Love and suffering in Gaza
Susan Abulhawa’s debut novel ″Mornings in Jenin″, which told the story of a Palestinian family’s hardships in the Jenin refugee camp, spanned several generations and was set against the backdrop of the Middle East conflict. It made the international bestseller lists straight away, earning praise as an honest and authentic description of the Palestinians′ situation and being criticised as a one-sided, anti-Israeli account of events.
Now the Palestinian-American author has brought out her second novel, which follows in the footsteps of her first success. ″The Blue Between Sky and Water″ is a family saga, though this time the setting has moved to the Nusseirat refugee camp in Gaza.
The topos of time
At the centre of the novel is the Baraka family, forced to flee the fictitious small village of Beit Daras for the Gaza Strip, along with other families in 1948. The book opens with the description of a glorified ideal world under British occupation, when the grandparents' generation was still young, and follows the family’s story, shaped by repeated blows of fate, all the way to the present day.
The link between the different time periods is the young Khaled. He is suffering from Locked-In Syndrome, a condition in which the body is paralysed while the mind is fully alert, which Abulhawa uses as a symbol of the Palestinians' situation. Khaled sees everything, hears everything – but cannot actively involve himself in the world around him. In a strange way, he floats outside time, giving him a different perspective on what happens.
The topos of strong women
The novel's action is principally carried by strong women, first and foremost the matriarch Nazmiyya, a representative of the first generation. There is also her daughter Alwan, who is also Khaled's mother, and her niece Nur, who has grown up in America. In describing her, Abulhawa uses autobiographical elements such her childhood in exile, the loss of her family, her odyssey through various foster families and homes, and her finally achievement of independence.
"All the characters in my books are invented, but they're based on the stories of people I've met, or on my own experiences and memories," Abulhawa says during an event to promote the German translation of her novel at the 2015 Harbour Front Literature Festival in Hamburg. "With Nazmiyya, for example, I could see my own grandmother. She was a woman who was just as meddling, just as brave, with a sharp tongue and a big heart."
The topos of love and joie de vivre
Love in both physical and spiritual forms is a constantly recurring theme, as are friendship and family. "It's the relationships between people that allow people in Gaza to survive in a world of conflict, suffering and instability. Sticking together as a family in particular is hugely important in Palestine," Abulhawa explains. Another recurring theme is joie de vivre, "life's longing for itself", as Abulhawa says, quoting the Lebanese poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran.
"A lot of people believe that in the face of difficult circumstances, people give up on life. Not in Gaza: people want to live and they find ways to live in the midst of ruins and tragedy. They find their own glimmer of light. For instance, when the electricity comes back on after days of outages, the women dive for their televisions to watch their favourite Egyptian soap operas, which they can then gossip about at length when the power goes back off. This will to live and this joy of life was what I wanted to show in my novel."
The topos of suffering
Now, Abulhawa has been known to voice criticism and engage in activities (for example, helping to set up the "BDS Movement", which calls for boycotts on Israeli goods, particularly from the illegal settlements in the West Bank) that have caused displeasure in pro-Israeli circles.
Even if Abulhawa herself says that the Palestinians' joie de vivre lies at the centre of her novel, the book still gives the impression that its author wants to bring home to her readers the injustice visited on the Palestinians by Israel, and the suffering that proceeds from it, in all its detail. This kind of portrayal can be seen as "authentically Palestinian" - read: very emotional - and there is fundamentally nothing to argue with there. Even so, one sometimes wishes Abulhawa would write in a less polarising way and present "the Jews" less frequently as soulless embodiments of evil.
This is also the main point of criticism that can be levelled at the novel ″The Blue Between Sky and Water″: there is just a bit too much of everything. A bit too much suffering (on all levels) and a bit too much drama - in places, the reader is reminded of the Egyptian soap operas the author mentions.
Still, you have to give Abulhawa credit: once again, she has managed to write a mainstream novel – in a beautiful, poetic language rich in metaphors – with an Arab orientation. Maybe the novel will make a few readers beyond the expert audience engage with the historical and political realities, or at least register that the Palestinians exist as a people.
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin