Mornings in Jenin
In this interview with ABDULLAH KHAN, Palestanian writer Susan Abulhawa talks about her novel and Palestine.
Is there any similarity between Amal Abulheja, the protagonist of Mornings in Jenin and Susan Abulhawa the author?
Mostly, Amal is very separate from me. There are some parallels between her life and mine, but as people, we are very different. There is one chapter in the book that is entirely autobiographical. I placed Amal in my life in the chapter called “The Orphanage”, which chronicles my life in a Jerusalem orphanage for girls, where I lived for almost three years of my life in the early 1980s.
Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab in his review of your book in The Sunday Times, London says, 'The Zionist story has Palestine before the state of Israel as “a land without a people awaiting a people without a land”. Writers from Mark Twain to Leon Uris, as well as Hollywood studios and certain church pulpits, retell the tale. But Palestinians, in the West at least, lack a popular counter-narrative. Palestinians are reported on, met only on the news.' And my question is why it is so?
The people behind the creation of Israel had their origins in the west. As part of those societies, they understood western culture and languages. They could communicate in the nuances of those cultures. So, it was natural then that the predominant story heard in the west was one propagated by Zionists because by in large, Palestinians were an eastern society that spoke primarily in Arabic speakers. So their voice remained limited to Arabic-speaking world. In addition to these practical limitations, the West was consumed with its own guilt over the Nazi holocaust that few would have been capable of seeing Zionists as anything but victims. For these reasons, Palestinians were not able to counter the Israeli propaganda, and the first narrative to dominate in the west was the Zionist lie that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”.
Now, however, with first and second generation Palestinians in the Diaspora having been born and raised in various western societies, we see a whole new crop of Palestinian authors, artists, musicians, dancers, academics, and more, who effectively communicate our narrative, the story of the indigenous society of Palestine.
How well has Morning in Jenin been received across the world? What kind of feedback you got from your readers?
The book has been well-received in most European countries where it is published. It was the number one bestseller in Norway and is in the top 10 books in India and Iceland so far. On the other hand, little attention has been paid to it in the US. However, letters I've received from readers are very heartening and uplifting. Most express a sense of having their eyes opened to a world they knew little about or a people whom they saw only as terrorists. Many talk about the impact of the prose and individual characters.
As I expected, some readers accused me of being anti-Semitic and the book of being biased. The first instance, I will not dignify with a response and leave it to readers to judge for themselves. I'm not sure exactly how a novel can be “biased” but the bigger absurdity is that Palestinian perspectives and narratives of their own lives should encompass the world as seen through Israeli eyes! No one writing from a Jewish point of view, for example, would have ever been criticised for writing a “one-sided story” about life under German occupation. Or a black South African writing a “one sided” novel about life under the Apartheid government.
On a literary level, some readers have complained that the way the story jumps from one point of view to another is confusing. This is a fair criticism and a matter of individual preference. Additionally, some readers, particularly Westerners, do not like my “florid” writing style, which is more in the Eastern writing tradition. Again, this is a matter of personal preference of each reader and therefore a valid criticism.
As a writer what do you want to achieve through your writings?
What every writer wants to tell a story. In some ways, I hope to give voice to those who have been muted.
How do you see the unprovoked Israeli attack on the flotilla of aid-carrying ships aiming to break the Israeli siege on Gaza? Why was there a lukewarm response from Americans when the entire world was condemning the attack?
The attack by highly trained Israeli navy commandos on an unarmed civilian flotilla in international waters was an act of piracy. Pure and simple. The killing of nine unarmed civilianas were nine counts of murder. Again, pure and simple. If this attack had been perpetrated by anyone but Israel, we'd be watching a tribunal at the Hague instead of blaming the victims for their own deaths.
What according to you is solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
The solution is written in the various tenets of international law and essential human decency. Palestine was always a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where people of many backgrounds existed in relative harmony. This is the ideal that other nations strive toward. Other nations fought wars and struggled through civil movements in order to attain a situation where all citizens are treated equally under the law. This is what we want and expect. To be accorded the same basic human rights that are the applied to the rest of humanity. We are the natives of that land and we expect to live in dignity in the land of our forefathers. This is the solution - That we live as citizens, equal under the law, whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or any other religion. Measuring the worth of a human being by their religion should not be accepted in the 21st century.
What is your next project as a writer?
Unfortunately, I still have to work a full time day job and that has made it difficult to find time to do much more. But I have, indeed started another book. It's just that it will likely to take me a bit more time to finish it.
Susan Abulhawa's debut novel Mornings in Jenin is story of a Palestinian girl called Amal in the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has been published by Bloomsbury in the UK and USA. The book has also been translated in to more than 20 languages. Susan is founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an organisation dedicated to upholding of right to play for Palestinian children who are living under Israeli military occupation. Born to the Palestinian refugees of 1967 war, she moved to USA as a teenager and still lives there.
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