Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian American novelist, and political commentator, who was born to refugees of the 1967 war. Her first novel, Mornings in Jenin, the story of several generations of a family unfolding against the history of Palestine’s occupation by Israel, is an international bestseller which has been translated into at least twenty-six languages. Abulhawa regularly writes opinion pieces on the ongoing occupation of Palestine, and is a signatory of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.
Abulhawa’s second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, was released late in 2015. She was in New Delhi to speak at “Palestine in India: A Writers’ Colloquium”, hosted by the feminist press Women Unlimited. Excerpts from a conversation:
Can you tell us about the genesis of your organisation “Playgrounds for Palestine”?
I went back to Palestine in the year 2000, after having been away for a long time. My daughter was quite young at the time, so playgrounds in the United States were a very big part of our lives. The absence of playgrounds in Palestine was a very big presence.
So I set this up without much planning – like everything else in my life, and usually it is a disaster – but this time it turned out wonderfully. It was a lot harder than I expected. I was suddenly confronted with all these papers I had to fill out. But once we got started, I didn’t want to stop. It is a labour of love, and we’re an all volunteer organisation, and we want it to stay that way. So far, we’ve built twenty-eight playgrounds, and we’re funding several children’s projects, a theatre project, a play therapy project, and a few more playgrounds.
There is a painful account of your not being allowed into Palestine the last time you tried to go. Can you tell us what happened?
Yes, this past summer I was not allowed into Palestine. I don’t know why. They don’t tell you, they don’t have to tell you. They have all the power to do what they want. It is very painful, and at the same time you feel guilty complaining about it because in Palestine kids are being shot on the street. So, you want to scream about it but you also must shut up about it.
How did you transition into journalism and writing from having a job in a drug company?
I was always writing, but had not thought about myself as a writer. It was a very private thing. During the second intifada, I was so angry with the reporting being done in mainstream media in the United States. It was just so, so wrong.
So I wrote a few letters to the editor, and then I started writing op-eds. To my surprise, they were being published. I kept writing, and ultimately I wrote enough of them to anger my employers. I ended up losing my job. I was devastated, because I didn’t know what to do.
I was a single mom, and I didn’t have savings. I hadn’t been making much money in the first place. I would cry all day, and then sit down and write the next morning.
During this period, in my writing, I was reflecting on a trip I’d made to Jenin, and I realised what I was writing was a novel. I mortgaged my house and went into massive debt. This is a really stupid thing for a single parent to do, but luckily, it eventually worked out for me. And that’s how my life got reoriented.
At the time, were you wondering whether your debut novel Mornings in Jenin would be successful?
I actually wasn’t. To be honest, it’s weird that I didn’t think about whether it would succeed, and it is also weird that I never questioned that it would be published. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I was stunned when at first I wasn’t able to get it published, but I always assumed that it would work out. It didn’t even matter, honestly. My only real goal was to write it.
After I wrote it, I had to get back to work. I needed to earn money, and so I just kind of left the book. But when you create something, it makes its own way into the world. A book is like a child in that sense. In a year, I had an agent in Barcelona, and other things started coming to me. It began to be translated into different languages.
Of everything that disappeared, Kinder Eggs are what I missed most. When the walls closed in on Gaza and adult conversations became hotter and sadder, I measured the severity of our siege by the dwindling number of those delicate chocolate eggs, wrapped in thin colourful foil, with splendid toy surprises incubating inside the eggs on store shelves. When they finally disappeared, and the rusty metal of those shelves stared back naked, I realised that Kinder Eggs had brought colour into the world. In their absence, our lives turned a metallic sepia, then faded to black-and-white, the way the world used to be in the old Egyptian movies, when my teta Nazmiyeh was the sassiest girl in Beit Daras.
Even after the tunnels were dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt to smuggle the things of living, Kinder Eggs were still hard to come by.
I lived in these times of the tunnels, a network of underground arteries and veins with systems of ropes, levers, and pulleys that pumped food, diapers, fuel, medicine, batteries, music tapes, Mama’s menstrual napkins, Rhet Shel’s crayons, and anything else you can think of that we managed to buy from the Egyptians twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The tunnels undermined Israel’s plans to put us on a diet. So, they bombed the tunnels and a lot of people were killed. We dug more that were bigger, deeper, and longer. Again they bombed us and even more people were killed. But the tunnels remained, like living vasculature.
In past interviews, you’ve mentioned that the reception to you work in the US has been much worse than it has been outside. Has this changed at all with the publication of your second novel?
The original title of my debut novel was The Scar of David, and it was published by a tiny press in the United States that went out of business. There was no distribution in the US. Ultimately, the only reason it eventually got published with a big publisher in the US was because it got translated. It took its own life: a publisher in Italy found it, then one in France wanted to translate and publish it. It sold well, then I got an agent in Barcelona, who sold it to Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom, which has an affiliate in the US. It had to go around the world for it to be published in the United States.
Even then, no mainstream US newspaper would touch it. Nobody wanted to review it. But the book ended up selling a lot in the US by word of mouth. I remember my UK editor saying that it is one of the rare books that sells very slowly and then plateaus, instead of the sales shooting up and coming down sharply, which is more often the case with books.
When my second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, was released, I thought, “Okay, people liked the first book. Surely the second book will get reviews in the US.” But there was nothing. Not even one mainstream newspaper touched it. It was remarkable.
There have been many mainstream reviews throughout France, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Germany and that’s been the only way I’ve been able to sustain myself, through royalties from those places. But the US? Forget about it.
You also have to deal with a lot of active hostility in the United States for writing and speaking out about Palestine. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz railed against you and called you names at the Boston Book Festival several years ago.
That was actually fun, I enjoyed that. Alan Dershowitz is very well known in the United States. In the courtroom and debates, he basically bullies his opponents. It ends up being a shouting match.
What happened in this debate is that he started being a bully, and I just let him do his thing. It was funny, because at some point I realised that if I don’t stop him, he’s just going to hang himself, and that’s what he did. The audience started yelling, “Just stop!” He was just calling me names and going on and on and on. I had some quotes and facts, and that was it.
Despite all this, the beauty of it is the my work is still making its own way, on its own merit by word of mouth, by readership in other countries. It goes much beyond my book – there’s a whole movement of Palestinian art and culture, and political activism, particularly the BDS, that is touching civil society. They’re bypassing traditional gatekeepers of knowledge, of publishing, of journalism. The emergence of independent media like the Electronic Intifada and Counterpunch is a great thing.
This whole landscape of citizen journalism, of social media, of independent journalism, is discrediting mainstream media in many ways, and casting shadows on it. That’s really where I think Palestinian power can emerge. That’s the space which interests me more; I don’t really try to punch through the mainstream. I feel like they don’t deserve the effort, and eventually they’ll just discredit themselves by the way that they employ this kind of self-censorship.
Can you tell us about your association with the BDS movement for Palestine?
The Boycotts Divestment and Sanctions movement was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, and there’s also a cultural boycott. It is deeply rooted in Palestinian non-violent resistance which has spanned our history. It is specifically modelled after the anti-apartheid movement. It is meant to engage global civil society in solidarity – to isolate a bully, the settler-colonial state that is intent on the destruction of an indigenous society, and is claiming everything this society has, including their resources, their land, and their history.
The purpose of the movement is for ordinary people around the world to engage in a struggle, circumventing the powers of the heads of state who so clearly operate from a foundation of politics, capitalism and the perpetuation of power, not from a moral, ethical ground, or a foundation of dignity and human rights for all. This is, to me, the difference between power wielded by the state and the power of civil society. The ruling power rarely operates from a foundation of human rights, human dignity, and justice.
You’re also involved in a lawsuit against the people who profit from the settlements in the West Bank. Tell us about that.
There are billions of dollars from private donations which go to Israel every year, funnelled through these tax-exempt organisations. Tax-exempt organisations are meant to be charitable, whereas this money is going to fund war crimes. They should be shut down. At the minimum they should not be tax exempt. We are challenging the US treasury, and then the actual individuals who are sending these billions of dollars to destroy our lives.
There has been a history of solidarity between Palestine and India, although that has been complicated by successive Indian governments’ dealings with Israel. Still, how do you feel about the current Indian government’s growing friendship with Israel, which includes the signing of arms deals?
Yeah, it’s demoralising to see, given as you said the long history of mutual solidarity. It is manifesting itself on small levels that maybe you’re not even aware of. My friend Suad Amiry, who was participating in this festival, had such a hard time getting an Indian visa with a Palestinian passport. She was told explicitly that we do not give Indian visas to Palestinians.
