Despite having been a student as well a teacher of Political Science, I have never been able to grasp the complexities of the politics of the Middle East or West Asia. The convoluted conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for almost 75 years now, making headlines when there is an escalation or an extreme event, and smouldering in the background when another geo-political volcano erupts.
In the last two weeks two news related to this region made headlines. First was the horrific blast in Beirut that decimated a large part of the city and rendered tens of thousands homeless. The other was the announcement of an intention of a historic rapprochement between Israel and the UAE as a part of which Israel would give up its plan to annex the West Bank, the main territory of a state that the Palestinians want.
In other circumstances I would have noted, but not fully registered these two news items. However, quite coincidentally I have, in this same period, been reading a novel which is set in this region, and suddenly the context and the history took on a different dimension.
Mornings in Jenin is a poignant story of four generations of one family’s struggle and survival over sixty years of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The story which traverses from Jerusalem to Lebanon to America is told by Amal, a girl born to Arab parents in a refugee camp in Jenin; it traces the lives of her grandparents, herself, and her daughter.
As World War II raged in Europe in 1941, Amal’s grandparents were living on their ancestral olive farm in the village of Ein Hod, not far from Bethlehem, in what was then Palestine. Their oldest son, Hasan, was best friends with a refugee Jewish boy, and the two were welcomed in each other’s homes. In May 1948, the Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed, and all the original inhabitants of the area were moved to the Jenin refugee camp. And this is where three subsequent generations lived, married, were born, and died.
The story follows Amal’s family as they live through a half century of violent history. It is not a political treatise, but the many interwoven stories, stretching backwards and forward in time, reveal what politics can do to ordinary people. It is a tale of hatred and fear, loss and pain, faith and hope. Above all is a saga of waiting—waiting to return to a lost home and homeland. Amidst the indignities and sufferings of these uprooted lives, there is also a tender celebration of family ties, the intensity of a mother’s love, sibling bonding, and enduring friendship.
It is also the story of Palestine from the time when it was a productive land of olive groves and proud self-sufficient inhabitants, through the 1948 War, the Occupation by Jews and conversion into the land of Israel, and the many Arab-Israeli wars from 1967, up to 2002.
Today we are so heavily bombarded with news (printed and audio visual) about conflict and displacement, all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘international humanitarian crises’ that we are either becoming inured, or choose to pretend that this does not concern us directly. For those of us who are fortunate and secure in our home and homeland we cannot imagine what it must be to be without a home nor homeland. As Amal describes “He [my brother] was denied, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and exiled for the wish to possess himself and inherit the heritage bequeathed to him by history.”
The novel is tagged as fiction, but the refugee camp of Jenin is real. The northernmost camp in the West Bank, it was set up in 1953 to house the displaced persons from the first Israeli takeover of territories in Jerusalem in 1948. Over the years it was attacked several times by Israeli forces, and as lately as in 2002, it was the site of a terrible massacre. Even today Jenin camp has a population of about 14,000 residents cramped together in an area of 0.42 sq km.
Mornings in Jenin is written by Susan Abulhawa who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees of the Six-Day-War of1967 war. She now lives in the USA. She is a human rights activist and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO that advocates for Palestinian children’s right to play by building playgrounds in refugee camps in Lebanon. In 2002 she visited the refugee camp of Jenin and the book reflects real events.
While this book is “The story of one family, in an obscure village, visited one day by history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil” it is a moving reminder that the faceless “humanitarian crisis” is made up of myriad individual human beings, each with their own personal life story, and common yearning for home and homeland.