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The Many Lives and Languages of a Palestinian Novel

Abu Dhabi International Book FairThis article is part of a series on publishing in the Middle East which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

“The Palestinian narrative was in Arabic. It was unappealing, and it didn’t reach the West in those early years.”

By Olivia Snaije

Sometimes there are heart-warming stories in the publishing world about books that are granted a second life. Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, just out in Arabic, is one such story. Abulhawa, a Palestinian who lives in the United States and works as a scientist published her first novel in 2006 entitled The Scar of David. The small publishing house, which was soon to go out of business, made contact with a French editor, Marc Parent, who bought the rights and brought out the novel in translation with a new name: Mornings in Jenin.

Susan Abulhawa

He also believed the book had great potential and put Abulhawa in touch with the prominent European agent Anna Soler-Pont. From there on, the book took off, becoming an international bestseller, translated into 23 languages. Bloomsbury reedited the book in English in 2010, and Bloomsbury Qatar has just launched the book in Arabic. Film rights have been sold to Film Works Dubai.

Mornings in Jenin is the powerful, gut-wrenching tale of the Abulheja family that takes them from the olive harvest in their village in Palestine through the first terrible violence of the Nakba and into the present, with the struggles, irreparable losses but also tremendous love that the family experiences.

The novel has “…everything in it. One can sense that it is a book inspired by someone’s life. It’s an individual story and a collective story grounded in history,” said Marc Parent.

Out now in Arabic from Bloomsbury Qatar

Abulhawa was born in Kuwait, lived in the Dar al Tifli orphanage (immortalized in Julian Schnabel’s film Miral) in Jerusalem for three years before moving to the US at age 13.

“I did not grow up around my parents very much,” said Susan Abulhawa in an email interview this month. “In the US, I lived in the foster care system. My childhood was quite unstable and unrooted, owing mostly to family circumstances. I have mostly felt my way through life…”

This rootlessness comes across in Amal, the main character in Mornings in Jenin, who is a gifted student and earns a scholarship to study in the US. Her raw loneliness and seeming aloofness, a result of the emotional trauma she has been through, is described with such intensity that is seems impossible that Amal is not Susan Abulhawa. And yet, as with so many gifted storytellers, Abulhawa says there is only “some of me in her. ‘The Orphanage’ chapter is autobiographical. I put Amal into my life for the three years that I spent at Dar el Tifl. Some of the character names were changed and a few of the events, but most of that chapter is entirely real. There are other parallels between our lives that emerged unintentionally. Amal comes to the US alone and ends up as a single mother without any family around her. That certainly mirrors my life to some extent.”

The point of departure for the novel began in 2001 when Palestinian politician and academic, Hanan Ashrawi wrote to Abulhawa after she read an essay she had written. Ashrawi told her it sounded like she could write “a first-rate biography. We need such a narrative.”

The following year Abulhawa traveled to the Jenin refugee camp after hearing reports that a massacre was taking place, and what she witnessed there spurred her to write — as she concludes in her notes at the end of Mornings in Jenin, “the steadfastness, courage, and humanity of the people of Jenin were my inspiration.”

The re-edited English edition

But publishing a novel about modern Palestinian history in the West and in particular in the US is not an easy task. There have been few fictional accounts, although some memoirs have resonated with readers and have proven to be more effective than many political essays, such as academic and medical doctor Ghada Karmi’s 2002 In Search of Fatima.

Echoing Hanan Ashrawi, Karmi said at the time that she had noticed “the Jewish narrative of persecution and suffering had been conveyed through the medium of novels, poetry, films and theater. I could understand this. But why wasn’t our story being told? So I thought I’d write the story of my life.”

Although Abulhawa’s novel has been most popular in Europe, she feels it is “slowly reaching people in the US. I think times are changing. There is a new generation of writers who have lived most of their lives in the West and we are telling our story, finally, in our own voice and in Western languages. It has been Israel’s narrative that has dominated literature until recently, which was mostly propelled by Leon Uris’ novel Exodus. It was natural that the first story be that of the conquerors, because they were mostly from Europe and spoke in the languages and nuances of western cultures. They also told the story that the West wanted to hear. It was easier to hear a story of a land without a people. It was a romantic happy ending. The Palestinian narrative was in Arabic. It was unappealing, and it didn’t reach the West in those early years. But our voice is coming of age in Western literature now and I think there is a real interest among readers to hear our story.”

