The opening chapters give a somewhat romanticised view of life in the ancient village of Ein Hod, said to be granted to Palestinian ancestors by Saladin, with flute playing in the olive groves after a day’s harvesting, yet perhaps this serves to heighten the brutal shock of “El Nakba”, the catastrophic expulsion of the Arabs from the land they had occupied for centuries, by soldiers in support of Israeli settlers.
Based on both respected written sources and her own experience of the refugee camp in which she was born, and of taking the chance as a teenager to study in the US, ending up living with her daughter in Pennsylvania, author Susan Abulwhawa has written a searing tale of Amal, a spirited Palestinian girl whose family members suffer terribly in various ways as they are forced out of Ein Hod to a UN-financed adobe box in the camp at Jenin. An infant brother is kidnapped by an Israeli soldier to comfort his young wife who has been left infertile after ill-treatment at the hands of the Nazis – in such ways the author shows sympathy with the sufferings of the Jews and an understanding of how it has so tragically fed their own determination to create a state of their own, whatever the cost.
Amal’s mother, a once lively Bedouin girl, is traumatised by events, only able to deal with her emotions by internalising them, thus seeming cold and distant to her daughter, who in turn treats her own child in the same way, through a fear of loving what one is doomed to lose. Amal’s cultivated, innately gentle father is radicalised to take up arms in the attempt to regain his property and freedom. Her brother Youssef is consumed by the desire for revenge, and so on.
Although leavened with humour and the strong sense of community, the bleakness of real events, and the unrelenting destruction of innocent families, seem at times too much to take, but anger and outrage kept me reading, together with the sense that to give up implies a lack of respect for those suffering a grave injustice which is still ongoing.
Another aspect is the style of writing, about which I have mixed feelings. I appreciate that there has been an attempt to emulate the flowery, convoluted style of Arab writing, but for a British reader it can become exhausting in its overblown repetition. Since I assume English is the author’s second language, I am not sure to what extent the often unusual use of words is deliberate. Certainly, at times it creates a vivid, poetic quality to convey fear, violence, internal reflections on one’s state. I particularly liked the sensitive translations of Arab poetry. By contrast, the author’s style is frequently jarring, and in moments of intimacy may appear cloying and cringe-making.
The most authentic and engaging sections of the novel are those set in Palestine. In the safety and opportunity of the United States, Amal succeeds in her studies and work, but always seems like a transient observer, detached from her surroundings and characters who seem somewhat two-dimensional. There are some interesting if arguable insights, such as her sister-in-law’s belief that Americans do not love like Palestinians because “they live in the safe, shallow parts that rarely push human emotions into the depths where we dwell…the terror we have known is something few Westerners ever will. Israeli occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of own own emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.” These sound like the author’s own personal reflections.
Bearing in mind that it seems even UN reports have counted some massacres of civilians as justifiable actions by Israel against militants, and in view of an apparent general lack of awareness of the details of the Palestine-Israeli problem, this unflinching and moving novel is an effective way of spreading the word about a major injustice.
To quote from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet”:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself….
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow which you
cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”