‘Against the Loveless World’ by Susan Abulhawa

2020, 360 p.

I’m not proud of the fact that I have never read a book about Palestine, until this book. It is a book that is framed completely within the Palestinian viewpoint, written by a writer who is forthright and active in promoting Palestinian rights and decrying Nazism and Zionism and suggesting their connection with Ukraine (as we can tell by recent tweets that have prompted withdrawals of other speakers from the Adelaide Writers’ Festival). The front cover of my version referenced the structure that the author has used in her narrative: that of the cube with its East, West, North, South, Up & Down orientations and the Unreachable Beyond. We meet the Cube in the opening pages, a nine-square-metre, high-tech solitary confinement cell in which Nahr is imprisoned for years, visited occasionally by international inspectors, and a passive-aggressive journalist accompanied her highly-constrained but sympathetic translator. Eventually given a notebook and pens, this is Nahr’s memoir through which we learn how she came to be in the Cube and why.

Superimposed over this ‘cube’ device are the locations in which the book is set, and they are many, because this is a story of dispossession and flight. Nahr’s family originally came from Palestine, but as Israel increased its grip on Palestinian territory, they moved from country to country as refugees. Part I is based in Kuwait, Part II in Iraq, and Part III in Jordan after the geo-politics surrounding Saddam Hussein and the US-led invasion of Iraq forced them to find a more welcoming environment. Part IV is based in Palestine, Part V a quick return to Jordan, then Part VI Palestine, Always.

Nahr actually has three names: Nahr (meaning ‘river’); Yaquoot (insensitively chosen by her father after the name of his lover) and Almas, the name she adopted when she becomes involved in prostitution as a way of supporting her family, who had no idea of how she was earning the money that supported her brother’s studies. She marries early, but the marriage fails. She travels to Palestine to obtain a divorce from her first husband, only to find herself drawn into her former in-law’s family and the Palestinian struggle to hold their land against Israeli settler encroachment.

The title is taken from the James Baldwin’s Letter to my Nephew, making the political point of the link between the African-American struggle in the US and Palestinian oppression. There’s a lot going on here in terms of educating Western readers, especially in its explanation of the implications of Middle East policy for Palestinian families. Too much preaching? Maybe, but I found myself thinking about Australia’s own history of settler-colonialism. I watch the spasms of violence in Gaza and the West Bank; I know about the check-points; I am familiar with the thrusting appropriation of land by the settlers. I know about all these things, but with this book the oppressiveness of colonialism and occupation over everyday life is made real, highlighted by the author’s description of landscape and sense of home.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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