By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
It was my intention while cruising the Danube River, which is disappointingly muddy and not blue as Mozart claimed, for two weeks last month aboard a comfortable Viking boat with my wife that my attention would be mainly focused on the World Soccer Cup and the beautiful countryside and its rich history.
Regrettably my over 100 fellow passengers, mostly American and a few New Zealanders and Canadians, hardly watched the matches except for the two engaging Maltese couples who were eager for me to unearth the Arabic roots of their vocabulary which has been abundantly influenced by the rise of Islam and the Ottoman empire hundreds of years ago. I was also glad that the few news channels on the boat did not have much to report on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has occupied my long career in journalism.
But on the third day of the cruise I found that I had brought along a book, Susan Abulhawa’s “Mornings in Jenin,” which has been described on the cover as “a powerful and heartbreaking book.” Noticing that, I could not resist the temptation to start reading it, and to my surprise it lived up to the description and much, much more. I could not drop it for the next few days, much to chagrin of my soccer watchers.
Ms. Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American and a neuroscientist graduate from the University of South Carolina, was born to a family of Palestinian refugees during the drastic June War in 1967 when Israel took over all of Palestine and other regions from neighboring Arab countries. In brief, her heart-wrenching novel tracks down the experiences of a Palestinian farming family under the harsh Israeli occupation after they were driven out of their ancestral home. The tear-jerking novel traces the life of their granddaughter, Amal (Arabic for hope), since infancy through mind-boggling and tragic experiences within her family and strife-ridden existence in the West Bank and Lebanon. Ultimately, Amal managed to emigrate on her own to the United States, thanks to an American charity, where she went to pursue her higher education in fulfillment of her father’s wishes.
Susan Abulhawa’s novel must be required reading for anyone who is puzzled – or concerned – over the continued turmoil in the Middle East, certainly for American and Israeli leaders who are fumbling to find a fair solution to the decades-long conflict. Although the novel is fictitious, the author explains, “Palestine is not, nor are the historical events and figures in this story” – a point that lends vividness to the reader and underlines the magic of Abulhawa’s prose which explains straightforwardly why Palestinians are committed to their cause to regain their usurped lands.
Her affection for Jerusalem, a top issue this week for the White House meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, is loud and clear, echoing the views of all Palestinians. She writes, episodically:
Every inch of (Jerusalem) holds the confidence of ancient civilizations, their deaths and their birthmarks, pressed deep into the city’s viscera and onto the rubble of its edges. The deified and the condemned have set their footprints in its sand. It has been conquered, razed, and rebuilt so many times that its stones seem to posses life, bestowed by the audit trail of prayer and blood. Yet somehow, it exhales humility. It sparks an inherent sense of familiarity in me – that doubtless, irrefutable Palestinian certainty that I belong to this land. It possesses me, no matter who conquers it, because its soil is the keeper of my roots, of the bones of my ancestors. Because it knows the private lust that flamed the beds of my foremothers. Because I am the natural seed of its passionate, tempestuous past. I am a daughter of the land, and Jerusalem reassures me of this inalienable title, far more than the yellowed property deeds, the Ottoman land registries, the iron keys to our stolen homes or UN resolutions and decrees of superpower could ever do.”
In another memorable passage, she underlines:
“… (the) Israelis already know that their history is contrived from the bones and traditions of Palestinians. The Europeans who came knew neither hummus nor falafel but later proclaimed them ‘authentic Jewish cuisine.’ They claimed the villages of Qatamon (a Jerusalem neighborhood) as ‘old Jewish homes.’ They had no old photographs or ancient drawings of their ancestry living on the land, loving it, and planting it. They arrived from foreign nations and uncovered coins in Palestine’s earth from the Canaanites, the Romans, the Ottomans, then sold them as their own ‘ancient Jewish artifacts.’ They came to Jaffa and found oranges the size of watermelons and said, ‘Behold! The Jews are known for their oranges.’ But those oranges were the culmination of centuries of Palestinian farmers perfecting the art of citrus growing.”
I wish Obama and Netanyahu would put this powerful and heartbreaking book on their reading lists to understand the travails of the Palestinians before their follow-up meeting.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.