Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Guest Book Review: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

The following review was done by Boof from The Book Whisperer who very kindly gave me permission to post it here. Go visit Boof's site, he has other reviews and some great author interviews. Thanks Boof!

What Amazon says: “Palestine, 1941. In the small village of Ein Hod a father leads a procession of his family and workers through the olive groves. As they move through the trees the green fruits drop onto the orchard floor; the ancient cycle of the seasons providing another bountiful harvest. 1948. The Abulheja family are forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Ein Hod and sent to live in a refugee camp in Jenin. Through Amal, the bright granddaughter of the patriarch, we witness the stories of her brothers: one, a stolen boy who becomes an Israeli soldier; the other who in sacrificing everything for the Palestinian cause will become his enemy. Amal’s own dramatic story threads its way through six decades of Palestinian-Israeli tension, eventually taking her into exile in Pensylvania in America. Amal’s is a story of love and loss, of childhood, marriage and parenthood, and finally the need to share her history with her daughter, to preserve the greatest love she has. Richly told and full of humanity, “Mornings in Jenin” forces us to take a fresh look at one of the defining political conflicts of our lifetime. It is an extraordinary debut.”

What I thought: What a wonderful yet hearbreaking ride this book was. Firstly, I’ll start with the fact that as soon as I saw the cover and title of this book I knew I had to read it. In 1993-94, I answered an add in the paper to go and work as an Au Pair for a family in Israel. I can’t explain why Israel, there were hunderds of adds for France, Italy, USA etc and one solitary add for Israel. As a child at school we were asked to pick a country to do a project on and I picked Israel. I’m not Jewish, nor am I Muslim but I just knew I wanted to go; something about this country fascinated me. I worked for an American Jewish family in a rich town 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. My days were spent with school runs, lunches and play dates for 4 children under the age of 10. My weekends, however, were my own. Every single weekend for the entire time I was there was spent exploring that beautiful country (with other friends I had made). Jerusalem was and still is my favourite place in the whole world; a Palestinian run hostel in the Old City became my home for months one end, and I made friends from all walks of life who took us to Tiberius, Golan Heights, Ein Gedi, Haifa, Acre, Eilat and everywhere inbetween. I knew the country better than I knew my own and even all these years later, I think back often to my life then and remember with both fondness and passion the country that was my home for two years. I have read lots about the Middle East, Israel in particular but this is one of the first fiction (based on many facts) book that I have read from a Palestinian point of view. I was really looking forward to reading it and I was not disappointed.

The book starts in the beatutiful village of Ein Hod in 1940’s Palestine and centres around the Abulheja family who live a happy life with their two sons, their beloved horses and lovingly tended rose garden. They work the land and harvest olives in the surrounding hills for a living. The oldest son, Hassan, marries a free-spirited bedouin girl called Dalia who quickly becomes a part of the family and their first child, Yousef, is born to the delight of the family. A few years later, Ismael is born and when he is still a baby, Yousef tries to comfort the crying child and accidentally drops him, scarring his face down one side.

Ein Hod

In 1948 their life as they know it is over. The newly formed Israeli army, after accepting the hospitality of the locals for food, bombs thier little village without warning. Many people were killed and those who were left were made to march out of the village, in what they are standing up in, and walk towards Jenin. In the confusion that followed, Dalia has Ismael snatched from her.

“The villagers sat on the ground in the valley. The land was as beautiful and peaceful as it had always been. Trees and sky and stone and hills were unchanged and the villagers were dazed and quiet, except Dalia. She was mad with anguish, questioning people and uncovering other women’s babies in the hope of revealing a boy with a scar down his right cheek, around his eye. She searched with frenzied foreboding, even though Yehya tried to reassure her that someone had picked up the child and surely it was only a matter of time before they would be reunited”

The following chapters are the families time in the quickly put-together refugee camp in Jenin where they try to rebuild some sort of life for themselves. In this time Dalia gives birth to a daughter called Amal, who becomes our narrator for most of the book. She takes us through her life in the refugee camp; the horrors, the friendships, and the losses. She talks about times that often occured, like the overflowing of the open sewers and the smell being so bad that they had to sleep on the roof. But even in this she recounts the naive dreams of hers and her friends:

“Vile as the experience and subsequent cleanup were, Huda and I could not contain our excitement and anticipation at being allowed to sleep on the roof to escape the foul odour. Other children did the same, and we filled the air with calls, jokes and giggles of young refugee souls. We were naively full of dreams and hope then, blessedly unaware that we were the worlds rubbish, left to tread in its own misery and excrement. There on the flat rooftops, we offered up our wishes and secrets to the starry Mediterranean sky.”

Amal was 12 years old when the war of 1967 came to Jenin. She watched those around her die as she hid in a hole beneath the kitchen floor. The refugee camp that her relaties and friends had tried so hard to build, was flattened. Amal leaves the camp not long after the six day war and takes us with her as she starts a new life in Jeruslem, America, Lebanon and back to Jenin. Her story is heartbreaking and powerful. Susan Abulhawa’s anger is clear in the pages, as is her love for her country, Palestine. She brings to our attention another massacre in Jenin in 2002 that the world barely got to hear about. It was covered up.

I asked myself many times during reading this book “how could this happen?” It’s almnost beyond belief that human beings can do this to each other, yet they do.

“There is no reason or logic. I was twenty years old and they gave me total power over other human beings, Amal”
Although this book is only 330 pages long, it felt like an epic to me. I have spent 60 years with this family, watching them love, loose, fight, cry. I’m going to miss them. I cried at the end – not just because of their story but because of all the other thousands of peoples story – real people.

I have tried not to be biased in this review; there are two sides to every story. The Israelis have their tale to tell too. But this book is about the Palestininans, and their story. It’s high time their voices were heard.

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