by Niamh Fleming-Farrell
He turns the key in the ignition and presses the accelerator. Minutes later he’s dead along with 63 others at Beirut’s U.S. Embassy. It is April 18, 1983. The U.S. Embassy truck bomber’s victims were eventually named. His identity has remained unknown – that is until Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa claimed him in her debut novel Mornings in Jenin.
In this one thread in Abulhawa’s complex family saga spanning six decades, imbues this man – so conclusively labeled a terrorist – with a history, a family, a love story and a motive so moving that the reader veers close to forgiveness.
The truck bomber isn’t the only “real” person that makes an appearance. As she charts the movements and experiences of the Abulheja family from pre-Nakba Palestine to Jenin refugee camp to Beirut and later to the U.S. and Israel, she assigns her characters true histories.
One is a victim described by journalist Robert Fisk in his account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Another is a boy whose kidnap by the Israeli state is recounted in Norman Finklestein’s The Rise and Fall of Palestine.
In a novel overflowing with enthrallingly compelling prose and plot, Abulhawa fearlessly marches fiction to the frontier with reality, then steps decisively across it. For some readers this technique may imbue her fiction with power and relevance. In others it may provoke indignation – what right has a fiction-writer to claim a real person and write them a life story? Others, unsure of their memory, may find themselves clicking though Wikipedia entries in a frazzled gambit to separate imagined events from history.
Abulhawa says taking her fiction into the documentary realm wasn’t an especially conscious decision. “When I sat down to write that part of the story, nothing I wrote was really satisfying to me,” she says of the novel’s depiction of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “I thought, ‘I just want this first-hand, reporting account.’ And as I was writing, actually as I was pulling it out of [Fisk], the idea that this character could be this person [came to me].”
Fisk’s report, in tandem with an image from Sabra-Shatila that had captivated a teenage Abulhawa, sealed her character’s fate.
The writer describes her technique of working nonfiction writing like news reports into the novel’s prose as the literary equivalent of injecting historical footage into a contemporary film. “Literature is the place where you can meet history on a very human level,” Abulhawa contends. “I told this story the way that felt right to me. I wanted to honor these stories in some way, and I wanted to give them humanity, and to sort of lift the veil over these lives, these human beings who are so vilified in so many ways, but who are such victims.”
Asked whether fiction has the right to borrow from reality this way, Abulhawa muses for a moment. “My feeling is that literature is an expansive, enormous landscape,” she says, “and I think that when you write something, whether it’s history or not, when you write it with humanity and honesty … I don’t feel that I’m on shaky moral ground to do that.”
Depicting the more distant past in fiction she admits, presents a less sensitive or controversial undertaking but she insists that “part of a writer’s mandate is to unveil history … I don’t accept that I don’t have a right to do that.”
In Abulhawa’s work, the mutilated body of a pregnant woman Fisk describes in Sabra and Shatila days after the massacre is someone her readers know. They gasp as Fisk’s words disclose her identity to them. She becomes a person whose life and trials and sufferings have become known and familiar.
As worked by Abulhawa, her destiny evokes emotions in a way the journalistic account can’t, while bringing readers closer to historical events.
Herself the daughter of 1967 Palestinian refugees, she says it was her experience of the 2002 Jenin massacre that provoked her to write this novel. “Had I planned to write such an encompassing novel I probably would have been too intimidated to do it,” she says. “I’m not a planner. I just started writing.
“I probably started it as an activist, with activist goals in mind,” she adds, explaining that it was her activism that took her to Jenin in 2002.
But her activist agenda “dissipated very quickly, very early on,” she adds. “Once I really got into the story … I really stopped thinking about anything else. My only goal at that time came to be to tell their story with honesty and humanity. It’s not a piece of activism, it’s a piece of Palestine. It’s a Palestinian voice.”
Abulhawa doesn’t claim that her work belongs on some higher, purer plane than politics. Rather she confronts what for some may be an uncomfortable truth.
“Being Palestinian,” she says, “our mere existence is a political statement, so certainly anything we produce is going to be political. Whether it’s intended to be political … or not, the fact that a Palestinian did it … has a political dimension to it, because it ultimately does become part of our struggle.”
Abulhawa confesses that one of the “enduring aches” of her life is “that my [Arabic] language has slipped away from my tongue.”
Bloomsbury Qatar published the Arabic translation of Mornings in Jenin earlier this year, a daunting event for a writer who applies the diligence of a master woodcarver to her elegantly etched and deliberately shaped prose.
“I think the jury’s going to have to be out on how [the book] works” in Arabic, she says. “I worked so hard on the prose in English to get it just right. I agonized over single sentences … No translator is going to do that in Arabic.”