This Bedouin Poet Began Writing at 46. Her Feminist Work Is Now Celebrated Globally

Sheikha Helawy hasn’t lived the traditional life of a feted writer, overcoming childhood hardships to become an award-winning poet who confronts the oppression of women in Bedouin society

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Sheikha Helawy outside her home, standing next to a tree.
Sheikha Helawy. “It’s sad when you have childhood memories but the place of your childhood has been erased, is nonexistent,”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sheikha Helawy felt her entire world turning upside down about six years ago. Her young son contracted an autoimmune disease, so she interrupted her doctoral studies at the University of Haifa, ended a long-term career teaching Arabic and stayed home to take care of him.

She changed her career track, too, starting to work with schools in East Jerusalem as an educational programs director. “My son’s illness, the midlife crisis that suddenly became oppressive [she was 46] and direct exposure to the intolerable situation of oppression and discrimination in East Jerusalem, which took me back to my childhood – together, everything caused me to feel suffocated,” she says.

“From that place in life, when I felt everything was closing in on me, I suddenly started to write, without any advance planning. I started writing with genuine urgency, without a break. I felt I was sitting in front of a psychologist and telling them about myself, about my childhood, about my surroundings, about the sights that were etched deep in me – and the writing became a kind of self-therapy.”

Sheikha Helawy. “After I married and moved into an apartment, one of my greatest pleasures was the electric switch.”
Sheikha Helawy. “After I married and moved into an apartment, one of my greatest pleasures was the electric switch.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Within a short time, Helawy became recognized as one of the outstanding Palestinian writers in the Arab world. The outburst of writing gave rise to a book of poetry, “Outside the Seasons I Learned to Fly” (2015), and three short-story collections: “The Ladies of Twilight” (also 2015), “Windows are Spoiled Books” (2016) and “Order C345” (2018), which won last year’s prestigious Almultaqa Prize for Arabic short-story collections.

Her award-winning book of stories is being published for the first time in Hebrew this month, translated by Haaretz columnist Ilana Hammerman, alongside a new book of poetry, “Maybe We’ll Need More than a Forest,” which appears in a bilingual edition (translated and edited jointly by Helawy and Rachel Peretz).

In early September, at Metula’s annual Poetry Festival – held online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – Helawy received the Teva Prize, which is widely seen as Israel’s most prestigious poetry award. There was a session devoted to her work, during which Helawy spoke to poet and literary critic Reem Ghanayem, and to Afik Publishing House co-founder Yiftach Aloni.

Reem Ghanayem
Poet, editor and literary critic Reem Ghanayem.Credit: Sanaa Masarweh

“Helawy presents a different face of Palestinian literature and the Palestinian narrative by means of the weakest voice in the most excluded community,” Ghanayem says. “Her writing breaches the boundaries of genres and she’s a whirlwind of identities, relationships, and the tension between the center and the margins. She turns Palestinian literature into cosmopolitan literature. She focuses on the person and their shadow, on wounded animals, on remote and excluded characters. She’s a lone, refreshing and unique voice; she’s like a lovely wild plant that cropped up unexpectedly in the desert without anyone watering and nurturing it,” she adds.

The marvel of electricity

Helawy was born in 1968, in an unrecognized Bedouin village on the outskirts of Haifa. “In our Bedouin dialect we called our village ‘The Tail,’ because it was at the foot of Mount Carmel,” she says. Her parents divorced when she was 13; her father moved to Jaffa while she grew up together with her brother and mother in a shack without electricity.

“My mother is illiterate and worked all her life with the elderly,” Helawy recounts, her eyes darkening. “She’s one of the strongest women I’ve met, who worked really hard in order to give us everything. My brother and I studied in the best schools, but the place where we grew up was mired in terrible poverty. Everything was mud. There was no electricity, nothing inside the shack, mattresses spread on the floor. Sometimes the rain came down on me when I was sleeping and I’d wake up in a flooded shack, sailing with the mattress.