Nevertheless Abulhawa hasn’t had it easy in the US as a Palestinian activist, and in one case came up against shocking verbal abuse by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz during the Boston Book Festival, which she handled with aplomb.

“Unfortunately, there remains a taboo and active silencing associated with our story,” said Abulhawa. “So, it is probably harder to get a narrative critical of Israel published, but that is becoming less and less so, especially now that there are prominent editors, like Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury, with the courage and integrity to take on novels that other editors are afraid to touch because they might challenge the popular narrative that mainstream media pushes.”

When she first began to write her book, her intent was political, in order to bring the Palestinian narrative into Western literature, but she soon got caught up in her characters and became 100% novelist: “…once the characters came to life, my only goal was to be true to them – to tell their story with honesty. I did not think about the audience. I didn’t think about political correctness.  I didn’t think about politics at all. It was just about the people in the story. It was about the land and the trees and what they would say if they could speak. I loved every character in the novel, without exception.”

Abulhawa recently contributed a very personal short story to a collection of essays by Palestinian writers that will also be published by Bloomsbury and she is working on a new novel, in between her full-time job as a scientist and a non-profit she founded called Playgrounds for Palestine.

The fact that Mornings in Jenin has been published in Arabic makes her feel “…elated and nervous! This was the most important translation to me, of course. Many members of my family – cousins, aunts, father, etc. – will be able to finally read it.  That’s very exciting to me. I want to be accepted as a Palestinian writer, even though I write in English. That I cannot write in my native tongue is a sad condition of the ‘Shatat’ [diaspora] and ‘Manfa [exile].’”

Susan Abulhawa will be taking part in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Wednesday, March 28 at 5:30 p.m. she will be interviewed by ADTV journalist Fatima Al Beloushi. On Thursday, March at 12.15 p.m. she’ll be part of the panel discussion “Where the Heart is” — on the topic of “home” and writing — along with cookbook author Sally Butcher, travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith and poet Tishani Doshi.

DISCUSS: Has Western Publishing Silenced the Palestinian ‘Story’?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 21, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    This sounds like such a compelling memoir. I love the idea of starting with the olive harvest, as I have an olive grove in Greece and see so much how it represents a cycle of life, family roots, ethnicity, and religion.

    I wrote the curriculum for a documentary called “On the Road with Bob Holman” that touched a bit on issues surrounding Palestine’s culture, politics, and language: http://rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road.

  2. osama massarwa
    Posted March 26, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I’m a Palestinian writer and poet . I’m aslo an Israeli citizen that’s why I have this queer combination of two conflicting identities which is shown almost in every thing I write, whether poetry or prose. I’ve lately finished writing a novel called “Love in Conflict, in English since I write besides Arabic English and Hebrew as well. I’m writing this letter to you after reading about you and your work and I feel kind of encouraged to send you the synopsis of my novel. Please know that being a Palestinian-Israeli citizen is a heart breaking situation and since I’m half Palestinian half Israeli neither the Arabs nor the Israelis look favorably at me and I mean all the Palestinian minority in Israel not just myself of course. That’s why I have been trying for 3 years to find somebody to support me and help me publish my novel which is absolutely one of its kind and you’ll find out by yourself once you read the synopsis.
    osama massarwa

