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Susan Abulhawa’s novel, Scar of David is a profoundly beautiful story. Set in Palestine, this novel transcends the particular history of the Palestinian people since their expulsion from their lands while simultaneously remaining firmly rooted in that experience. Inspired by sources and people as varied as Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Return to Haifa,” Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said, this is a story of a family in Palestine. It is not a sad story, but a painful one. To borrow the words of one of the story’s characters, it is a “sweet pain.” It is a pain tinged with memory and hope. And questions of why. A pain partially composed by soldiers who somehow find their human compassion underneath the lies, yet continue to fight the war in which they have some doubt. A pain that comes with standing up to resist your oppressor all the while knowing that the things that are most important to you–your family, your village, and your loves–will be ripped from you because you do stand up. A pain that also comes from knowing that these things may very well be ripped from your existence even if you do nothing.
Abulhawa’s descriptions in this novel are as beautiful as the land they portray. Ms. Abulhawa has combined historical panorama and the personal fears, loves, vanities and anger of a young girl viewing a world that is constantly asunder. It is a litany of perpetual war and humiliation; of children born and their parents taken away. Part of the tale is about a child stolen from his mother to become the child of another woman whose past life of torment as a Jewish plaything for the SS finds itself reborn in the actions of her husband and the army he rides with. The stolen child becomes an enemy of his own people and, in a particularly wrenching scene, beats his own brother-a Palestinian resistance fighter-until he is held back by another Israeli soldier. Yet, it is his own fear that he is attempting to remove. Her husband is eventually filled with remorse and doubt because he still hears the cries of his “adopted” son’s mother after he took her son from her. That remorse is multiplied by the fact that his dream of a safe place for the Jewish people is drenched in blood and misery, theft and lies.
The story truly begins with Dalia, a Bedouin girl who defies conventions established in the village life of Ein Hod. She attracts the eye of a couple brothers from the village and is eventually married off to one, if for no other reason than to save her father from further embarrassment. As she matures, she sees her adopted village become another piece of the Zionist drive to establish and expand Israel. As mentioned above, her youngest son is stolen by an Israeli officer during the forced march of the villagers from Ein Hod. Her daughter, who will be named Amal is not even a twinkle in her parent’s eyes yet. She will be born a refugee in the Jenin camp and is to be the primary protagonist throughout most of the rest of Abulhawa’s tale. Amal means hope, something Dalia eventually loses after so many years of war and oppression. Dalia slips into dementia after so much destruction and despair. Dalia’s husband disappears (assumed dead) after the 1967 war and her older son Yousef is forced underground after suffering beatings and torture.
One of those beatings is the one given by his brother who doesn’t know that they are brothers. His brother named Ismael by Dalia and Hasan her husband. Now named David by the man who stole him and his wife. Ismael, as in son of Abraham. David, as in child of Israel. Within this one child become man are the contradictions of the land they both live on. He is the complexity of human life and the complexity of two peoples claiming the same land. When he finally discovers his past and meets up with his sister Amal, his words are so simple and so poignant: “But love cannot reconcile with deception.” This story is two brothers fighting each other. It is Amal’s first mysterious menstrual period consumed by the blood from a bullet fired at her by Israeli soldiers almost as if in sport. It is, as Amal’s daughter says near the book’s end during a visit to Jenin with her Green Card mother, “imperialism by the inch.” Bit by bit, the land is stolen. For highways and settlements. For walls and garrisons.
There is a moment in that visit to Jenin when Amal begins to tell her daughter Sara all that she has kept hidden so that Sara can have a normal US childhood. Sara, hungering for more, asks her mother why did she keep this history, this life, from her? In reply, Amal only thinks to herself: “How would she feel if I told her everything else I’d held back?” This novel is exactly that. It is Palestine telling everything she has held back. It is Palestine’s mothers and daughters telling everything about their stolen lands and the lives they have lost. The dreams that are discarded before you reach sixteen. The children who are barely children before they become targets of the IDF’s guns. If only the world would listen. It is time the story has a happy ending. Or at least a just one.
The beauty in this story is not in its few moments of joy and happiness or its even rarer moments of hope. No, the beauty lies in the stories of a people determined not to die. In a young girl’s belief in family and friends. Of a father’s hope for his child’s future right before his death. Of rage that almost turns to hateful revenge. Of the despair of loss and the fear of more of the same. Love stories that fly over battle and hatred. The beauty lies mostly in how these stories are told. How this story is told. How this story is a story of Palestine. The writing here echoes the finest couplets of Gibran and Rumi. There is an unfathomable emotional depth to th e words spoken and unspoken.
Some US critics, no matter what their politician persuasion, will call this book heavy handed and anti-Israeli because in their minds it portrays the story of the Palestinian people in an overly sympathetic and graphic portrait. But, that is where they are wrong. It is only heavy handed if the previous portrayals were too light and not truthful. If there is to be blame for the US populace not understanding the past 60 years of Palestinian history, it should go to the news media in that country and those of us who watch without demanding more. It is to be placed at the feet of those Americans who live their lives denying the nature of the things their government and its surrogates does in their name. If they would only read this novel, perhaps they would begin to understand the rage and the grief, the fear and the sadness that makes stones weep. The love that Abulhawa tells us is ” where God lives.”
The sheer ability of this story to tear emotions from the reader is what the US reader must experience. If they are to know the results of their indifference and their admonitions that oh, it can’t be that bad, they must read this book. Because, yes, it can be that bad. Because, yes, it is that bad.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org