Last December, I came across an announcement for a “One Book, Many Communities” campaign organized by the group “Librarians and Archivists with Palestine.” The “One Book, Many Communities” plan was for people around the world to read Susan Abulhawa’s novel Mornings in Jenin in January of 2015 and then to organize discussion groups about the book. For more information about this campaign, click here.
I thought this was a great idea and wanted to participate, especially since I already had Mornings in Jenin sitting (unread) on my book shelf. (I had discovered it in an English-language bookstore in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, when I was there in 2012.) The bad news is that I wasn’t on the ball enough to read the book and/or organize any One Book event in January. The good news is that I DID read the book in February, along with one of my book groups, and we discussed it today.
I think we all agreed that the book was a powerful narrative dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian family.
For an overview of the novel, here is the blurb provided by the book’s website:
Palestine 1941. In the small village of Ein Hod a father leads a procession of his family and workers through the olive groves. As they move through the trees the green fruits drop onto the orchard floor; the ancient cycle of the seasons providing another bountiful harvest.
Palestine 1948. The Abulheja family are forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Ein Hod and sent to live in a refugee camp in Jenin. Through Amal, the bright granddaughter of the patriarch, we witness the stories of her brothers: one, as stolen boy who becomes an Israeli soldier; the other who is sacrificing everything for the Palestinian cause, will become his enemy.
Amal’s own dramatic story threads its way through six decades of Palestine-Israeli tension, eventually taking her into exile in Pennsylvania in America. Amal’s is a story of love and loss, of childhood, marriage, parenthood, and finally the need to share her history with her daughter, to preserve the greatest love she has. Richly told and full of humanity, Mornings in Jenin forces us to take a fresh look of one of the defining political conflicts of our time. It is an extraordinary debut.
Although the novel focuses on Amal, it is actually the saga of an entire family, including Amal’s parents and siblings. This family, although fictional, is meant to illustrate the history of the Palestinian people as a whole (or at least 20th century history). Abulhawa takes the readers from the 1930s in Palestine, when Amal’s family were peacefully farming the land their family had cultivated for centuries, through the creation of the state of Israel when the entire community was forced away from their village and into the refugee camp of Jenin. The horrors do not end with life in a refugee camp, though. The narrative takes us through the bombings of the 1967 war, life under Israeli occupation, the horrors of the Shatila camp massacres and even the 1983 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Through all of these events and more, readers cannot help but be moved and horrified by the experiences the Palestinians had to endure—and still do endure.
The mainstream U.S. media, when it reports on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is almost entirely one-sided. Americans can easily get the impression that Palestinians are all terrorists (for no particular reason except that they are somehow born that way) and Israelis are harmless victims who do nothing except to defend themselves. Of course, there are plenty of nonfiction books available that give a broader perspective, providing much needed historical and political information.
However, not everybody reads these nonfiction books. For people who want to know more about the Palestinian perspective, but are loathe to slog through analytical nonfiction, I think that Mornings in Jenin is a great alternative. Many of us can relate better to conflicts that are in the news when they are told in narrative form, whether that is fiction or nonfiction. We can understand the people in the conflict as PEOPLE, not as abstract entities, and thus our empathy is more likely to be engaged.
So, although there are flaws with Mornings in Jenin as a novel, I nonetheless urge as many Americans as possible to read it. I say “Americans” because our government and our media are so one-sided that we need to do all we can to learn about Palestinian perspectives.
(Perhaps readers from other parts of the world do not confront this same odd (to me) one-sidedness in their government and media. I’d be interested to hear more from all of you on this subject.)