Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Butterfly Wings

Butterfly Wings: An Egyptian Novel

Translated by Raphael Cohen
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 176
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Butterfly Wings
    Book Description:

    A chance encounter on a plane throws together Doha, a fashion designer unhappily married to a leading figure in the Mubarak regime, and Ashraf, an academic and leading dissident. The story of their relationship and Doha’s self-discovery runs alongside a young Egyptian’s search for the mother he never knew, and these intersecting narratives unfold against the background of political protests that culminate in the overthrow of the regime. A moving and at times humorous story, Butterfly Wings is an extended allegory of Egypt’s modern experience of authoritarian rule and explores the fractures and challenges of a society at the moment of revolutionary transformation. Mohamed Salmawy’s almost prophetic novel was first published in Arabic immediately prior to the events of 25 January 2011, and has been celebrated as ‘the novel that predicted the Revolution.’ First published in Arabic in 2011 by al-Dar al-Misriya al-Libnaniya as Ajnihat al-farasha.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-568-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. 1 Doha
    (pp. 1-9)

    Traffic in Tahrir Square was at a standstill; the heart of Cairo totally paralyzed. All routes from the square to the city’s neighborhoods were clogged: all routes leading in were jammed with cars and buses, as if all of them had suddenly broken down.

    Doha had to pass by the luxury hotel on the edge of the square to collect the jacket she was taking to Rome. She had called the hotel dry cleaners in the morning, and they told her the jacket was ready for collection. At that point there had still been time, but now she was stuck...

  3. 2 Ayman
    (pp. 10-17)

    The journey was arduous, but he had to go through with it. The distance might not be far, but the course of his life would change. It meant an end to years of anguish. Ayman al-Hamzawi was a young man who had to make a journey to the truth. He had to go to Tanta to find out who he was, to find out who his mother was and whether she was alive or dead. Just as the nation was mother, mother was also a nation. People who did not know their mother did not know their nation. They were...

  4. 3 Dr. Ashraf
    (pp. 18-24)

    Doha must have dozed off, for when the hostess came by with the menu, she woke up with a start. She was always startled when someone woke her up. She did not know why, though she had read once that it was a sign of repressed insecurity. But surely that could not apply to her. Her life was as safe and secure as was imaginable. Perhaps that deadening security was the bane of her life, making it dull and uninspiring.

    She glanced without interest at the menu, the words swimming before her rudely awakened eyes. Her neighbor looked at the...

  5. 4 Hassan
    (pp. 25-27)

    The Peugeot service taxi reached Tanta after one more unexpected delay: the driver had to fill the overheating radiator.

    During the journey Ayman recalled how it had all begun at his friend Hassan’s house. . . .

    One night after they had finished studying, Ayman al-Hamzawi and his friend Hassan al-Lithi were sitting on the balcony at Hassan’s to have a cigarette without alerting the family. The conversation turned to the subject that kept Ayman awake at night, and Hassan said to him, “You have to forget about it. The dead don’t come back. So don’t torture yourself for nothing.”...

  6. 5 Clouds Disperse in the Springtime
    (pp. 28-34)

    Doha imagined that meeting Ashraf al-Zayni on the plane had been a chance encounter. It would be over when the flight ended and they went their separate ways—she to Milan for the annual fashion show and he to Palermo in Sicily for the international NGO conference. Fate, however, had something in store for her that she neither expected nor imagined.

    The three and a half hours of the flight from Cairo to Rome left an impression that would remain with her for the rest of her life. She had never met anyone like Ashraf al-Zayni before. She saw in...

  7. 6 Hagga Hikmet
    (pp. 35-39)

    Ayman woke up earlier than planned. As much as he tried, he could not go back to sleep, and he started to feel restless. He got up and dressed without a sound, so as not to wake his brother, and slipped out of the house. Where to go so early? He was quite nervous and went up to the roof, hoping the breeze would calm him down. He stared off into the distance. It was dawn, that wondrous moment dividing night and day, like the silent pause between breathing in and out, between a life over and done with and...

  8. 7 Salwa
    (pp. 40-44)

    Salwa al-Eleimi was the tender soul who eased the cares of Ayman’s life, a life devoid of emotion and tenderness. They had a date at the Aquarium Gardens. Ayman was waiting for her at the entrance with the two tickets he had just bought. She came up a few minutes later, looking like an angel with her svelte figure and elegant walk. She had never looked so beautiful. Her auburn hair hung loose over her shoulders, framing her angelic face with velvet and accentuating her pure complexion. She was wearing a sky-blue sweater patterned with small white butterflies that rose...