It’s not just an arms deal, apparently there are other details and levels of cooperation that are going into other parts of Indian bureaucracy and policy. It does feel like a realignment of loyalties. Modi’s regime is clearly right-wing, and Israel is a settler-colonial nation, so of course it is right-wing. It is disheartening. I think one thing that complicates the issue is that Israel has succeeded in altering this narrative so that it sounds like it’s a religious conflict, playing on the anti-Pakistan antipathy that has developed in India post-Partition.
It’s very complicated and nuanced and conscious. I think that has to with narrative, which is so important. I think the language we use and the story we tell are really what shapes people’s attitudes, it is what shapes activism, it is what shapes policy.
But I don’t think that attitude necessarily extends to people, at least not to the people I’ve met here. Admittedly, it is limited to the Indian cultural and art scene, so I don’t have a good sense of what the general public opinion is with regard to Palestine.
It was up to Nazmiyeh to protect Mariam from the evils of hassad. Some people just had hot, greedy eyes that could easily lay the curse, even if they hadn’t intended. So, Nazmiyeh insisted Mariam wear a blue amulet to ward off the envy people felt toward Mariam’s unique eyes, and Nazmiyeh regularly read Quranic suras over her for more protection.
The subject of Mariam’s eyes came up once among Nazmiyeh’s friends as they washed clothes by the river. Most were recently married or expecting their first child, but some, like Nazmiyeh, were still unmarried. “How can she have only one green eye?” one asked.
Nazmiyeh flung off her headscarf, releasing a medusa’s head of shiny henna-dyed coils, plopped her brother’s white shirt in the wash bucket, and quipped, “Some Roman stud probably stuck his dick in our ancestral line a few hundred years ago and now it’s poking out of my poor sister’s eye.”
In the private female freedom of those laundry mornings, they all laughed, their arms deep in wash buckets. another young woman said,“Too bad it wasn’t a doubleheaded snake so she could have two green eyes.”
As a Palestinian writer in the diaspora, you’ve spoken of the sorrow of not being able to write in Arabic.
If I could write in a sophisticated manner in Arabic, that would be the language I would choose. I’m not writing for an American audience or an English-speaking audience even though I know that that becomes a major audience for me. We don’t recognise this as a Zionist narrative: one of the things they did, in separating us geographically is that they separated us psychologically.
So what happens is that there is this hierarchy of Palestinians: who is more Palestinian than the other, with those in the diaspora becoming more distant and especially those of us who’ve had Arabic stolen from us, in a way. I read and write Arabic and I speak Arabic fluently, but I’m not sophisticated enough in it. I can’t produce what’s in my heart on my tongue in Arabic. And that’s the condition of exile, but it’s also a very Palestinian condition because part of the Palestinian experience now is exile.
Whether we like it or not, English and French and Italian and German and Hindi, all these languages that have become part of us, are Palestinian too. They have become part of our stories and part of the Palestinian experience.
Your writing in English has emerged as a powerful counter-narrative to Israeli narratives in literature and the other arts. As you say, translation has played a huge role in it, and both your novels have been widely translated. As a writer, what is your relationship with these translations?
I have no idea about what the translations are like except Arabic. I think it is inevitable that things are lost in translation. I think that’s especially true for someone like me, because I’m writing as much for the prose as anything else. Use of language is as important to me as the story itself. I think about language more than anything else. It orders our thoughts, it is the currency which we use for our feelings, but it is also very limited.
I don’t think language really extends to the full human experience. We don’t even know it, maybe because we don’t have words for a lot of things. We lump into the wrong word a lot of things that we experience. The example I gave in a talk the other day is the experience of love. In Arabic, there are some six to eight words for love but still that’s so limited, when you consider the enormity and boundlessness of what we call love.
The different experiences of love that we have compressed into this tiny little word is incomprehensible to me, so I think part of my challenge, and it’s a wonderful challenge, is to exist in a human experience that I know has no words. That experience is expressed in an inadequate word or inadequate descriptions. I try to somehow populate that with the limited words that we have and put it on the page. In doing that, the use of language and words is the so paramount, and the minute you translate it, I don’t know what’s lost.
That’s why I think translating is an art, not a technicality. I have so much respect for translators, especially the ones who manage to capture the spirit and all the things that are unsaid, you know, the dough, the dark matter around the words.
The first translation of the Arabic I’ve seen so far, I sent it back. I said, “No, absolutely not. I would never ever sign off on this.” It’s a literal translation and it’s right, you know, the words are right. But it’s a different story, it’s not my book, it’s not the characters, it’s nothing. And it’s amazing how that happens.