‘They Fell Like Stars from the Sky’: Sheikha Helawy’s ‘Certain Understanding of Happiness’

By M Lynx Qualey

……..They Fell Like Stars from the Sky & Other Stories
……..by Sheikha Helawy, translated by Nancy Roberts
……..Neem Tree Press, September 2023.

Their bodies might be displaced, torn away from homes and villages. Yet the memories of women and girls in Sheikha Helawy’s short-story collection They Fell Like Stars from the Sky remain, haunting the spaces where they once lived.

Helawy—an acclaimed short-story writer who won the Almultaqa Prize for her 2018 collection Order C345—knows the experience of being violently uprooted. Indeed, this book, translated by Nancy Roberts, is dedicated to “the contrary little girl I left behind under the oak tree in the village of Dhail El E’rj”—a village that was obliterated in the 1990s. The dedication continues, “The village died, and so did the tree, but she remained[.]”

They Fell Like Stars from the Sky, Helawy’s first book-length work in English, brings together eighteen stories that center girls and women at different stages of life, most of them Palestinian Bedouins from “unrecognized” villages that echo Dhail El E’rj.

As Roberts notes in her preface, Helawy’s village was razed by the Israeli government three decades ago to make way for a rail line. These sorts of demolitions continue: In July 2023, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court ruled that all 500 Bedouin residents of Ras Jrabah must evacuate and demolish their homes by March 2024. In the collection, these sorts of demolitions aren’t centered, yet things often disappear without explanation. In “’God Bless Toun Field!’” for instance, the titular field is suddenly gone.

Yet while homes and trees and football pitches might disappear, the stories suggest that narratives can keep memories rooted in place. In the lyrical final story, “Queens of Darkness,” a group of unnamed women work as a chorus to hold fast to memory. They measure lost time in a “small back room amid giant kettles that have been passed down generation after generation along with kohl sticks and a certain understanding of happiness.”

‘A certain understanding of happiness’

Throughout the stories in the collection, this “certain understanding of happiness” is hard-won. In the opening stories, girls are at the edge of adolescence, trying to find space for their personal and shared joys in a highly judgmental world. Girls are weighed and measured not only by their parents, but also by their brothers, the nuns at school, their aunts and uncles, and every pair of nearby eyes. In “I’ll Be There,” the British teacher Sister Bern and the narrator’s mother are very different women, yet both use the teen protagonist’s Bedouin background as a cudgel. “Whenever I broke the school’s strict rules,” the narrator says, “Sister Bern would call me a gypsy, which was what my mother was afraid I’d turn into some day.”

In this story, as in others, hair is a particularly keen source of anxiety. As hair continuously escapes its constraints, it foreshadows other rebellions. Here, the mother tells the narrator, “I swear to God, I swear to God, I’d rather die than be seen walking down the street with you when your hair looks like that!”

Leg hair is another worry; in “Pink Dress,” a girl at the edge of puberty attempts to shave her legs before a family wedding, and, in an experience common to women around the world, finds a missed patch on the back of her leg. When she discovers it, she turns to find an aunt giving her a judgmental grin.

There are eyes everywhere in the tiny villages that populate most stories in the collection. In “Barbed Question,” the young woman narrator wants to get on a bus and go to nearby Haifa, just for a change of scenery. But it’s nearly impossible to do this without passing through a forest of judgmental glares. However, if a young woman can manage to get past, she derives power from this victory: “If a woman or girl manages to get past the village’s male gathering—whether by crawling like a snake, running like a sheepdog, or evaporating like their cigarette smoke—and if the barbed question, ‘Wayn, ya m’sahhil?’ doesn’t grab her by the hem of the dress or the tip of her braid, she’ll be ready to face anything.”

As girls grow into women throughout the collection, their challenges multiply along with potential punishments. And as they grow, fathers, husbands, and brothers have particular anxiety about anything they might love.

Holding onto love

In the short-short story “All the Love I’ve Ever Known,” the maxim in the village of Umm al-Zeinat is: “We don’t have girls who fall in love.” Naturally, as soon the reader dips below the story’s surface, they find girls in Umm al-Zeinat searching desperately for love. Yet here, as elsewhere in the collection, this desire for love doesn’t necessarily mean a traditional romance. It might also mean a love for music or animals or football.

To the men of the collection, these loves are almost always a threat. In “W-h-o-r-e,” the protagonist is a man obsessed with his sister’s chastity. In a twist, the brother ends up badly beaten, while the sister escapes unscathed. This is unusual for the women of They Fell Like Stars from the Sky, where few dodge violence so smoothly. Still, despite the threats, many manage to hold on to their private passions. In “The Day My Donkey Died,” a young woman is compelled by her brothers to marry, and she ends up with a man who scorns her deepest affection. Yet as the years pass, her love for the childhood donkey remains more powerful than any feeling she has for—or against—her husband.

This is one of the motifs of the collection. Women who are filled with a deep passion—of any sort—find a way to root themselves in the world. The grandmother in “Umm Kulthum’s Intercessor” is filled with a love for the iconic Egyptian singer. The story is narrated by the woman’s favorite granddaughter, who regularly brings home new bits of information about Umm Kulthum. A wedge comes between the two when the granddaughter brings home a piece of information about the singer that the grandmother doesn’t like. Yet, fortunately, a love for Umm Kulthum conquers all.

It is not only a love for Umm Kulthum that sustains: In “’God Bless Toun Field!’,” another older woman fills her life with a passion for football. In this story, we meet a neighborhood busybody named Aunt Aisha who once shouted advice at the boys who played football at Toun Field. The field disappears and the boys grow into men who sit on their couches, but Aunt Aisha adapts. As an adult, she sits on her own couch and hurls advice at professional footballers. She feels like such a part of these men’s lives that, when she grudgingly leaves the couch to get her husband’s inhaler on July 9, 2006, she thinks it’s her fault when her beloved Zinedine Zidan headbutts the Italian player Marco Materazzi. After that, she won’t leave a game unobserved again.

Blessedly, Auntie Aisha’s husband is one of the few men in the collection who doesn’t interfere with his wife’s passion. He “would keep his eyes on the screen, postponing his insults until the referee’s whistle sounded and—whether beaming with contentment or snarling in frustration—his wife rose from her place.”

We don’t know whether this man is a good husband at any other moment. But at least—unlike the husband who killed his wife’s donkey, or the one who tried to stop her from listening to Umm Kulthum—this man can hold his tongue for an hour or two.

Queens in darkness

The women and men in Helawy’s collection nearly all live in Bedouin villages that might be razed at the whim of a faraway official. Yet government decisions are scarcely mentioned in these stories. The focus is instead on women’s passions, whether for a young boy, a donkey, Umm Kulthum, football, or a moment flying high on a swing. The last story, “Queens of Darkness,” seems to address all the women in the collection. In it, the narrator tells us about how women must know “where secrets are kept, and how old stories are divided up.”

The translation, by Nancy Roberts, also feels like an act of love. While the explanatory footnotes Roberts offers might feel unnecessary to some readers, the stories are all warmly rendered, clearly animated by the “spirit of resistance and determined love” that she evokes in her brief preface to the collection.

Indeed, it is clear why Roberts would have found herself attached to these stories. Despite the many acts of violence that beset the women in They Fell Like Stars from the Sky, it is the ghosts of their joyous, rebellious passions that we remember.

M Lynx Qualey is an editor at ArabLit.