Last year at the kids’ International Day celebration at school (in the U.A.E) I stopped at the small table proudly displaying the national treasures of Palestine. A group of lively women in national costume offered me traditional sweets, encouraging me to look through the beautiful photographs of their homeland, and pointing out major sites of interest on the large scale map beside the table. I had a closer look. I was confused. Isn’t this entire place practically a war zone? Where’s Israel? I felt too stupid to ask (though not so stupid to realise that to do so would likely cause offense); my knowledge of the history of this region is not only poor but also woefully biased, having received an education filtered through a Western, if not entirely British-centric, lens. I tread instead a more cautious route. “When was the last time you were there?”, I asked. The women traded glances then each shook their head in turn. None of them had ever set foot in the State of Palestine (not that one even exists according to some); many of these women are in fact second or third generation exiles.
As I walked away chewing on something delicious, I felt sad. Everyone else in the hall that day could tell stories about their country based on their first hand experiences of it; and proudly so. Not so for these Palestinians women, whose real stories remain veiled, untold, unvalidated. Little did I realise then that these women, able to send their children to a good school in a stable country in the Middle East, are probably to be counted among the more “fortunate” of their population. So that day I conciously made a promise to seek out a first hand account of the Arab-Israeli conflict as seen through the eyes a Palestinian. From the voice of a Palestinian. I was very lucky then, to find Susan Abulhawa’s book just a few months later at the book fair in Abu Dhabi (disappointed to miss her book signing and Q&A by only minutes).
Wiith this background laid out, my main difficulty with the novel “Mornings in Jenin” (and the reason for 3 stars versus 4 or 5), doesn’t seem to stack up on the surface. My problem really was that it felt like it was written precisely for someone like me. It moved chronologically, focusing on one family through several generations. This meant that it was easy to follow (key dates marry up with key plot turns), and even easier to become emotionally invested in the characters (who are directly shaped by political and military developments of their period). Susan Abulhawa made the story personal, which in turn eased my understanding of the complex turns happening “out there” at the macro-scale. [NB: I’ve read the debates on other threads about the bias or one-sidedness of this novel – as I said from the start, this is precisely what I wanted and sought out; in fact although Susan does a good job of portraying David’s story in a balanced way, I honestly don’t think it added a great deal to the story as a whole and could well have been left out. I don’t get it when people expect fiction to be “balanced” – the beauty and gift of fiction is the subjectivity of “the author’s experience” and “the author’s truth” which shall always remain valid whether other accounts contradict it or not; I certainly don’t believe it is the author’s responsibility to attempt to be objective, rather the reader’s responsibility to read widely].
The weight of time spent conveying the story as it developed in the refugee camps first in Jenin and then in Lebanon, is out of proportion to the amount of time spent relaying the story as it played out in the United States. Again – this is perfect for someone like me; I know (or at least can imagine coming from a Western culture) what that life and lifestyle looks like – no need to expend long chapters delving into it. A decade converged into three or four pages and I didn’t even blink, whereas I appreciated the way the chapters meandered through Amal’s adolescent years at the orphange, and then through her courtship with Majid at the camp in Beirut – a brief respite of light-filled days with her brother and his beloved Fatima.
Secrets of language and nuances of culture are also revealed for the benefit of western readers and I witnessed beauty on both counts. But would it have been necessary for Arab audiences? Would I still have “got it” anyway? (I like to think I would). However it was towards the end of the book is where I really feel I entered the classroom. Large tracts of text from other publications (which are duly referenced in the bibliography – itself an odd thing for a novel), are woven into the lives of the characters in an all-too-clunky fashion. Again, I say, it added to my education (the large one from Robert Fisk in “Pity the Nation”, page 224, in particular) and I am grateful for it. I am just not sure a more subtle instrument wouldn’t have done the same job.
But. or should I say, So. 3 stars, because I am reserving space for Susan Abulhawa to write the 5 star novel she wants to write for herself, and for her compatriots, as opposed to the blunt, hard-hitting book that was sorely necessary to educate people like me (perhaps she has already written it?). And Susan is more than capable – parts of this book are so beautifully written “poetry”, the Daily Mail said, and I wholeheartedly agree. At times I literally clapped my hands together as if I’d just discovered gold. She’s a true talent, and a voice I’ll happily listen to whether I am the target audience or somewhere out on the periphery.