  9. 8 The Fountain for Lovers
    (pp. 45-55)

    The small hotel overlooked the Trevi Fountain, the fountain for lovers, where, if you made a wish and threw in a coin, the wish would come true, no matter how small the coin or how big the wish.

    Doha had long wished to stay at that hotel, which was so different from the five-star hotels she normally stayed at on trips with her husband. It was a challenge to find a vacant room, because the hotel drew tourists from all over the world. On her last trip to Rome with her husband, she had turned her back to the fountain...

  10. 9 The Tiger
    (pp. 56-61)

    The next day, Doha awoke to the sight of the red rose, as fresh and beautiful as it had been the evening before. She was amazed that she had been able to sleep, what with the noise of the square beneath her window. Yet as soon as she had put her head on the pillow, she had fallen fast asleep. Perhaps it was due to exhaustion after a day spent traveling, or perhaps it was the sense of relaxation that came with being in Rome. Maybe it was a case of physical tiredness and mental ease combined.

    She got out...

  11. 10 Abdel Samad
    (pp. 62-65)

    Abdel Samad never spoke about his private life. Like their father, Ayman knew that his brother worked at a realtor’s office, but where it was or what his salary amounted to, no one knew. When he started working there, his father asked him how much he was being paid. Abdel Samad told him, and his father set his contribution to the household. But two years had passed since then, and his salary must have risen. Ayman and Abdel Samad shared a room, but that was the only part of their lives in common. Ayman knew next to nothing about his...

  12. 11 Nariman’s Room
    (pp. 66-72)

    Dinner at the ambassador’s residence was as dull as Doha had anticipated. The ambassador’s wife greeted her in exaggerated fashion, which embarrassed Doha in front of the other guests. Then, in front of everyone, she repeated how Doha just had to come and stay at the embassy. She took her by the hand and led her around the various rooms and halls, saying, “It is a large house. We don’t just have rooms; we have thousands of them.”

    The Egyptian embassy, with its luxuriant gardens, occupied a beautiful palace known as the Villa Savoia. It had belonged to the last...

  13. 12 Black and White
    (pp. 73-77)

    Abdel Samad managed to find a night job as a bouncer at a place on Pyramids Road. His friends who were regulars there had suggested it. He had noted down the address and gone to find it. It was a seedy-looking place right at the end of Pyramids Road. Above the entrance hung a sign bearing the name “Black and White Café,” and a picture of two small dogs, one black and one white, just like the label on bottles of whiskey. The café must have been named after the whiskey, although Abdel Samad discovered later that the café did...

  14. 13 A Black Hole
    (pp. 78-82)

    Doha did not meet Dr. Ashraf in Rome again. She spent two days wandering around the fashion shops and fending off calls from the ambassador and his wife. She turned off her phone, but the ambassador’s wife left a message at the hotel asking after her.

    She wanted to be alone, freed from all her obligations. Aimlessly, she wandered the streets of the city. Her mind was elsewhere and her legs took her from street to street. When she felt hungry, she had a bite to eat at the nearest restaurant or café, then resumed strolling. She seemed to be...

  15. 14 A Ray of Light
    (pp. 83-87)

    Hassan, as soon as he met Ayman at the Community College, blurted out, “Where have you been, Ayman? I tried to call you all day yesterday, but your phone was always off. I started to get worried about you. If I hadn’t seen you today at college, I would have gone to your house to find out what had happened.”

    Ayman explained that he had lost his phone, that was all. Hassan continued immediately: “I’ve got some good news for you. My mother has found your mother’s name and wants to see you. Come and have dinner at my house...

  16. 15 The Decision
    (pp. 88-95)

    The big day had finally come. The day Doha had long anticipated. The day she would show her designs at the famous Milan Fashion Week. The day that would open the door to international recognition by the major fashion houses.

    The first two days in Milan she was busy preparing her show. From the organizers, she had to find out when her turn would be and what was required. She also had to supervise the fitting of her clothes to the Italian models who would be wearing them. She did not sleep. Such fashion shows demanded superhuman effort. Then the...

