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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Butterfly Wings

Mohamed Salmawy

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To purchase Butterfly Wings

Title: Butterfly Wings
Author: Mohamed Salmawy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Butterfly Wings - US
Butterfly Wings - UK
Butterfly Wings - Canada
Butterfly Wings - India
Colazione al Cairo - Italia
  • Arabic title: أجنحة الفراشة
  • Translated by Raphael Cohen

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Our Assessment:

B : optimistic story of a democratic revival in Egypt

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 22/5/2014 Malcolm Forbes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Salmawy’s characters’ trials may seem too merrily and conveniently topped and tailed but he resists censure by bringing in a tense subplot (.....) 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. (...) Far more troublesome -- indeed, irksome -- than such inconsistent description is Salmawy’s preoccupation with butterflies." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Butterfly Wings was first published in Arabic practically in conjunction with the Arab Spring in Egypt and the resignation of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and it is very much a novel shaped by the forces in the air, and on the ground, at the time.
       There are several main characters, and the story moves between these in fairly quick succession. The novel begins with Doha al-Kenani, one of the ultra-privileged, married to Medhat al-Safti, the nephew of the secretary general of the ruling party and himself already an important political figure. Doha is a successful fashion designer, flying to Rome and then looking forward to her first showing at the Milan fashion show. She is used to getting her way and being treated with extreme deference -- merely because of the power her husband has. On the fully-booked flight to Rome, however, she doesn't get a free seat next to her -- and the man who fills it is an opposition rival of her husband and everything he stands for, Dr.Ashraf al-Zayni -- "the ideal type of a man who loves his country and works faithfully to improve conditions" (as opposed to her self-serving husband).
       After this casual encounter Doha soon finds herself questioning a great deal about her life. She can have almost anything she wants in life, but she remains dissatisfied. She is in an entirely loveless marriage. Even the designs she worked so long on suddenly disappoint her. Only Dr.Ashraf and his ideas intrigue her.
       First in Italy and then back in Cairo, Doha does a complete about-face. She demands a divorce -- which her husband agrees to, asking only that she wait until after the coming elections. Then she even joins the growing protests against the government, which Dr.Ashraf is a leader of.
       Dr.Ashraf had reminded her of the theory that even the tiny flap of a butterfly's wings could be the cause behind a storm far, far away -- a small incident the trigger for something much larger -- and Salmawy of course means to suggest much the same thing, that even small, individual actions can bring down the corrupt regime that has misruled the country for so long.
       The path isn't completely easy -- characters are detained and jailed, Doha's husband is displeased by her sudden involvement in politics, on the wrong side, and, of course, Doha and Dr.Ashraf are romantically drawn to one another -- but Salmawy's revolution is a surprisingly peaceful and easy one; with the hindsight of even just these few years it reads as much too optimistic (if not downright naïve).
       The other significant storylines involve two brothers, Ayman and Abdel Samad. The teenage Ayman discovers that his father's wife is not their real mother, and soon obsesses about nothing else but finding out what happened to the woman who gave birth to him. His father is unhelpful, refusing to say anything about it, but Ayman insists on digging for the truth.
       Meanwhile, Abdel Samad thinks he has found a path to true independence -- marrying a woman in Kuwait whom he knows from the Internet. He just has to raise five thousand pounds for the proper paperwork so he can be united with her .....
       Ayman and Abdel Samad suggest different types of Egyptian youth, dealing with an uncertain future. Abdel Samad is taken advantage of and turns cynical, and away from family, while Ayman chooses to make the best of the situation as he finds it, deciding not to hold it against their father that such an important piece of the past was kept from him, and choosing to look optimistically forward. Their stories are, however, an odd, uncomfortable fit with those of Doha and Dr.Ashraf (with little overlap between these two different parts of the novel) -- rather much to heap onto an already packed story. It doesn't help that the brothers' stories feel woefully underdeveloped and in parts even very thin.
       Doha picks up on the butterfly-symbolism too, recounting at one point:

Did you know that one Egyptian butterfly can spend years in its chrysalis in the desert, waiting for rain ? And when it rains it emerges as a butterfly despite all the years that have passed.
       Salmawy is suggesting that Egyptian democracy can similarly emerge, that it lies at the ready, waiting for the right conditions.
       These come easily here -- and his presentation of the rapidly rising tensions and the demonstration-scenes even feel remarkably prescient, including:
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.
       But ultimately everything comes too easily here, the butterfly emerging with almost no effort (and almost no casualties). Salmawy opts for easy resolutions and, by and large, happy ends; only Abdel Samad gets screwed, and winds up in a darker place than he was at the outset. Most of the complications fall almost effortlessly by the wayside -- and given how history has played out this now feels even more simplistic. Indeed, history has overtaken Salmawy's optimistic novel, as what emerged from the chrysalis bears no resemblance to the butterfly he hoped for.
       Regardless of extraneous events, Butterfly Wings is a bit simplistic in its storytelling anyway, but at least gives a glimpse of near-contemporary Egyptian society and the dynamics at play here. It is a reasonably interesting read, but only partially successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2014

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Butterfly Wings: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Prominent Egyptian author Mohamed Salmawy (محمد سلماوي) was born in 1945.

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© 2014 the complete review

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