This review was published in today’s Times.
According to the Zionist story, Palestine before the state of Israel was ‘a land without a people awaiting a people without a land.’ Writers from Mark Twain to Leon Uris, as well as Hollywood studios and certain church pulpits, retell the tale. But Palestinians, in the West at least, lack a popular counter-narrative. Palestinians are reported on, met only on the news.
Perhaps this is changing. As the land disappears from under their feet Palestinians have been investing in culture, and an explosion of Palestinian talent is becoming visible in the West, in films, hip-hop, poetry and novels. And now Susan Abulhawa’s “Mornings in Jenin” is the first English language novel to fully express the human dimension of the Palestinian tragedy.
The story begins with the Abulheja family at home in the village of Ein Hod near Haifa, marrying, squabbling, trading, and harvesting the olives. It’s a touching and sometimes funny portrait of rural life with hints of the city (notably the Jerusalem-based Perlsteins, refugees from German anti-Semitism) and the Beduin tribes.
Then comes the Nakba, or Catastrophe, of 1948. Driven from their shelled village, the family suffers loss, separation, and humiliation, ending up in a camp in Jenin where “the refugees rose from their agitation to the realisation that they were slowly being erased from the world.” By now we care very much about the key characters, and through them we experience “that year without end”, the interminably drawn out Nakba which stretches through some of the bloodier signposts of Palestinian history – the Naksa or Disaster of 1967, the Lebanese refugee camp massacres, until the 2002 Jenin massacre.
Our main protagonist, Amal, is injured by shrapnel during the 67 War, and scarred emotionally as well as physically. Her father is killed and her mother mentally broken. She witnesses “imperialism by the inch” as curfews and watchtowers are established over the remaining sliver of Palestine, and travels via “cathedrals of silent orphans” to a convent school in Jerusalem.
She wins a scholarship and travels to America, where “statelessness clung to me like bad perfume.” Amal (which means Hope) becomes, uncomfortably, ‘Amy’. Visiting her brother in Lebanon, she meets and marries a Palestinian doctor, and becomes pregnant. For a moment we imagine that motherhood will mark a new beginning, but violence interrupts again and Amal’s losses relentlessly accumulate.
At times you want to criticise Abulhawa for laying the tragedy on too thick, but her raw material is historical fact and her skillful interpenetration of fiction and documentary is one of the book’s strengths. What rescues “Mornings in Jenin” from polemic is its refusal to wallow or to stoop to tribalism. One of its many achievements is that, for such a necessarily political work, no character becomes a mere cipher for suffering or victimhood. Amal’s first menstruation and first kiss are dramas as important as her first war. These are all brilliantly specific, living, breathing people. The Jews too are fully human, including a stolen Palestinian child brought up as a Jew who becomes an Israeli soldier. No ethnicity in Abulhawa’s wide vision holds a monopoly on suffering; everyone is a victim of history.
Although the novel is written according to Anglo-American conventions, it echoes the poetic prose which is a feature of contemporary Arabic writing. Abulhawa effectively communicates her bubbling joy in what she calls “the dance” of Arabic, pondering the language’s intricate courtesies and imagistic flair.
What remains with us finally is the novel’s rich expression. When we read of “the gnarly disorder of Golda Meir” or of a character’s “limited eyes,” we know exactly what Abulhawa means. At one point she writes, “Terror flew from people’s hearts and circled above like birds.” Such exuberant metaphor makes the book as thrilling an experience aesthetically as it is politically.