It is tragedy so raw that it feels as though it is spilling over the pages. Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin blurs the line between fact and fiction with its excruciatingly honest portrayal of love in spite of heartbreak, hope in spite of loss, and perseverance in spite of oppression in 1948 Palestine. Set in the village of Ein Hod, the reader is swiftly immersed in the brutal reality of the Nakba, the catastrophe, as seen through the eyes of the Abulheja family; we learn of a friendship, a love, a kidnapping, a death, an invasion – all within the first 40 pages of the novel – the chaos of the speed with which the events unravel mirror that of real life.
After being forcibly removed by the military forces of the newly formed state of Israel, the Abulhejas are placed in a refugee camp in Jenin, where they struggle to grapple with their life being turned upside down as result of what would come to be internationally recognized as the longest occupation in the history of mankind. The youngest granddaughter of the earlier-introduced family patriarch, Amal, emerges as one of the leading characters at the forefront of the story. Through Amal, the reader becomes familiar with the routine elements of life in a refugee camp: poverty, restriction of movement through checkpoints, cramped living conditions, and a prevalent feeling of paranoia and fear that comes with the presence of soldiers, who follow the camp’s inhabitants everywhere they go. Scenes otherwise considered mundane, like a father reading to his child, or children playing with a dollhouse, become sharply emotionally-charged when put in the context of the occupation – because to read is to resist, to play under the branches of the olive trees is to resist, to have a fleeting feeling of happiness is to resist, but above all, the very existence of families like Amal’s becomes equivalent to resistance, too. As Amal grows, the reader becomes a silent witness to her struggle with the safekeeping of her identity as she experiences a change of scenery, first from Jenin to a boarding school in Jerusalem, then to a university in America. While following an intricately structured and honorably told account of Amal’s life, the reader also learns of the humanitarian implications of the then-developing occupation in Palestine through the prism of her relationships with family, friends, and romantic interests. Intricately woven throughout are events that make this book history as much as it is literature – it may be a novel, but the story is all too familiar to Palestinian families around the world.
Robin Yassin-Kassab of the Sunday Times writes:
What rescues Mornings in Jenin from polemic is its refusal to wallow or stoop to tribalism. One of its many achievements is that, for such a necessarily political work, no character becomes a mere cipher for suffering or victimhood… Her raw material is a historical fact and her blend of fiction and documentary is one of the book’s strengths.
Mornings in Jenin is of significance for it reminds us that the idea of literature as a contemporary form of resistance is very much alive – collective memory, culture, tradition, victory, trauma, all are encompassed in our knowledge of history as recorded in writing. But even more so, Susan Abulhawa’s novel prompts us to ask: how can one live through unsurmountable loss – of one’s land, of one’s family, of one’s identity? Perhaps, it is only by continuing to live and keeping memory alive in the name of resistance that one may be able to find themselves again.
Written by Kvitka Perehinets
Yassin-Kassab, Robin. “Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa.” The Times. The Times, March 29, 2010. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mornings-in-jenin-by-susan-abulhawa-fwc8cwtshzt.
Mansour, Sliman. 2016. Revolution Was The Beginning. Oil on canvas, 200x500cm. Dubai: Alserkal Avenue.