Mornings in Jenin
By Susan Abulhawa
Review: Palestine – Mournings in Jenin
|“Amal wanted a closer look into the soldier’s eyes but the muzzle of his automatic rifle, pressed against her forehead, would not allow it”.|
This is the opening line of Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin. Yes, that’s right, Mornings in Jenin. I have not committed a typo by titling this blog post/review “Mournings in Jenin” – this is in fact a more accurate reflection of much of the plot of this utterly absorbing yet completely devastating novel which deals with more than 40 years of the atrocities which occurred as a result of Arab and Israeli conflict.
The book begins in 1948 when the Palestinian residents of a small farming (mainly olives and figs) community in Ein Hod are preparing for harvest. The first few chapters establish the genealogy of the Abulheja family and particularly the adolescence, courtship and marriage of Hasan and a Bedouin girl named Dalia. It is Hasan and Dalia’s children, Yousef, Ismael and, particularly Amal, whose lives form the main backbone of the book. Shortly after Ismael’s birth, the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict breaks out and the residents of Ein Hod are forced to evacuate Ein Hod and and resettle in Jenin. “And so it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children”.
During the evacuation, an Israeli soldier, Moshe, whose wife is unable to conceive due to her body having been “ravaged” by Nazi soldiers during World War II , kidnaps Ismael Abulheja while Dalia and Hasan are distracted. This kidnapping is the first of many tragedies to befall the Abulheja family. Moshe and his wife Jolanta then raise Ismael as their own and as a Jew, renaming him David.
Hasan and Dalia, despite their terrible grief at the loss of Ismael, begin to build a life as refugees in Jenin and go on to conceive a daughter Amal. The “mornings” in the title of the book refers to a ritual which develops between Amal and her father of waking at dawn and sitting together to watch the sun rise while Hasan reads his daughter the poems of Rumi, Abu Hayyan, Khalil Gibran and al-Maari. These poems come to serve as anchor points for Amal to draw upon when her life – which becomes one of unspeakable tragedy and turmoil –threatens to spin out of control.
Without giving too much away and thereby reducing the dramatic effect of the book, Amal’s life will be constantly upturned and devastated by the continued fighting between the Arabs and Israelis. The Six-Day-War in 1967 will see the loss of Amal’s father and many of the family’s friends and the decline of her mother into some sort of stress-induced mental affliction. These events also see her brother Yousef reuniting with their other brother Ismael, now David, who in a cruel twist of fate has become an Israeli soldier. Yousef recognises his brother by a deep scar traversing much of Ismael/David’s face which had been caused when Ismael/David was a baby and Yousef had accidentally dropped him, the baby’s face catching a nail on his crib which tore a line from his cheek up to his right eye. Ismael/David’s fellow Israeli soldiers note the strong familial resemblance between their prisoner and their comrade and organise for the two to meet. Despite also seeing the resemblance, or perhaps because of it, Ismael/David inflicts a diabolical wrath on Yousef when the two come face to face.
Some time after the 1967 events, Yousef leaves Jenin to join the PLO, Dalia passes away and Amal is sent to an orphanage. She then wins a scholarship to study in America where she lives a displaced lifestyle and is known as “Amy”. Much later, she journeys to Beirut to be reunited with Yousef and his wife and their children and through them meets and then falls in love with a doctor, Majid, to whom she becomes pregnant.
Once again tragedy strikes with the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut having shocking consequences for both Amal and Yousef who react in almost completely opposite, yet both destructive, ways. Amal describes it thus:
|“That week in September…is the mantelpiece of my life. It is my center of gravity. It is the point on which all of my life’s turning points hinge at once. It is the deafening crescendo of a two-thousand-year-old lineage…”
In order to avoid spoiling the most dramatic moments of the plot, I will only say that the rest of the book sees Amal give birth to, and raise her, daughter in America, reunite with her brother Ismael (David) who is informed about his real family by Moshe in a death-bed confession and both Amal and Ismael returning to Jenin. The conclusion sees Amal back where the book started – afore a soldier armed with a rifle.
This is not an easy read and there were many occasions when I almost felt I had to put the book down. It is emotionally exhausting but also extremely rewarding. It also exposed to me how little I knew about the events of the Arab-Israeli conflicts which span more than forty years in this book alone and impacted on several generations of families. I am neither knowledgeable enough, nor desirous of, commenting on the historical accuracy of the novel or buying into the politics involved. Clearly, when reading world literature, a reader will often be exposed to a singular viewpoint on a conflict, a viewpoint that might be completely different if reading another book about the same circumstances. What this book offers is an extremely well written and engaging, if somewhat horrifying, account of the conflict from the point of view of a Palestinian girl and, later, woman which should spur any reader to seek to find out more about the events comprising the novel.
Perhaps my favourite line in the novel is the following one which Amal says after learning that her father’s childhood friend Ari was never able to marry: “…like me, he feared love more than he feared death. Because for the hated and pursued, the reverse side of love is unbearable loss”. Such a heartbreaking statement and yet completely understandable within the context of what occurs to the Abulheja family. I dislike the phrase “this book will change your life” because I think it is often over-used but this book comes close to fulfilling the truth of the statement because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or about the events with which it deals ever since I reluctantly finished the last page..
As for further researching a cultural element of the novel, I decided to track down the rest of the poem “The Earth Is Closing In On Us” by Mahmous Darweesh from which Abulhawa quotes an excerpt prior to the chapters dealing with the 1982 Beirut conflict. Here it is in full:
|The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The Earth is squeezing us.
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again.
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us.
I wish we were pictures on the rocks
Mahmoud Darwish, “The Earth Is Closing on Us”, trans. Abdullah al-Udhari, in Victims of a Map (London: al-Saqi Books, 1984), p. 13. Source: http://www.mehbooba.co.uk/poemsandpoetry/index.php?action=article&cat_id=003002003002002&id=514
The Literary Nomad xx
General reading value: 5/5
Armchair travel value: 4/5
Abulhawa provides an extensive glossary at the end of Mornings in Jenin which will not be replicated here as it is quite extensive.
More on Palestine…
There is no longer a country named “Palestine”. According to Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book, the term now refers to two territories of Israel: Gaza in west Israel and the West Bank.
Population: 3,636,000 (Lonely Planet)
Religion: Muslim (primarily Sunni)
Delay your stay…
Fiction: The Eye of the Mirror (Liana Badr), To Palestine With Love (Najwa Kawar Farah), Abu Jmeel’s Daughter and other Stories (Jamal Sleem), Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories (Ghassan Kanafani), Gate of the Sun (Elias Khoury), Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories (Ghasan Kanafani).
Non-fiction: Palestine (Joe Sacco and Edward W Said), Palestine Betrayed (Efraim Karsh), Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Western Congo and Palestine/Israel (Alice Walker), Palestine: A Personal History (Karl Sabbagh). See also the list of references in the back of Mornings in Jenin.