Mohamed Salmawy’s new novel emerges like a butterfly from the chaos of Cairo

Hosni Mubarak’s final days form the backdrop to the latest novel by Salmawy, one of Egypt's most crucial writers.
Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011, months after an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Khaled Desouki / AFP Photo / May 2014
Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011, months after an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Khaled Desouki / AFP Photo / May 2014

Not content with juggling the pursuits of poet, playwright, journalist, president of the Writers’ Union of Egypt and secretary general of the General Union of Arab Writers, Mohamed Salmawy also writes novels.

His latest one to be translated into English (seamlessly by Raphael Cohen) is Butterfly Wings, a book first published in Arabic in 2011. Three years is a relatively long time to bring it to an English audience. As the book is Salmawy’s fictional response to the protests that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, we get it with reduced impact, shorn of topicality and urgency, a mere aftershock to what was no doubt an explosion when originally published. Still, after reading it and rooting for its characters, it is a case of better late than never.

Salmawy constructs a narrative that encompasses both the riots and the disparate lives of three interesting figures. Two of them meet on a plane bound for Rome. Doha is a fashion designer, successful in her job and unfulfilled in her marriage to one of the most senior leaders in the ruling party. Ashraf is a professor and activist politically opposed to Doha’s husband. They find themselves side by side on the plane, she flying on to a fashion show in Milan, he en route to an NGO conference in Palermo. Doha is initially frosty towards Ashraf’s blandishments and political views but before the plane has touched down she has thawed. When she meets him again in Rome it is as a changed woman who, in refusing Egyptian embassy hospitality and chauffeurs, makes the first steps to asserting her own independence.

These opposites attract, with Doha gradually finding the emotional satisfaction she has lacked since her disastrous wedding night. Salmawy’s third lead, Ayman, is another character searching for a vital missing segment to make him complete. When he discovers his father’s wife is not his natural mother, he makes enquiries to track her down. His journey to Tanta is literally and figuratively a bumpy ride but the joyous reunion at the end of it rewards his dogged perseverance.

Salmawy’s characters’ trials may seem too merrily and conveniently topped and tailed but he resists censure by bringing in a tense subplot concerning Ayman’s brother Abdel Samad, a victim of a marriage scam. Once this story has run its course and the three leads look set to ride off into the sunset, Salmawy destabilises our expectations by throwing his trio into the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the ensuing violent crackdown. A book that began with these characters dodging the mêlée to get to their respective departure points, ends with them in the thick of it, then in custody and asking themselves whether their quest for happiness has been in vain.

Butterfly Wings is therefore a novel of various tales of personal upheaval within the wider, more complex framework of national turmoil. We read wondering not only how each of Salmawy’s strands will be spliced together but also to what extent individual ordeals will unify into shared fates.

While the novel’s grand design holds up, there are times when Salmawy’s decorative detail feels either too plush or too threadbare. When clouds are likened to candy floss it is hard to believe this is from the same writer who at one juncture compares the large Central Security vehicles to “sad elephants removed from their native habitat and awaiting the orders of the ringmaster” and later to “mobile prisons on the hunt for inmates”. Salmawy dons his poet’s hat to tell us how sunbeams stream through raindrops “to form threads of light holding beads of water. Magical necklaces that only she could see” – only to forcibly remove it and resort to cliché by giving Ayman’s girlfriend Salwa an “angelic face” and “almond-shaped eyes”.

Far more troublesome – indeed, irksome – than such inconsistent description is Salmawy’s preoccupation with butterflies. For Ayman, Salwa is a white butterfly symbolising “innocence and purity”. Just as he gets close to the truth about his mother “it flits off like a butterfly”. Doha designs dresses inspired by butterflies, identifies with them (“the butterfly is a symbol of rebirth”) and vows to take control of her life and “no longer be a caterpillar confined to its chrysalis”. Although we should have reached saturation point long before now, Salmawy has Ashraf explain to Doha that his speech in Palermo is on the butterfly effect.

These metaphors work in isolation: what could be more apposite than a butterfly to signify Doha’s metamorphosis? The problem is they are overused. However, the plights of Salmawy’s characters are so absorbing and his denouement so powerful that it pays to stick with him and take the occasional rough with the more dominant smooth.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.

Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one