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Updated: May 6, 2010 18:46 IST

The other side of history

ABDULLAH KHAN
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Susan Abulhawa's book
Susan Abulhawa's book

A remarkable novel, which will help us understand the Israel-Palestine conflict better.

The creation of Israel, for Jews, was the fulfilment of 3000 years of yearnings for a Jewish homeland. For Palestinians, it was El Nakba, the catastrophe, which rendered them homeless and forced them, to live in perpetual misery. The Jewish version of the Israel-Palestine story has found a place in English fiction umpteen times; the most popular being Exodus by Leon Uris, a book that generated a huge wave of sympathy in the U.S. for the state of Israel. But there was no novel of mass appeal originally written in English, on this issue from the Palestinian perspective until Susan Abulhawa decided to write one.

The catastrophe

Mornings in Jenin opens in 1941 and centres on a Palestinian family, the Abulhejas, a happy farming family in a picturesque and serene village named Ein Hod near Haifa. But their happiness comes to an abrupt end with the birth of Israel seven years later, as they are forcibly evicted from the land of their forefathers and made to live in a refugee camp in Jenin.

In Jenin, Amal Abulheja, the chief protagonist, is born. With her, we embark on a journey through the tumultuous history of post-1948 Palestine. In between, we also witness the personal losses Amal suffers: her father goes away never to return, her mother becomes insane, her husband is killed in a bombing, her sister-in-law and niece are slaughtered during a massacre and much more.

When the journey ends after 325 pages, we are left wondering: How can someone be so brutal to his fellow human beings? How can the victims of a Holocaust metamorphose overnight into the instigators of a catastrophe? How do some people not lose their humanity even in times of extreme adversity?

Of course, the book is a work of fiction but the events, from the forceful dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 to the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, are facts, and many real people inhabit this story of heartbreak, exile, and human tragedy.

Poetic prose

What struck me most is the honesty of the author’s voice. Despite being born to Palestinian refugees of the Six Day War of 1967, she has tried hard not to let her personal feelings fill the text. All individual Jewish characters are portrayed in sympathetic light. Nowhere in the story has she lost the touch of humanity.

Another bright aspect of Susan’s writing is her ornamental use of language in the tradition of contemporary Arabic writing. For instance, here is a taste of the opening paragraph from the chapter, ‘‘The Harvest’’: In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.

In the nutshell, it is a remarkable novel, which will help us to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict better.

Mornings in Jenin; Susan Abulhawa; Bloomsbury; £ 11.99

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