They Fell Like Stars from the Sky & Other Stories

  • By Sheikha Helawy; translated by Nancy Roberts
  • Neem Tree Press
  • 128 pp.
  • Reviewed by Matt Fleck
  • May 8, 2024

Bedouin Palestinian women and girls find freedom amid oft-suffocating conditions.

They Fell Like Stars from the Sky & Other Stories

Jawahir, the young heroine of the titular story in They Fell Like Stars From the Sky, wants to soar on a forbidden tire swing. Though the boys can do it, girls swinging “border[s] on the shameful.” In defiance, Jawahir and her friends take flight, but the rope holding the swing snaps, and Jawahir hurts her leg in the fall. Maybe jinni, spirits in Arabic folklore, haunt the tree that supports the swing. The women of the village fret, and Jawahir is scolded by her mother. But before long, the women themselves are swinging.

Transgressions like Jawahir’s are central to many of the 18 stories in They Fell, Sheikha Helawy’s first collection of fiction published in English. Helawy’s protagonists, most of whom are Bedouin Palestinian women and girls, use transgressions as a means to feel free or seize freedom under restrictive conditions — sometimes with consequences.

These restrictions often are the product of Bedouin cultural norms. Bedouin refers to the historically nomadic tribes in North Africa and the Middle East. In these societies, men typically make the rules, while women tend to exist between two overlapping spheres: family and a female subcommunity that has its own conventions and complexities. Helawy’s characters chafe against this subcommunity, their husbands, and the wider village rules. In “All the Love I’ve Known,” the girls in one village are effectively forbidden from having romantic feelings; a couple of them mysteriously disappear, and the protagonist runs away.

Another restrictive (if more subtly depicted) force in the collection is Israel. Life for Bedouin Palestinians began to change drastically when Israel became a state in 1948. Since then, the Israeli government has made attempts to urbanize the Bedouins, and Israeli settlers in the West Bank continue to force many of them from their lands. This history bleeds between the lines in They Fell: Jawahir’s tire swing is trash from a nearby Israeli settlement, and the men in the story “Ali” work construction jobs in Tel Aviv. Most overtly, Nancy Roberts, the collection’s translator, notes in a preface that the Israeli government destroyed Helawy’s own village in the 1990s to make room for a railway.

Many stories in They Fell are at least partially autobiographical and bring to life Helawy’s youth. Some read like memoir: In “Haifa Assassinated My Braid,” the author recounts a decision to cut off her traditional plait to better fit in at a city school and examines the turmoil she feels afterward. The tale is like a document that leaves little room for interpretation. Other stories, including “Bride” and “Three Paintings,” are more symbolic but also opaque in a way that keeps the reader at a remove.

The strongest stories offer both tight narratives and intriguing suggestions of pasts and futures beyond their beginnings and endings. In “A Funny Red Rose,” a woman dines alone at a table set for two, recalls her (perhaps) deceased lover’s green thumb, and then returns home to a vase of roses. This story, though fewer than two pages, pulses with implied history. The aforementioned “Ali,” about a cuckold searching for his dead wife’s lover at her funeral, and “Serpent,” in which an undertaker is haunted by a pair of snake tattoos on a woman’s corpse, similarly balance clarity and nuance and invite multiple readings.

For Westerners, They Fell may evoke touchstone collections of place-based fiction like James Joyce’s Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. A more apt comparison, though, might be the short fiction of Grace Paley, which explores with generosity and humor the lives of lower- and middle-class women in 20th-century New York City. Helawy differs from Paley in that she plays less with language and occasionally integrates elements of magical realism — like in “Umm Kulthum’s Intercessor,” in which figures in a photo disappear and reappear — but both share a compassionate curiosity about everyday dramas and are skeptical of easy answers to the problems of cultural change.

The simplicity of Helawy’s prose and the length of the stories in They Fell — the longest is 15 pages; most are much shorter — make the collection a fast read. Although Helawy is now an award-winning author, this book is in a sense a debut, given that it contains stories she wrote early in her career. There are narrative glitches, and a few stories might’ve benefited from more or less exposition. “The Day My Donkey Died,” for instance, is almost superb; its last sentence is one too many. But there are also golden sentences, and in spots, Helawy lights up feelings as if they were geodes. And throughout, she honors the “women as great as books” and “the contrary little girl I left behind” hailed in her collection’s dedication.

Matt Fleck is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Topograph Journal.

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