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Mornings in Jenin - Susan Abulhawa

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Susan Abulhawa / Paperback / 352 Pages / Book is published 2011-02-07 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

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      31.07.2011 12:25
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      Fiction but very close to fact.

      Susan Abulhawa was born in 1967 to refugees of the Six Day War when her family's land was seized and Israel captured what was left of Palestine. She moved to the USA in her teens where she graduated with a degree in biomedical science and went on to a career in medical science. Deeply involved in helping Palestinan children, she originally released this book in 2006 under the title of 'The Scar of David' but it had limited exposure and has been re-written and published as her first book. She lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter, Natalie.

      'Mornings in Jenin' closely follows the lives of four generations of the Abulheja family who are uprooted from their home in Ein Hod, a small village in Palestine during the unrest of 1948 when Israel declared statehood of their lands. This period up until the present day has been particularly violent with uprisings, bloodshed and reprisals from both sides, with the story mirroring some of the most turbulent times in modern history.

      But it is a fiction novel and starts with a prelude that captures the reader's attention straightaway. The year is 2002 and the heroine of the story, Amal is facing a young Israeli solider who has a gun pointed at her head. Her seeming indifference to being shot makes you wonder what has gone before to bring her to this point.

      Susan Abulhawa sets out the book with a contents page, which places events in groups of chapters under a heading in both Arabian and English. This helps if you need to stop at a point in the book and has natural breaks in the narrative to highlight events that occur as certain times.
      E.g. El Nakba (the catastrophe) tells the story of the family Patriarch Yehya and his wife Basima. One of their two children, Hasan, marries a Bedouin woman, Dalia, who will become the mother of three children. The fate of the three children becomes the main story.

      Uprooted from their village and marched to the refugee camp of Jenin, one son Yousef, the elder, will become an embittered boy and a soldier, while Ishmael, the baby, torn from his mother's arms will become in turn an Israeli soldier, brought up by a childless couple, victims of the Holocaust. Amal, who is born later in the camp at Jenin will tell the story of violence, upheaval and family loss and pain. She will move from one refugee camp to another, sent to study in America when tragedy leaves her an orphan, will return to her troubled land and fall in love, but life will never be easy for her.

      This is a deeply disturbing story that shakes the reader's ideas of modern history. I personally have never read much about the beginnings of the Arab/Israeli conflict, and I wasn't sure how true to life the book's message is. The plaudits for the book agree. 'Disquieting, discomforting...A story that needs telling' Daily Mail.
      'Powerful and passionate...unforgettable.' Michael Palin. 'Heartbreaking' Esther Freud.

      As the story continues and I read about the refugees pushed and pulled from one camp to another with much loss of life, I could feel the pain and anguish of a nation in the same way as I had when reading of the Holocaust. Surely lessons were learned after the various Allies, England in particular, heard about the death camps? Yet within a few years of the war we were backing the takeover of Palestine under the banner of 'Aiding' a war-torn country. Maybe the author has drawn from some experience, but could such things have been allowed and/or overlooked?

      Susan makes no apologies in her Author's Note at the end. Neither does she place blame or take sides. You could say that the book's contents is taking sides, but apart from her own experience visiting a death camp, she says the book was mainly based on a short story about a boy brought up as an Israeli boy, instead of as an Arab. She names some influential people who assisted her to write the story and aided her by funding as well as encouragement. The reading list that she used in her research is extensive and I don't think I'd like to attempt even a fraction. But I believe the story has it's basis in truth, I can't believe such pain cannot be real.

      If it was just about horrors then I don't think I could have born it, some pages brought tears to my eyes. Like the character in the book, the author says she hardened her heart in some ways and I can see some truth there. Yet she cannot take away the very ordinary tales of children getting on with their lives. Playing in bombed-out buildings, but playing nevertheless. Giggling over boys, laughing at brothers reading 'girlie'magazines. Later on as mothers, sharing hardship and pleasure, forming life-long bonds of friendship.

      In the story, eventually Amal meets her brother David and learns of her extended family. At one point David, her lost brother, had met and beaten up his own brother Yousef, knowing they were alike, maybe knowing they were brothers, but still following orders. When he discovers this is true he seeks out Amal and an uneasy friendship develops. At this point Amal has a child of her own, a daughter, whose life has been less traumatic but still not easy. I imagine any child born of a mother who had seen such horrors could be without her own fears.
      Therefore it would be justified if the ending would bring some forgiveness and hope. In fact Part 8 is titled Nihaya o Bidaya (an end an a beginning). At this point I must leave this for you to discover, if, like me, you feel you must read this book.

      I would be lying if I said there wasn't a point when I felt I could read no more. I am fairly tough and don't upset easily. Neither do I necessarily accept all I read but it's not an easy book to turn away from. There are some lighter moments and a simple poetry in the descriptions both of place and characters. At one point the character of Amal has been given a pipe that belonged to her father and has to accept he has died. She talks about remembering the smell of honey-apple smoke and my eyes misted as I remembered in turn the stale tobacco from my own deceased father's pipe I still keep.

      There is simple easy laughter and pages of descriptive closeness between loving partners. It was enough for me. I was completely engrossed in the story and it's characters. I hoped for happy endings knowing that tragedy was close by. I felt for a family's pain and a nation's loss.

      Highly recommended.

      Price in paperback on Amazon is 5.11. There are only a few used, I will be keeping my own for a second read.

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