Book review: Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa

Mornings in Jenin tells the story of the Abulheja family. The patriarchs of the family, Haj Yehya and Basima, live in the small village of Ein Hod. The novel opens in 1941, during the olive harvest season as Yehya and his family and neighbours gather to pick the fruit. The first few pages (and years) set the stage for the family, introducing us to Yehya’s sons Hassan and Darweesh, Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein, and Dalia, the Bedouin girl who steals their heart.

“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.”

Their idyllic life is shattered by the “nakba” (cataclysm) in 1948, when the Israelis forced the villagers of Ein Hod off their land and sent them to the refugee camp in Jenin. Narrated by Amal, Hassan and Dalia’s daughter who is born in the refugee camp, Mornings in Jenin traces the story of her brothers – Yousef, whose love for his wife Fatima and for Palestine will set him on a collision course with his brother David (Ishmael), who was lost during the nakba and brought up as a Jew. It also interweaves Amal’s tale of love and loss, of her enduring friendship with Huda and mornings spent with her father, of living through the loss of her parents – her father as a casualty of the Six Day War, her mother as she lost her mind after that war – of moving to a Jerusalem orphanage to study, settling in the US, falling in love, and returning to Jenin with her daughter.

Kids at the Jenin camp (Image via Flickr)

This is by no means an easy book to read – it’s filled with pathos and loss, sorrow and separation, death and loss – but the prose is lyrical and the writing fluid. I came to love some of the characters and found myself wishing and hoping they’d pull through, but unfortunately, not all of them will.

This is the first book I have come across that presents the Palestinian point of view. It isn’t unbiased – there is the matter of Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein who disappears after the first few pages and only puts in an appearance at the end of the narrative and of Israeli attacks on Jenin apparently without any provocation from Palestinians – but it is an important book.

“The story of one family in an obscure village, visited one day by a history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil. It was a tale of war, its chilling, burning, and chilling-again fire. Of furious love and a suicide bomber. Of a girl who escaped her destiny to become a word, drained of its meaning. Of grown children sifting through the madness to find their relevance. Of a truth that pushed its way through lies, emerging fro a crack, a scar, in a man’s face.”

The Jewish suffering is well-known thanks to the many excellent books available on the holocaust and the creation of Israel – Leon Uris’ Exodus, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank’s Diary and Man’s Search for Meaning are just a few examples.  With Mornings in Jenin, readers will finally get to hear the Palestinian voice, to know of the many atrocities committed in refugee camps in that area, and maybe, to gain a better understanding of the “Palestinian situation”.

In closing, I’d say that this book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Israel-Palestine issue, and even for those who are not.

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  1. Reading”Mornings In Jenin” gave me the opportunity to understand better the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,there were some details in the novel which i didn’t know before;i’ve realized that the unbearable pain of the opressed people must be heared and understood,otherwise it will be expressed through violence.
    Abulhawa melted both the story of abulhedja family and the palestinian painful history in a beautiful sad literary mold.

    • I had read a lot of Leon Uris’ books before, so I knew the perspective from Israel’s standpoint. Reading Mornings in Jenin gave me a fresh perspective on things from the Palestinian side. Both authors present a slightly biased view of the “facts” but both give you a more holistic view of the situation.

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