Friday, February 3, 2017

Fiction | Life and Breath in War

Susan Abulhawa's Mornings in Jenin has been on my to-read list for I don't even know how long. Like, years - most likely from the early days of my book blogging venture, that past life of New York and a desk job. I wanted to read it then because my unremembered source called it powerful, and I wanted to read a "powerful" story about an unfamiliar place and situation. When I spied it on a library shelf just as I was ruminating on my future diverse reading goals, it finally felt like time to delve in.

The story begins just after World War II in that strip of constant struggle between Israel and Palestine. A Jewish boy and Palestinian boy befriend each other at a time before this land is racked with unrelenting conflict. These simpler days are few in the scheme of our story, though, as the Abulheja family is soon forcibly removed to a refugee camp by the newly formed state of Israel. Exiled from their homeland, the Abulhejas become the personification of this struggle for land and place; four generations live and breathe the reality of war, though their story is just one of many similar.

Our ultimate protagonist is Amal, that original Palestinian boy's granddaughter, who we follow as she fights her way through a violent world from the time she's just a small girl. Her early childhood memories of quiet, cozy mornings on the roof with her father are soon usurped by ones with guns, bombs, and death - hiding out for hours in a hole under the kitchen floor, the only shelter from a raid, with no adult for comfort, holding an infant killed by shrapnel.

Amal grows up fast. Her father's disappearance and presumed death leaves her mother empty; her brother channels his anger, sadness, fear into the Palestinian cause, retreating from his remaining family. Another brother, Ishmael, exists somewhere - kidnapped as an infant and raised by an Israeli family who cannot have children of their own. For much of her life, Amal is on her own - physically, emotionally - spending most of her childhood and adolescence without a sense of safety, comfort, or support, even if only from a nurturing adult figure.

The sequential shifting of character focus by which this story is told is odd, in a way. It lacks the size and complexity of a true multi-generational epic; we get details throughout, though never, it feels, the full story or experience until we reach Amal. On the other hand, though, it always feel as though we have enough context around which to build our perception of Amal's world. We do see where she came from and what drove those people that came before her. This is why I say it felt "odd" - you feel like you know it all, but there is also so much you don't know (particularly about the men in Amal's life; you, the reader, are kept very in tune with the female figures while the men are more described than experienced first-hand).

My only other literary encounter with this time and place was a long-ago book club read, School for Love by Olivia Manning. That story, though, is an entirely different one (perhaps taking place in those "peaceful" years I mentioned that could foster a friendship between an Arab and a Jew). Mornings in Jenin, told very much from a Palestinian perspective, is gut- and heart-wrenching and probably the most difficult book I've read. It humanizes something that is otherwise so distant, little more than a headline in a paper or a blip on the news. It's overpowering with defeat and hopelessness; it's a life drowning in sadness and fear, with only blips of hope and joy, instead of other way around. What's harder to consider is that this story is not an embellishment, nor an uncommon one. It's a reality for many people around the world, one that I cannot even fathom. I am very fortunate that my life of safety and comfort is my reality; we must recognize that it's never a guarantee.

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