The Longest Ongoing Conflict

Book Review: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (ISBN: 9781608190461)

Country: Palestine

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most well-known and longest ongoing conflicts, lasting for decades. Despite being in the news throughout my entire life, I still haven’t formed an opinion on it, and I don’t think I ever will. But that’s okay – one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything. One just needs to be well-informed and have an understanding on all sides of the story.

That’s where Susan Abulhawa’s book comes in. Through the story of one family, Abulhawa provides readers with a poignant and eye-opening look into the lives of those affected by the conflict. The book follows the life of Amal, who is born in the refugee camp at Jenin. Through her story, we learn about the struggles that her family faced and the hardships they endured. One particularly devastating event was the return of her lost brother, who had been taken by an Israeli soldier and raised to despise his own people.

Abulhawa’s writing style is both engaging and heart-wrenching, making it difficult to put the book down. The interweaving of historical events with the intergenerational saga of a family affected by these events gives this book the feel of a documentary. It’s worth noting that the book is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the 2002 Israeli attacks on the refugee camp in Jenin[1].

Overall, Abulhawa’s book provides a new perspective on one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts. It’s an important read for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the issue and the lives that have been affected by it.

Further Reading:

[1] ‘Mornings in Jenin’: The Strange and Circuitous Path of a Palestinian-American Novel – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY (Accessed: 28.02.2023)


Book Review: Our Women on the Ground

This is a book of essays written by 19 women journalists – sahafiyat – from the Arabic speaking world. Edited by Zahra Hankir, these stories are gut-wrenching and sometimes out right nerve wracking. Reading about their experiences sometimes made me very indignant too. It is no secret what women have to deal with in some countries on the pretense of culture, but some of their experiences still managed to appall me.

Calling these journalists brave is an understatement and quite patronising. These women are not only fighting for their voice to be heard, but also trying to fight for the rights of women in some of the most oppressive places in the world. They are also helping destroy the stereotypes that work against them, that put hurdles in their paths.

When I was assembling my reading list for the MENA challenge, I read some reviews on Goodreads about this book. Some of the reviewers were disappointed that issues such as honour killings in these cultures weren’t addressed. When I decided to read this book, I did not expect to read something about the societal ills that plague women in the Arabic-speaking world. The countries in the MENA region are like any other in the world. They too have their liberal, cosmopolitan centers of commerce, art and industry. They too struggle with ultra-conservatism like any other country. For me the fact that these women were journalists said enough about their gumption and was a sign of their rebellion against the patriarchy and societal norms.

If you want a nuanced and empathetic picture of what has been going on in the Arabic-speaking world for the last decade or two, then I highly recommend this book. The beauty of this book is that it provides a real view of the consequences of war. A view of the life that must go on while the bombs are falling. And of the life that remains after the bombs have destroyed everything. Set aside any pre-conceived notions and read this book with an open mind.

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

Country: Egypt

American War is a story about the complete destruction of an individual as a result of radicalization. At first, I thought the book was about the realities of the dystopia it is set in: climate change driven displacement of families, civil war, an incurable lab-synthesized plague. But through the pages, we see the slow and steady radicalization of Sarat Chestnut leading to her eventual destruction.

American War depicts a dystopia in which the US is divided again, this time along the lines of fossil fuel use. Disaster caused by climate change has struck the US, and as a result, fossil fuels have been banned. The Southern states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas, are not happy with this decision and secede, which leads to a civil war.

We meet the Chestnuts who are planning to move to the North, leaving their Louisiana home behind. Sarat gets radicalised, which eventually leads her to the Guantanamo-esque Sugar Loaf facility. The torture she undergoes leads her to confess to the trumped-up charges brought against her.

The book was a bit tedious in the beginning but half-way through it really picked up the pace. The reversals of the political fates in the US and Europe is a bit pedantic. We have chaos and war in the US and mass migration out of Europe, whilst peace and prosperity the Middle East and North Africa.

At first I had decided to read an Egyptian classic, but then I came across this book at a used book store and changed my mind. Although the author currently lives in Canada he was born in Egypt. Besides I though that this perspective on climate change and the future of the US would make for an interesting read.

Book Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Country: Oman

“Life appeared to her sharply divided in two parts, like night and day: what we live, and what lives inside of us.”

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies

We all know, or at least should know, that life is one big compromise. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t experience joy. We snatch glimpses of joy here and there. Sometimes we don’t even need to snatch it. Between unrequited love and duty, between shattered dreams and new beginnings, we carve out a life for ourselves of which we can be proud. If we are lucky.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, making it the first novel to win by an author from the Gulf. The book revolves around three families and their relationship with each other in the Omani village of al-Awafi. The men and women in the book are trying their best to get by with the expectations of Omani culture, while trying to find happiness despite the cruelty they face.

I could relate to the women in the book even though our cultural backgrounds are diametrically opposite. Their lives were their own to live and yet not their own. Trying to navigate the unwritten rules of their society which inevitably made them lead bitter-sweet lives. From the outside the women seem oppressed under the patriarchy. But as we get more involved with the characters, we realize that the women are not completely powerless. Like Mayya, who decides to name her daughter London to the chagrin of the rest of the village. Or Khawla, after years of unshakeable love for her wayward husband, who decides to return to her and be faithful after all the years of philandering, decides then that she wants a divorce. There is Qamar too, a beautiful Bedouin woman, who seduces Salima’s husband.

They have their ways of getting what they want, of course not without compromise. What was interesting for me was that the men also seemed to be oppressed by the patriarchy and societal expectations. I felt a lot of empathy for Abdhalla, who was deeply traumatized by the harsh punishments meted out by his father.

The fragmented narration needs a bit getting used to. I had to keep going back and forth to remember who was who, but a few chapters in the characters became clear to me. Once in the groove, I found the writing to be very lyrical and poetic. Before reading this book, however, I would recommend watching the Al Jazeera documentary on Oman (linked below).

Further Reading & Information: