Writing Palestine: An interview with Susan Abulhawa

Susie Day

CounterPunch  /  August 27, 2023

In Palestine — a country whose existence goes unrecognized by most of the West — Palestinians are arrested, humiliated, beaten, killed by Israeli military or settlers every day, if not every hour. What began in 1948 as the Nakba has taken on force, ramped up control, occupied every aspect of Palestinian life. And, given Israel’s “most right-wing government in history,” what had shown no signs of stopping is now getting worse. 

Here, in the United States, we barely talk of this. But Susan Abulhawa, descendant of generations of Palestinian refugees, is doing all she can to talk about Palestine. She does this by telling us stories.

Abulhawa’s parents came from Jerusalem’s Al-Tur neighborhood, but were forced out by the 1967 War. Born in 1970, Abulhawa grew up in Kuwait, Jordan, Jerusalem, and since the age of 13, has lived in the United States. Although in school she was tracked into science, she began writing fiction in her 30s. “Mornings in Jenin”, Abulhawa’s 2010 breakout novel, depicts a Palestinian family’s survival through several decades of Israeli rule. Translated into 32 languages, it became an international bestseller. Abulhawa has written two novels since, with another on the way.

Abulhawa is also a veteran activist, essential to creating and organizing Palestine Writes, a conference that, due to COVID-19, happened online in December 2020. But now, Palestine Writes has become a real-life literary festival, to be held this September in Philadelphia. We in the U.S. need to know more about Palestine; we also need to know about Susan Abulhawa. I started by asking her how she became a writer.

‘I just kept writing’

Susan Abulhawa: My family were peasants. We didn’t have books growing up. My dad barely finished middle school, and my mom went to a trade school after high school. I think my uncle was the first person to go to college. For a lot of Arab families, and immigrant families in general, being a doctor or a lawyer is really prized. But being a writer — I thought that was like wanting to be the queen of England, right? So I went into science, because, you know, I had something to prove. 

Susie Day: How did you come to write “Mornings in Jenin”?

SA: I was one of the international eyewitnesses to the 2002 [Israeli] massacre in Jenin. It was life–changing. I mean, as Palestinians, we grow up knowing a lot of these horrors, but it was another matter to see it up close and smell — to smell it — that was the overwhelming impression. Death, rotting corpses everywhere, pulling corpses from the rubble after Israel had bulldozed people inside their homes. I never stopped thinking about it. And when I came back [to the U.S.], the disconnect between the life I was living, the job I had and what I had just witnessed was profound. I didn’t know what to do with it.

I was a single mother at the time. I wasn’t making much money working for a pharmaceutical company. I didn’t have a lot of choices. At the same time, I’d been writing articles that were getting picked up by major papers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer — which, unknown to me, was irritating a lot of the Zionist bosses where I worked. Thus began the plan to get rid of me. So they started moving me from one lab to another.  Eventually I was laid off from my job, so the decision was made for me.

It was December 22, a few days before Christmas, and I was terrified. I cried that whole day. And the next day, I just got up and started writing about what I had seen in Jenin. I just kept writing; I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know I was writing a book until I was knee-deep into it. Then I realized: Wait, this is a novel. So I mortgaged my house, went into massive debt and yeah, wrote this.

SD:  In “Mornings in Jenin”, two Palestinian brothers are separated when one, as a baby, is stolen by an Israeli soldier and brought up by Holocaust survivors in a Zionist household. This boy in turn grows up to join the IDF and ends up kicking the shit out of his older Palestinian brother at a checkpoint, because his army buddies have pointed out how much he and this Arab guy look alike. What do you think this might show people in the U.S. about the humanity of Palestinians — and Israelis?

SA:  People in the U.S. really have a huge way to go in terms of moral evolution. Like, we are more technologically advanced than any other country in the world, but we’re the least morally advanced. There’s this word in English that I think a lot of people use when it comes to describing others, which is, “humanizing.” This need that white people in the U.S. have for other people to humanize themselves, so that white people can be a little more moral, is strange.

Even the way people in the U.S. talk about race relations: Oh, African Americans have made great advancements. When the reality is that the people who’ve oppressed African Americans for centuries might have developed a little bit more morally. I think people in the U.S. need to look at their own deficiencies, instead of looking at oppressed people, trying to see these others as more “human.”

SD: Do you think “Mornings in Jenin” has influenced Palestinian literature in the years since it was published?

SA:  I don’t know if this has anything to do with “Mornings in Jenin”, but there have been a lot more Palestinian writers to emerge on the literary scene. That’s a beautiful thing. But there’s still a lot of racism within the publishing industry and reluctance to publish Palestinian writers. Like, when it came time to publish my last novel (“Against the Loveless World”) — ordinarily, if publishers see somebody who’s sold over a million copies, they’re happy to publish that person, because they’ll already have a readership. But that wasn’t the case here.

There are a lot of people who are afraid, who want to publish Palestinian writers to say they have a diverse portfolio, but the books they want are ones that confirm popular misconceptions and stereotypes. If you look at books from our region that have exploded in this country — and they’re all good books; I’m not knocking them — they follow a certain genre. Number one is “The Kite Runner,” which affirms this horrible oppression of women. Same thing with “A Thousand Splendid Suns” or “Reading Lolita in Tehran” — horrible oppression, and how people from the U.S. really need to go and save these people.

These books might reflect real conditions — they certainly don’t reflect the societies at large. But they are the books people in the U.S. will lap up, because everybody wants to read things that affirm their assumptions. Almost nobody wants any hint that we’ve spent billions of dollars destroying people who are people, like us.

