The strange path of a Palestinian-American novel

When Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa began writing her popular “Mornings in Jenin,” it was, she said, “to put a Palestinian voice in English literature.”

But although the novel was written in English, it took the long route to an English-language audience. The book began its journey in 2006 as “Scar of David,” when it was published by a small US press. That press promptly went out of business, and only a few copies of the book circulated. But Abulhawa’s book was picked up by a French publisher, translated by Michèle Valencia, and published as “Les Matins de Jenine.” From there, it made its way into several other languages, and was so well-loved that it attracted English-language attention. In 2010, Bloomsbury released a fresh edit with the title “Mornings in Jenin.”

Now, in the spring of 2012, the novel brings Abulhawa’s voice into Arabic, with a translation “Beynama Yenam al-Alam” (“While the World Sleeps”) published by Bloomsbury Qatar.

Abulhawa said that she has “mixed feelings” about the translation. “I mean, I’m so happy that it’s out in Arabic, but on the other hand I worry that it doesn’t have the same soul as the English. So much does get lost in translation.”

“Some parts of it that I read, I felt like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a really good translation of what I meant to say.’ And there were other parts that I felt probably don’t capture the poetry of the English language.” But, she added, “I don’t think my opinion really should be trusted in this matter, because I’m so close to it.”

When Abulhawa began writing the novel, it was as a response to the 2002 Israeli attack on the refugee camp in Jenin. She was one of the first international observers to arrive at the camp, which had been sealed off by Israeli forces during the assault. The scene Abulhawa witnessed spurred her to write. Before sitting down to write “Mornings in Jenin,” she had not thought of herself as a novelist. She had written poetry, she said, in English and in Arabic. But she had not thought to write a novel.

“The truth is that I probably started writing this novel as an activist. But the minute that the characters appeared to me and sort of took shape and form, that part of me was completely gone.”

Abulhawa remains an activist. She is part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the founder of the “Playgrounds for Palestine” group, which has built four playgrounds in Gaza, two in refugee camps in Lebanon, and one in a refugee camp in Syria. But she said that her activist self and novelist self are separate.

When writing the novel, Abulhawa said, the characters “were my priority. I wanted to tell their story with honesty. And to do that, I think you can’t have a political agenda. You can’t think of how the reader is going to react, you can’t think of what this will look like, you just can’t. Otherwise, I don’t think it would be good writing.”

Although Abulhawa writes now in English, she first learned to read and write in Arabic. When she was younger, she wrote a good deal of her poetry in Arabic. Thus her writing, she said, has been “hugely influenced by Arabic.”

“And I would say it came through in the English. I heard from some people, Western readers only, that they felt at times it was too lofty, too verbose, too flowery. But I like that style. I kind of like literature that uses a language that’s a little bit elevated. Maybe that comes from how, in Arabic, you don’t write in the way you speak. So I think that came through in my novel.”

The Arabic edition of the book was released at the end of March, and Abulhawa attended book-launch events in several Arab cities. One of the first book-launch events was in Amman. It was very well-attended, Abulhawa said, but the Jordanian audience complained that they couldn’t find her book in stores.

“We just found out that it’s apparently banned in Amman,” Abulhawa said. “We don’t really know why.… It’s so annoying, because the English isn’t banned.”

Her latest literary project is a novel about a boy in Gaza. She also continues to be interested in poetry. Abulhawa hasn’t published her poetry, she said, “because up until I wrote this novel, I was a biologist who wrote poetry for herself. And poetry is also very vulnerable, and it’s scary to sort of publish that.”

But she was considering taking the leap into the poetry-publishing world. “Maybe I will.”

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