  17. 16 Dinner with Tchaikovsky
    (pp. 96-102)

    Ashraf al-Zayni was upset when he heard that Doha al-Kenani’s show had been canceled. His first reaction was to assume that something terrible had happened. He looked for her in the main lobby of the hotel and in the restaurant, but did not find her. He asked after her at the reception and was told she was in her room. After a momentary hesitation he called her. “I apologize for calling you in your room, but I was surprised just now to hear that your show has been canceled and I want to make sure you’re fine. We were together...

  18. 17 Father
    (pp. 103-108)

    Ayman left Hassan’s house having resolved to go to Tanta in the morning. There he would find the woman whose name he had heard his father dictating to Abdel Samad more than six years before. A name that Ayman had repeated to himself every now and again over the years to make sure he did not forget it. His trip to Tanta would be the resolution to the story. Whenever he told it to his friends at college, they were dismissive, saying, “What film did you get that story from? You must have a really fertile imagination.” Just a few...

  19. 18 Palermo
    (pp. 109-115)

    The opening of the NGO conference in Palermo was really impressive. More than seven hundred of the world’s most important NGOs and not less than one thousand political activists from five continents were there. After the opening session, the conference participants decamped en masse to the city’s main square, the Piazza Politeama. Local residents looked on from the streets and waved from balconies.

    The following day, after a rousing welcome from the audience, Dr. Ashraf al-Zayni gave his speech. He spoke of ruling parties’ monopolization of political life in the third world, and explained how civil society in Egypt was...

  20. 19 Kikhya Mosque Does Not Exist
    (pp. 116-120)

    When Abdel Samad woke up, there was no sign of Ayman. He quickly got up and half an hour later was in the street. He took a taxi to avoid being late and to keep the money he had with him safe. The money that would open the door to the future of his dreams. He was heading for Qasr al-Nil Street downtown, and the taxi took him through Tahrir Square. Talaat Harb was closed off by Central Security vans because of demonstrations. The driver nipped through Abdel Moneim Riyad Square into Ramsis Street. But when it turned into Abdel...

  21. 20 Al-Bedawi Set Them Free
    (pp. 121-125)

    Ayman reached Tanta in the middle of the day. He located the Mosque of Sayyid al-Bedawi without difficulty. The sight of the large dome made him pause on his walk toward it. He went into the mosque and walked over to Sayyid al-Bedawi’s tomb.

    A woman came over to implore the saint for the child she had longed for since her miscarriage years before. She told all this to Sayyid al-Bedawi as her hands gripped the bronze screen-like railings around the tomb. The green cloth covering the tomb could be seen behind them. Its color was like the fertile Egyptian...

  22. 21 The Demonstration
    (pp. 126-133)

    Doha did not return to Medhat al-Safti’s house. She went straight from the airport to her brother Talaat’s. Medhat did not know when she was due back, so it was quite a surprise when she called from her brother’s house in Cairo asking for a divorce and waiving her financial rights.

    Medhat was evasive. He said that if those were her wishes, he would not stand in her way, but he did ask to meet with her brother to sort out the details. Doha wanted to tell Talaat that she would rather matters be sorted out between her and her...

  23. 22 Mushira
    (pp. 134-140)

    The following day the country was in turmoil. Photographs of the mass protest at the High Court filled the front pages. The headlines reported the first-ever arrest of Dr. Ashraf al-Zayni, university professor and political activist, who had come to embody the masses’ hopes for change and to lead popular action to overthrow the ruling party. The satellite channels also gave prominent coverage to the violence that had occurred and the attacks by the security forces on demonstrators. Some men in plainclothes had sexually assaulted women taking part. One paper had a picture of a demonstrator in his underwear after...

  24. 23 Amna
    (pp. 141-144)

    It was the happiest day of Ayman’s life. He wanted to tell everyone he knew what had happened. He wanted everyone to know that he now had a mother like other people, and that she was alive and well. He wanted to say that he had met her and that she had taken him in her arms. She had cried as she told him that she had not seen him since he was one year old.

    It was an emotional scene. The moment Mother fainted, he knew she had recognized him. Her collapse was proof that she was his mother...

  25. 24 The Dream
    (pp. 145-149)

    In her sleep, Doha dreamed of Ashraf; wide awake, Ashraf dreamed of Doha. She dreamed that life was beautiful. The ugliness that marred everything around her was gone. No more ugly politics, no more ugly personal life. In Doha’s dream, the streets, houses, and shops once again rivaled the world’s great capital cities in beauty. The country was once again how she remembered it as a child, when there had been justice for people. Her personal life was wonderful. Dr. Ashraf stood beside her, her partner in private and public life. She had achieved personal happiness, something she had been...

