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by Susan Abulhawa
Reviewed by Barbara Steeg

Mornings In Jenin, a first novel by Susan Abulhawa, is the story of one family's experience of exile from their West Bank home, and their subsequent struggles under military occupation and emigration. Abulhawa was herself born to refugees of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and emigrated to the United States while in her teens.

I had eagerly anticipated the arrival of this book. While I had read several excellent biographical and historical works that focus on 20th century Palestine and Israel, I had never come across one in novel form, nor one that describes, in detail, life in a Palestinian refugee camp. In this regard, Mornings in Jenin very much surpassed my expectations.

The novel opens in a small village in the West Bank in 1941. It is harvest time, and the villagers are up before dawn to gather the olives and press them into oil. Abulhawa beautifully describes the bucolic setting of these villagers' lives. Naïve and uneducated by modern standards, and raised amid the abundance of fruit trees and sunshine, their highest values and greatest source of sustenance are family, God, and their land. Having thrived for centuries under numerous foreign rulers, nation-building is of little consequence to them.

When war erupts between Jews and Arabs in 1948, these villagers are bewildered and unprepared. Banished from their homes to a makeshift camp in the outskirts of Jenin, they begin what will turn out to be an endless cycle of longing, hope, and disappointment, as the world's leaders initiate a sustained string of empty promises and unexecuted resolutions to allow them to return to their homes.

I found the descriptions of life in the refugee camp to be fascinating, and a must-read for any student of the human condition. Like almost all such camps, it becomes a cauldron of fear, despair, stress, and boredom. The fabric of their society slowly deteriorates under the pressure of occupation by a foreign army. Feelings of helplessness and humiliation harden into anger and thoughts of revenge as the refugees struggle against their individual and cultural extinction. At the same time, people continue to live out their daily lives to their best of their abilities: falling in love, getting married and having babies, working and going to school.

This is the atmosphere into which the main character, Amal, is born in 1955. Amal's mother has lost touch with reality and resides deep within her memories of better times. Amal's father works long hours away from home, but in the early mornings he holds Amal in his lap and reads poetry to her. Her memories of these mornings will comfort her and compel her forward through the hardest times of her life.

The novel progresses through a series of heart-wrenching tragedies, as Abulhawa weaves her narrative within historical events. What keeps the sadness from becoming overwhelming are the bonds of love and friendship among the characters, as well as the narrator's deep compassion for both the Arabs and the Jews who are locked into this conflict. In this novel, both Jews and Arabs are complex yet sympathetic characters, and both commit loving as well as treacherous acts.

Mornings in Jenin is ultimately about the chances each of us has to look beyond our own fear and pain and truly see into the hearts and minds of our neighbors. It is one of the rare books that kept me captivated even when closed.

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