Adania Shibli: Butterflies and Helicopters

Shelling Moment, Ink drawing, 21_30cm, (2003, Gaza) Mohammad Joha
Shelling Moment,Ink drawing, 21_30cm, (2003, Gaza) Mohammad Joha


Exactly at the foot of the wall, where empty beer bottles had been thrown, some blades of grass sprouted. On top of the wall we stood looking at the sea.
And over the sea, along with our looks, a harsh wind was passing. The wind was just pinching its surface, not bothering to wave it.

A butterfly, out of the blue, came into the same scene of sea, wall, rubbish, and blades of grass.

I took my hand out of my coat pocket, letting go of the hope that it would warm up in there.

A layer of light formed around the hand of his coat. The familiar roughness of its wool turned into a halo that surrounded his arm down to his half-open palm.

When I touched it, reluctance showed in those eyes whose eyelashes seemed to have vanished with the rest of the light. Was it getting colder? The unease increased, as there was no move either one of us could initiate, despite all the closeness we attempted.


Gradually, the butterfly flew away. First it flew toward the house, but before reaching the fence it turned right and continued its flight route along the wall. Then it suspended aloft in mid air for a few seconds, now four meters away; now two meters away. The fluttering of its wings like the fluttering of eyelids.

The butterfly  flew higher and farther. I wanted to run after it, but the heaviness of my heart kept me still.

Yesterday I chased a butterfly. In the beginning, it looked like a fallen leaf, indistinguishable from the rest of the leaves spread on the asphalt.

To listen to the rustling of your own papers as they fly away, without making any effort to catch them. The light wraps around my neck tightly, and is soothing me.

There is also a butterfly flying around: the first nice thing today.

I rushed. No, I did not rush, but sat on the first chair I found,.

So the time of love is over. Along with it, a great misery; without it, a lesser and tougher misery.

I will wait for a butterfly to pass by.


Less sad.

Neither more nor less. Just like after a heart attack, Stationnaire.

A solitary joy comes from the pigeon that comes every morning to the window and hallucinates quietly. All by itself. And there is also a white butterfly; it is the third time I see it around here.

I feel calm. But I want more.

Another day, neither better nor worse. Perhaps a little worse.


Every day, the morning goes by quickly, but not the night. And there are still butterflies. Their charm hasn’t lapsed yet. When I suddenly pay attention to what’s around me, at least one flutters by. I can’t actually tell the difference between a white and a yellow butterfly. I think the white one pulls behind it a nice day and the yellow one a strange day. Also, the white one flies across the back window and the yellow one, in the yard. Their combined presence improves on the scene, but with no much taste for life.

I’ve just had dinner; prepared a complete meal in order to kill time, and the sadness within it. After I finished eating, there was enough left over for another person.

In the way back home, as the street was empty, a tourist stood and took photos of the street I was walking in. I am almost certain that I had appeared in one of her photos. In this photo which a young stranger will paste into a distant album, in a place which is even stranger and more distant, I’ll appear without anyone knowing how sad I’m.

It seems one cannot persuade the pain nor the sadness. And butterflies are of no use in this case.

A new pen.

The sadness is still fluttering around me, along with the white butterflies. How sudden the sadness hits, and how sudden the white butterflies appear.

I long for gentleness. The butterflies caress the universe. The sun, glimmers and then conceals itself between clouds like a flash of lightning.


My birthday.

With some strangers in a country house in Eastern Europe, this is what I’m doing on my birthday in the year 2000.

Around noon, it began to rain, so I went to sleep. When I woke up it was sunny and warm again. And outside, between the tiny yellow flowers, there were white butterflies. One received me and then flew off. Another one sat down with me; a third one bade me farewell.


There is a small brown butterfly in the house.  All day long, it flies back and forth on the walls of the room.


Yesterday, I crushed the butterfly. It was the first time I killed a butterfly. It was so delicate that killing it didn’t feel like anything. When I lifted my finger, I saw that its body had left a dust-like trace; when I wiped it off, it disappeared in an unexpected easiness.

I always reach checkpoints carrying the hideous symptoms of hangovers. I never know if they will allow me to enter into Gaza. Under my seat, there is a small dead butterfly.

Even at police stations there are butterflies.


Helicopters had joined in the space of the City. A war?

Once again, helicopters awakened me. I went back to sleep.

