December 15, 2012

Mornings in Jenin - Susan Abulhawa

Back in September, we had a new minister join our congregation.  She is a Palestinian Christian and lived in a refugee camp in Palestine before moving to North America.  Many stories from Palestine are included in her sermons.  And this is a book that she recently read and loaned to me.

I read it in big gulps this week while I was working out of town, and finished it on the airplane flying home on Thursday (literally finishing it as the plane taxied on the runway to it's parking spot).  And it's a good thing that I was sitting in the very back row of the airplane where no one could see me, since I think that I cried my way through the last few chapters.

The last time that I had a similar feeling was when I read "What Came Before He Shot Her" by Elizabeth George.  When reading that book I knew the ending before I began, and the whole book was a tragic series of events, made even sadder by seeing how inevitable they were.  This book gave me a similar feeling, but was even more powerful since it read more like a memoir than a novel.

It is a family saga, telling the story of 4 generations of the Abulheja family, centered around Amal who was born in the Jenin refugee camp and who eventually moves to America.  Amal's grandparents were farmers in the village of Ein Hod, Palestine.  They are later evicted from their village by the newly-formalized Israeli army in 1948, along with their children and grandchildren, and end up in the Jenin refugee camp.  Amal is born in Jenin and eventually ends up at a school for orphans in Jerusalem and later receives a scholarship for University in the US.  After graduation, she moves back to join her brother in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.  She marries, and eventually raises a daughter back in the US.

I found the book to be one long string of tragedies.  Any time there was any sign of hope or joy, something would happen to make things even worse than they were before.  And yet since the book is very strongly rooted in history, there was no catharsis in reading it.  The whole Palestinian situation is a tragedy on a gigantic scale, and there is no hope in the real-life story; so why should there be any hope in the fictional account of one Palestinian family?

I found the language in this book to be very rich, and (for the most part), a pleasure to read.  Part-way through this book, a friend sent me a link on Facebook to an article about words that are seldom used, but that should be used more.  I commented that it was a fun article, and that there was one word that was new to me - parvenu.  And less than 30 minutes after posting that comment, I came across "parvenu" in this book!  At times, the writing crossed the line from rich and meaty to florid (I tended to skip those passages), but for the most part, it was a pleasure to read from that aspect.  And even though the author includes a fair number of Arabic words, they were placed so well in context that I found that I rarely had to refer to the glossary at the end of the book.

One little quibble was that I got annoyed occasionally by the changing point of view.  Some sections were told by Amal in the first person (or rarely another character), and some sections were told by an all-knowing narrator.  I found these sections to be clumsily linked together - there was almost a clunk as the point of view changed.

I think that the Palestinian story is an important one to be told; as the story told by the media is often manipulated politically.  A novel is, by definition, written with a bias, but this story rang true.  Sometimes fiction can be more true than non-fiction.  I wish that I could say that I was optimistic that a solution to the Palestinian "situation" can be found, but I am not optimistic and this book reinforced those beliefs.

This book should be read by anyone wanting to understand better the situation in Israel and Palestine; and especially by those who think that they understand the situation.