Susan Abulhawa

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa tells the story of the Baraka family from the Palestinian village of Beit Daras. The story spans four generations, focusing on the plight of the women.

When the family is forced out of their ancestral home by the Israeli military, they make the trek to Gaza. Some are killed along the way; some sustain life-long injuries; others survive physically intact but emotionally devastated by the loss of their home and way of life. They settle in a refugee camp, cobbling bits and pieces of their lives to make a new home. At the center of it all is Hajje Nazmiyeh, the matriarch. She is the glue that holds the family together.

With vivid detail, Abulhawa describes the harsh reality of living under Israeli occupation and the challenges of survival during the Gaza blockade that made of the area a virtual prison. Forced to navigate Israeli checkpoints, food shortages, intermittent electricity and water supplies, unemployment, harassment by the Israeli military, daily humiliations, displacement, incarceration of loved ones, etc., the Baraka family confronts the challenges with a determination and resilience. The family is able to eke out a living, survive, and even laugh and love through pain and tears. The strength of their family bond is unshakeable.

The novel addresses the loneliness and displacement of the Palestinian diaspora through the figure of Hajje Nazmiyeh’s brother, Mamdouh, who emigrates to the United States with his wife, Yasmine. Mamdouh never feels fully at home in America. He is wounded by the alienation of his son who rejects his cultural heritage. After his son’s death in an accident, Mamdouh takes custody of his young granddaughter, Nur. His plans to take her to Gaza are thwarted by his sudden death. Nur is thrust into a downward spiral. Molested by her mother’s boyfriend, she is shuttled from one foster home to another until she reaches adulthood. Eventually she reunites with her family in Gaza where she finds herself wrapped in their cocoon of unconditional love and acceptance.

Abulhawa weaves actual historical events in the novel: the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their villages, the death of the peace activist Rachel Corrie at the hands of an Israeli soldier, the Gaza blockade, and the prisoner exchange. The novel’s strength lies in its depiction of the resilience and fierce determination of Palestinians to survive. The women, especially Nazmiyeh, are credited with holding the family together. Through her cooking, Nazmiyeh nourishes the bodies of her husband and children; through her unconditional love and devotion, she nourishes their spirits, restoring dignity and respect to a people living in a hostile climate whose intent is to strip them of both.

There is an element of magical realism threaded throughout the novel with the presence of a djinn with special powers; a sister who predicts the future while alive and guides the living after her death; and a young man who navigates across different time zones, communicating with the living and the dead.

Abulhawa covers a lot of ground in this novel, so much so that it suffers from a lack of cohesion. The incidents pile on, one after the other with little time to digest them; the characters are insufficiently developed; the situations seem contrived; the coincidence of Nur finding her family in a sprawling refugee camp in Gaza is far-fetched. The work reads more like the biography of a family than a literary novel. It lacks subtlety and nuance and is transparent in its use of events and characters as a platform to promote a political agenda.

Although it is regrettable her treatment of this important subject was not as effective as it could have been, nevertheless Abulhawa is to be credited for shining a light on the plight of the Palestinian people. We see the world through their eyes; experience with them their forced eviction from their homeland; witness their losses, pain, and suffering; and empathize with their longing to return to their homes.

Recommended with reservations.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review