The Arch and the Butterfly
Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly is a journey in the life of a left wing Moroccan writer, Yousef, whose past life, political beliefs and faith in his own principles are shaken by a letter he receives one day. His young son, Yassin, raised in a secular family on principles of open-mindedness and free thinking, and who was sent to a prestigious Paris academy to study architecture, has chosen an opposite route to that which he was prepared for. The anonymous letter tells his father that the son ‘died as a martyr in Afghanistan’.
It takes a shock of this calibre to set a self-confident leftist to question values, convictions and ways which he has followed without thinking for decades. But mere thinking, which tends to take a static, linear route, seems incapable of pushing human beings to re-assess their deeply-rooted beliefs yet tragedy has done the job, shaking him to the very core.
Pain is not the only element of the formula; losing a son is not what sets our protagonist on his journey of doubt. It is rather his sudden discovery that his son, Yassin, made a shocking statement with the way he died. It was as though he was telling his father ‘dad, think again’ and the father gets the message. No longer sure of anything, he calls his son to mind as if wanting to debate and argue his beliefs with him. The direction of the teaching process seems to be reversed, the son now teaching the father, who now realises that he had not listened enough, merely lecturing all the time with his strongly-held beliefs. His son's death makes him want to listen and he does it gladly.
In following the protagonist Yousef’s steps along the route of re-assessment of his past life, Mohammed Al Achaari explores the story of a generation of Arab left-wing activists who all faced the same dilemmas and spent years of their youth behind bars and long hours in passionate debates, building a dream of a better life, only to end up in frustration and bitterness.
Yousef, like many Arab veteran leftists, finds his own compromise: he manages to narrow down his dream of saving the world to building a kind of fragile balance in his relationship with his close environment: family and friends. He even reluctantly makes peace with the political system, at least on the surface.
Then comes the sudden death of his son to shuffle all the cards. His sense of failure overturns this delicate life balance, and among other things he loses his sense of smell, in a metaphoric expression of his indifference to what is going on around him.
In the months that follow Yassin’s death, Yousef tries to build a new life based on reconciliation with almost everything: love, family, and society. He even regains his sense of smell in the process!