“Mornings in Jenin”, by the Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa, is a rarity in being a novel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict written in English by a Palestinian and published by a mainstream Western publisher, Bloomsbury of London, New York and Berlin.
With the muscle of Bloomsbury behind her, and with her novel written in highly accessible vivid prose that carries the reader along, Abulhawa stands a good chance of becoming a mainstream bestselling author. Comparisons are being made between “Mornings in Jenin” and the 2003 novel “The Kite Runner” written in English by US-based Afghan Khaled Hossein which was a runaway bestseller and was also made into a film.
With translation into some 20 languages, Abulhawa’s novel is already enjoying success beyond the English-reading world. The author reported on her Twitter feed on 14 June: “Starting the week with awesome news! Mornings in Jenin is the #1 bestseller in Norway! [i’m ridiculously excited].”
Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees of the 1967 Six Day war. As a teenager she moved to the US where she graduated in biomedical science and forged a career in medical science. In 2001 she founded Playgrounds for Palestine – an organization dedicated to upholding Palestinian children’s Right to Play. She lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter.
“Mornings in Jenin” traces over six decades the lives of four generations of the Abulheja family. The family is originally from the village of Ein Hod east of Haifa, where life traditionally revolved around the cultivation of olives and figs.
The family lives through the vicissitudes visited on the Palestinians since the 1940s. The main character Amal is the granddaughter of the patriarch Yehya. She is an attractive personality, with passion, humor and intelligence. Abulhawa depicts with tenderness and acuteness Amal’s process of growing up in the harshest of circumstances, and the characters with whom she strikes up friendships throughout her life.
The prologue to the novel finds the adult Amal in Jenin refugee camp in 2002 with the muzzle of an Israeli soldier’s rifle thrust against her forehead. Amal wonders “if officials might express regret for the ‘accidental’ killing of her, an American citizen. Or if her life would merely culminate in the dander of ‘collateral damage’.”
Abulhawa clearly has a mission as a novelist. Her writing is fuelled by a sense of anger and urgency. She cites the late Palestinian scholar and activist Dr. Edward Said as a major influence. “He lamented once that the Palestinian narrative was so lacking in literature, and I incorporated his disappointment into my resolve.” The Palestinian academic and politician Hanan Ashrawi directly encouraged her to write, after reading Abulhawa’s published memories of Jerusalem.
“Mornings in Jenin” is backed by extensive research, and includes a bibliography. Abulhawa draws extensively on her own experiences. For example she traveled to Jenin in 2002 after hearing reports of a massacre in the town’s refugee camp. “The horrors I witnessed there gave me the urgency to tell this story,” she says. “The steadfastness, courage, and humanity of the people of Jenin were my inspiration.”
An earlier version of “Mornings in Jenin” was published a few years ago as “The Scar of David” by a small US press that subsequently went out of business. “The Scar of David” was translated into French and published by Editions Buchet/Chastel under the title “Les Matins de Jénine”.
Anna Soler-Pont then became Abulhawa’s literary agent and, as Abulhawa puts it, “began breathing new life into the novel”. It was subsequently translated into a score of languages, and Bloomsbury offered to reissue it after extensive revisions and editing.
The publication of “Mornings in Jenin” could hardly be more timely. Palestine is very much under the spotlight as a result of the blockade of Gaza, the continuing outrage over Israeli settlement expansion and demolition of Palestinian homes, and alarm over the threat of war in the wider Middle East.
Earlier this month Abulhawa made a well-received appearance at the London Literature Festival in conversation with writer Rachel Holmes at a session held by the festival in partnership with the Palestinian Festival of Literature (PalFest). Since its inception in 2008, Palfest has taken many high-profile British and other writers to Palestine, and Abulhawa herself participated in this year’s PalFest in May.
“Mornings in Jenin” comes with praise on its cover from two well-known British writers – travel writer Michael Palin and novelist Esther Freud – and from Hanan Ashrawi. Palin writes that the novel gives a “powerful and passionate insight into what many Palestinians have had to endure since the state of Israel was created”. For Freud it is “a powerful and heartbreaking book.” Ashrawi describes the novel as “a unique literary experience not to be missed.”
One main strand of the novel starts with Amal’s older brother Ismael being wrenched from his mother’s arms by an Israeli soldier in the chaos of the violent expulsion of the inhabitants of Ein Hod from their village in 1948. The soldier gives the child to his wife Jolanta, a Holocaust survivor rendered barren by brutal assaults on her by the Nazi SS. The couple bring Ismael up as their son David. But the boy has a scar on his face as the result of being dropped in his crib by his brother Yousef: this scar would “mark Ismael’s face forever, and eventually lead him to the truth.”
The narrative takes the reader through the brutalities of attacks on Palestinians by Zionist terror groups, and then by Israeli soldiers, in the 1940s; the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians when Israel is created in 1948; the agonies and uncertainties of life as refugees in Jenin; and the 1967 war in which Amal’s father Hasan disappears, her brother Yousef is taken prisoner and tortured, and her mother is psychologically destroyed. Amal herself is shot at by Israeli soldiers and her severe abdominal injuries lead to permanent and extensive scarring.
Amal wins a scholarship to America where she tries to reinvent herself as American “Amy”. Her teacher brother Yousef had joined the Palestinian resistance after the 1967 war and she had lost contact with him. But he manages to trace her and phones her in the US in 1981. She joins him in Beirut where he is living with long-time sweetheart, now wife, Fatima. Amal falls in love with and marries a Palestinian doctor, Majid, and returns to the US while pregnant to wait for her husband to join her.
But then Israel invades Lebanon and lays siege to Beirut. The withdrawal of the PLO, including Yousef, to Tunis is followed by the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila camps. Amal suffers a series of losses, and a member of her family is driven by grief and fury to carry out a suicide attack.
Running alongside the story of Amal is the story of Ismael who had been raised as David. After the 1967 war, fellow Israeli soldiers tell him that the imprisoned Yousef bears a strong resemblance to him, and in an effort to obliterate these hints of a link between him and Yousef he beats Yousef up at a roadblock. Years later David, by now a semi-alcoholic, traces Amal to try to establish the full truth of his origins.
One line of attack against the novel has been that almost the Israeli characters are unsympathetically drawn, but Abulhawa is showing the Israelis as they are experienced by Palestinians in specific contexts. It cannot be denied that the record of Israeli violence against the Palestinians over many years has been extraordinarily savage.
She does present a different version of possible Palestinian-Jewish relations in the friendship that blossomed in the late 1930s between Amal’s father Hasan, then a teenager, and a young Jew Ari Perlstein. Ari, the son of a German professor who had fled Nazism, reappears much later in the narrative as a kindly elderly professor. - SG