“After I married and moved into an apartment, one of my greatest pleasures was the electric switch,” Helawy says. “I could turn the light on and off for hours, as though hypnotized. It seemed a marvel to me.”

Helawy excelled at elementary school in the Bedouin town of Basmat Tab’un. She signed herself up for the Convent of Nazareth School in Haifa, which is generally considered the best in the region. “I paid a high price for my studies in Haifa,” she reflects. “The teachers immediately recognized that I was an outstanding student, but I was harshly mocked by the students. I was a Bedouin girl from an unrecognized village – in other words, from a very low class.

“I concealed my entire identity and all the conditions in which I grew up, in order to survive among the other children, but my dialect was different. They made fun of my name, Sheikha – which means the sheikh’s wife, an older woman with a high status. For a group of city kids, it sounded foreign and old-fashioned.

An Israel Railways siding near the site of the unrecognized Bedouin village where Sheikha Helawy grew up.
An Israel Railways siding near the site of the unrecognized Bedouin village where Sheikha Helawy grew up. Credit: Doron Golan / Jini

“It was a traumatic encounter for me,” she admits now. “I felt that the gates of hell and paradise were opening before me simultaneously: On the one hand, I had the privilege of entering a world so rich in education. And on the other, I felt lonely, not accepted and had to deal with the mockery. A sense of foreignness accompanied me all the time. I didn’t feel confident; I didn’t feel I belonged. As a child, I was ashamed of my identity and of the place I came from. Today, I’m very proud and understand that it’s a source of strength.”

The loss of heritage

Helawy’s childhood village was destroyed and completely erased in the 1990s. About two years ago, she plucked up the courage and returned to look for the shack in which she had grown up.

“It’s sad when you have childhood memories but the place of your childhood has been erased, is nonexistent,” she says. “All the residents scattered. Most of the land was expropriated for Israel Railways. There’s nothing there today, but I found the location of the shack. A piece of concrete remains, a small remnant.”

She slams Israel’s governments for their attitude toward unrecognized Bedouin villages. “In Arabic they’re called ‘Villages whose land was stolen,’” she explains. “That’s the behavior of occupation, that’s how a policy of occupation is conducted: They look at a village and decide it’s ‘unrecognized.’ On what basis does the government decide it’s an unrecognized village? After all, the village existed before 1948. The land is ours in the state land registry, we didn’t come and steal it. It belongs to our grandfathers, to our uncles, to our families.

“We grew up next to the Jewish community of Elro’i [now part of Kiryat Tivon], which when it was in development already received all the services – whereas we lived without electricity, without a road and in shacks. [The state] never gave us construction permits. When my uncle built a house from concrete, they demolished it immediately. I have never forgiven them for the destruction of the village, nor will I forgive them for the fact that I can’t return to it.

Umm Kulthum. “Her voice opened a window to the women and girls, and made it possible to dream,” Helawy says.
Umm Kulthum. “Her voice opened a window to the women and girls, and made it possible to dream,” Helawy says.Credit: AFP

“That’s the most painful issue for me, even after all these years. It’s my responsibility as a writer to bring readers the story of the village that no longer exists,” she says.

Missing braid

Maybe it’s not surprising that Helawy’s first story, “Haifa Stole My Braid” – published in the 2019 short story collection “Amputated Tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew” – tells the pain of her adolescence in a society that excluded her. “I trembled while I was writing it,” she says. “To this day, I cry when I read this story in front of an audience.”

She continues: “I had a long braid, like a Bedouin heritage, which in the new landscape of Haifa became a heavy burden on my back because it revealed that I was different. All the girls had short hair. I tried to be like them and got a haircut. To this day, many years later, my hand still sometimes touches the missing braid, looks for it.”

She’s no stranger to racism, either. Last July, social media sites were ablaze about a video by popular children’s entertainer Roy Oz, aka “Roy Boy,” in which he asks his children if they want to “feed a Bedouin” after they see two young children standing outside his car.

