Palestinian writers and artists continue to look at Israeli colonialism in the face
By Noshin Bokht
For far too long, the asymmetrical struggle for justice being waged by the Palestinians has been falsely termed a “conflict,” which implies equitable contenders.
We are inundated with headlines that obscure facts and criminalize resistance fighters, along with school curriculums that distort history. Mainstream American and Western media fail to highlight the Palestinians’ authentic voices and the wonderfully idiosyncratic ways these individuals are responding to their daily realities. One thing remains unambiguous: This egregious generations-long miscarriage of justice by yet another colonial power has become a layered, multifaceted narrative that Palestinians continue to resist through art and other means.
We see an exquisite response to the Israeli occupation in Susan Abulhawa’s novels, more notably in her most recent one: “Against the Loveless World” (2020).
A Palestinian-American novelist, poet and activist, her two previous novels are “Mornings in Jenin” (2010), an international bestseller with rights sold in 26 languages, and “The Blue Against Sky and Water” (2015), a bestseller translated into 20 languages. She has also published “My Voice Sought the Wind” (poetry, 2013) and several anthologies.
All her works, though fiction, document the Palestinian struggle. She is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine (playgroundsforpalestine.org), which upholds Palestinian children’s right to play.
As always, “Against the Loveless World” is incandescently breathtaking. Her words are electrifying as we’re thrust into her characters’ nuanced and complex lives. Notably, they are often difficult to decipher — neither villainous nor completely heroic, but people forced into a life of catastrophe and forced to do battle simply exist.
This novel is narrated by Nahr, its central character. Her arduous life is chronicled through a series of introspective vignettes from “The Cube,” an Israeli solitary-confinement prison cell. Pulled between past and present, we gradually clarify the puzzle and understand how she got there. A woman with four names and diverging lives, her life begins in the Kuwaiti neighborhood of Hawalli, the daughter of refugees. After being displaced once again from their makeshift homes to Jordan, she eventually returns to her ancestral homeland.
The novel evokes sensations of utter restlessness and only after finishing it does one realize that this was deliberate. Like Nahr and her family, the reader is left feeling constantly unsettled. While these sensations leave the reader at the story’s end, they are the unfortunate reality for all refugees.
Nahr is only gradually connected to her Palestinian identity, for her entire being has been fractured by the implications wrought from an exiled life and a patriarchal society. Born in Kuwait, she grapples with her angst-ridden relationship with her mother, her Palestinian grandmother and her beloved younger brother. She marries — and is abandoned — in Kuwait. With no father, Nahr becomes Yaqoot, the family’s designated breadwinner. To finance her brother’s education, she inadvertently gets stuck in a cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse. Along the way, she forges a strange relationship with Um Burqa, her simultaneous female pimp and protector.
She becomes entrenched in her Palestinian roots when the U.S. invades Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, which forces her family to resettle in Jordan. Palestine becomes inextricably linked to Nahr’s consciousness when her younger brother joins the resistance and gets arrested.
From Kuwait to Jordan, Nahr finally finds herself in Palestine. Her story begins to unravel in the backdrop of the Oslo accords. She meets her estranged husband’s brother, Bilal, who introduces her to love, the Palestinian resistance and tradition.
Israeli state-sanctioned violence on Palestine’s people and Palestinian land is vividly brought to life through Nahr’s musings and conversations with various visitors to The Cube. With Bilal and his friends, she is transformed through Palestine. Her divergent identities begin to blur and coalesce to create an ironclad and tender-hearted woman. Her entire life is marked by colonialism, imperialism, violence, hypocrisy, occupation and class warfare. And yet, moments of simple bliss find their way in between.
The entire story juxtaposes the realities of colonial violence and the innate nature of occupied people forging memories of hope. This is most profoundly reflected in Nahr and Bilal’s “honeymoon,” which occurs during the curfew of spring 2002 while Israel pillages Jenin — they read to each other in a moment of emotional intimacy and reflect over a James Baldwin quote which the book takes its title from.
In an essay, a letter to his nephew Big James, Baldwin writes, describing Big James’ birth: “Here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”
Nahr’s strength and resilience in a world that truly appears loveless is central to the story. She is the protagonist; however, it can be argued that Palestine herself is another protagonist. Abulhawa does an extraordinary job of animating the prominence of land and agriculture to Palestinian life. Israel, in line with its colonial values, seeks to uproot Palestinian existence in all its form, including its very trees and land. And yet its innumerable bulldozers and bombs fail to flatten the spirit emanating from mother nature.
There is a salient scene in which the newlyweds plan to divert water from the settlements back to his family’s almond trees. Bilal also takes Nahr on long walks and teaches her about various plants and the folklore associated with them. Then there is the harvesting season in the family’s olive grove. This time, in particular, invites Israeli settler attacks but despite this, families and neighbours continue their traditions in acts of glorious defiance.
Eventually, we are back in The Cube with Nahr. Sentenced to solitary confinement, she relates her story speaking only to the occasional visitor, a sympathetic guard, and the walls of her cell. Just as Israel seeks to oppress and colonize the Palestinians, The Cube attempts to repress Nahr and her story. Yet both fail in their violence. An Israeli court unsurprisingly charges her with terrorism. But these depraved forces that thrive off power cannot wholly succeed, because the tenacity that is intrinsic to human nature cannot be crushed. Nahr herself says, “I colonized the colonizer’s space of authority. I made myself free in chains and held that courtroom captive to my freedom.”
Abulhawa paints the Palestinians’ story in a way that is rarely seen — with the skillfulness of an engineer, punctiliously weaving together the wires of the human mind and experience. Their unique trauma and resilience, often obscured under the discourse of bureaucratic endeavours and policies, become lost, desensitizing the global audience.
Nahr’s story is ultimately a tribute to the Palestinians, their fecund land and an act of defiance to the colonizers’ “authority.” Entities like the fictitious Cube and Israel’s ongoing effort to erase Palestinian existence cannot fully succeed, because Nahr herself says, “I know I am alone here. I’m not delusional. But the way memory animates the past is more real than the present.”