Legitimizing Palestine in World Literature – Book Review

By Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH.

Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water (Bloomsbury, 2015) is her second published novel. It is a tribute to the author and to all the other Palestinian raconteurs and activists that not only is this book issued by a major American mainstream publisher but also that rights have been sold to nearly a score of foreign languages. This despite its clear partisanship to Palestine and the Palestinians and its open and damning condemnation of Israel’s massacres in Gaza.

Abulhawa’s first novel had stumbled and nearly fallen off everyone’s list in its first version as The Scar of David (Journey Publications, 2006) before toning down its frontal attack title to Morning in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2010) to soar to the bestseller’s list and international fame in many languages. The change in the international and especially in the American reader’s attitude begs the question of which came first the chicken or the egg. Perhaps the world puts up with our criticism of Israel because this is so fine a novel. Or does the novel fly because suddenly we are given permission to narrate to an attentive world?

It is my contention, Susan, that the likes of your activist style and excellence in fiction writing, coinciding with the media skills of so many Palestinian American proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement have forced the acceptance of ‘Palestinian intellectual property’ as a concept on an initially antagonistic publishing industry and its Western readership. Having forced your way into the American and world market on the first round made it easier on the second try. And very likely it opened doors for others. My claim is that it is a self-perpetuating process. The expected snowballing effect, especially for our talented artists, is just starting, thanks to your generation’s abilities and perseverance.

To my fancy, Susan Abulhawa’s current book is also her second published collection of poetry. The title gives an inkling of where she is going with her reader and the text lives up to the fanciful promise. Formally, she makes a claim only to one song, snippets of which poke through the prose form on few occasions:

O find me,

I’ll be in that blue

Between sky and water

Where all time is now

And we are the forever

Flowing like a river

O find me

Where it is always day

And always night

There are no hours here

In the blue

Between sky and water

There are no countries here

No soldiers

No anguish or Joy

Just Blue between sky and water

Abulhawa uses several tricks of her fiction-writing trade in her new book. She leans heavily on magic realism with access to Djinn, the Islamic shadow world of spirits, and to the special gifts of schizophrenics. She uses two parallel narratives: One is an abridged first-person narrative by a child who speaks mostly from the afterworld or from his comatose state before dying. He, named Khaled, Arabic for ‘the immortal one,’ has access to supernatural sources and is able to transcend time and space and to communicate mentally with those in the family who are gifted with seeing “the colors around people.” A short paragraph or two of the sequence from Khaled usually precedes and serves as an explanatory note to the opacities of the longer main narrative related by an omniscient third-person narrator. Except that towards the end this guiding function tapers off and the two accounts become nearly indistinguishable. Even with this lacuna, this clever slight of literary hand is worth the effort.

In the two days that I read the book my tears hardly dried up, tears not only of sorrow and loss but also of intimacy, pride and hope inspired more by the spirit than the substance of the novel. There was hardly a page that didn’t touch my heart with paroxysms of powerful emotions. Susan has a special gift of crafting thoughts into lucid images, a way of playing with words, spinning them in unexpected directions and splashing them against the harsh reality of her characters’ lives. In this fashion she imbues her text with vitality that animates emotions and thoughts into independent existence. To see what I mean, try to sense a mother’s milk-let-down reflex:

“But soon, her son’s suckling created a rhythm that spilled through her until she was a river, fluid and calm. She rocked herself in a languid cadence of maternity, mesmerized by the attachment of his mouth to her breast. Her body continued swaying, mother and son becoming one, and quiet tears dampened her cheeks.”

Or just let your mind dwell on the way she expresses the evolving relationship between the beekeeper, a member of the first generation of Palestinians we encounter in the narrative, and his apprentice, a member of the second generation of expelled refugees in their Gaza camp: 

“Mamdouh’s enthusiasm and attentiveness was born from the wound of fatherlessness, and from a desire deep in his thighs. He heard very little of the beekeeper’s tales, absorbing instead the warmth of being there and scanning his surroundings for a glimpse of Yasmine, the beekeeper’s youngest daughter. And as memory will often succumb to the insistence of longings, Mamdouh invented a memory of a father, whose features took on those of his mentor and his character that of a beekeeper, sitting down to tea after a meal to speak of honey while Mamdouh searched the room for wafts of love.”

