This novel caught me unprepared, in all my ignorance of Palestinian literature, dragged me along in a lashing current and threw me in an exhilarating yet dangerous waterfall of great magnitude and force. At the end of it, I revelled in the calm ripples of hope. It is befitting it ends with ‘Joy’, where love wins because the journey starts with loss of innocence and desperation. There is so much to say about this novel, yet I feel possessive of my thoughts. When a novel changes a part of you, it becomes personal and you don’t want to share it with the world. But this novel must be spoken about, as it’s not only a powerful feat of literature but also a very relevant, important novel.
A few pages in and I was awestruck by what Abulhawa herself admires in the writing of Baldwin and Kanafani. ‘They wrote with the same passion, the same irreverence and defiance; with overlapping wounds and bottomless love for their people.’ And so does she. Never once does she waver, backtrack, pander and justify. I won’t compliment her writing as ‘unapologetic’ (as I’ve seen one interviewer mention), because writing shouldn’t be apologetic in the first place!
Abulhawa delivers with compelling honesty a crystal clear perspective of the Palestinian people, their torment and humiliation at the displacement enforced on them by Israeli Zionists, their pride in and love for their homeland and heritage, the compromises they’re forced to make in countries that never own them up, their unbeatable spirit and heroic fight for their stolen land at the great risk of losing their life, possessions and loved ones. It demonstrates how our ancestral land knits the fabric of our identity and that link can never be broken no matter where we re-locate. It demonstrates the power of sustained resistance to oppression. You lose when you quit, or as Baldwin states- “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”
The protagonist-Nahr, is subjected to every imaginable torture, abandoned as a young wife, she has to resort to prostitution to ensure a secure future for her family, is physically and sexually assaulted multiple times, is imprisoned and tortured for sixteen years yet instead of feeling sorry for her, I can only admire her. What’s inspiring about her is her defiance and strength of character to rebel, laugh, dance, and love in the face of the storms tearing her world apart. In one scene she sings in an Israeli courtroom during her trial to show her disregard for Israeli authority.
What protects us against the loveless world, or what will protect us, from a world that demonises people they label ‘disposable’, is unity. We might be prosecuted, short-changed, de-humanized, but if we honour and love each other -we can fight that world.
The narrative doesn’t associate ‘shame’ with torture that is designed to humiliate. Instead, the scars are recognised as medals of survival and courage. It exposes the superficial concept of honour and these lines are too bad-ass not to be quoted. “We are not all blessed to receive a good education and inherit what it takes to live with some dignity. To exist on your own land, in the bosom of your family and your history. To know where you belong in the world and what you’re fighting for. To have some goddamn value…some of us, Madam Honor, end up with little choice but to Fuck. For. Money.”
And – “What’s truly revolutionary in this world is to relinquish the belief that you have a right to an opinion about who another person chooses to fuck and why.”
One thing that I didn’t understand or agree with was the lovability of Um Baraq (Nahr’s procurer for sex trade and close friend). Nahr forgives her easily and loves her like a sister, even though she is responsible for some of the worst experiences of her life, tricking her into inebriation and prostitution in the first place, blackmailing her back into prostitution with compromising pictures and sending her to an event where she’s absent while Nahr gets gang-raped and almost killed. She also bails her out of trouble time and again, but for me, that did not tip the scales in her favour. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t love her as Nahr does.
In her cube prison, Nahr retains her characteristic defiance, she dances, writes and sings but doesn’t break or bend, and shows us how true heroes never give up in the fight against injustice- no matter how powerful the enemy might be or how long the fight may last.
I’ll end with these two quotes.
“I allow myself to imagine that the dignities of home and freedom might be the purview of the wretched of this earth.”
“……the state will always find a way to imprison those who are truly free, who do not accept social, economic, or political chains.”