Every once in a while, a great book jolts people from complacency and shifts their consciousness. Susan Abulhawa’s timely, fact-based novel, The Scar of David, has the potential to be such a book. A good old-fashioned page-turner, it explores the antipathy between Palestinians and Israelis, making it an excellent primer on this seemingly endless conflict. Though the story focuses on just one family, the Abulhejas, the question that resonates throughout the text is: Why have the Palestinians been forced to pay for the Jewish Holocaust?
The novel opens in Ein Hod, a village east of Haifa and home to Palestinian fruit and olive farmers for more than 40 generations. Residents were initially accepting of the Jews who began arriving in the early 1940s and, for a short while, coexistence seemed possible. In fact, residents scoffed at warnings of a worldwide Zionist campaign, refusing to believe that efforts to create a Jewish state on their land could possibly succeed. Like most of the villagers, the Abulhejas laughed at the admonitions, unable to fathom how immigrants could eviscerate long-established communities.
But eviscerate them they did. Abulhawa’s descriptions of militant incursions into Ein Hod are riveting, and the novel vividly depicts bombings and attacks on Arab villages. Following Israel’s creation in 1948, matters deteriorated even further as the Abulhejas were pushed from their homes and compelled to relocate. “Their march was a one-way trek, guns behind them, up and down unforgiving hills, the sun merciless,” Abulhawa writes. “The weak fell and died. Women miscarried and the dehydrated bodies of babies went limp in their mother’s arms. Jenin was as far as they could go, and they rested wherever there was space among the flood of refugees coming from other villages. Soon Jordan, Iraq and Syria gave out a few tents, where sprang a refugee camp, not far from the homes to which the villagers of Ein Hod could never return.”
Amal, the sassy daughter of Dalia and Hasan Abulheja, is the vehicle through which we learn about Jenin and witness the development of a new community. Through Amal’s eyes we view the personal impact of Israeli atrocities and see how non-stop violence can presage pathology in affected individuals, from depression to detachment to murderous rage. We also see human resourcefulness as the refugees attempt to accommodate repression, forging relationships, gossiping, and passing stories and cultural history from one generation to the next.
Throughout, Amal is the linchpin. With her, we mourn the death of her clinically depressed mother and rail at the disappearance of her father during an Israeli raid. When her brother, Yousef, joins the PLO, we share her excitement and fear. We revel in her crushes and are touched by her relationship with Huda, her quieter alter ego. Later, when she reunites with Yousef and his family in Lebanon – and then meets the man she eventually marries – it seems that this tale can end happily.
Sadly, this is not possible as political turmoil makes a mockery of personal fulfillment. Air strikes on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 lead Yousef from the PLO to Islamic Jihad, but not before Amal is widowed and Yousef loses his wife and children. “Israel’s stated aim was selfdefense. To dislodge the PLO, a 6,000 member resistance. By August the results were: 17,500 civilians killed, 40,000 wounded, 400,000 homeless and 100,000 without shelter,” Abulhawa writes. Her account draws on journalist Robert Fisk’s reporting and is harrowing, if heinously familiar.
Not surprisingly, the massacres deplete Amal. Forced to leave Lebanon, she gives birth surrounded by strangers. Shell-shocked and weary, she rears her daughter in self-imposed isolation. Her life narrows to work and childrearing and her psychic walls seem impenetrable.
In the end, it is a 2003 return to Jenin, prompted by her daughter, that pokes holes in Amal’s armor. Still, a redemptive denouement is impossible and the novel is unable to escape the tragedy that surrounds the region.
By asking pointed political questions, The Scar of David raises consciousness and gives us a heroine and a family to root for. Illuminating and deeply moving, Abulhawa’s epic resonates with compassion, not only for Palestine, but for the millions who died in the Holocaust and on September 11. You can’t ask more of historical fiction.