Or the way an orphaned child sees her beloved guardian grandfather:

“He had one good leg. The other was shorter because a bad soldier had shot his growing plate. There was a rhythm in the way he would swoop lower to step with the short leg and then rise to his full height on the good leg. When he walked, his body moved up and down, side to side, front and back, in a fluid cadence that seemed to Nur like a song.”

And here is some nostalgia:

“Nur’s grandfather straightened his robe and took a sip of his Turkish coffee from the demitasse. He liked to take his small propane cooker to these outings to make his coffee because it reminded him of the old days in Beit Daras, when he was a boy and food was cooked over an open flame outdoors. Her grandfather took in a soft breath, a waft of a time long gone, and began.”

Mahmoud Darwish always wrote of his coffee making habits and love for the brew. He always insisted on making his own. And here is the poetic rendition of a child’s sense of loss of her grandfather:

“Nur continued praying for him to get better soon, until one of the older girls who shared her room overheard Nur’s nightly prayer and said, “Your grandfather is dead. He ain’t getting better, stupid. Grow up!” The earth shook. The moon fell. The stars went out. And the mean girl’s words would echo forever in Nur’s heart. Faint moonlight seeped in parallel lines through the blinds and fell across the stricken child. Nur’s hands were pressed together in prayer and tears streamed from her eyes. She wanted to reach for Mahfouz, her bear, but she was immobilized. She could already feel pieces inside of her loosening and falling, the way beads of a necklace fall apart when the string is broken. If she stayed perfectly still, perhaps her jiddo, the string that connected all the pieces of her, would not be pulled completely away. She knew the mean girl was right. Her jiddo was dead.” 

This is the place to pay an underhanded compliment: Susan seems especially adept at vivid portrayal of loss and calamity. Early on, the indomitable Nazmiyeh, “the sassiest girl in Beit Daras” who goes on to become the grand matriarch of the central family in the narrative, heads back to her cleansed village to look for her lost sister:

“Along the way, she stumbled upon other Palestinians heading in the opposite direction. They could sense one another in the dark, the way fear immobilized them. “Who is there?” a woman’s voice asked in Arabic and Nazmiyeh relaxed upon hearing the Palestinian fallahi accent. “I am trying to get back to Beit Daras to find my sister,” she replied, and the two women moved closer until they could see one another. Several children clutched the woman’s thobe and remained silent as the two, strangers to each other, embraced as if lost family. The woman spoke of unspeakable horrors in her village, warning Nazmiyeh not to return. “I cannot bring myself to describe what they are doing to the women,” she said. Nazmiyeh wished her a safe journey and both prayed for themselves and one another before one set off toward the calling waters of Gaza’s shore, and the other toward the distant flames.” 

Note the depth and the realism of the calamity as Susan depicts it. I believe that only a refugee who experienced forced expulsion first hand or a writer with endless ability to empathize with others can give an account like this. And a rape scene in which her bewitched sister, Miriam, is shot dead to get Nazmiyeh to scream for the pleasure of the rapist soldiers follows. Here is another confirmation of my near certainty that the author speaks from experience or is, indeed, a fine writer of ‘Palestinian’ fiction:

“History took us away from our rightful destiny. But with Nur, life hurled her so far that nothing around her resembled anything Palestinian, not even the dislocated lives of exiles. So it was ironic that her life reflected the most basic truth of what it means to be Palestinian, dispossessed, disinherited, and exiled. That to be alone in the world without a family or a clan or land or country means that one must live at the mercy of others. There are those who might take pity and those who will exploit and harm. One lives by the whims of the host, rarely treated with the dignity of a person, nearly always put in place.”

And on the subject of the Nakba, here is about the beekeeper again:

“Little did he know that in less than three years the centuries of bees, apiaries, beeswax, hives, honeycombs, and beekeepers that marshaled his life would be gone, as if history had never been there.” 

