The life of butterflies

The life of butterflies

Publication Date: 2020

Publisher: Dar al Mutawassit

Country of Publication: Italy, Milano

Pages: 380

Hayat al farashat

It’s early on a Saturday the morning, just before dawn. Habiba, a beautiful forty year-old single woman leaves her apartment to walk to the sewing factory where she works, like every morning. She dislikes crowds and avoids public transportation. And as every morning, a twenty year-old young man, Hani, waits for her across the street. For the past three months, Hani has been waking up before dawn, to wait for Habiba in front of her building, and walks her to the factory. The first few weeks, he walks behind her, and gradually comes closer. Until that morning. It is raining on this summer day, and funnily, Hani has an umbrella. Habiba and Hani speak for the first time. Hani is a wrestler who moved to the city from the countryside about a year ago. He is getting ready for the catch championship about to take place a few days later.
Unlike the other women of her age, Habiba wears pretty, short, colorful dresses, and walks tall and straight. It’s impossible not to notice her, and many men have their eye on her, including the factory’s manager, and later, she will find out, her neighbor the Judge Saqr.
Salem, Habiba’s brother, is a popular singer. He sings in the Don Quixote bar, and composes songs. His
voice is known to all, and loved by all. Until that fateful Saturday morning, where he decides to go the public radio station of Rabat to record his new song. That morning, the military attempt a coup (which will be contained by the King barely a few hours later), and take over the radio station to broadcast it on the waves. Salem is forced to read the coup’s announcement, and his famous voice resonates in
every single household of Morocco.
This is how the last week in the lives of Habiba and Salem begin. These two episodes will start a chain of
events, which, a week later, will lead the two siblings to their deaths. Like the life of butterflies, Habiba and Salem’s lives are short, and fragile. Both penniless, they seek beauty and meaning in a world that doesn’t value or understand either. As always, Youssef Fadel poignantly depicts how people trying to survive as individuals, following their own unconventional paths, are cruelly crushed by a ruthless and
intolerant society.
From these two points on, then, the lives of Habiba and Salem precipitate into death. As Salem’s voice is now associated to the failed coup, all the doors close in his face and he becomes a persona non-grata. Including with his young attractive fiancee Fatma whose sole ambition in life is to marry a rich man and buy herself beautiful clothes. As he becomes cumbersome, and an undesirable musician, Salem will disappear, and found dead the next day, mysteriously poisoned after a dinner with Fatma, who, on
the day of his disappearance celebrates her marriage with an old man.
As for Habiba, the day after the coup is her 40th birthday. She decides to wear her beautiful blue silk short dress, go to the movies, and treat herself to a drink at a fancy cafe. Hani sees her and goes into the theater after her. In the dark theater, they will kiss and touch, and burn with desire for each other. Except that sitting behind them, in her full black dress and veil, is one of Habiba’s neighbors.
She follows her in the street, and accuses her “I saw everything, you whore!” This accusation will resonate in Habiba’s few remaining days, covering her with shame, and infusing her with fear and apprehension. The woman will use this incident to blackmail her, and force her into Judge Saqr’s bed. The faith of the woman’s son lies in the hands of the judge, and in exchange of Habiba, he might be willing to let her son go.
The novel alternates between different characters, and each chapter is told from the perspective of either
Salem, Habiba, Hani, or Habiba’s lustful employer Hajjar. The narration being in turn in each of their voice, or in that of an omniscient narrator. Delving into these characters’ hearts and minds, Fadel portrays their way of thought in convincing and captivating detail, revealing the painful barbarity of the Moroccan patriarchal society of the 1980s.

Translation by Alexander Elison

They continued to stand in front of one another, for a long time, or so it seemed. Then the woman dressed all in black got very close to her and said from behind her hijab, “You know what you did, you whore.” She had been in the theater, and she had seen everything. She must have been sitting in the seat behind her. Directly behind her, and she had seen. What did she see, and what didn’t she see?
“Everything,” as she said, with a threatening tone in her voice that made her legs shake. Too late. Because the woman turned her back to her, and disappeared into the bazaar. The theater wasn’t as dark as she had thought. The light reflecting off of the screen had lit up the room bright as day. Faces were revealed. Movements were exposed. And the sounds? All the sounds that eager kisses and thirsty lips
made. The earth didn’t pull out from under her yet. She would not faint because of what happened. The din surrounding her got quieter. Voices grew more distant, corresponding to the gentle sadness of the falling evening. The insult remains inside her and leaves her with a bitter taste. A feeling of insult and impotence. That is what remained after the woman had disappeared. That’s it.
Then she realized that she was running. Fleeing without any hope of finding the proper way out. Without any hope of being saved from the threat that the woman in black posed. She looked all around her, to see if anything in particular in those passing by betrayed their knowledge of what had happened in the dark theater of the Kawkab Cinema. All they had to do was cast a furtive glance at that extremely panicked face for them to be sure. Deep down inside she had a feeling that everyone knew what had happened to her in the theater, and outside of the theater. They knew everything about her.

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The life of butterflies