Upon moving into our apartment in Phnom Penh earlier this year I discovered a bottom shelf of books left by a previous tenant. One of those books was Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa, a novel I probably never would have picked up had it not been sitting conveniently close to my desk. I knew nothing of Abulhawa and very little (despite growing up with it frequently in the news) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I gradually became engrossed, however, in Mornings in Jenin. I was moved by Abulhawa’s writing, and shocked by her descriptions of the brutality of a struggle that began over sixty years ago and still continues today.
Mornings in Jenin begins in Palestine in 1941, in a small village called Ein Hod. The inhabitants of Ein Hod are farmers, and live “quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine”. By the end of the Second World War there are rumblings of a displaced race of people looking for a new home, and in 1948 Israeli forces march into Ein Hod. A mother’s six-month-old son is stolen by an Israeli soldier, and the families of the village are forced into exile. They find themselves in a refugee camp in Jenin, and this is where Amal (the novel’s central character) is born.
Mornings in Jenin starts out at something of a distance, documenting the lives of the Abulheja family first in Ein Hod and then in Jenin. It isn’t until the second part of the novel (over fifty pages in) that the narrative begins to narrow in on Amal, and changes (for the most part) from a third to first person point of view. Throughout the rest of the novel the story jumps in and out of perspectives, mostly focusing on Amal but also including her eldest brother Yousef, and Ismael, the brother that was stolen and grew up with the name David.
From the very first paragraph of Part One of Mornings in Jenin I was impressed by the poetry of Abulhawa’s language:
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…
The way she describes 1940s Palestine with its olive trees, rocky hills, and morning fogs is beautiful. There is also a great sense of history tucked into the little details; a depth and importance of place that reaches across time. Despite the lovely writing, I did find that I was dragging myself a bit through the first few chapters. The broad picture of a family and a landscape that Abulhawa paints at the beginning makes it difficult to connect with any specific character. But by the time the novel settled into its ‘groove’ with Amal in Part Two, I was hooked. I also came to enjoy the way the story jumps freely between different points of view, especially knowing there was always Amal to come back to. I felt more connected to a wide range of characters this way, and began to realise that Mornings in Jenin is really a novel about generations of people linked by a conflict that continues to drag on.
I found some of the passages – once she has grown up – where Amal falls in love a little on the soppy side. But I really enjoyed the descriptions of the relationship between Amal and her father, who is largely absent throughout the novel and survives through his daughter’s memories. Particularly moving is Amal’s memory of him reading to her as a child in the early mornings from Khalil Gibran and Rumi. One line from Rumi that is repeated throughout the novel like a refrain is especially beautiful in its simplicity:
I can explain this but it would break
the glass cover on your heart,
and there’s no fixing that.
Overall, I really enjoyed the way this novel exposed me to a completely different world. I was left a little emotionally overwhelmed at the end, but appreciated both the poetry and the power of Abulhawa’s writing. Mornings in Jenin manages to capture the personal and political aspects of a war in a way that is both painful and imbued with hope. An intelligent and stirring read.
Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees. In 1967 her parents were forced from their land as Israel took control of Palestine. Mornings in Jenin is Abulhawa’s first novel.