A window to the world

The poetry of Sheikha Helawy.

Sheikha Helawy reciting her poetry (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sheikha Helawy reciting her poetry
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To our Jaffa meeting, Bedouin poet and educator Sheikha Helawy brings her granddaughter, Nai, and spends the first part of the interview masterfully alternating between doting over her and discussing the complexities of being a female writer and successful educator while also navigating one of the most traditional Arab societies, that of the Bedouins. When I mention a powerful scene in one of her short stories when Helawy insists on going to a Haifa hairdresser to cut off her long braid and get a modern, short haircut in response to taunts by her classmates, all daughters of middle-class Haifa Arabs, she explains the importance of the braid in Bedouin culture.
“The braid is the sharef [family honor] and also, strangely, it’s a sign of beauty. For a woman to have smooth long hair is seen by Bedouin culture as being very beautiful. It’s almost a fetish, and of course, women don’t get to have a say about their own hair.”
She mentions a friend of her mother, murdered by her own brother in what is poorly called “honor killing,” a misleading description that connects violence against women with a notion of pre-modern Arab honor.
“He held her by her braid to slit her throat,” she calmly says, as she cuts the pizza for her granddaughter into portions the child can comfortably eat.
“Isn’t it funny how Arabs eat pizza?” she jokes, while looking lovingly at the girl. “We always pick the cheese and leave the crust for later, Italians find that maddening.” On a more serious note, she says, “Perhaps by cutting my braid I was trying to escape being killed. After all, I can’t change my name [the female version of Sheikh, an Arab elder or leader]. I can’t change my Bedouin accent all the way into the urban Haifa accent, but the braid I can cut.”
While every community in the Middle East carries an imaginary sack filled with historical grievances, Bedouins shoulder a slightly heavier one. Often romanticized by other Arab-speakers and non-Arabs as noble nomads who live closer to the mythical ideals of Arab culture, the various groups that compose the intricate map of Bedouin cultures in the region fared very differently according to the directions the countries established in it took after World War II.
In Israel, Bedouins were romanticized in the 1978 hit, “A Bedouin Love Song,” performed by David Broza, and were employed by the IDF as expert trackers, but some were the victims of land confiscation by the state and, in recent years, many have acquired university-level education. On the day of our interview, it was published that Abir Vakili, a 23-year-old Bedouin woman from the unrecognized Negev village of Beit Mashash, had just become the youngest person to pass the Israeli medical exams after studying in Moldova.
“I’m proud of her,” Helawy said. “The first book I wrote was called, ‘Ladies in the Dark’ and it focused on the family – one of the poems there is called ‘The women of the family.’ My identity as a woman is the most important thing for me as a girl who grew up in a society which is, on the one hand, one of the cruelest to women and, on the other hand, provides the illusion that the woman makes the decisions and runs the show.”
Helawy often writes about the experience of being a daughter and a granddaughter. She describes each of her grandmothers as having a huge heart “cracked by lovers, perforated by enemies / alien to me” (“Grandma, oh Grandma”) and the hardships of being raised by an independent woman who got divorced and worked cleaning houses to send her daughter to a fine private school. (“It’s necessary to cut off the wings growing on the girl” the mother says in “Outside the Seasons.”)
This clear-eyed view is not limited to the strength, and costs, of the mother-daughter bond but also relates to being belittled by classmates who mock her Bedouin accent, being dismissed as “a gypsy” by the English nuns from the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who ran the school she studied in, and living in a village that is only provided with running water when a resident is killed while serving in the IDF.
Helawy asks a Jewish neighbor in a poem she wrote in Hebrew titled “Water,” “How many soldiers did you pay for a night illuminated by electricity?” and remarks that “a dead village in darkness is better than a Bedouin who sells his soul to one “of blessed memory” [the Jewish prayer honoring the dead].
During our conversation, Helawy is clear that her unease with Bedouin and other Arabs who serve in the IDF is profound as it’s a choice that demands a separation between the professional and the personal she is unwilling to consider.
