mornings in Jenin: Review
by Susan Abulhawa
Yahya Abulheja can feel the sensation of ripened olives demanding harvest within his calloused fingertips. His veins persist a pulse from the forty generations of marriages, funerals, tears, and prayers that came before him on his land, his tiny village of Ein Hod. November 1941. Yahya rises to the morning prayer amplified through a cool grey fog and sets out westward with his family, like every other November, to beat his neighbor, Haj Saleh, to the best olives. His two sons strike timeless branches with sticks to knock their olives loose, while their mother trails them balancing a bucket of olives on her head that would be pressed later that day. Yahya finds love and pride within his family, the countless harvests, the sun, the land, time and love, until the first bomb drops in the distance of Ein Hod.
“Mornings in Jenin” shys far from a comfortable read. In the first section, the author sets the stage for the buildup and initial moments of al-Nakba (the catastrophe), the name in Arabic referring to the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Abulhawa tells of this historic catastrophe through Yahya’s most personal desires, his family and his land. We’re painted a picture of displacement in a rather heart-breaking way: jam jars sit on shelves within pillaged homes, donated tents evolve into clay structures for refugees who never once thought about a garden other than their own, and Yahya’s grandchildren would cry “Jiddu (grandfather), can we go home?”, unaware of the military occupation that would batter their bodies and hijack their hopes.
The book takes us on a journey through four generations of Yahya’s family, but is mostly told from the perspective of Amal, Hassan (the son of Yahya) and Dalia’s daughter. The reader is transported to the innocence of girlhood as Amal begs for sleepovers with her best friend, Houda, and longs for the smell of her father’s tainted lips of honey apple tobacco as he reads “Rumi” at dusk and holds her in his arms. Abulhawa’s writing mimics poetry as she impressively puts into words the feelings of great love and great loss.
Amal’s girlhood wears quickly as she finds herself in a bunker hole under her kitchen with Houda, holding her deceased baby cousin, hiding from the imperialist politics and colonialism that sparked the War of 1967 between Zionists and their Arab neighbors. As we know, a gloomy history carries on for Palestinians and Amal will grow up in a land far different than that of her grandfather's harmonious olive harvests. She’ll search for the meaning of prisons that cage her brother Yousef, “the resistance” movement that scoops up Jenin’s most hopeless refugee youth, and another brother missing since the Nakba who now bears a scar on his face, wears IDF military gear, and goes by the name David Avaram.
Working one’s way through the novel, you’ll notice that historical content was extremely well researched, providing an appendix of sources for further reading. Abulhawa also felt deeply in touch with her characters, probing me to wonder if this was a semi-autobiographical book. She found a way to integrate actual AP newspaper clippings and British correspondent Robert Fisk’s personal accounts of witnessing Israeli shelling into specific scenes of the book, like when Amal must confront personal horrors from the 1982 Sabra & Shatila refugee camp massacre while pregnant in her lonely, Philadelphia victorian-style home.
From one chapter to the next, you try to find rationalization for the circumstances of physical and psychological abuse that each of the characters must grapple with. Bullets in the bellies of friends, torn apart families, and love as unsure as the depths of the oceans, Amal and her family are a representation of something larger. The longing by any human being for their family, their safety, and the place they call home. “Mornings of Jenin” is a must read for anyone looking to learn more about the Palestinian experience through writing that will hit our most collective human emotions.
“We’re all born with the greatest treasures we’ll ever have in life. One of those treasures is your mind, another is your heart. And the indispensable tools of those treasures are time and health. How you use the gifts of Allah to help yourself and humanity is ultimately how you honor him. I have tried to use my mind and my heart to keep our people linked to history, so we do not become amnesiac creatures living arbitrarily at the whim of injustice.” -Haj Saleh (p. 133)