“I felt anger at first,” Helawy relays. “I watched the film six or seven times in a row. It related to the children as though they were in a zoo. But I must say that it’s not foreign to me. I lived it. When I’d get off the bus as a student, far-right extremists would open the window and spit at me. I watched the [Roy Oz] footage and asked myself, how does this still exist? How many generations will still experience such inhumane treatment?”

At age 18, Helawy married her cousin, Fahd, and moved to Jaffa. “I felt that I was rescuing myself via the move to Jaffa, which wouldn’t have been possible without the marriage,” she says. “I knew that had I stayed in the village, I wouldn’t have been able to fulfill myself and to study. It would have been a death sentence, in a spiritual sense.”

Fahd suddenly shows up during the interview, which took place in their home, shakes my hand and introduces himself: “Nice to meet you, I’m her husband.” He smiles and immediately hastens to correct himself: “Sorry, her partner.” (The Hebrew word for husband, ba’al, also means “owner.”) The couple has four children.

Helawy began to study at Tel Aviv University when she was 21, and now has a master’s degree in Arabic and Islamic studies. At 24 she began to teach Arabic in the Terra Sancta Secondary School in Jaffa. “I was an Arabic teacher for 21 years. That was the nicest period in my life,” she says.

Those with no voice

Many of Helawy’s stories criticize the oppression of women in Bedouin society, the forced marriages and female objectification. “I see an improvement in the status of women in Bedouin society – many Bedouin women go to study. But we have to ask whether they have a genuine right to choose in their lives. Do they have genuine ownership over their lives?” she asks, her diamond nose ring glittering.

“There’s need for a profound change in the mentality of the Bedouin man,” Helawy states. “You can see very educated women, but sometimes they’re the second or third wife of their husband. The change is still external. I often see that they yearn for much more freedom, but they daren’t say so.”

The Teva Prize she received reminds her of how poetry came into her life. “I grew up on classical poetry,” she recalls. “Though I was surrounded by women like my mother and my grandmother, who were illiterate, they recited poetry by heart all the time. In Bedouin society, everything is poetry. Someone dies: there’s a poetic eulogy. Someone marries: blessings are sung. It’s an integral part of our lives. Poetry is part of my experience. Even when my grandmother talks to the goat, it’s poetry,” she laughs.

The Almultaqa Prize that Helawy received in Kuwait last year recalls a different type of poetry – the songs of Egyptian performer Umm Kulthum. She “was played in my village and her voice opened a window to the women and girls, and made it possible to dream,” Helawy explains, her eyes ablaze. “From an early age I saw her as a queen, a legend, a strong woman who grew up in a small village to a poor family and became a symbol to an entire nation.

“When I stood on the stage in Kuwait, it was a moment of victory,” she says. “A moment when they tell you ‘We decided that you’re in first place,’ a moment when you’re standing in front of an audience and your voice is heard. For a split second, I asked myself if that’s how Umm Kulthum felt. After all, every time she stood on the stage, it was a declaration of ‘I’m in first place’ – not only among female singers but among every singer in the Arab world.”

As for her love of transitioning between different forms of writing, Helawy says: “I seemingly don’t know the boundaries between a poem and a short story. I write very freely. The structure doesn’t interest me, but I admit that I feel more confident with the short story. It also gives me more space to play with the language and images. It’s also closer to my temperament and my nature. I don’t have much patience,” she smiles.

“I don’t have the patience necessary for a novel,” she admits. “I like to write stories whose ending is like an electricity blackout that stuns the reader. Leaves them thinking, takes them out of their comfort zone.”

The protagonists of her stories are people who exist on the margins: “I write about people without a voice, people who aren’t heroes in the classical sense; I’m attracted to difference,” Helawy explains. “I also feel that, through writing, I return to my childhood – but in a different way. Everything I denied as a child, everything I tried to hide, I now put into words and make eternal. It’s like begging for forgiveness, and reconciling with myself and my identity.”

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