  26. 25 Qasr al-Nil Jungle
    (pp. 150-155)

    In the evening, Abdel Samad came in without saying a word and went straight to his room. Ayman was lying on his bed looking at the ceiling. Abdel Samad did not say hello. Ayman was longing to tell him what had happened. He had to tell someone or his heart would burst, unable to contain the life that had opened up before him that day. The two brothers had not talked about their mother for many years, but today Ayman had to tell his brother everything. As soon as Abdel Samad entered the room, Ayman got up from his bed....

  27. 26 Detention
    (pp. 156-158)

    Mervat tried to call Doha on her cell phone, but it was off. She had come home in the afternoon and Doha was not there. She thought she would be back soon, but the hours passed and there was no sign of her. Mervat started to feel anxious. She spotted the drawings for the new designs on the dining table. Doha had clearly abandoned them suddenly without tidying them up.

    When Talaat came home, Mervat told him she was worried about Doha, given the events of the last few days. They waited for her to turn up for dinner, but...

  28. 27 Reconciliation
    (pp. 159-161)

    Where’s your brother? He hasn’t come back since he left last night. And now it’s almost sundown and he still hasn’t appeared. Meanwhile, you spend all day yesterday outside the house, come in, and go straight to your room without so much as a hello. What’s happened to the pair of you? This house isn’t a hotel for you to just sleep in without consideration for anyone else.”

    Father was really angry and worked up, but Ayman was pleased. His outburst had paved the way for Ayman to tell him what he had being dying to tell someone. Maybe it...

  29. 28 Yes, Sir!
    (pp. 162-167)

    Doha had headed down with the two men in the belief that they were telling the truth. But when she was about to take her car, which was parked in front of the building, they said, “There’s no need for your car.” At that point, she realized she was being arrested. There was an ugly black police car waiting for her as if for any common criminal. They sat her in the back between the mukhbirs and the two men sat up front with the driver.

    As soon as the car began to move, Doha quietly pulled out her phone,...

  30. 29 Esmat Bey
    (pp. 168-169)

    The night was receding when Abdel Samad left Esmat Bey’s apartment. Shyly, as if morning were reluctant to break, the sky started to illumine the world. Abdel Samad walked until he returned to the spot where he had been picked up. The scene was quite different. The streets were deserted. The groups of youths hanging around the bridge had gone, and the lions of Qasr al-Nil had a tinge of sadness. Thick mist filled the air, and Abdel Samad could not make out either Saad Zaghloul’s face or a single star in the sky. At the boundary between night and...

  31. 30 The Minister of Defense
    (pp. 170-177)

    Doha al-Kenani, the wife of Medhat al-Safti, who had dared to criticize the party, was the talk of the town. One newspaper wrote, “Doha al-Kenani disappears in mysterious circumstances.” Another had, “Unconfirmed reports of Doha al-Kenani’s detention.” The paper that had interviewed her published a special issue with the headline “The ruling party consumes itself . . . Doha al-Kenani arrested for her patriotic views.” The paper also printed a full list of those arrested since the demonstration at the High Court. This comprised more than three thousand people, mostly young men and women.

    Another headline read, “Exclusive: From his...

  32. 31 Release
    (pp. 178-182)

    Doha was still unable to believe what had happened as she listened to Dr. Ashraf’s speech on the television. In a matter of hours, the government had fallen, the party had fallen, and she had been released. The Coalition of Egyptian Political Forces had called for the first free elections in years.

    Dr. Ashraf al-Zayni emerged from prison to a country in a constitutional vacuum following the resignation of the government, the withdrawal of the party, and the interior minister’s declaration that he was staying on in his post to maintain order until a new government was formed. The chief-of-staff...

  33. 32 Sunshine Express
    (pp. 183-184)

    Ayman and Salwa went out with Hassan and his girlfriend Hala to celebrate Ayman having found his mother. Hassan invited them all to a café on Arab League Street in Mohandiseen, and then Ayman took Salwa home. As he was saying goodbye, Ayman said, “We’ve got a date tomorrow. It’s a trip to Tanta.”

    Salwa looked at him in amazement. “I can’t wait,” she said.

    Next day, Ayman bought two tickets to Tanta. He was half an hour early and stood waiting for Salwa inside Ramsis railway station. He did not want her to have a tiring journey by taxi...

  34. Glossary
    (pp. 185-185)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 186-186)