Mornings in Jenin
By Susan Abulhawa
Many many years ago, when I was still idealistic, and still in college and still believed the world was divided into the good and the evil, I read Leon Uris’s The Exodus. It was a powerful book. A book that seared me. Many years later I read that the book had been a propaganda device for the Israeli state. Whether this was true or false, the damage had been done. I no longer felt as sympathetic as I had once done for the Israeli people, driven to search for the promised land which had never been theirs.
Mornings in Jenin came as a shocker, this is the book, as is rightly said, which will do for Palestine what The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan, namely take the story of its people to the world. Written powerfully, this is a story written by a woman who has her roots in the Palestinian people and identifies with their stories. The novel lays before us the stark horror of a people uprooted from their land and forced into refugee camps because of an international decree that suddenly decides their land is part of another country. This is the voice of the Palestinians, which had long been absent in popular literature.
The story opens with the Abulheja family in their village of Ein Hod, near Haifa, a regular rural family with their loves, marriages, fights, farming and regular life. Their idyllic life is interrupted by the nakba of 1948, the catastrophe which is barely spoken about in popular literature. Their village is shelled, they are driven out of their home by the UN forces, and they are wounded, humiliated and end up in a camp in Jenin, where they realise that the world does not know their plight. The Mornings in Jenin of the title is the state of limbo the Palestinians are, as they live out their lives in a refugee camp, dispossessed of their ancestral lands and homes, robbed of their dignity, their freedom. They struggle to make meaning of life in a refugee camp. As olive harvest season comes close, Haj Yehya, the family's patriarch, defies the Israelis by sneaking across the line to go to his olive groves. He returns with the olives from his trees. He never makes it back, the next time he goes.
We now move through the decades, through generations of living as refugees to the naksa of 1967, the bloody markers of Palestine’s history, the refugee camp massacres and the 2002 massacre at the Jenin Camp.
The main protagonist of the novel is Amal, who is a victim of shelling in the 1967 war, and the scars have injured her emotionally as well. She loses her father in the massacre and her mother withdraws into a shell, we see how the land is taken over by the Israeli state. Her brother, an infant is stolen in a stampede by an Israeli soldier for his childless wife, and is brought up as a Jew. Amal is placed in a convent, where she wins a scholarship for education in America, and goes to study there. She returns to visit her surviving brother, and falls in love with a Palestinian doctor. But life takes a twist, Amal is pregnant and returns to the USA, her husband who is to join her is killed. She brings up her child on her own, and returns when much older, when she discovers her infant brother, whom they assumed was lost in the stampede has actually been brought up as a Jew. Tragedy dogs her life. But the skilfull way in which Abulhawa weaves in the fictional with the facts makes the book a must read. Though the story is written from the perspective of a single family, the story is the story of all dispossessed Palestinians.
Abulhawa writes with a skill that lays out tragedy without sinking into pathos, there is the strength of steel in the narrative. The writing is rich in poetic prose, with metaphors abounding. The writing has the intimacy to make the reader feel emotionally attached with the characters, even though the story moves through three generations. The end is tragic. Yes, though with hope. This is the book you must read to understand the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict.
(Reviewed by Kiran Manral)