Neither exile, nor dispossession and humiliation can uproot a Palestinian from his native land. If colonization and the propaganda of the Zionist state have tried to erase the Palestinian memory, they have only amplified the attachment to a lost homeland, a source of hope for an entire people parked in camps and living under the yoke of the occupier.
This is what Susan Abulhawa relates in her deeply moving and beautifully written novel “Mornings in Jenin.” Published in 2010, the book has since been celebrated in Palestinian and Western literature—fulfilling the author’s goal of adding “a Palestinian voice” to English literature.” Initially motivated by the desire to expose the atrocities committed by the Israeli army during the 2002 intifada, Abulhawa got carried away by her characters’ powerful experiences, until she had created an authentic and unique story.
The reader follows the multigenerational story of the Palestinian family Abdulhejo, from the village of Ein Hod. Forced to abandon their olive groves after the Nakba of 1948, they find themselves sleeping under a canvas tent in the refugee camp of Jenin, constantly hoping for a return to their native land, so close yet inaccessible. In this miserable place, the family dreams of Palestine and Jerusalem, the sweetness of life in their village and its fertile fields, and the Mediterranean Sea, nicknamed “bride of Palestine.” The reader is even driven to feel nostalgia for this land deprived of its inhabitants, a nourishing terrain in which life was difficult but peaceful, lulled by the immutable calendar of the seasons and harvests.
At the beginning of the novel, Ismael, still a baby, is abducted from the uprooted and fleeing family by an Israeli soldier who wants to start a family with his infertile wife. This initial drama, an inhumane act that reflects the monstrosity of ethnic cleansing and colonization, runs through the entire novel. The child will grow up under the name of David, the son of a Jewish family, raised to hate the indigenous Palestinians. While his Arab brother Youssef joins the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as a way to fight the perpetual oppression that has befallen his people since 1948.
The story of the Abdulhejo family is the story of Palestine, one that is marked by extreme cruelty, exile, and mourning.
The story of the Abdulhejo family is the story of Palestine as a whole, one that is marked by extreme cruelty, exile, and mourning, as well as perpetual waiting in camps where time froze in 1948. If the abduction of the child is a founding element of the story, it is not the main one. Indeed, the reader experiences the fate of Palestine through the eyes of Amal, who is Ismael and Youssef’s younger sister.
Born in the camps shortly after the Nakba, Amal is a lively and joyful young woman, who becomes mentally shattered by multiple tragedies, taking away any source of happiness. The dramatic thread of her story mirrors that of Palestine: the 1967 defeat and military occupation, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the 2002 Intifada—each event bringing with it a greater catastrophe, which will gradually turn Amal into a hardened and depressed woman. Only one light persists in her life: Sara, her daughter, who – after the 2002 intifada – starts a career in journalism and pays tribute to her mother and to Palestine through a website.
Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, is an allegory of Palestine, a land she will eventually be unable to leave and forget. Having gone abroad temporarily to study in the United States, she tries to drown herself in the American society and its liberal values. She calls herself “Amy,” which is “Amal, but without hope,” as she put it.
In her attempt to forget her tragedy by integrating into a culture to which she will always feel alien, she adopts an existence that is not her own. It is upon returning to Jenin that she rediscovers her full identity, despite the suffering and misery that prevail everywhere. Palestine, the home of her heart and mind, will also be her grave.
A central theme in the novel is that of unfathomable injustice. It is this theme that aligns with the title of the novel in Arabic, “Beynama Yenam al-Alam” (While the World Sleeps). For, while the Israeli army commits untold atrocities against civilians, and Palestinians subsist in total destitution, the rest of the world looks the other way, believing the lies and crimes of the occupier. Children are shot, women are raped, innocent people are thrown into prison, while the occupier calls its victims “terrorists” and denies the very existence of the people it has driven from their land. It is this crime that leads Youssef, Amal’s brother, to the armed struggle, after the murder of his wife and daughter during the terrifying Sabra and Shatila massacre; a crime perpetrated by Lebanese militia with the blessing and protection of the Israeli army in 1981.
The calamities follow one another in the novel, in a frightening realism that leaves the reader stunned by events that are not drawn from the author’s imagination but from actual occurrences. Far from the media litany, which mentions the developments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a series of dehumanizing figures, this novel penetrates the psyche of the Palestinians. If there ever were a novel capable of convincing the world of the atrocity of Israeli colonization, “Mornings in Jenin” would be the one.
Ultimately, the novel succeeds in combining dramatic historical events with the stories of daily life, as “Mornings in Jenin” is also a story of love, friendships, family, and parental affection, as well as youthful disappointments and longing. In an apocalyptic setting, amid a decades-old conflict, the characters experience intense emotions, reinforced by the terror in which they are immersed. The roots of Palestinian grief coil so deeply into loss that death has become an intrinsic part of their lives. Their anger is rage, and their sadness can make the stones weep. Israeli occupation exposes the Palestinians to the extremes of their own emotions from very young, as the book illustrates in vivid and heartbreaking images.
The roots of Palestinian grief coil so deeply into loss that death has become an intrinsic part of their lives.
Finally, the permanence of Palestinian memory and identity is a constant preoccupation for the protagonists, who face the fear of seeing their culture and memories disappear forever. The characters in the novel wrangle with the question: How to pass on the beauty of Palestine and its green pastures to the generations that only knew the sadness and destitution of the camps? Amal eventually finds peace by telling her daughter Sara about her life, and by showing her the refugee camp of her childhood. While the tragedy of an entire people may be heavy to bear for a child born in the diaspora, it is still essential to its personal construction. Throughout the novel, speech is perceived as liberating: one must speak of Palestine, of the Nakba, of dispossession and colonization, of the collective despair of an entire people whose existence is denied.
Although the novel was initially written in English, the Palestinian author admits that her writing style was deeply influenced by the Arabic language. This language is omnipresent in the story, whether through expressions and words, or in the extracts of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and Khalil Gebran. Thus, Susan Abulhawa explained to the media outlet Arablit that “some people felt at times that my novel was too lofty, too verbose, too flowery. But I like that style. I kind of like literature that uses a language that’s a little bit elevated. Maybe that comes from how, in Arabic, you don’t write in the way you speak.”
The novel was translated into Arabic in 2012 by the publisher Bloomsbury Qatar and is available for sale in most Arab countries. It was recently announced that Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir would be developing a television series based on the novel. The release date is yet to be announced.
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian American writer and political activist living in Pennsylvania. She is the author of several books, and the founder of a non-governmental organization, Playgrounds for Palestine, which advocates for Palestinian children and provides them with playgrounds to play. She is involved in the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
“Mornings in Jenin” was her debut novel, published initially in 2006 under the title “The Scar of David.” She went on to publish a collection of poetry entitled “My Voice Sought the Wind,” and two other novels entitled “The Blue Between Sky and Water” and “Against the Loveless World.”