Susan Abulhawa’s recent novel, “Against the Loveless World” (Bloomsbury, 2020), commences and ends with resilience and imparts Palestine like nothing else. It weaves through dissociation, detachment, and the road to belonging through the central character, Nahr, whose journey speaks of Palestine and Palestinian identity from a socio-political perspective.
Palestine and Palestinians require understanding, and that understanding can only be garnered through being receptive to the dissemination of Palestinian narratives.
The reader is introduced to Nahr in “The Cube” – a prison cell displaying all the trappings of the latest Israeli surveillance technology, confinement, and human rights violations. It is from incarceration that Nahr narrates her story – the child of a family displaced in the Nakba. Her first memories of Palestine, almost intangible, are reminiscent of how generations pass on their recollections and trauma to their offspring.
“My life returns to me in images, smells and sounds, but never feelings. I feel nothing.”
Displacement and survival are summarized by the protagonist: “My life returns to me in images, smells and sounds, but never feelings. I feel nothing,” she says.
Nahr’s reminiscing always departs from the physical confines of her cell. The sterile environment where she is allowed to receive visitors, mostly journalists who Nahr says are more interested in validating their opinion with her – a reflection of how the Palestinian story is written without Palestinians, is also the place from where we learn her story. Nahr’s dissociation – feeling nothing – stands in contrast to a life that is saturated with feelings and experiences.
A refugee growing up in a Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait, Nahr has her share of family issues and responsibility. In her father’s permanent absence, she becomes the breadwinner of the family, responsible for earning enough money to ensure her brother Jehad’s education. This burden lands her into sexually abusive cycles. Her pimp, Um Buraq, exploits her just as much as she becomes her protector and accomplice in perilous situations.
The narrator’s personality is replete with contradictions. Nahr’s double identity – some know her as Yaqoot, is just one of the many intricacies lacing Abulhawa’s writing. Upon Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which shifts the tone of the novel and which sees Nahr becoming more assertive, Palestine starts becoming more tangible. Her first marriage to a Palestinian man, who subsequently abandons her, opens the way forward for an exploration of her roots.
Analytical and detached to the point of insensitivity at times, Nahr gradually delves into Palestinian politics, as her brother joins the resistance and is later arrested and tortured. Upon her brother’s release, paid for with Nahr’s earnings, and the family’s decision to leave for Jordan, the ramifications of being a refugee hit her harder than the elders of her family.
For her mother and grandmother, Nahr thinks, becoming a refugee “was easier because the trauma of forced displacement was known to them.” In Jordan, Nahr’s mother embraces Palestinian tradition by embroidering kaftans, while Jehad urges his sister to consider visiting Palestine to discover her roots and also obtain a divorce from her estranged husband.
In Palestine, Nahr’s identity is explored against a backdrop of politics, mistrust, love, and social traditions.
In Palestine, Nahr’s identity is explored against a backdrop of politics, mistrust, love, and social traditions. The Oslo Accords form the setting for this part of Nahr’s story, which Abulhawa brings to life by describing Israeli violence, restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, extrajudicial killings of innocent Palestinian civilians, and the Palestinian resistance which Nahr finds herself part of. It is then that her friendship with Bilal, her estranged husband’s brother, passes its initial hurdles of mistrust and blossoms into a reciprocal love.
For Nahr, however, the moments of joy are always juxtaposed against an impending doom. Bilal’s role in Palestinian resistance, alongside that of her new Palestinian friends, is a constant source of both tension and pride that emanates throughout the book. Nahr is transformed by Palestine and her experiences of the land and its people. In turn, her relationship with Bilal also leads to a new discovery of herself – one in which her past slowly blurs into the background and she embraces her Palestinian identity and her role in the resistance.
A strong feature of Abulhawa’s novel is the glimpse into how ordinary Palestinian lives are rendered extraordinary, which makes news about Palestine pale by comparison. The development of characters, in particular Nahr and Bilal, enables the reader to visualize the magnitude of living under Israeli colonialism and military occupation, as colonial violence strikes their friends, and ultimately, the protagonists.
For Nahr, the sense of belonging is always accompanied by uncertainty, compounded by her past which trickles into her present, affecting social relations and her communication at times. Her grounding is derived from her marriage to Bilal, yet the constant turbulence surrounding their lives and their past makes Nahr ponder, “This was where I belonged, but so much of me was still scattered elsewhere.”
Abulhawa’s writing challenges us to discard what we are conditioned to think we know about Palestine. The human experience, with which our feelings can identify, is lost unless Palestinian narratives are brought to the helm by the Palestinian people themselves. It is one thing to read about settler takeover of Palestinian houses, and another to experience, through a Palestinian narration, the contradiction between loss and the will to return.
Nahr’s complex character makes the book a profound and beautiful introspection of life and how one relates to it.
Likewise, the human rights violations which are now a UN-controlled theme, spread far from our consciousness unless a Palestinian is telling the story. Abulhawa’s fictional narrative mirrors reality, only the reality depicted by the author is intense in both joy and pain, stripped as it is of the bureaucratic endeavors that compartmentalize colonialism and the human experience.
Nahr’s experience in “The Cube” is both torture and victory. A steadfast belief in how she discovered her identity and rediscovered herself through love are what get her through the dissociation, and what ultimately enables the continuity of her story. Nahr’s complex character makes the book a profound and beautiful introspection of life and how one relates to it. Palestinian tenacity is buried under the constant barrage of who Palestinians should be and what they should accept. Through Nahr’s character, Abulhawa asserts otherwise. Exile is another place, and Palestine is permanent.