Book Reviews

Susan Abulhawa’s The Morning in Jenin

Susan Abulhawa’s The Morning in Jenin, Bloomsbury, London, 2010, Pages 338, Rs 350.

Susan Abulhawa was born in a Palestinian refugee family in 1970 in Kuwait, she and her family have witnessed displacement and dislocation because of the occupation of the Palestinian territory by the Israeli forces. She grew up in Dar al Tifli orphanage in Jerusalem for three years before moving to US at the age of 13, which has been shown in Julian Schnabel’s film Miral. She did not grow up among her parents very much but in the US she lived in a foster care system. She is a Palestinian-American writer and a human right activist. Her novel, The Mornings in Jenin is the bestselling novel published in 2010 based on the holocaust inflicted on a family. She is also the founder of a non-governmental organization, Playgrounds for Palestine, which is an NGO working for the upliftment of Palestinian children by building playgrounds in Palestine and UN refugee camps in Lebanon. They were successful in erecting first playground in early 2002. She lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania with her daughter.

Abulhawa published her first novel entitled as The Scar of David in 2006 but it was French editor, Marc Parent, who bought the rights and brought out the novel in translation with a new name: Mornings in Jenin. Now it is available in Arabic also. Earlier being a Palestinian, Abulhawa has to face some problems regarding the publication of the novel. She published it from a small publishing house, which made contact with Marc Parent. It was he who had faith in the book, considering it of great potential which can move the world and can be good for Palestinian cause. He introduced Abulhawa with the prominent European agent, Anna Soler-Pont. It was this reason that the book became popular, being translated into 23 languages around the world and becoming best-seller. Bloomsbury is credited with reediting the book in English in 2010. Bloomsbury Qatar also launched the book in Arabic for the higher readership in the Arab world. Now it has also sold the film rights to the Film Works, Dubai.

Mornings in Jenin is the story of a Palestinian Abulheja family, their struggle and survival against the backdrop of the conflict still existing. It is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale of a family from an olive harvest Palestinian village to the first terrible violence in Nakba (Palestine) to the present struggles. It is not only a saga of irreparable loss but also the tremendous love that the family experiences. Mark Parent views the novel as “...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.

The central character of the novel is Amal, who is uprooted from her soil but is an intelligent and a gifted student who earns a scholarship to study in the US. Portraying this character was something subjective for Susan Abulhawa as it is her own experience of rootlessness. As she herself says, “My childhood was quite unstable and unrooted, owing mostly to family circumstances. I have mostly felt my way through life...”As a child, Abulhawa has spends lonely and aloof childhood because of the emotional trauma which was inflicted on her family and this raw loneliness and aloofness is quite visible in the character of Amal. The intensity of Amal’s character is quite a reflection of Susan’s own emotionally unstable self.

The novel starts in a small village Ein Hod, East of Haifa, much before the birth of protagonist Amal. It was a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future of the millions of Palestinian, before the Jewish grabbed the lands of the Palestinian at one corner and changed its name and character. Yehya, the grandfather of Amal was living peacefully with his family including two sons, Hasan and Darweesh in the village, Eid Hod depending upon farming as a livelihood for his family supported by his sons. But suddenly something happens and everything changes; the house, the village in which they have been living for centuries was taken away from them as they were forced to leave by the Zionist forces. Palestine was then a British colony, Zionist first get rid of British then Arab and so Israel was born. Jewish were foreigners who arrived there from Europe, Russia, United States and other corners of the globe took away all the heritage of Palestinian which they owned since forty generations – architecture, orchards, wells, flowers and charm. Thus a new Jewish state was raised from the British ashes and on Palestinian bloods and sentiments.

The year, 1948 in Palestine fell from the world calendar to exile, ceasing to reckon the marching count of day, months, and years, instead becoming an infinite mist of one memory in history for the people of Eid Hod. As the people of Eid Hod marched into dispossession, Jewish comrades guarded and looted the newly emptied village. While Palestinians were heart-broken, delirious with the loss of everything they possessed, Israelites were rejoicing with the accumulation of wealth, land and also a new country. While Palestinians were struggling for the survival of their families, Jewish people were making merry. While Palestinians were moved in anguished steps away from their land, the usurpers sang ‘Hatikva’ and shouted ‘Long lives Israel.’