But I can be wrong. Susan is Palestinian enough for endless empathy and a powerful artist who can depict a whole panorama, albeit oftentimes dark and foreboding, with few broad strokes embellishing it with some fine and poetic detail. Here again is a scene of another wave of suffering inflicted by Israel in testing its newest weaponry on the Palestinians in Gaza:

“Blood poured and dust rose. Smoke painted lungs and hearts raced. The remaining flour mill, the last source for bread, was bombed. Schools, homes, mosques, and universities, too. Then Israel sprayed Gaza with white phosphorous. They brought helicopters that sent out enormous streams of white confetti  that streaked the sky like a spiderweb. And the confetti landed like a million candles with a million flames. Some people caught the confetti flames and ran around with them on their bodies, yelling.

“Hope seemed vulgar at this hour.”

But Susan doesn’t abandon Palestine seething in hopelessness; she is too partial to her people; hope is again in the air and the resilience of their humanity wins the day for the people of Gaza despite all of Israel’s cruelty:

“So, they sat on the peripheries of their own lives, on rocks, huddling around fires for warmth, waiting for time to limp along. Someone threw a plank over a large rock to make a seesaw and children played, their laughter small suns. The harsh winter spent outdoors in tents amid the rubble gave way to springtime pushing up from the scorched ground, absorbing the pollution of bombs and grief. Insects reappeared, then birds, then butterflies.”

And they seek solace in their religion:

“And so the melancholy requiems of the Quran poured from every speaker, every minaret, every soul.”

And life slowly wins out:

“Once again, Nazmiyeh’s sons abandoned their individual lives and coalesced at their mother’s feet, a workforce of strong, able men who had felt helpless during the invasion, running and huddling for shelter from the whims of death. They labored, propelled by rage, humiliation, resolve, and love, first to retrieve Abdel Qader’s body and wash and bury his corpse; then to rebuild their mother’s and sister’s home.”

Which brings up another basic aspect of the multilayered work of art at hand: The Blue Between Sky and Water has a solid feminist core embodied in the multigenerational central role of one strong woman after another throughout the account. It starts with the possessed Um Mamdouh who begets three fatherless children in the Beit Daras of old on the banks of River Suqreir “When our history lounged on the hills, lolling in sylvan days.” Yet she maintains enough credibility to rate the elders of the village coming to consult her about the future, which she correctly forecast: 

“Only Allah knows the unknown, and only His will shall be done. Our neighbors will come joined by others, and they will spill the blood of the Bedrawasis of Beit Daras, … but if Beit Daras does not surrender, this land will rise again, even if the war is lost.”

After she is killed in the assault on Beit Daras in 1948, her loud and lewd daughter Nazmiyeh, in her riotous presence and massive hips and breasts, takes center stage: “Nazmiyeh had a way of filling every room she entered, sucking up all the air.” And she smiles to allow others in the room to breath. She goes on, with Atiyeh, the strongest of Beit Daras boys who abandons his family to marry her, to populate her corner of the camp with twelve boys and one girl. And we see them all worshiping at her feet.

The narrative culminates with four strong women and a promising little girl, all enveloped in the bouquet of medicinal marihuana oil, preparing to celebrate the release of imprisoned Palestinians in the thousand-to-one exchange of the Israeli soldier, Shalit.

And there is the ever-present image of that Palestinian foreign implant in America, bright and promising whether as an orphaned child shifting between institutions or a pregnant-out-of-wedlock psychologist rooting in Gaza for her roots.

True, Susan, we haven’t met in person yet. But you can’t fool me. Nur, that is you, I know. I have read your poetry before.

– Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician who has struggled for over four decades to improve the health of his Palestinian community in Galilee against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the founder of the NGO The Galilee Society and the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee and of a forthcoming fictional trilogy. Hi latest collection of short stories, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee was published by Just World Books, 2015. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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  1. Whilst reading it I also felt that she was Nur. She is an amazingly talented writer. Get so involved with the characters.

  2. A magnficent poetic and realistic book, I so loved it, I hear Susan was banned from entering palestine. Unimaginable, palestine will be free one day, this book is part of the freedom

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