    Naji, a Palestinian boy meets Tamar, an Israeli Jewish girl, during a school visit initiated by Mrs. Levi, an Israeli Jewish teacher and Mr. Sodqi, a Palestinian teacher. The visit is postponed several times due to the opposition of Israeli and Palestinian extremists. However, the two teachers manage to carry out the visit as planed. Having so many things in common, Naji and Tamar feel so close to each other. They both are reluctant or even afraid to admit that they are in love. They know that it will be disastrous for both of them to fall in love. Their love isn’t only forbidden but also doomed to fail. Both of them are peace loving people and are ready to do everything they can to bring the two hostile peoples together. They are so troubled by the on going conflict and wish so hard that peace between the two belligerent peoples will be finally achieved. Of course each one is attached to his and her people. However, this doesn’t prevent him or her from accepting the other side and believing in its right to live in peace each in its independent state. Yet they often find themselves in conflict with each other especially when they talk about symbols that have different significance to each on of them. Although they are the most peace loving people that can ever exist, they sometimes accuse each other of being extreme and irrational. The novel is titled “Love in Conflict’ and it demonstrates different levels and aspects of conflict. First, their love is so unique and unpractical in such a hostile environment. Second, their conflicting ideas and opinions about certain matters pertaining their different cultures and background sometimes widen the gap between them. Third, both of them are in conflict with their families and communities. As a matter of fact they know that they can’t be the modern version of Romeo and Juliet though in the end Naji dies.
    Naji likes to write poetry and Tamar likes to paint and later she begins to write poetry encouraged by Naji. Naji’s poetry always deals with his own experiences as a Palestinian living under the Israeli occupation and continuous siege and wishes so hard that all those manifestation of hatred and hostility would cease and his generation and Tamar’s would eventually live in peace and be able to lead a normal life. The main thing that characterizes them both is the fact that they both hate violence and are greatly frustrated by the on going terror activities on both sides. Naji’s personality is very unique and problematic at the same time. He can’t accept any kind of violence whatever the reason is. There’s no justification for any act of violence against innocent people. That’s the reason for his constant opposition to belong to any of the military or fundamental Palestinian groups. However, he acknowledges the right of every nation under foreign occupation to resist and fight for its freedom and independence. On the other hand, he doesn’t accept the corruption of the other political parties. Therefore, he always feels detached and wants to be independent though it’s not acceptable in the Palestinian community. In order to move ahead and prosper one must belong to a group so that they can take care of him and his family.
    Tamar on the other hand has to deal with her Zionist mother and her brother’s militant views. The latter is a soldier in the Israeli army and like his mother he has very extreme political views. In contrast her father is more understanding having hired and dealt with many Arab merchants who used to buy crops from him.
    Their second meeting takes place at the Oasis of Peace a mixed community village half Arabs half Jews close to Jerusalem. The Palestinian and Israeli students meet there in a seminar that helps them deal with the most difficult issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    Naji and Tamar have a good opportunity to meet and confess their love despite the hard arguments they both have during the classes and the breaks. Nevertheless, they get along despite the opposition of the Palestinian and Israeli students as well. The Israeli students reject Tamar’s relationship with Naji. They think that he’s only sexually interested in her, while the Palestinian students think that Naji abandons them for the sake of an Israeli girl. Naji and Tamar agree to meet in the evening and as they talk the Jewish students suddenly appear carrying torches and begin to dance all round calling mockingly “Romeo, Juliet.” Naji leaves the Oasis of Peace first thing in the morning.
    A few weeks later Tamar invites Naji to visit her and he has to get illegally into Israel. The infiltration procedure is very dangerous. He may be killed at the spot once he is spotted by an Israeli patrol. Nevertheless he’s determined to go on. He can’t withdraw; he is so eager to see Tamar. Finally he arrives at her house and after sometime Tamar takes him to the beach especially after he reads her a poem expressing his wish to go t the beach. As they take the bus, Naji is very frightened. He fears that he may be arrested once an Israeli soldier gets on the bus and wants to see his ID. Ironically when that happens, the soldier doesn’t suspect him because he sits next to a beautiful girl who keeps talking to him affectionately, besides, he doesn’t look any different from any Israeli youth. He’s handsome and athletic. Instead the soldier asks an Israeli young man who happens to have left his ID at home. Since he