SD: What’s so threatening about  “Against the Loveless World”?

SA:  First of all, it doesn’t contain the usual Orientalist tropes of oppressed women. To the contrary, it’s an indictment of the Iraq war, it shows subversive resistance among Palestinians, a defiance. And it highlights Israeli barbarity, as all my books do. Those are, in the West, what seem to be the threats. In the Arab world, there are objections to the book as an indictment of patriarchal structures.

Palestine Writes: terrain of unknowns

SD: Besides literature at Palestine Writes, there will be cooking, dancing, film. …. There’ll also be speakers who are obviously not Palestinian, like Gary Younge, Marc Lamont Hill, Rachel Holmes and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Why do you think they’re important at a Palestinian conference?

SA:  Palestine Writes is meant to be an intersectional space. I do want it to bring Palestinians together from all parts of historic Palestine, our diaspora and beyond, the intellectual exchange, the creative enrichment, the books, conversations, collaborations expanding our cultural footprint, our existence in places that would like to see us disappear. But though most of the writers are Palestinian, we wanted a place where we could exist with agency and with our friends — the people who have shown up for us over and over. We want this kind of cross-pollination among writers and intellectuals and other marginalized communities.

SD: Is there some historical presence, like Malcolm X, that inspires you?

SA:  I think the sort of internationalism that was embodied by Malcolm X is important. Not just Malcolm X but others of his era who saw the importance of people uniting across various struggles. We do stand on those incredible shoulders; the luminaries and revolutionaries, who have influenced so many of us, are present in everything we do.

But it’s not just noteworthy personalities. It’s this terrain of the unknowns — all those people, our ancestors, our parents and grandparents, who died in anguish, in exile. It’s really those people who will haunt the festival, in some ways. There’ll be an art and a photography exhibit — there will be photographs of those people — because we want them with us at our festival.

SD:  Since Palestinians are an Indigenous people, is Palestine Writes making links to Indigenous communities here?

SA:  A couple of members of the Delaware Nation are going to be at the festival, and one of our partners is the Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Philadelphia. We also have a contingent of Aboriginal writers coming from Australia — brilliant, talented women. In fact, for the opening, there’s spoken-word poetry with two women. One of them, Lorna Munro, is a Wiradjuri woman from so-called Australia; the other is a Palestinian woman, Dana Dajani. So they’ll set the tone.

SD:  Speaking of Australia, last winter you and Mohammed el-Kurd made international headlines when you were invited to the Adelaide Writers Week — then almost banned as antisemitic – in your case, for tweets about Zelensky preferring to “drag the world into World War III, instead of giving up NATO ambitions.” What was it like to face down all that opposition?

SA:  It was wild, especially when I got there. One of the things that stood out to me was the disconnect between what the media were doing and the actual people in attendance. I mean, there were tens of thousands — and the organizer, god bless her, refused to back down.

SD:  Louise Adler, who I’ve read, thinks it’s important to separate writers’ tweets from their published work. She also says: “We talk a lot about safe spaces, and I think we’d be better off talking about brave spaces and courageous spaces in which we’re respectful in our dialogue with one another but that we can actually tolerate ideas that we disagree with.”

SA:  I absolutely agree with her. One reason Palestinians get shut down is that saying anything about Palestinian life is interpreted as antisemitism — which is a weaponization of antisemitism that’s frankly unconscionable. It’s stunning that, as an Indigenous, occupied, exiled, genocided people, we have the added burden of worrying about the feelings of our oppressors.

SD:  Is Palestine Writes in touch with people in Israeli prisons?

SA:  One of Walid Daqqah’s books, “The Secret of the Oil”, is going to be part of the festival. So is a book called “The Trinity of Fundamentals”, by Wisam Rafeedie (ex-political prisoner, now university lecturer). We’ll also have a panel of former political prisoners.

Palestine in a heartbeat

SD:  Walid Daqqah has spent his life in Israeli prisons, writing, but I was only able to find one piece of his translated into English. He definitely isn’t the only Arab writer who is almost unknown in the West. I’m amazed at this huge amount of work that needs to be translated.

SA:  There is a lot. In Arab society over the last century, we’ve been consumed with colonial violence. Everybody has been trying to survive, and there’s been little space — economic, political, social or even intellectual space — for thinkers and writers to document the lives and history that need to be written.

SD:  So do you see a need to start a publishing house here for Palestinians?

SA: We did! It’s called Palestine Writes Press. We’re going to publish — actually, republish — Anni Kanafani’s biography of her husband, Ghassan Kanafani, in English and Arabic.

SD:  Beyond Palestine Writes, are you reading anything now that inspires you? 

SA: I just finished Susan Muaddi Darraj’s debut novel, “Behind You Is the Sea”. It’s not out yet, so I got an advanced reader’s copy. It’s stunning — about the intersection of three Palestinian American families.

SD:  Are you planning any writing projects for after the festival, or can you even think that far?

SA:  I’m two-thirds of the way done with a book. I put it aside to organize this festival. Actually, the first four chapters are going to be published in the Boston Review soon, so people will get a sneak peek at that. No title yet.

SD:  Finally, if it were possible for you to return to Jerusalem, where your parents lived, would you go back?

SA:  In a heartbeat — without hesitation.

SD:  And, if you were able to live in Palestine, would you still write?

SA:  Of course, and I would have much richer material. 

Susie Day writes about prison, policing, and political activism