Ahlam Bsharat’s Code Name: Butterfly is a new take on the classic coming of age storyline often seen in young adult literature. The novel is set in Palestine during the Israeli occupation. There are no major events, dates, or technology given to pinpoint a year or decade beyond the main character is growing up after the second intifada which ended in 2005. Time passes in jumps and starts without a lot of notice to how long it has been since the last chapter. The background and meandering timeline of Butterfly’s adolescence creates a different perspective for an often written about theme.
This short novel progresses through young adulthood for the narrator by dividing into five parts. Her inner monologue gives the audience insight into the questions she is asking about herself, her family, and the state of the world she inhabits. Which side of the occupation does her father support? Will she follow her dream to leave Palestine? Why are all the marriages around her unhappy? Butterfly wants to know the answers to all of these questions, but instead stores them in her imaginary treasure chest along with her secrets. There bits of knowledge she keeps to defend herself against her friends in the future, others she keeps quiet about to avoid teasing, and others she keeps to protect her family’s feelings. Some questions she learns over the years in the book, such as when she gets her period and understands why her older sister gets to sit under blankets with special tea sometimes. Others, such as her father’s affiliation, remain unanswered at the end of the novel. In the second half of the book, the audience are told of some events that push Butterfly out of her musings and towards adulthood. Her older sister leaves the country for marriage, her father loses his job at the vineyard after decades of work, and her crush is martyred one morning for his protesting of the occupation. It is during all this when she settles on the codename Butterfly and she turns her imaginary treasure chest into a cocoon. All of her experiences, questions, and ideas are forming what will become her identity. The novel ends with a symbolic passage sparked by the realization that her community is fighting themselves instead of their actual enemies. The audience watchers her dreams of a butterfly bursting out of her inner cocoon throwing everything stored there aside as it soars away. All of the sadness and uncertainty are reconciled with a knowledge that “I knew I had what it took to go life’s distance” (Bsharat, 89).
The theme of hidden questions and secrets aligns with how the reader may feel throughout the story. Personally, I had to spend time looking up the history of the occupation of Palestine and different events to be able to have some sort of understanding of the world Butterfly is growing up in. The history of the this part of the world, as well as the United States hand in it, is not commonly discussion in our high school or colleges. Our lack of knowledge is mirrored by Butterfly’s as she begins to question the world around her. This is effective technique because it meets the audience where they are at instead of expecting people to already be experts. This novel is a good place to start when learning before moving onto more in depth and detailed stories about the region.
The novel’s use of secrets also gives insight into exactly differences between childhood in Palestine and childhood outside of there. After coming back from seeing her sister fly from Jordan to go live with her new husband, the audience listens as Butterfly describe how the kids in Jordan “can travel from city to city with their families … since there aren’t any check points. They don’t even have to carry their birth certificates everywhere” (Bsharat, 68). While she keeps this hidden away in her treasure chest, she comes to the realization that “In Palestine, children have to prove they’re children” (Bsharat, 68). Part of her coming of age is gaining perspective on her life. The overall movement of the novel away from childhood innocence to the harsher realities of adulthood is expertly impressed on the audience. Butterfly explaining to herself allows the audience to learn without being preached at or reading a dry news article.
Code Name: Butterfly would be a perfect fit for a teaching in a high school or college literature class. Its short length makes it reasonable for students to read during the school year and keeps the main points from being lost. The unanswered questions leave room for students to discuss possible answers and learn about the occupation of Palestine. It could be paired with Baddawi to show the history and the current situation in that area of the world. It could also be paired with an American coming of age story to challenge students to think critically about others’ experiences around the world.
Bsharat, Ahlam. Code Name: Butterfly. Trans. Nancy Roberts. London: Neem Tree Press Limited, 2016. Print.