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Abulhawa, Susan

Born:
June 3, 1970

The Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa was born in a refugee camp in Kuwait. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel seized the last remaining Palestinian areas, her parents first ended up in a refugee camp in Jordan and later moved on to Kuwait. Their marriage broke up shortly afterwards, and Susan went to live with various relatives in Jordan and Kuwait. When she was ten she lived in an orphanage in occupied Jerusalem before ending up with foster parents in North Carolina without knowing a word of English. Her education was "brutal", but she learned the language and graduated with a degree in biology from Pfeiffer University and an MA in biomedicine from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. She has worked as a researcher, consultant and she has contributed to medical journals. She hated her Arabic surname, but at the age of twenty-seven, after she gave birth to a child, she began to think seriously about her Palestinian roots. After she visited Palestine in 2001 she founded Playgrounds for Palestine, a foundation that supports the right for Palestinian children to play on occupied land. She has described it as a "declaration of love" to these children who need a place in which to express themselves and feel safe. Eight per cent of the children living in Gaza have lost the will to live. Abulhawa also supports an economic and cultural boycott of Israel.

When Israeli troops yet again launched a series of air and ground strikes at Jenin in 2002, Abulhawa visited the refugee camp and saw how the villagers dug out their neighbours from the debris using their bare hands. That was when she decided to give the Palestinians a voice. She spent all her spare time – early mornings, nights and weekends – on writing Mornings in Jenin (2010). She says that although grew up a Palestinian and knew everything about the massacres and the wars and the injustices, it was a completely different matter to actually physically be there. The novel begins in the early 1940s, "in a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine." That village was Ein Hod. A movement had already formed abroad that claimed that there was a country without people, which was to be given to a people without land. When the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, the peace and quiet of Ein Hod shattered, and the people that did in fact live there were murdered, disgraced and forcibly moved to a refugee camp in Jenin. This is the story of the Palestinians seen through the eyes of four generations, from their exodus in 1948 to the events that took place in 2002. The narrator’s name is Jamal. She barely survives the Six-Day War in 1967 and has already lost several family members. During the war in Lebanon and the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Amal loses practically every remaining person left to love. She makes her way to the United States where she gives birth to a daughter alone. She returns to Jenin with her grown up daughter in 2002 where new Israeli atrocities await.

Susan Abulhawa’s novel was first published by a small, independent publishing company. After it had gone into liquidation, the novel was taken over by Bloomsbury and became a commercial success. It was a slow start in the United States, but after a few years it had been translated into some thirty languages. Henning Mankell, author of the Inspector Wallander books, said that he had never read a more fascinating novel on the subject of Israel and Palestine. "It offers insight and it touches me in a way that only truly great novels can do." Although there were many Palestinian authors before her, it is only recently that Palestinians have been given a voice that people listen to. It has been argued that her account is biased, but for a long time now the Palestinians have been defined by the other side – as terrorists.

When The Blue Between Water and Sky came out in 2015, over half a million copies of Abulhawa’s first novel, which was set on the West Bank, had been sold. Her new book is about the Barakas who a village called Beit Daras, but the Sionists banish them to a refugee camp in Gaza. This is primarily a story about Palestinian women. Abulhawa remembers the women best from her time in the refugee camp. These were interesting women who came from very poor backgrounds, but who achieved a lot. They were survivors, and they became obvious protagonists in her book. Nazmiyeh in The Blue Between Water and Sky is a willful, indefatigable woman who does everything in her power to keep the family together. Her neighbours love her and hate her at the same time. Nazmiyah is partly based on the author’s grandmother, a remarkable woman who was widowed when she was quite young and then became a refugee who owned nothing, but who was able to somehow bring up nine children. She was a formidable matriarch who was completely uninterested in other people’s opinions and a devout Muslim who chain-smoked, swore, gossiped and did all kinds of wonderful things. Another important woman is Nur. Her father was a Palestinian who had married a woman in the United States. When both he and Nur’s grandfather die over there, Nur ends up in a succession of foster homes that have nothing good to offer. After getting her degree, against all odds, she returns to Palestine, now a torn country. The Blue between Water and Sky is yet another novel about going back to your roots, as many Palestinian of the diaspora do, says Abulhawa. The two women bring the reader on yet another journey through the history of Palestine. The narrator, Khaled, one of many traumatized Palestinian children, says that all the men these women loved had been lost, except he. Khaled suffers from locked-in syndrome after an Israeli attack. He sarcastically reports that even the Jews came to celebrate his tenth birthday. Since then he has only been able to communicate through blinking.

Abulhawa had not planned to use magical realism, but it was something she was brought up on. When she was a child and her mother was angry with her she would tell Abulhawa that a "jinn yirkabik" would take over her body. So it was just completely natural for her to include a genie among her characters, they were such a strong presence in childhood. Genies are mentioned in the Koran, some Muslims believe in them, and her family was superstitious. The paralyzed Khaled is able to travel through time with a genie called Sulayman. Nazimiyeh’s sister Mariam has magical powers too, she can see people’s auras and get a sense of who they are and what mood they are in.

In the epilogue to her book, Abulhawa mentions that Israel attacked Gaza just after she had handed in her manuscript for publication. The death toll was 2,191 Palestinians of which eighty per cent were civilians and 527 children; 11,239 were injured, 61,800 Palestinian homes were bombed as well as 220 schools, 278 mosques, 62 hospitals and the only remaining power station in Gaza.

Abulhawa published poetry for a while before returning to fiction. Poems written over a period of five years were published in My Voice Sought the Wind (2013). The fact that her poetry as well as her fiction is perceived as political is something she accepts by explaining that when it comes to the Palestinians, every love poem is political because it proves that "we are in the world".

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