The entire community of Ein Hod was displaced from their land and forced to live in refugee camp in Jenin. In the refugee camp, the people were struggling to survive, dealing with hard times in the camp. Living in refugee camps for many years, yet to settle themselves they got another blow in 1967 when Arab-Israel war broke out. Israeli soldiers carried out their massacre in Jenin, killing a number of innocent people including women and children. The war took Amal’s father and made her mother devoid of any feeling. Her brother was taken into prison where he met his lost brother who unfortunately had become an Israeli soldier fighting against his own people. When her brother left in 1968 to joined PLO for fighting against Israel and her mother died she was send to Jerusalem in a school which was also an Orphanage to study.

As Amal’s father was supporter of her education, he was once told her – “The land and everything on it can be taken away, but no one can take away on the knowledge on the degree you earn.” (60) Even Amal’s Uncle Darweesh favoured her education, he advised her:

“The future can’t breathe in a refugee camp, Amal. The air here is too dense for hope. You are being offered a chance to liberate the life that lies in all of us. Take it.”(136)

Amal spent four years in Jerusalem studying hard and finally got the chance to study in US through a scholarship. In United States, she tried to adjust with the American life while at the same time working and studying in the University. In 1981, when she was about to complete her graduation at the University of South Carolina she got a call from her brother, Yousef after 13 years. Yousef had married Fatima and was living in refugee camp of Shatila in Lebanon. Fatima was expecting so they wanted to celebrate with Amal.

Amal got happiness in her life as a family by marrying Majid, who was a doctor chosen by Fatima. But destiny did not favoured her happiness for long as when in 1982, the war broke out and Israel attacked Lebanon then she was asked by her husband and brother to leave for US where Fatima will join her followed by them. But unfortunately her loving husband was killed in an attack and Fatima and her niece, Falasteen was massacred by the Israeli forces and her brother deeply affected by the killing of his wife, daughter and unborn child willing to avenge their death with Israel forces.

Living in Philadelphia, Amal gave birth to Majid’s daughter Sarah and started working in a University. His lost brother Ismael who was brought up by a Jewish family came to know about his Arab linking through Moshe, who gave him name; David. After knowing about his lost family he tried to search them and finally after many findings he was able to locate Amal in United States. He gave her a call in 2001, willing to meet her and he did meet her there. Amal, David with their children, Sara and Jacob decided to visit their Palestinian together to meet their relatives, see their land of birth. Altogether they went to many places and met many people including their father’s Jewish friend, Ari Perstein.

Amal tried to lived her childhood again by visiting all the places whom she used to visit with her childhood friend, Huda. In this way, she lived her life again with her people. But unfortunately again the war began and Israel forces started their operation again in Jenin massacring people. When the war ended, mistaking Israeli forces to be Red Cross Vehicle, Amal came out of the tent just to be killed by them saving her daughter. Thus Amal died before meeting her brother, Yousef who was still alive. After her death, her brother was also shattered who found her sister at the end of life.

A year after her mother died, Sarah was still in Jenin, helping in the rebuilding effort with occasional funds from wealthy Gulf States. Working with a French non-governmental organization, she lived with Huda. Her Uncle David and his son Jacob often visited her. All very different people, they found one another in the memory of loss and the hope of rest, becoming something of a family.

Eventually Sarah deported back to the United States joining al-Jajeera news agency. Her cousin Jacob went with her to study mathematics at Amal’s alma mater, Temple University. She also sponsors a visa for Mansour, whom she grew to love as the brother she never had. His parent’s Osama and Huda allowed her to go there to fulfil his dreams. And they all lived in Pennsylvania home together as siblings, one America, one Israeli and one Palestinian.

The novel deals with Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ranging from beginning till the end. How the state of Israel was created forcing Palestinian to leave their lands. The story is expanded from 1948 to 2002 depicting the many massacres, struggle and conflict. Amidst this struggle and conflicts, still love and friendship exists from the beginning till the end of the novel as there are many examples.

With the publication of Mornings in Jenin, she has tried to bring the Palestinian narratives into Western literature. The pain and sufferings in the novel is intense because it is the reflection of Susan Abulhawa’s own emotionally tortured self. It is a crushingly effective novel, dealing with strong sentiments of love and loss, war and oppression, heartbreak and hope, spanning five countries and generations of one of the most tragic and intractable struggle of the world. The novel is highly praised around the world, as Independent says:

Abulhawa’s writing shines... Friendship, adolescence, love: ordinary events, offset against extraordinary circumstances, make the story live.

Henning Mankell sees, Mornings at Jenin as, “Fascinating... It gives deep insights while affecting me emotionally as only great novels can do. Daily Telegraphs views the novel as, “The writer’s pain – and the beauty of prose are very real.”


More by :  Dr. Shamenaz Sheikh

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