Book Review: Mornings in Jenin

I went to bed Tuesday night crying. All because of a book. Seriously. My eyes were swollen shut and it took 24 hours for me to recover from my depression. I cried for three hours a cry I haven’t cried in a long time. You would have thought someone died.  Actually, someone did die. A lot of someones died. In Palestine. Years ago. In a process that keeps repeating itself today.

If anyone ever asks me to recommend a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the book I’ll recommend: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. I don’t know where to start my praise with this book, but the author deserves all the accolades she gets. Susan Abulhawa writes her heart out in these 320 pages categorized in the bookstore as fiction, but we all know is non-fiction. There’s a note in the back saying the characters are fictitious, but the story of what happened to Palestine is not. Honestly, I don’t know if I believe that the characters are fictitious. Somewhere at some time I’m sure there is an Abulheja family who had their lives turned upside down by the events that unraveled for more than 6 decades in what has become the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a note to readers, Susan Abulhawa writes, “I have always believed in the power of literature to reach the heart, stir the mind, and remind us all of our common humanity.  And I have always admired writers who chose storytelling as a way to tear down the barriers between peoples.  It is for this reason that I chose to write Mornings in Jenin.” Well, she has certainly accomplished the stirring of the heart, reminding us of our common humanity, and tearing down barriers in this novel. This book is a masterpiece.

There are several great things I can say about this book, but you really must read it for yourself. I cannot find any negatives–I think I found three typos?!?! It is a narrative of four generations of a Palestinian family from the 40s to the present. The reader sees Palestine before and after the creation of the state of Israel. In a previous post, I wrote a sentence about Zionism that spurred an emotional discussion, but it could never sum it up. It was just a sentence. I do, however, think this book just about sums it up. It is written mainly from the Palestinian perspective, but the author does change points-of-view, writing from the perspectives of many characters. In this is her strength–at one point, the reader is all the characters taking on the first-person point of view. I believe the book is very balanced and I loved how the author spoke of Islam–as normal, as the breath and life of a people…as it is…a way of life. No excuses or apologies for the good, bad, or ugly claiming Islam as their religion. The author doesn’t assume anything about the reader, she just tells a story about generations of a family living a never-ending war. If you aren’t familiar with the culture, there is a glossary in the back to inform you, and if you are, well then, you can just read on. Abulhawa simply tells it like it is, and the book just is as it is…life as it was lived for many people.

I feel that this book is an honest portrayal of so many events that have been forgotten, overlooked, and ignored by the majority of Americans who really don’t know what’s happened in Palestine/Israel since the 1940s. There is so much more that I understand now when it comes to Palestinian emotion over what has happened to Palestine. There are some things that were unclear to me when I was in Palestine, that have been made crystal clear to me through this book. In this, the book is a history lesson, without being dry, taxing, and boring like history lessons are almost destined to be. It could easily be a movie, but I don’t think the movie could ever live up to the narrative of the book. It would take an equally brilliant director. Abulhawa’s poetic prose is just too strong to be cast into imagery.  Take for instance the gravity of these passages:

“Thus Yehya tallied forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all–all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm–as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.

In the story of a history buried alive, the year 1948 in Palestine fell from the calendar into exile, ceasing to reckon the marching of days, months, and years, instead becoming an infinite mist of one moment in history. The twelve months of that year rearranged themselves and swirled aimlessly in the heart of Palestine. The old folks of Ein Hod would die refugees in the camp, bequeathing to their heirs the large iron keys to their ancestral homes, the crumbling land registers issued by the Ottomans, the deeds from the British mandate, their memories and love of the land, and the dauntless will not leave the spirit of forty generations trapped beneath the subversion of thieves.” (p.35).

And yet another:

“As the people of Ein Hod were marched into dispossession, Moshe and his comrades guarded and looted the newly emptied village. While Dalia lay heartbroken, delirious with the loss of Ismael, Jolanta rocked David to sleep. While Hasan tended to his family survival, Moshe sang in drunken revelry with his fellow soldiers. And while Yehya and the others moved in anguished steps away from their land, the usurpers sang ‘Hatikva’ and shouted, ‘Long live Israel!’ ” (p.39)

This book consumes you–I couldn’t put it down. The gains, the pains, the losses, and triumphs of the characters become your own. The characters become family. The book holds the weight of the world in its pages and gives the reader much pain, but it is worth it. Your heart will be softened…humbled…grateful for all of the blessings that you have. And though it has much to tell about loss and a pain that made me want to scream in the night, the story is ultimately about a deep love–the deep love of Palestinians…of family…of lovers…of friends…of people…that make them go on even in the face of a cursed, cruel world. And to mend your heart in the end of a sad truth, the readers are given the most beautiful image that you’d never expect. The case for peace and understanding is made without any rushed ending–life simply goes on being what it is, real life. It’s a tragedy…overwhelming, powerful, but full of hope. Amal, with a long vowel…full of many hopes.

So…you know that I like this book when after checking it out for the normal library period, I then proceeded to max out all my renewals and keep the book past it’s due date just to accumulate fines that would’ve paid for the book had I bought it. I’m done with the book, yet the book finds it’s way cozying up to me on the couch, on the nightstand, and ultimately in the bed with my dried tears having made watermarks on its pages. I’ll never read this book again. The last 100 pages completely unraveled me. But I’m a much better person for having read it, and I think the whole world would be too if they read it.

It took Susan Abulhawa four years to write this story and another four to  get it published.  I’m happy she dedicated herself to such a story. I’d tell the author “thank you” for such a book, but it seems so little…too little for what she’s done. So in the Palestinian tradition I’ll say, May Allah bless the hands that sent forth this book to continue writing the truth, and ultimately illuminating the world.

A special thanks to Sumaya for recommending this book to me…a book that I’ll never, ever forget, as long as Allah blesses me with consciousness and conscience.

Now, sis, are you gonna help me pay some of these fines? 😛

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Mornings in Jenin

  1. Thanks so much. I “googled” Susan Abulhawa and see i have what to read..even before i get the book.

  2. Return the book to the library. I’d like to send a signed copy to you. I’m very grateful for this review. Can you email your address to me?
    with love,

    • Oh, wow! Am I dreaming? I can’t believe you found my review and took the time to comment on it, let alone offer to send me a signed copy of your book. After I saw your comment, I couldn’t sleep for a while, but this time from happiness. 🙂 You have my word–I’ll return the book this week, inshAllah! May you be blessed to continue writing, Susie!

  3. Thank you Mashkura, I love u more and more and even more now that I’ve read this review, I dont know if it is available here in Palestine but some way or another I’ll get it and read it. Maybe some of what is written in the book I’ve lived it or may know some one that has. Even before reading it I identify myself with the story

    • No, thank you Ana, for welcoming me into Ramallah, and making it a lovable experience for me. I don’t think I would have survived there without you! I understand so much more now…let me know if you get the book inshAllah…and if you can’t, I’ll just have to bring it with me on Journey to Jerusalem (and Ramallah) Part II :D.

  4. Salaams wbabdullah… I’m about to read the book, thank you for such a wonderful and honest book review.

    If it is ok with you, I would like to post it on my website.

    JAK 🙂

    • Wa alaikum as-salaam Sr. Asma,

      Jazaki Allahu khair for reading my book review–I’m so happy you enjoyed it and I hope you enjoy the book! You can quote/post excerpts that spoke to you from this book review and then link back here…and I’d love to hear what you think of the book after you read it inshAllah! It’s truly unforgettable.

      🙂 ~Whittni

      • 🙂 JAK – Insha Allah as you wish and I will be posting up my own book review on it as soon as I finish so do check it out!


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