Mornings in Jenin
by Yasmina El Hilali
Do you know, Mother, that Haj Salem was buried alive in his home? Does he tell you stories in heaven now? I wish I had had a chance to meet him. To see his toothless grin and touch his leathery skin. To beg him, as you did in your youth, for a story from our Palestine. He was over one hundred years old, Mother. To have lived so long, only to be crushed to death by a bulldozer. Is this what it means to be Palestinian?
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa has been on my reading list for a couple of years. I never got round to it, but I believe that books are ready for you when you are. So, I finally picked it up.
Mornings in Jenin tells the story of four generations of Palestinians, from before the occupation by Israel until long after. It tells the story of the proud farmers of the village Ein Hod, who live on a wide land, framed by olive trees and the scent of jasmine flowers.
The family’s patriarch, the proud Jahja Mohammed Abulheja is married to the sturdy and strong headed family matriarch Basima. Their sons, Hassan and Darwiesj are the apples of their eyes. While Hassan is an introverted intellect, Darwiesj is the village’s best horseback rider and the two boys both thrive in different ways. Central to the lives of this family, and the other farmers, is the care of the endless amount of olive trees, their harvest and the production of olive oil.
Through Hassan, we are also introduced to the young Ari Perlstein. A young German Holocaust survivor who has come to Palestine to seek refuge from the horrors he and his family have faced. Hassan and Ari form a life-long friendship that can be best defined as a brotherhood, but Ari’s presence in the novel is also a subtle omen for those who pay attention.
Fast forward a few years, and the reader is introduced to the young, wild and beautiful bedouin girl Dalia who cannot be restrained by the traditions of her culture. Dalia is free and unmoved by people’s gossip and her tinkling anklets betray her fierce character. Hassan is captivated by her beauty and they get married, despite the protests of his proud mother. Together, Hassan and Dalia have two children pre-war: Joessoef and his younger brother Ismail. Their lives are filled with love and laughter, until an-Nakba (the disaster) of 1948.
During an-Nakba in 1948, the Abulheja’s are driven from the land they have always known, loved, nurtured and been fiercely proud of. Darwiesj is shot, most of Dalia’s family is slaughtered and four-year-old Ismail… is nowhere to be found. The family is moved to a refugee camp in Jenin, patiently and hopefully waiting to be able to return to their land. But, as all Palestinians, they will be forever stuck in the endless year of 1948.
Throughout the years in the refugee camp, old Jahja mourns the loss of his land and his pride. Dalia searches the periphery of her mind for any trace of her Ismail, Darwiesj is paralyzed, Hassan tries to be the husband and father he longs to be, and Dalia gives birth to little Amaal. With her birth, Amaal brings hope to her family and is her father’s pride and joy. Dalia, however, is not the mother she used to be and her young daughter is wounded by her mother’s distant demeanor.
Amaal comes of age in the polluted and poor streets of the camp, but finds joy in the little things and her friendship with Houda. She learns about her heritage through the stories her father and Haj Salem tell her and, like her family, begets the hope to one day return.
Through Amaal’s eyes, we experience the Six-day war and the suffering, trauma and loss her family goes through. While her family falls apart and the grounds of Jenin are shaking, Amaal is offered a ticket out of the camp and her remaining family members urge her to go.
“Thank you,’ I answered, unsure of the proper American response to her gracious enthusiasm. In the Arab world, gratitude is a language unto itself. “May Allah bless the hands that give me this gift”; “Beauty is in the eyes that find me pretty”; “May Allah never deny your prayer”; and so on, an infinite string of prayerful appreciation. Coming from such a culture, I have always found a mere “thank you” an insufficient expression that makes my voice sound miserly and ungrateful.”
Ending up in Jeruzalem first, then the United States, Amaal tries to reconcile her new identity with her past, but fails. Missing her family, utterly traumatized and connected to no one, Amaal is aware that she can never belong anywhere and longs to forget her past. She is forever displaced.
Eventually, after being in the dark about the whereabouts of her family, Amaal reconnects with her brother Joessoef and his wife Fatima, who live in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now a 23-year-old woman, Amaal is ready to acknowledge her tumultuous past, that she so desired to forget during her stay in the United States.
In Lebanon, Amaal thrives being reconnected to her roots and she embraces life in the camp and loves to be surrounded by those she loves the most. It is here, in Sabra and Shatila, that Amaal heals and dares to dream of her future. Then, when disaster strikes once again, the reader weeps when Amaal is faced with yet another tremendous catastrophe.
Amaal’s story is a story of endless loss. It is about losing more than you thought possible. It is about being crushed, helpless, exiled and an identity stolen.
But yet, it is a story of loving…despite…
It is the story of Palestine, finding a voice through the fictional Abulheja family. But their story is anything but fictional and their losses are the losses of all Palestinian people.
With his book, Abulhewa gifted the Palestinian people a literary legacy. She has given them a remembrance that is more than that of a people oppressed or living in exile. She has given them a name, a voice, a face. It is the story of the olive tree and the jasmine flowers. It is the story of the keffiyeh, kanafeh, Gibran, Oum Khaltoum, tremendous sunsets and tradition. It is the legacy of old people, cursed to remember and children, still laughing. It is a reminder of our global guilt and failure.
“For I’ll keep my humanity, though I did not keep my promises.
… and Love shall not be wrested from my veins.”
It is, indeed, an ode to the Palestinian people.