Author : The National | Readings : 134 | Date : 2012-04-26
It had taken her 19 years to return to her homeland from the US; a period marked by angst, hardship and a yearning to belong, and it was there, listening to the echo of her childhood on the slopes of the Mount of Olives and cradling the young daughter who had finally given her purpose, that Abulhawa set her life on its indeterminable course.
That path of political activism, of vocally opposing Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and campaigning to provide playgrounds for Palestinian children has earned her a lot of enemies and unleashed a torrent of hate mail in the US - but, she says, it was impossible to turn back after that first visit as an adult.
"It reawakened me in a lot of ways," she says. "That sound of something that is inside me, something that I am - when I heard the adhan for the first time and realised how much I'd missed it, I broke down in tears."
That awakening manifested itself in Mornings in Jenin, a poignant, lyrical tale tracing four generations of the Abulheja family as they suffer loss after loss - first, with the kidnapping of their son Ismael in the 1948 Naqba by an Israeli soldier and then through their violent expulsion from their village near Haifa.
Through successive horrors inflicted during the 1967 war, the siege of Lebanon and slaughters in Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, the devastation and agonies wreaked on ordinary Palestinians are depicted through the struggles of the book's protagonist Amal, whose brother Ismael is raised as the Arab-hating David.
The 2010 novel, which won critical acclaim, has just been translated into Arabic for the first time by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.
That has particular resonance for Abulhawa, now 41, as it was the language in which she first expressed herself through her writing before suppressing her Arab identity in a bid to fit in when, like Amal, she began a new life in the United States as a teenager.
"I did not want to be Arab," says the author, in Abu Dhabi earlier this month for the annual book fair. "I was ashamed and embarrassed and hated my stupid last name that no one could pronounce."
Softly spoken and immaculately dressed, she is as quietly reflective and as elegantly understated as her prose.
Her parents, who were born in Jebel al Tur, were refugees of the 1967 war. Her father was expelled at gunpoint; her mother, who was studying in Germany at the time, was unable to return and the couple reunited in a camp in Jordan before moving to Kuwait, where Abulhawa was born in 1970.
Her parents did not stay together long, nor were they interested in raising her. Instead, she was taken to the US by an uncle and lived there until she was five.
"Their absence was an influence," she says. "It is essentially a huge theme in my life because I was so unrooted."
Her younger years were spent being passed between various family members in Kuwait and Jordan; at 10, she was taken to Jerusalem but ended up in an orphanage.
Looking back, she says they were some of the happiest years of her life, tinged with memories of verdant mountains and awe-inspiring Arab architecture despite the near-Dickensian conditions of everyday life.
"I have fond memories of that time but as an adult, I can look back and be horrified," she says. "We had cockroaches in our food, there was no heat in the winter and we would wet the bed because we were too cold to get up."