AMMAN — Visiting the Kingdom this week to launch the Arabic edition of her novel at Makan in Jabal Luweibdeh, US-based Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa spoke to The Jordan Times about “Mornings in Jenin”, which was first published in English by Bloomsbury, UK, in 2010. The Arabic edition, titled “Baynama Yanaam Al Alam”, has just been published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.
Tracing the history of a Palestinian family from the 1948 nakba until the 2002 massacre in Jenin camp, “Mornings in Jenin” is truly an epic story. When asked why she took on such an ambitious project for her first novel, she replies, “I’d like to say I had a plan, but I didn’t. What happened is that I was hugely affected by what I saw when I visited Jenin after the massacre. I have, of course, known about other massacres, but it is different when you are actually there. The people were so incredible, so much in solidarity with each other. I was still carrying those images when I returned to my work as a researcher in a medical lab in the US.” There she found her colleagues worried about whether or not they would get their bonuses, and the discrepancy between the two locations just hit her. “I felt I was in the wrong place. I decided I wanted to do something different. I started writing about Jenin, and it just kept going until it became a novel.”
Abulhawa found the seed for her story in Ghassan Kanafani’s “Back to Haifa”, with the idea of juxtaposing two Palestinian brothers separated by the nakba, where after one is raised as an Israeli and becomes a solider. Her parents were refugees from the 1967 war and expulsions, and she has lived in the US from the age of thirteen. Activist work there augmented her knowledge of Palestine’s history, and her own experience of spending three years at Dar El Tifl in Jerusalem contributed directly to the story. From her family, she was familiar with Palestinian traditions, culture, food and social behaviour, but still, she did a lot of research for “Mornings in Jenin”, to make her descriptions realistic. This pertained especially to climate and seasons, when certain plants are in bloom, etc. “For a while, I became something of an expert on olive trees,” she says with a laugh.
It is this attention to detail that produced the vivid imagery of “Mornings in Jenin”. Another reason for the novel being so compelling is the authentic quality of the characters which she based on people she has known, people she has read about and some she imagined. “You have to make things personal to get people interested,” she says in explaining the importance of literature for telling the Palestinian story.
Asked about other writers she has drawn inspiration from, Abulhawa names Latin American authors, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende. Noting that there is little dialogue in their novels, she admires their great descriptive powers and overall “lofty prose” — a style she finds closer to Arabic literature than to American writing.
Currently, Abulhawa is in the process of writing a new novel which will focus on a young boy in Gaza, but as a single mother, concerned about her daughter’s education, she does not have the luxury of being a full-time fiction writer. She must sandwich her novel-writing in between necessary work doing medical writing for journals and drug companies.
Abulhawa is also an activist, having founded Playgrounds for Palestine 11 years ago to raise money for building playgrounds for Palestinian children. To date, four playgrounds have been established in Gaza, two in refugee camps in Lebanon, and one in a refugee camp in Syria.
“This is not a charity,” she stresses. “It is an act of love, of solidarity, of respecting their right to be kids.”
Abulhawa is no longer the driving force in the organisation and she gives credit to “a wonderful group of women volunteers” who keep it running smoothly today.
At present, Abulhawa’s other major involvement is in the Boycott-Sanctions-Divestment (BDS) campaign, which she sees as one of the most effective ways to promote Palestinian rights and achieve justice against Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing.
“Until now, most Palestinian resistance has been either armed struggle or non-violent, basically passive means, just staying on and surviving,” she explains. “Israel is comfortable in dealing with this as long as it is contained in their purview. Even sometimes, it is happy for armed actions because this reinforces the image they want to project of Palestinians as violent and hateful.”
In contrast, “BDS opens the window on what Israel is doing; it shows the world the apartheid system they have built in Palestine. They have no defence against this exposure. This is where the Palestinians’ power lies,” she said.