has oriental features, the soldier suspects him to be an Arab and consequently has to take him to the police station in spite of his repeated claims that he’s a Jew. After they spend some time on the beach an explosion takes place nearby and Tamar meets Menashi a soldier who’s a friend of her brother’s. He tells her to leave the beach and Tamar has to divert his attention so as not to talk to Naji and find out his true identity. Menashi who has a crush on Tamar has to drive away due to the urgent matter at hand. Naji is afraid to stay on the beach. He wants to leave immediately, but Tamar convinces him that it will be very dangerous to leave right away. They stay on the beach for some time until Naji can’t stay any more. Tamar complies and they walk toward the exit where hundreds of extreme Jews shout the usual ‘death to the Arabs’ slogan. As they walk out they also see hundreds of soldiers and policemen blocking the area looking for the Palestinians responsible for the explosion. All along the way, Naji sees hundreds of Palestinian workers already detained and tied up and left on the sidewalks until they are taken to prison. Naji is determined to go home despite the danger to his life, but Tamar once again manages to convince him to come with her to her place and hide there until things have settled down. She hides him in the attic above her room almost caught by her brother who comes back home most unexpectedly.
    A few months later after Tamar almost gives up any hope of seeing Naji, they are asked to participate in another seminar somewhere near the town of Haifa. They meet and as it rains heavily they have to find shelter in a cabin in the neighboring wood. They lit a fire and Tamar takes off her clothes to dry them and ask Naji to take his as well. It’s important to indicate that Tamar being so liberal wants Naji very much but his reserve always stops her and makes her stop encouraging him to have sex with her. At that cabin she feels that the moment finally comes but instead he gets up and gets dressed.
    Four months later the two lovers meet and they drive into a wood not far from the sea where they make love for the first time. Since then they meet regularly and enjoy each other’s company despite the hazards that often pop here and there. It’s worth while to indicate that the wall which Israel has been building for many years as well as the continuous siege and curfews have a great impact on their relationship and many of Naji’s poems deal with these issues. Tamar herself reveals that she once joined a demonstration against building the wall and was also beaten by an Israeli soldier.
    One day Rachel, Tamar’s mother, tells her that she’s interested in meeting Naji. As she drives them to her sister’s house in one of the settlements built on Palestinian confiscated lands, they have a hard argument about each one’s ideology. Tamar doesn’t like the argument from the very beginning and wants her mother to stop, but she insists and Naji let’s her speak up although he doesn’t agree with her beliefs. She believes that the Jews have the right to settle wherever they want and that she doesn’t hate the Palestinians and that she stands for peace. Naji doesn’t see how these views can serve the cause of peace.
    To make things even worse for the two lovers, Dan, Tamar’s brother is wounded while many other Israelis are either killed or injured when a Palestinian militant blows himself up in a railway station. At the hospital, his mother mentions Naji and he has to ask Tamar about him. They have a fierce argument which continues at home when he accuses his sister of sleeping with a Palestinian while he faces death every day. When Israelis and Palestinians have extreme views about peace without considering the other side’s rights, friction, terror, hostility and hatred grow up constantly and continuously. Naji’s and Tamar’s views about peace unfortunately aren’t accepted by many fractions of the Israeli or the Palestinian communities. Hence they suffer a lot and can’t bring the change they want so much. His father was killed when an Israeli air craft targeted a suspicious Palestinian vehicle passing by. However, his tragedy doesn’t change him as it does change his brother, Nidal. His love for peace is stable and unchangeable until he dies as he tries to stop his brother who has been brainwashed as he put it and wants to be a martyr.
    Some militant Palestinians somehow find out that Naji meets Tamar now and then and ask him to carry out a plot to kidnap her in order to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. He rejects despite their convincing argument that the Israelis won’t release any prisoners unless they have to. Besides, they argue that it’s an opportunity to serve his people and do his national duty and prove to be loyal to his nation. He rejects the idea and they plan to kidnap her without his knowledge. However, he accidentally learns about their scheme and warns Tamar against coming to see him. But when he finally meets her a Palestinian gets into her car and threaten to kill them both if she doesn’t obey his orders. Naji tries hard to protect Tamar but he doesn’t give up. Then a military Jeep arrives at the scene out of the blue, and Tamar opens the door and runs to call for help. Tamar is surprised to see Minashi in that jeep. The kidnapper runs away and Minashi asks her to follow him to the nearest police station. She tries hard to end the case at the spot so as not to put Naji in danger, but Minashi insists that they have to report the kidnapping attempt. Tamar then has to obey Naji who desperately asks her to drop him somewhere. Later it turns out that the kidnapper is a Palestinian informer who works with Menashi who in turns loves Tamar but she doesn’t return his love. He is envious and wants hard to get rid of Naji so he and Dan, Tamars brother, conspire against him. All the time he believes that the Palestinian militants are responsible for the kidnapping plot.
    At the police station she is questioned about the plot and some time later the kidnapper and Naji are caught and brought in. Naji is accused of trying to kidnap Tamar and the real kidnapper testifies that he is his accomplice. To protect him Tamar testifies that he is her boyfriend. Naji, on the other hand, testifies that he is the kidnapper’s accomplice. He wants to save her the embarrassment she’ll get once her folks know about her secret love affair. The detective is amused by their mutual attempt to save each other, but that doesn’t prevent him from detaining him until the investigation is over.
    Naji remains in prison for two years until his trial is finally held. During that period, Tamar has an abortion for she discovers that she is carrying Naji’s child. That is the worst nightmare she can ever have despite her precaution and prudence. She then starts her military service at a check post in the occupied Palestinian territories where she has to deal with the bad treatment of Palestinians on the part of her fellow soldiers.
    When his trial begins two years later, Tamar repeats her previous testimony that Naji has nothing to do with that kidnapping attempt. He is released that day and when he goes home his mother tells him that his brother, Nidal wants to become a martyr and he has to look for him and bring him back before it’s too late. He finds him at the local mosque and he has a bitter argument with him and the other members of his group. His brother accuses him of being a coward because he thinks that Naji has to avenge his father and the other Palestinians whom the Israeli soldiers have already killed not to mention his two years’ imprisonment. Naji fails to convince his brother to come back to his senses and abandon his wish of becoming a martyr.
    Then one day and all of a sudden Tamar asks Naji to meet her at the same bus stop and Naji notices that she has completely changed. She drives silently all the way to the cemetery they have already reached by mistake. There she tells him that her brother was killed by Arabs and she has to avenge his death. She’s so angry and hurting that she needs to kill an Arab and she doesn’t care if he’s Naji himself. At the right moment she can’t do it, she throws her gun into the open grave she already forced Naji to get into.
    Naji walks back and reaches his home eventually.
    Some time later Naji leaves home early in the morning to look for his brother who has stopped coming to his home to the overwhelming distress of his mother. He discovers the building where he stays and goes in to look for him. A few minutes later his brother gets out along with other militants. They drive away and Naji has to look for them on foot. While walking in the direction of his home, he hears a great explosion. Then he sees many people surging in the direction of the blast and he also sees a few women coming from there swearing and crying hysterically. He keeps walking, feeling that something might have happened to his brother. At last he discovers that his brother’s car has been targetted by an Israeli military craft just when it has stopped at the entrance of his house which has been totally destroyed as a result. His whole family is annihilated and Naji has to stay at one of his friend’s place who belongs to one of the religiously moderate groups which preaches peace and tolerance. However, Naji starts thinking of taking revenge and he asks his host to help him do it. His friend refuses and he then goes to see a friend of his who belongs to a militant group. He agrees to help him avenge the death of his family and when the time comes, Naji goes to Tel Aviv with an explosive belt on his body. He gets into Tel Aviv railway station where many Israeli soldiers are coming from their bases for the holidays. As he is about to blow himself up he looked up and to his surprise he sees Tamar climbing down the train. Their eyes meet for a scond which is enough for Naji to see in a flashback all the lovely moments they have together. Then he hears himself shouting ‘NO, no, no. I can’t do it.” In fenzy he rushes outside and keeps running until he reaches three high plam tree s behind which he hides. Tamar runs after him and manages at last to see him hide behind those trees. A moment later there is a grea t blast that tears the trees into pieces and send them flying in all directions

  3. Suneetha Balakrishna
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Mornings in Jenin brought tears to my eyes…it made me realise the value of my citizenship, the democracy around me and the privileges of living in a war free zone. It made me realise the life of a perpetual refugee…the life in refugee camps…and lots more…the book is so sensitively written and without once lapsing into melodrama. The lyrical prose used in narration is really commendable.

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