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Arab-American novelist fights for justice in Palestine

Tahira Yaqoob meets the Arab-American novelist who is battling for the rights of Palestinians to live and work freely.
Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, which builds play facilities in Palestine and refugee camps in Lebanon. Lee Hoagland / The National
Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, which builds play facilities in Palestine and refugee camps in Lebanon. Lee Hoagland / The National

As the adhan echoed around Jerusalem's ancient hills, dotted with olive groves and the modern concrete sprawl of the Israeli occupation, Susan Abulhawa began to sob.

It had taken her 19 years to return to her homeland from the US; a period marked by angst, hardship and a yearning to belong, and it was there, listening to the echo of her childhood on the slopes of the Mount of Olives and cradling the young daughter who had finally given her purpose, that Abulhawa set her life on its indeterminable course.

That path of political activism, of vocally opposing Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and campaigning to provide playgrounds for Palestinian children has earned her a lot of enemies and unleashed a torrent of hate mail in the US - but, she says, it was impossible to turn back after that first visit as an adult.

"It reawakened me in a lot of ways," she says. "That sound of something that is inside me, something that I am - when I heard the adhan for the first time and realised how much I'd missed it, I broke down in tears."

That awakening manifested itself in Mornings in Jenin, a poignant, lyrical tale tracing four generations of the Abulheja family as they suffer loss after loss - first, with the kidnapping of their son Ismael in the 1948 Naqba by an Israeli soldier and then through their violent expulsion from their village near Haifa.

Through successive horrors inflicted during the 1967 war, the siege of Lebanon and slaughters in Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, the devastation and agonies wreaked on ordinary Palestinians are depicted through the struggles of the book's protagonist Amal, whose brother Ismael is raised as the Arab-hating David.

The 2010 novel, which won critical acclaim, has just been translated into Arabic for the first time by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.

That has particular resonance for Abulhawa, now 41, as it was the language in which she first expressed herself through her writing before suppressing her Arab identity in a bid to fit in when, like Amal, she began a new life in the United States as a teenager.

"I did not want to be Arab," says the author, in Abu Dhabi earlier this month for the annual book fair. "I was ashamed and embarrassed and hated my stupid last name that no one could pronounce."

Softly spoken and immaculately dressed, she is as quietly reflective and as elegantly understated as her prose.

Her parents, who were born in Jebel al Tur, were refugees of the 1967 war. Her father was expelled at gunpoint; her mother, who was studying in Germany at the time, was unable to return and the couple reunited in a camp in Jordan before moving to Kuwait, where Abulhawa was born in 1970.

Her parents did not stay together long, nor were they interested in raising her. Instead, she was taken to the US by an uncle and lived there until she was five.

"Their absence was an influence," she says. "It is essentially a huge theme in my life because I was so unrooted."

Her younger years were spent being passed between various family members in Kuwait and Jordan; at 10, she was taken to Jerusalem but ended up in an orphanage.

Looking back, she says they were some of the happiest years of her life, tinged with memories of verdant mountains and awe-inspiring Arab architecture despite the near-Dickensian conditions of everyday life.

"I have fond memories of that time but as an adult, I can look back and be horrified," she says. "We had cockroaches in our food, there was no heat in the winter and we would wet the bed because we were too cold to get up."

At 13, Abulhawa was sent to Charlotte in North Carolina and ended up in foster care. If the angst of her teenage years were difficult to deal with, she had more reason to suffer than most as she was unable to read or write a word of English, a secret she hid for a year.

"I was mortified about anyone finding out so I used to get the Charlotte Observer newspaper and copy the entire front page, every word. At some point, it started to make sense."

Her school years were "brutal"; she made no friends and "just survived it".

Nevertheless, Abulhawa studied for a degree in biology at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina and went on to complete a masters in neuroscience at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Her daughter Natalie's birth, when she was 27 and halfway through her masters, was pivotal.

"Maybe it was having a child that made me really start thinking about my roots and what I wanted her to grow up with, what religion and what language," she says.

And so the trip to Palestine in 2000, which sowed the seeds of her battle for the rights of Palestinians to live freely. Within a year she had set up Playgrounds for Palestine and persuaded a US company to donate slides and swings for her first venture in Bethlehem.

Crucially, she began writing powerful polemics based on her experiences, initially as opinion pieces for newspapers then, after a trip to Jenin in the aftermath of the 2002 attack on a refugee camp, she began penning her first novel.

"I was transformed by that whole experience," she says. "You grow up as a Palestinian knowing about these massacres and the wars and the injustice but it was completely different to be there."

The memories haunt her still - the bodies she dug out of the rubble with her bare hands, the clouds of dust from the demolition trucks that enveloped everything, the traumatised but still defiant Palestinians offering each other help and through it all, the pervading smell of death from decomposing bodies.

"I initially started writing reflections of Jenin and it went in its own direction." She is, she says, a scientist by trade and a writer by accident. Mornings in Jenin started with a political aim but that was soon discarded when she began to care about her characters. "I fell in love with them," she says.

American audiences, though, were not ready to read a Palestinian voice in English literature and, although she completed the novel in 2006, it was another four years before Bloomsbury took it on.

Now the hate mail has been joined by letters of thanks: "A lot of Americans have said they never understood what was going on but now they get it."

She is at work on a second novel set in Gaza, although her political activism comes first, whether it is campaigning fiercely for the Boycott and Divestment Campaign, urging consumers to stop paying for Israeli "blood goods", or as a speaker on behalf of Al Awda, the Right to Return coalition.

She has little faith in the power of leaders to effect change, whether American, European or Palestinian: "They never act in the best interests or for concepts of justice and the ideals we are striving for. We can't look to them to be our saviours."

Instead, she advocates the kind of non-violent direct action demonstrated by Hana Shalabi and the rest of those political prisoners involved in hunger strikes: "I think it is an incredibly brave and awe-inspiring thing to do."

She still has her own demons, certainly, but being a mother and having her daughter, now 14, reach the age where she faced some of her greatest challenges has shown how things have come full circle.

She admits her rootlessness at an early age colours her advocacy for those who have no home: "The theme of home underpins everything and the person I am. It is this huge gap in my life, of never really having a home, a place of belonging. It provokes my writing and in a lot of ways my activism."

And despite her dismay at the US government's pro-Israeli stance, home is now Yardley in Pennsylvania. Thanks to her daughter, she has no plans to leave: "That's the place she calls home and she's the place I call home."


Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer for The National.

Updated: April 26, 2012 04:00 AM



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