The political is personal


Susan Abulhawa has just published her new novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, and I can’t wait for it to land on my desk.

I met her at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban a few years ago and we discussed sisterhood, solidarity and playgrounds.

The year 2010 was memorable for me for a number of reasons. First to come to mind would be that South Africa hosted with huge success the Football World Cup and the entire world watched as we took centre stage.

Many a personal milestone was achieved in 2010 as well.

I also read a novel that touched a deep spot in my soul and every time I remember it, I still feel a little tug at my heart.

That novel was Mornings in Jenin.

It is difficult to explain how profoundly I was affected by reading this startlingly honest, and at the same time, disquieting novel. But, after reading it, I began following its author, Susan Abulhawa, on Twitter and read everything I could about the woman who wrote this book.

Imagine my excitement at the prospect of meeting her in the flesh and getting to speak to her about her writing and what drives her as a human being.

This engaging, yet soft-spoken woman is everything I expected and more.

We finally met at the picturesque Moyo uShaka Pier Restaurant for the media lunch of the 16th Time of the Writer Festival, which she was attending.

Firm in her beliefs and unwavering in the face of some difficult questions during lunchtime conversation, Abulhawa is a powerful personality whose presence is felt.

Mornings in Jenin was first published in 2006 under the name, Scar of David. It was later re-edited to make it more chronological, according Abulhawa, and the name was changed.

Mornings in Jenin was born and to date has been translated into 33 languages, including Arabic, and has become an international best-seller.

The main impetus to write the novel came after a trip Abulhawa made to Jenin after the 2002 massacre in Palestine.

“What I saw in Jenin set my life on a different course? To witness that kind of inhumanity up close was transforming in many ways.

“It was humbling to see (the) way in which people in Jenin responded – with unyielding defiance; the way in which they came together as a people.”

On her return to the US, Abulhawa became incensed by the biased and distorted portrayal of events in the Middle East by the Western press.

While the Palestinians were being blamed for their own fate, Israelis were portrayed as merely protecting themselves.

Abulhawa set off to remedy this wrong.

“When I started writing about Jenin, I didn’t realise it would turn into a novel.

“It just took off from there,” she says.

The strong pro-Israel slant in the US meant Abulhawa struggled to be published in the US.

In fact, she had to eventually go through Europe to be published.

Abulhawa stresses that while she did start writing Mornings in Jenin with a political impetus, things changed very quickly.

As soon as she got to know her characters and fell in love with them, then it was really no longer about politics, and instead it became about her characters and telling their story with “honesty and humanity”.

“I never planned anything in this novel. It just developed out of an initial impetus to tell a story as I saw it on the ground.

“It is really the story of my life.”

And so it is with the other important initiative Abulhawa has become famous for – Playgrounds for Palestine.

Besides being a scientist, single mom and writer, she also finds the time for phenomenal humanitarian work in her homeland as well.

“People often ask me why I do certain things, as if I had a plan for things.

“The truth is I am not a planner, I don’t have a plan in life.

“I live life as it comes. I follow my heart for the most part. If something inspires me, I go with it.

“Sometimes this brings me to miracles and so Playgrounds for Palestine is one of those,” she muses.

The idea was born out of a trip Abulhawa made to Palestine 19 years after she left. Her daughter was still young and at the time playgrounds in the US were a huge part of their lives.

In Palestine, there were no playgrounds. Instead there were highly urbanised areas, empty lots filled with trash and rubble and really no places for kids to play except in the streets.

While walking through the streets of Ramallah, Abulhawa kept remarking to friends about spaces that would make great playgrounds for the kids.

The idea took root and grew, and by the time Abulhawa returned to the US, she decided to set up a website and get her friends involved in making the idea a reality.

The first donated playground was shipped to Palestine 12 years ago and since then the project has grown from strength to strength. It has become a huge success in the US and in Palestine.

Abulhawa has given up her job as a biologist to concentrate on writing her second novel.

It’s a gutsy move for a single mother – she is adamant she and her 15-year-old daughter won’t starve.

Abulhawa says this novel is similar to her first novel in that it is set in Gaza and is also a multi-generational story.

This stems from her interest in the idea that the past is so much a part of who you are – generations before you are inseparable from the current story.

Abulhawa adds that in a way this novel is a feminist story because it is a story about and for women.

Abulhawa is certainly a fascinating woman to speak to.

Her writing is beautiful and poetic, yet reflects issues that leave you reeling and short of breath.

I look forward to her next breathtaking read – The Blue between Sky and Water.

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About Meneesha

Online and books editor by day, mum even while I sleep, individual all the time. I live in the beautiful city of Durban - the unpolished gem in South Africa. If I didn't have a family, I'd be that crazy cat lady your mum probably warned you not to feed! Blogging is where I share, vent, rant, laugh and generally be myself. Join the ride!


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