Writer Susan Abulhawa discusses Palestine and the power of the novel
Words by Rebecca Louder
On the morning of May 31st, mere hours after the Israeli flotilla attack, the Grapevine met with Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa at her hotel. Susan was in Reykjavík on her way back from the Lillehammer Literature Festival in Norway. She held a small event at The Culture House to promote her latest book, Mornings In Jenin, a newly edited version of her first publication The Scar of David. The book follows the story of several generations of Palestinian characters and their personal struggles with location, identity, family and human rights. In America, her book has caused a controversial response for its pro-Palestinian stance, but she has continued to be outspoken on the topic despite the backlash. The writer seemed distraught as the charged events of the morning loomed over our interview.
How do you think fictional works can impact the global discourse on Palestinian-Israeli relations?
I think that writers, artists, musicians, poets and filmmakers in any society of conflict have a unique role to play in bringing the issues in the headlines to a human level. That’s the power of art and literature, in general—to remind us of our common humanity and that there are human beings who live the headlines and experience them in ways that are not abstract, in ways that a reader would experience them. You can take an individual through history through the lives of characters that they can get to know, that they can love or hate or what have you. Regardless, they get to know them and they can see conflict and the politics or the history through their eyes. That’s the beauty of a novel, as opposed to non-fiction or history textbooks that have more of a sterile, distant prose.
What is your personal experience in all of this?
My parents were refugees of the 1967 Six Day War. Neither of them can really return to their place of birth nor live in the homes where they were born, or even visit their parents’ graves. I lived in Jerusalem when I was a little girl. Actually there’s a chapter in the book based on that, it’s called ‘The Orphanage.’ That’s really the only part of the book that is autobiographical. The entire historic background is non-fictional. It was real important to me that the historic background and the historic characters, the locations, the seasons, the fruits, etcetera, that all be real. The characters are fictionalised.
Your work has been quite controversial in the past. Why do you think that is?
I think anything that humanises Palestinians or criticises what Israel is doing creates a fury, basically. People try to shut you up. It’s not just me; it’s anybody, whether it’s academics, intellectuals, artists, what have you. That’s kind of a trend. There’s always a campaign of character assassination in trying to marginalise people.
Pro-Palestine sentiments are often deemed as being terrorist-sympathetic or anti-Semitic. Have you had these accusations launched at you?
Precisely. I think everybody who expresses this has. I don’t accept it. I’m neither a terrorist nor an anti-Semite. There’s nothing in anything I do or say that would indicate that. I think readers are smarter than that. I think they’ll see that when they read the book.
How has the book been received?
In Norway, and other European countries it’s gotten really good reviews. In America it has gotten limited reviews, but what it has gotten has been very good. Most journalists and reviewers in the United States just don’t want to touch it.
It’s not the first time. There was this wonderful play called My Name Is Rachel, it was based on the life of Rachel Corrie [American activist with the International Solidarity Movement who was crushed to death by an IDF bulldozer in 2003]. They managed to shut that down. There’s all this art by Palestinians, beautiful stuff that just reflects what’s inside of them, what they see, what their lives are about. It gets shut down. There have been several instances in the United States where that has happened. It’s because there are very powerful forces in the United States that don’t want Palestinians to appear human, because then it becomes harder to justify killing them. It becomes hard to justify raining death on this civilian population that really has nowhere to go and nowhere to run.
What is your hope for the region?
Of course there is hope. To me the solution is, and always has been, very clear. It’s the simple application of international law and the application of the universality of human rights. The declaration that Palestinians are human beings who are worthy of human rights. We are the native people of that land. We’ve been there for centuries, if not millennia, and everything has been taken from us. When the international community has the will to give more than just words and say that yes, we deserve the same rights that are accorded to the rest of humanity. That’s where the solution lies.
The West claims to value certain principles of human decency and equality, that they apply in their own countries yet support something entirely different in Israel. For example, nowhere in the West would any country allow the construction of neighbourhoods and settlements where only a certain group of people were allowed to live. No one would accept a housing unit for whites-only or having a road where only whites could travel, and yet that’s what Israel does. It’s a situation where human worth is measured on ones religion.
Palestine had always been a place where people of various religions lived. It had been a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic place and that’s the ideal, isn’t it? It should not be a place of exclusivity. It’s important that my words not be interpreted that Israelis should be kicked out or anything like that, because I don’t advocate that. That’s their country now. People were born there and live there. That’s where they’re from.
Why do you think the international community allows these human rights violations?
You’ll have to ask them. I don’t know. It’s hypocritical, it’s outrageous, actually. Luckily, the people of these nations are not necessarily on board and people of various countries are taking matters into their own hands. They are boycotting Israel and Israeli goods, and this flotilla, the Free Gaza movement, these boats have been travelling to Gaza from Cyprus carrying people from all over the world. These are ordinary citizens who have made history because they refuse to be silent in the face of what’s happening in Gaza.
People are literally and intentionally being starved to death in Gaza. Food is not allowed in or out, the economy has completely collapsed, the education system has completely collapsed. Eighty percent of Gazan children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a crippling psychological disease and entire generations are being lost. The international community is doing nothing about it. Ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands and delivering boatloads of aid. Then today we find out that Israel in fact boarded that flotilla and killed a few people. So it remains to be seen whether the international community will yet again be silent.
Do you have any hope that they won’t be?
Well, they’re already condemning it, but they always do. They give lip service to it and then they do nothing. So I don’t place any hope or faith in any of these leaders or the so-called official international community, but I do place a lot of hope and faith in the international community that’s made up of world citizens and people of conscience to speak up and not to let this continue. People can’t really say “I didn’t know”. It’s everywhere. Israel has been held above the law. They have committed war crimes for over six decades and have done so with impunity.
This is where literature comes in, in my opinion. In the West when you say ‘Palestinian,’ people automatically conjure these really negative images and that is in large part due to this propaganda campaign over the years to paint Israel as this poor, vulnerable nation that’s just trying to defend itself when in fact it is the aggressor. Israel manages to paint Palestinians as these crazy, irrational aggressors, and that it’s just defending itself against this principally unarmed civilian population. Palestinians have nowhere to run. It has no navy, no army, no air force.
But when I think of Palestine, I think of a beautiful people. I think of a long suffering and enduring nation that despite everything gets up every morning and goes to those damn checkpoints, tries to get to work, tries to get to school and go about their daily lives. I think of a rich culture and good music and good food and stupid jokes and proverbs. I think of human beings, and that’s what I hope this book shows.