“What is the cost of running water and electric power? What is the cost of a plot of land?” she asks. “Today the young men who opt to serve speak about it with so much pride because they see the service as a way to get land to build their house on so they visit weddings in IDF uniforms,” making their decision socially known, despite many in Bedouin society viewing it as illegitimate. “If you belong to the people who are being occupied and use your blue [Israeli] ID to serve in that army, how will people look at you?”
When I ask how is a young Bedouin in the IDF different from Arab-Israeli soccer player Moanes Dabour playing on the Israeli national team or Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa performing in the National Theater, she objects to the comparison.
“It’s not as if I’m not dealing with complexities already,“ she says. “I was asked by the producers of [television host] Yaron London if I’d be willing to speak with him on his program and I declined because whenever he speaks with Arabs, he isn’t objective and gives them the third-degree. ‘Why do you say so? Why do you do this?’ and I do not want to speak from a place of fighting.”
She describes how, when she drives from Jaffa to work in Jerusalem where she runs the Pioneer Education Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, she meets teachers who point out that the textbooks for children in the refugee camp Shuafat, which is under Israeli control, present all women as wearing the hijab (headcover) and that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
“And of course the children leap up from their seats and shout ‘No! Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel,’ the teachers tell me, “so how can we teach children to be tolerant and multicultural in these conditions?”
Palestinian writer and human rights activists Raja Shehadeh wrote in his 1983 “The Third Way” that when he meets an Israeli soldier who is nice and polite to him at a roadblock, he actually gets even more annoyed because by being civil the soldier is demanding that he not only comply but also be pleasant to the soldier.
Helawy shares similar experiences with a Jewish settler she met as an educator, who asked if he might hire her as an Arabic tutor. “I told him it would not be me,” she says, “and he was talking from the same place as the soldier who is polite and civil [and I have to ask], ‘Did you, as a settler, ever try to understand the complexities of our lives here?’”
Helawy chooses to define herself as a Palestinian living in Israel, a choice her mother pointedly rebuked when she overheard her expressing it in a radio interview. “Why do you call yourself a Palestinian?” Her mother asked, “What have the Palestinians ever done for you?”
She points out that the effort demanded of a woman artist in Bedouin society is much greater than the efforts required by men. “To this day, my mother tells me I should pull up my hair or instructs me that having a nose ring is not pretty,” she laughs.
This web of emotional obligations – to the immediate family, the extended family, the tribe, the way the tribe will be viewed by other people who might read your poems or look you up online – is a very tangled one that is usually unseen by others.
If Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård was able to write about his personal life in “My Struggle” with such harshness that his family broke off relations with him, and he currently resides in London, where he remarried, Arab women writers don’t enjoy the same level of freedom. This makes Helawy’s choice to write and talk about her experiences and feelings quite brave. As an Arabic-language writer who is also translated into Hebrew, English, German and Polish, her works aren’t directed solely to an imaginary Jewish reader but to the whole world.
In a famous poem called “You Who Pass in the Sea of Words,” Mahmoud Darwish, considered the national Palestinian poet, called on Israelis to “get out of everything / get out of our wounds, our land/ get out of the earth, the sea, get out of everything.”
Helawy, in contrast, seems to embrace otherness. In two poems (“Last Dance” and “A Conversation Below the Bridge”), she addresses “the stranger” who acts in very unusual ways such as injecting ants, standing on his head, or even changing places with “a barren tree.”
“I have no conflicts with strangers,” she says. “My conflicts are with those who are closest to me…. I am able to accept everyone but it’s true that in moments of crises I can turn a little racist, so it’s a good thing I don’t have too many of those!”
Helawy was scheduled to participate in “From the Treetops to the Pearl Pool,” a photography exhibition celebrating female creators as part of the 8th Photo-Poetica Festival in the Naggar School of Photography in Musrara, a neighborhood in east Jerusalem, which runs until February 24, 2019.