If poetry be the food of love, read on.*
The Blue Between Sky and Water, places Susan Abulhawa among the Illustrissimi of Palestinian literature. It is a novel one must read, at minimum twice. Once to follow the ‘what’s next’ of the evolving plot with its larger than fiction characters.
And the second time?
To slowly savour the luminescent beauty of the writing: human life, generically Palestinian, from the minute to the magnificent, is caught in the net of Abulhawa’s lyrical genius and comes up from the depths of her creativity shimmering.
The novel, set in Gaza, spans four generations of the Baraka family’s experience of the great Palestinian tragedy of the Naqba, past and present,
‘The Naqba, the Catastrophe that inaugurated the erasure of Palestine, started slowly in 1947, one atrocity at a time throughout the country.’
chronicling the rape of Palestinian land, the rape of Palestinian women, the rape of Palestinian daily life and the rape of Palestinian independence by zionist terrorists ‘who were drunk on an ancient virulence that mixed greed and power with God.
Duality is a characteristic of Abulhawa’s work: a duality possibly torn from Abulhawa’s own exile in a painful stasis between two intimate existences, Palestine & the diaspora. The novel’s tension is driven by the interplay and/or clash of dualities symbolised by Mariam and Nur’s eyes- ‘eyes, one green and one brown with hazel’: fiction and fact, the traditional and the modern, past and present, Palestine and the diaspora, past and future, close-knit family and fragmentation, innocence and evil, the hero and the brute, life and death.
Like Gaza, the novel, is crammed with heroic legends and love stories.
In defiance of zionist oppression, sumoud, Palestinian steadfastness is expressed in the daily resilience of refugees that turn loss into nobility,
‘In time, mud bricks and corrugated metal replaced the cloth tents and the refugee camps gave rise to a subculture marked by adamant pride, defiance, and an unwavering insistence on the dignity of home, no matter how long it took or how high the price.’
It is expressed -in the resilience of Gazans after the zionist blitzkreig,
“On the surface, life looked like decay. The destruction of buildings and infrastructure was so immense that debris and dust painted the air gray for days. The green earth was scorched then layered with the fragments of broken things and broken bodies. But after the dead were buried and all the tears had fallen, time thinned out to a liquid that rushed over Gaza like a stream over rocks, smoothing the jagged corners and coating them with a new moss of life. The legion of able bodies clearing rubble, rebuilding, recycling, cooking, and gathering was an industry that reconstituted community”
-in the laughter of children,
“Someone threw a plank over a large rock to make a seesaw and children played, their laughter small suns.”
-in Palestine’s young freedom fighters,
“YOUR BULLET CANNOT TOUCH MY HUMANITY! IT CANNOT TOUCH MY SOUL! IT CANNOT RIP MY ROOTS FROM THE SOIL OF THIS LAND YOU COVET! WE WILL NOT LET YOU STEAL OUR LAND!”
– in sacrifice,
“Baba … he screamed at Rhet Shel to run. She was clinging to his leg and he kicked her away before the weight of concrete walls pressing on his back conquered and crushed him.”
Sumoud is the élan vital of each of Abulhawa’s characters. Nazmiyeh, is the novel’s and the Baraka family’s vibrant core, life and soul. She is “a strange woman, made of love, who never told a lie and who moved through the world differently than most”.. and who “was not
identified by her relation to anyone else, but a testament to the force of her being, a mixture of defiance, motherliness, kindness, sexuality, and sassiness”.
Abulhawa’s beautifully delineated portrait of the exiled Nur gives a profound insight into the inner vulnerability of an abused child, “She scooped up Mahfouz, squeezing the stuffed bear her jiddo had given her, and she lived a night of silent, sleepless sorrow, the beaded necklace of her young life unstrung and scattered on the floor.” and into the torment of Nur as a young woman, “There is something extraordinary about being rejected by one’s mother,” she told Nzinga. “It impoverishes the soul. It leaves holes everywhere and you spend your life trying to fill them up. With whatever you can find.”
Abulhawa has a flair for love; with deft tenderness and sensitivity she weaves a palpably intense tapestry of love; love for a broken land, parental love, sibling love, love between a grandfather and grandchild, and love between a man and woman.
Khaled says of his mother, Alwan and father, Abdel, “My mother loved quietly and lived as if she watched the world through slits in the curtains. People thought piety provoked her to don the niqab when she was young, but it was to complete her invisibility—to take the curtains with her while she roamed her own life. But my father saw her. He stepped behind the curtain and loved her there.” And when Abdel died, Alwan “was like a tree in endless autumn, standing still, leaves drying, weakening, then falling. She became an island unto herself and for some time it was hard to find her in her eyes.”
There are novels we enjoy and then there are enjoyable Novels that speak to our deeper selves. With poetic imagination, Abulhawa lifts her novel to the level of analogical transcendence- where symbol, metaphor and archetypes, the primal language of the psyche, play out the dynamics of the spirit- the blue- between sky and water.
Here, Nazmiyeh, may be viewed as the tripartite Eternal Feminine – sensual maiden, mother of twelve, the irreverent crone – who calls on what appears to be ‘peasant magic’ but is the traditional lore of the ancients that centres human integrity in the moral and social order which in turn is in accord with the order of nature and the cosmos.
And in the symbolic rendering, characters become the dramatis personae of a people’s myth. Nazmiyeh is thus open to symbolising the novel’s true central character, Mother Palestine, “My teta Nazmiyeh hung the sky every morning, like a sapphire sheet on a clothesline pirouetting in the breeze.” Khaled knows the way to return to her,
“I began to walk that familiar road, from the small wrinkles on Teta’s left ear, up along the broken paths to her forehead, then the long trek across to the other side of her head. I walked and walked the sandy surface of this desert that was Teta’s weathered face until I reached the corner of her right eye and sat on the ink spot to wait.”
Mariam could represent the destruction of Palestine’s innocent past that Nazmiyeh resolutely remembers and cherishes and the djinn, Suleyman, represent the raging warrior and protector spirit of Palestine made from “smokeless fire’.
In the Epilogue, Abulhawa in her own voice, salutes with fiery gravitas today’s warriors,
“Through it all, Palestinian resistance fighters, holed up in tunnels with little more than bread, salt, and water, refused to surrender, and continued to fight a vastly superior military force. Despite the horrors and terror they suffered, Palestinians in Gaza supported the resistance because, in the words of one man, “We’d rather die fighting than continue living on our knees as nothing more than worthless lives Israel can use to test their weapons.”
I’d like to salute those Palestinian fighters. They willingly stepped into a realm where death was all but assured, for nothing less than the cause of freedom. Their courage was the stuff of legends.”
Zionists be warned by the novel’s intrinsic prophecy: Susan Abulhawa is a third generation refugee to whom you deny her right of return and yet this definitive Palestinian novel rose from her indestructible roots to her land.
*Converted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on.”