AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD
by Susan Abulhawa
384 pages. Atria Books. $27
There is much that I love in what Susan Abulhawa writes in her new novel, “Against The Loveless World.” It is no wonder, for she seems to write lovingly about me and my family. When the narrator speaks of her mother, older women in Arrabeh, my hometown in Galilee, would no doubt recognize my late sister Jamila: “a simple [woman who] was an extraordinary artist… a maker of beauty, a brilliant custodian of culture and history.” Her “fitting and sewing room doubled as our family room, which was also our bedroom by night.” Without Jamila, I wouldn’t have made it to high school in Nazareth nor eventually to medical school in the United States. A typical struggling Palestinian family, one may conclude, whether exiled or occupied by Israel.
And when Abulhawa writes in her novel about rural Palestine, she speaks about me and my folks as well. She gives the reader a thorough and fond preview of traditional Palestinian family and communal life, including guest receiving, food culture, celebrations, weddings, funerals, commercial life, olive gathering and the daily encounters with the violent Zionist settlers backed by the Israeli armed forces, though the latter events are much more subdued and chronic in our case. That all should suffice to salvage the novel in the eyes of the most patriarchal of Palestinian men who get a well-deserved negative portrayal in the protagonist’s account.
Susan Abulhawa’s heroine, Nahr, aka Yaqoot and Almas, shares with the reader her life events and trials and tribulations from her Israeli solitary confinement prison cell, “The Cube”.
“Abandoning the imposition of a calendar helped me understand that time isn’t real; it has no logic in the absence of hope or anticipation. The Cube is thus devoid of time. It contains, instead, a yawning stretch of something unnamed, without present, future, or past, which I fill with imagined or remembered life.”
The Palestinian narrator and protagonist is careful to remind us of her solitary confinement every so often, repeatedly mentioning ‘the cube’ and its torture setup. Her account starts with her family’s second exile from Palestine in 1967. That takes them, like so many other Palestinian refugees, to Kuwait where they contribute to the development and affluence of the oil-rich ministate. Along the way, our heroine loses her father, the income-earner in the family. Prematurely, she marries a Palestinian and that marriage fails with the young man disappearing with no trace. Nahr’s younger brother aspires to pursue college education. The mother dabbles in Palestinian embroidery and bridal dressmaking, a natural gift and artistic skill that nevertheless leaves the family with the two dependent grandmothers strapped for cash.
Then Saddam Hussein invades and the Palestinian leadership sides with him, ultimately the losing side. At this stage in her young life, Nahr is a beauty and natural dancer:
“When the music plays, my body moves as it wishes. I never tried to control anything. It was complete surrender to music and all the unseen, unknowable forces it inspired. I let rhythm rub against my body and wrap around my breath. Maybe that’s what people saw, because dancing is the nearest I’ve ever come to true faith.”
Um Buraq, a Kuwaiti Madam originally from Iraq, herself abandoned by her husband for a second wife, recruits Nahr, gives her the professional name of ‘Almas,’ and starts her entertaining and ‘frisking’ rich Kuwaiti, Iraqi and even Palestinian customers, all of them exceptionally sick and cruel. The contrast between such men and the wise and ultimately kind madam, Um Buraq, serves to bolster Abulhawa’s forceful and consistent attack on Arab patriarchal privilege, the theme serving as a central strand in the narrative along with the parallel one of the ongoing Palestinian Nakba and unjust Israeli occupation. As I proceeded to devour the account, the author’s enmity to Arab gender bias grew on me to where I yearned for the author’s pronouncements against the cruel role played by all those sick patriarchs.
Here the narrator gets us into a tricky tangle: Palestinians possibly spying on one another, comrades who nevertheless judge each other, and all of this in the guise of recollection by the heroine while in a jail cell. The tone of voice and special circumstances are such that our sympathies are with this “whore” (Abulhawa’s word). This is another twist within a twist that helps focus the writer’s feminist revolt against patriarchy in our culture. The plot is riddled with subplots with sick men who are misogynistic creeps and cruel abusers of partners, nearly all of them lacking any redeeming grace while all the women characters are basically honest and caring towards others and do their utmost to maintain their socio-national decency and to help their families, often at the price of “technical dishonor.”
In her decades-long prison isolation and torture, we are made privy to Nahr’s thoughts and recollections. Here, the author attempts to highlight the Palestinian heroine’s steadfastness in contrast to her Israeli jailors’ cruelty. A particular aspect of this distinctive duality is worthy of special notice, that of the tendency of Israelis to substitute Palestinians for their Nazi oppressors:
The guard—who had been standing over us, ensuring that neither the Western woman nor the translator touched me or handed me any object—locked my security bracelets to the wall before opening the door. The woman turned to me. “I just want you to know that my grandparents—” “—survived the Holocaust,” I finished her sentence.
I am reminded of my own experience as an employee in the ministry of health where, on occasion, my physician boss would attempt to silence my protestation against my community’s underdevelopment and poor health with similar reminders. This brings to mind the revelation by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta in his book of memoirs, “Mapping My Return“, where he asserts that immediately after the Nakba thousands of Palestinian men were placed in some dozen forced labor camps with most of the guards having been freshly released from similar camps under the Nazis.
The novel ends with an appropriately scanty and rushed follow-up section related by the narrator under different circumstances. To this reader it brings a measure of recompense, stability, balance, hope and a sense of justice even if all imagined, to the heroic life of the born dancer and love bird. One has to be the devil not to side with Almas in her protracted suffering in her victim role, even though, I admit, the repeated portrayal of all those cruel and sick male customers, from the “panty-sniffer,” to the misogynist torturer, to the rapist, seems a tad overwrought.
Sexual and gendered practices in Arab society stand at the core of this novel with Abulhawa going full force in her attack on patriarchy: With the exception of the Palestinian underground heroes of both sexes, most gendered interrelations in the novel are weighted against males. Sexual encounters are portrayed as emotionally sick, inhumanely cruel and morally deviant.
It is a full-blown anti-patriarchal attack, so much so that the second consistent track in the narrative, that of Israel’s Zionist settler colonialist assault on all things Palestinian, nearly loses its violent edge in comparison. Arab patriarchy as portrayed by this feminist writer is likely to anger many Arab males, and perhaps some Arab females. Nevertheless, I judge it to be timely and well deserved.