrecognised Bedouin village”, the search for recognition, an acknowledgment of my being, my entity, and my identity, became an obsession that accompanies me to this day. 

My Bedouin dialect managed to survive even after leaving my depopulated village, Dhil al-Araj, and moving to Jaffa. My Bedouin accent remained imprisoned, except with my family and relatives. It was the umbilical cord to home that was never cut off, which I hid from the eyes until my tongue mastered the dialect of the city. I do not deny that stereotypes about Bedouins and Bedouin life in places such as Haifa and Jaffa were discouraging to a girl of my age and were often even insulting and hurtful. As a girl possessed with acceptance and distinction, it was difficult for me to be proud of my origins. 

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When I was over 40, the outburst of the will to start writing was not motivated by a desire for acquiring the title “a writer”. Rather, it exploded from that old obsession: the search for recognition of my being and my identity. I realised the power of engaging in a dialogue with me, of meeting myself intimately, and dissecting memory with the scalpel of translation, translating silence into telling/writing… its ability to embody the question of identity and existence through words. 

The first story I wrote was ‘Haifa Has Assassinated My Braid’. Every time I read it to myself or to others, tears choke my voice. The question was, how can a story that I wrote make me cry? What wound has writing ripped open and made it bleed over again? 

In my short story collection, They Fell Like Stars From the Sky and Other Stories, I was back again to the old swing that I was banned from getting close to out of fear for my virginity. I was just like other girls from the village, and so was my virginity. In ‘Pink Dress’ I wrote about harvesting wheat and “harvesting my body hair”. In ‘The Door to the Body’, I wrote about the first bra I tried on, that same bra that put an end to my childhood and set before the body a wide-open door. In ‘Barbed Question’, I moved back to all the questions that I saved myself from answering over and over. In the stories ‘Ali’, ‘All the Love I’ve Known’, and ‘W-h-o-r-e’, I buried those women who couldn’t survive death and love, and I engraved their names on eucalyptus trees and in my stories. 

Writing, for me, is a dismantling and reconstitution of all the identities that accompanied me and lay heavily on me.   

However, I don’t want these identities to restrict me in writing, nor force me to isolate myself from the eye through which I see the world. Identity, no matter how it is classified, is an easy trap to fall into, it can become a representative speech rather than creation. 

Real writing is a state of being outward, outside any manifested identities. 

I believe that my search for a definite and clear identity was all in the liminal space of discrepancies where I lived my previous and present life; the Bedouin and the civil lives, the Palestinian, Arab, and the human living under occupation, the woman/man conflict. This quest has led me to the act of writing not as a solution but as a personal tool that allows a deep dive into all identities and their embodiment, in voiding-avoiding them and getting away from them. 

My discovery of the treasures of the Bedouin coincided with the beginning of my writing; in the first stories in the collection – ‘Ladies of the Darkness’ and ‘Like Stars Fell from the Sky’ – were the return to my village and to my childhood and adolescence. The Bedouin life that I worked hard to conceal and disguise. I was back again to that moment of burning desire and eagerness, remorseful and mature. It may be that the reactions of readers and followers encouraged me more to write from inside this place, it was as if my stories filled a huge gap and corrected a big forgotten mistake. 

It is no secret that minority writing fascinates the other and embodies a magic spell in it simply because it comes from a place they do not know. 

They Fell Like Stars From the Sky book cover

Sheikha Helawy’s first short story collection, They Fell Like Stars from the Sky And Other Stories is out on 26 September (Neem Tree Press, £9.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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