When I woke up, everything was calm; the sky; the neighborhood; the house.

From where I was sitting, drinking my coffee in bed, I saw a helicopter flying across the window in front of me, like a butterfly, erratically from left to right.

After the coffee, I had some yogurt, and after that, everything seemed meaningless.

Small confession

In spite of everything, there is an irrational feeling of tranquility in me. What really kept my mind occupied was when he will send me a letter to ask whether I am all right in this situation that nobody has called a war yet!

And yesterday, he sent me a letter. His worrying about me gave me worry.

So I left the house and went for a walk. The streets were empty, even though scores of people were walking in them on their way back from prayers. They were all walking in the same direction and I walked with them. They all were sad. Sadness had become a matter, similar to the full plastic bags left on the sidewalks. As I walked, my heart was aching and so was my chest. My body went on walking, alert, on the lookout, perhaps, for a bullet that would come out suddenly, to us. To the silence.

I wasn’t afraid that it would come. I waited for it. My body expected it, that’s all.
There was a wish inside me that it comes and ends it all. I went on.

Further on, there were children throwing stones, and smiling at the soldiers. And the soldiers were over there, behind the trees, the barrier, the bags of sand and cement, and the bulletproof vests.

Yet in the middle of all this, I just was thinking of him; of his letter which made me shed two tears exactly, while walking.

People cry; get wounded; die, and in front of the television screen everything seems neat and far away, and does not last more than two minutes forty seconds.

In addition to all of this, a beautiful sunset appears over the city after a bombardment, and another splendid one, amid the clouds before they rain, accompanied with a rainbow, over an ochre-colored world crowded with cars that have been stuck since ages in front of a checkpoint that will not let them through. And. And a white butterfly flying at the border of a settlement, where a settler has shot an olive harvester dead.

Yesterday, for the first time, I felt a sharp pain in my bones, and only because of this pain in my body, I gave my eyes a work permit.

At least three helicopters are flying over the area. Their sound comes closer and ebbs away behind the pillow. I’m trying to track their tempo, so I can get used to it and fall asleep, for one hour and twenty minutes.

I can’t even chase them away. One day, I failed to chase away the bird with the bad voice.


The helicopters’ sounds have become now a religious ritual competing with the carillon of the Syriac church and the Friday sermon in al-Aqsa mosque.

And I think that the butterflies withdrew from the area for the helicopters.

I am fed up with my endless searching. No, not with searching, but with myself. All I want is to take off my life and leave it behind.

Generally, I am about to suffocate because of all the memories around him, all the pain, the sadness, and the smoke of the cars.

Still, the only warmth I receive these days comes from that smoke emitted by mufflers of passing cars.

Helicopters on a day other than Friday.

They announce in the weather forecast that it is a nice day. Others might declare that life is beautiful.

It is also important to mention that this morning a butterfly flew through my window. The first one in a long time. It was yellow.

And in addition to this, to the decline of the stock market prices and the increase in the dollar exchange rate, two Israelis killed an eighteen-year old Palestinian boy from a village called ‘Abboud. I will try to locate this village on the map.

Eighteen years. He missed out on the right to vote and drink alcoholic beverages.

While the passengers and the driver are busy calculating the change, you are dead for the first day.

Last night I dreamed of him. He took me by the arm saying there were some butterflies he wanted to show me. He led me to an open window through which one could see a leafless branch, where numerous ugly brown cells clustered together and multiplied by the second in a sick, frightening manner.


Translated by: Khalil Mashuq & Rober Whitener

Born in Palestine, Adania Shibli currently lives between Jerusalem and Berlin. She has written two novels, several plays, and many short stories and narrative essays, which were published in various anthologies, art books and magazines. She has twice been awarded with the Qattan Young Writer’s Award-Palestine in 2001 on her novel Masaas (translated into English as Touch. Northampton: Clockroot, 2009), and in 2003 on her novel Kulluna Ba’id bethat al Miqdar aan el-Hub (translated into English as We Are All Equally Far from Love. Northampton: Clockroot, 2012). Her latest is Dispositions (2012), a book  on contemporary Palestinian artists.   Shibli is also engaged in academic research and teaching. Since 2012 Shibli is a visiting professor and researcher at Birzeit University, Palestine.

Line Drawing by Mohammad Joha from Shibli, A. (2012) Dispositions, Ramallah: Qattan Publications

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