Mornings in Jenin

By Susan Abulhawa

Bloomsbury. 325 pp. $15 paperback

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Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan


Its "off-road" publishing history alone signals that

Mornings in Jenin

is a debut novel that generates fierce responses.

Susan Abulhawa's tale of four generations of a Palestinian family exiled to the Jenin refugee camp originally was printed in hardcover in 2002 under a more inflammatory title: The Scar of David. The book's small-press publisher went out of business shortly thereafter, but it was rescued from pulping by Bloomsbury Press, which has recently brought out the retitled novel as a paperback original.

In these lean times for the book industry, a second chance for a work of literary fiction is beyond fantastical - akin to seeing the Mona Lisa twitch.

To resort to a quaint phrase from publishing days of yore, someone at Bloomsbury obviously believed in this book, and, politics aside for a moment, it's easy to see why.

Abulhawa is a passionate writer whose limber, poetic style transports a reader deep inside the war-torn world she chronicles. When a brother of the main character here - a young girl named Amal Abulheja - runs off and joins the Palestinian resistance in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967, he pens a letter that explains his decision: "Please, little sis, forgive me for leaving. I'm going to fight. It's my only choice. They [the Israelis] have scripted lives for us that are but extended death sentences, a living death. I won't live their script."

But politics can't be cast aside for long in any consideration of Mornings in Jenin because the explicit point of this haunting novel is to champion the cause of Palestine and to chronicle what the author sees as acts of barbarism sanctioned by the state of Israel.

Not surprisingly, Abulhawa's own background informs her novel's story line and its political stance: Her parents were refugees of the Six-Day War and Abulhawa grew up in Kuwait, Jordan, and an orphanage in occupied East Jerusalem before moving to the United States as a teenager. Abulhawa, a longtime resident of the Philadelphia area, founded Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO - partly funded by sales from this novel - that builds playgrounds for Palestinian children in refugee camps and in the occupied territories.

In her acknowledgements, Abulhawa thanks Palestinian scholars and activists Hanan Ashrawi and the late Edward Said for inspiring her to write a Palestinian story.

The aforementioned "fierce responses" that Mornings in Jenin (and its earlier incarnation as The Scar of David) have generated haven't all been laudatory. In 2007, Abulhawa was scheduled to speak at a Barnes & Noble in Bayside, N.Y., but her appearance was downgraded to a book-signing. Abulhawa maintains that Barnes & Noble caved to protests from the congregation of a nearby synagogue, whose rabbi derided her historical novel as being full of "made-up stuff," according to a report in the New York Sun.

Mornings in Jenin, then, is a complicated read. To sympathize with its tormented Palestinian characters is to suspect, at the same time, that one is being politically manipulated. Not to feel sympathy for these characters, however, would be monstrous.

The novel begins in 1948 with an attack on the village of Ein Hod, where the Abulheja family has tended its olive groves for centuries. The British vacate Palestine, and the army of the newly formed state of Israel swarms in, ejecting the villagers from their ancestral houses. Abulhawa, who resorts to different narrative styles throughout the novel, here adopts a godlike third-person narrator to convey an overview of the horror of exile:

"Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all - all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm - all of it as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe. . . .

"The old folks of Ein Hod would die refugees in the camp, bequeathing to their heirs the large iron keys to their ancestral homes, the crumbling land registers issued by the Ottomans . . . and the dauntless will not to leave the spirit of forty generations trapped beneath the subversion of thieves."

In the chaos, a baby boy from the Abulheja family is ripped from the arms of his mother and, hours later, is taken in by an Israeli couple who will raise him as their own son. That stolen baby's older brother is destined to become a PLO operative. And, through the coming years, the younger sister of those two boys, our heroine - Amal - will endure the pain of an Israeli bullet, as well as the violent deaths of almost everyone she loves.

In America, where she eventually lands, Amal renames herself "Amy" and tries to "tune the world out," including the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Camp David peace accords in 1978. But the pull of the past is too strong and, in 2002, Amal leaves the home she's made in the suburbs of Philadelphia and returns to the refugee settlement of Jenin, where destiny awaits.

Melodramatic? Certainly. Polemical? Absolutely. But, Mornings in Jenin is also a terrifically affecting novel, thanks to Abulhawa's elegance as a writer. It's a novel to savor - and to second-guess.

Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air" and teaches literature at Georgetown University.