Culture  Reading in solidarity

International campaign raises awareness of Palestinian experiences

As Amal Abulheja flees from Ein Hod village in 1948 to Jenin, then to Jerusalem, to Beirut, and to Philadelphia, she never forgets how her missing father used to read to her at dawn. Written by Palestinian-American activist Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin follows the Abulheja family as they face countless hardships and displacements. On January 29, the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies hosted a public discussion about the novel as a follow-up to a discussion held earlier last month. This was part of the “One Book, Many Communities” international reading campaign organized by Librarians and Archivists with Palestine (LAP), a network of information workers that aims to protect Palestinian cultural property and to raise awareness about the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Mornings in Jenin vividly depicts one family’s tragedy, while also reflecting on the struggle of an entire nation. When asked why this novel was featured in the reading campaign, Andrea Miller-Nesbitt, a McGill librarian and LAP member, told The Daily, “It’s a fairly accessible book, not really an academic one […] With or without understanding of the Palestinian question, readers learn more about the history and get a picture of the experiences of Palestinians.” Through moments filled with love, fear, and loss, the novel forces the reader to look at this complicated political conflict through a deeply personal lens.

At McGill, participants in “One Book, Many Communities” came together to delve into the novel’s painful depths and discuss broader themes – everything from historical events to the role of gender and queer politics in the novel and in the Palestinian struggle. Participants approached the novel from varying angles, some with a more literary focus, others taking on the sociopolitical issues at the novel’s core. Many focused on the novel’s portrayal of Palestinian women and how it challenges stereotypes. Some pointed to Amal, for example, who decides to move to Jerusalem to pursue her education instead of following what’s considered a more ‘traditional’ path.

“I feel like there is, to a certain extent, hope, because if people keep taking these stories that are written or acknowledged, eventually something has to happen. You can’t read that and not think there is something we can do.” – Simone Fillon-Raff, U0 Arts student

That the novel counters misrepresentations of Palestinians and their experiences is also evident in tweets from those participating in the reading campaign around the world. A twitter hashtag (#lap1book) was used to allow for interaction between international communities participating in similar discussions – from Sweden, the U.S., Italy, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv. LAP (@Librarians2Palestine) tweeted, “Some #lap1book attendees ‘were shocked, dismayed, saddened by the level of their ignorance of the events of the Nakba + subsequent history.’” Another participant in New York City wrote, “I cannot think of a book that has changed my reading of the news more than MORNINGS IN JENIN.”

The discussion at McGill drew to a close with a simple, yet perhaps the most pressing, question: is there hope in the Palestinian struggle? Simone Fillon-Raff, a U0 Arts student, answered by explaining that Abulhawa was “writing this novel to give voices to narratives that have been lost in history.” She added, “I feel like there is, to a certain extent, hope, because if people keep taking these stories that are written or acknowledged, eventually something has to happen. You can’t read that and not think there is something we can do.”

The event itself was a hopeful gathering. Michelle Hartman, a professor of Arabic Literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill, told The Daily, “It’s inspiring to have so many people focus on a work of literature, and one about Palestine in particular.” When asked about the importance of the event, Sofia Enault de Cambra, a U1 student majoring in International Development and minoring in Middle East Studies, noted “These meetings helped me break away from [an exclusively political reading] and be able to enjoy the more poetic, quest of identity, message aspect of Abulhawa’s work.”

When a major conflict such as the Israeli-Palestinian one does not appear to have a tranquil future, campaigns like “One Book, Many Communities” can humanize the conflict and the atrocities faced by these populations for over sixty years. A powerful book like Mornings in Jenin can draw communities into awareness of the overlooked and silenced struggles of Palestinians. In featuring this book, the reading campaign marked an important step in giving lived experiences the attention they deserve.