Book Review: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

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I have had a hard time trying to review this book because it affected me on so many emotional levels. I almost feel like I am betraying the characters to say how much I enjoyed this book just because it was such an intense insight into a part of the world I knew so little about. Abulhawa enlightened and devestated me at the turn of every page… I learned about the beauty of Palestine, its people and their hardships, the wars, the savagery and the intense hatred we can impose on one another. I was ashamed and sad, confused and depressed for days after this read and yet within the sadness of its pages glimmers hope, a hope for reconciliation and peace. What an incredible read.

Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa, is the story of one Palestinian family over four generations. It can be argued, however, that it is also a story about any and every Palestinian family. The novel begins in the picturesque village of Ein Hod in the north of Palestine. The Abulheja family leads the simple life that most Palestinian farmers led before their tragic dispossession in 1948. Love was plentiful in Ein Hod. Love for life, for family, for God, and for the land. This was the essence of a farming society for generation upon generation.

The Abulhejas and their countrymen are forced out of their villages and homes only to find refuge in foreign towns and lands. They find themselves in a refugee camp in Jenin, their lives totally turned upside-down after losing everything they knew in their simple but beautiful, Palestinian village.

As they struggle in the refugee camp, in the early period after their exile, olive harvest season approaches. Haj Yehya, the family’s patriarch, sneaks across the armistice line to tend to his olive groves despite the threat of death from an Israeli bullet. When he returns to the camp in Jenin where his family anxiously waits, he brings them the fruits of his labor, and the labor of generations before him, plucked from their trees in their village. Nothing could stop this old man from returning to his village, but on his next trip, he never made it back to Jenin.

That was the last time any Abulheja attempted to return, but the dreams of return only grew stronger. Amal, with a long vowel (a name meaning “hopes” in Arabic), was born in the refugee camp of Jenin to Haj Yehya’s son Hasan. Her older brother, Yousef, spent his early years in Ein Hod before the Nakba. Another older brother, Ismael, was taken from his mother’s arms during the exodus from Ein Hod. It would be through Amal’s eyes, however, that the family’s story is told.

Susan Abulhawa’s masterful writing is delightful to read. She writes with an element of metaphor, undoubtedly owing its origins to the Arabic language, which brings color and feeling to every page of this novel. The characters are well-developed and one cannot help but grow attached to them. After each tragedy, be it 1948, 1967, and 1982, a new generation of the family is born, providing hope not only for the characters, but also for the reader who will inevitably experience a sense of depression in parts of the book.

Amal is born into refugee life. She grows up in the shadow of a mother that was devastated by the loss of a child. In 1967, Amal experiences 6 days of horror in a hole in the ground that will forever change her family’s life. The father that read poetry to her in the early hours of the morning, the scenes that lend the book its title, is never seen again. Her mother slips into dementia, and her brother Yousef will soon leave to join the resistance.

She grows up away from Jenin, and seeks an education in the United States. Her father’s wish was that she be educated and a scholarship makes this possible. In her ghorba (life away from home) Amal experiences western life and the contradictions it poses for Palestinians like herself. She will eventually travel to a refugee camp in Lebanon to reconnect with her brother. In Lebanon, she remembers her past, her love for the land and her family, and starts a family of her own. And just as stability seems to be coming back to her life, anchored by the cornerstone of family, tragedy strikes again. The massacres at Sabra and Shatila will devastate the Abulhejas in 1982, just as 1967 devastated them in Jenin, just as 1948 devastated them in Ein Hod.

Amal raises her daughter, Sara, as a single mother. She wants her to have nothing to do with Palestine, politics, and the wars that scared Amal literally and figuratively for decades. But a twist of fate, which brings Amal’s long-lost brother back into her life, sparks an interest in Sara who is now old enough to start hearing about the secrets of her mother’s past.

Ultimately it will be Sara, and her generation, which will carry the hopes of Palestine and Palestinians after Amal is gone.

Mornings in Jenin is a must read. It is sure to be an eye opening experience for those who know little about Palestine and an eye-watering experience for those who do. Abulhawa’s style is magnificent, descriptive and passionate. While the story is fictional, it is built on entirely plausible circumstances and entirely factual events and places.

Many have waited for a literary contribution capable of explaining the Palestinian experience to the West. The wait is over, Mornings in Jenin is it.

Review written by
Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center. (This book review may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center)

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