The Blue Between Sky and Water, Susan Abulhawa, Bloomsbury, 2015
When Nur, a half Palestinian, half Latina woman raised in the United States, travels to Gaza for the first time, she quickly learns that the tiny Mediterranean land strip is more than just “the world’s largest open-air prison.” It’s also “a place of warriors and survivors.”
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Nur is in Gaza on a grant to study and treat children traumatized by war and the looming presence of Israeli soldiers. She also hopes to find at least some of the Palestinian relatives she’s never met. It’s an intense and ambitious quest, but Nur’s journey is just one of the threads skillfully woven into Susan Abulhawa’s recently released second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water.
The book offers a revealing look at an enormous clan headed by Um Mamdouh. Khaled, her great-grandson, is its narrator, and his sweeping tale covers approximately 75 years, from the early 1940s to 2014. As Khaled introduces the book’s characters, elements of magical realism butt up against an otherwise straightforward depiction of people and places and give the book a poetic and slightly surreal cast.
All told, it’s a beautiful and affecting read, a showcase for people’s ability to survive adversity. Indeed, the irrepressible life force that prods people to have children and find ways to subvert oppression – hosting impromptu house parties, planting hidden herb gardens and transmitting anecdotes that link present and past generations, for example – is inspiring.
Villagers Forced From Their Homes
The novel opens in the village of Beit Daras, 25 kilometers north of Gaza. Once upon a time, Abulhawa writes, the town was on the mail route between Cairo and Damascus and the remains of a 14th century roadside inn and a citadel built by Alexander the Great were still visible in the early 1940s. It was there that Um Mamdouh – considered the local loon – lived with her three children, Nazmiyeh, Mamdouh and Mariam. Both Um Mamdouh and Mariam were known to see things that others did not, including colors, shapes and highly communicative apparitions. As you’d expect, this caused neighbors and relatives to steer clear of the family, fearful that the djinni Um Mamdouh aroused might cause them harm.
Nazmiyeh, as the eldest child, was fiercely protective of her mother and sister and used her sharp and irreverent tongue to blast critics and naysayers, something that allowed the family to be left alone, with minimal harassment or public ridicule. Everything changed, of course, when Britain relinquished control of Palestine, paving the way for Israel’s creation in May 1948. When soldiers arrived in Beit Daras several months later, 2,000 townspeople, plus the djinni that Um Mamdouh channeled, tried to repel them.
“They came again and again,” Abulhawa writes, “in March and several times in April of 1948, and their fury grew with incredulity and indignation that a small village of farmers and beekeepers could overcome the firepower of the highly trained Haganah, with their mechanical weaponry and fighter planes, which they had smuggled under British noses from Czechoslovakia in preparation for conquest.” During a particularly harsh bombardment, 50 women and children from Beit Daras were slaughtered, “after which the men ordered their families to flee to Gaza while they remained to fight.”
Nazmiyeh was newly married at that point and she left Beit Daras with her husband Atiyeh’s family. Both her brother, Mamdouh, and Atiyeh stayed, as did Mariam who was expected to travel south with a neighbor’s household. Suffice it to say that Abulhawa’s account of the subsequent fighting and march to Gaza are harrowing. Equally devastating is her description of the battle aftermath: Mamdouh was badly wounded and Mariam, barely 5, was dead. So was the family matriarch, Um Mamdouh.
It’s a horrifying and sad end for the once prosperous village, yet like countless other former denizens, a grieving Nazmiyeh attempted to get settled – albeit for what she assumed would be a temporary stay – in Gaza. Atiyeh eventually joined her and over the next two decades the pair had 13 children. Later, their sole female child, Alwan, became the mother of two: story narrator Khaled and his sister Rhet Shel, named after American Rachel Corrie who died in 2003, hit by an Israeli bulldozer during a demonstration against home demolitions in Gaza.
Abulhawa presents what she calls “the world of women, mirth and myrrh.”
Mamdouh followed a different course. After being forced out of Beit Daras, he found work in Kuwait and then moved to the United States. There, he and his childhood sweetheart, Yasmine, raised one son, Mhammad, who broke his parents’ hearts by refusing to speak Arabic, renaming himself Mike and marrying a Christian woman from Spain. Their daughter, Nur, spent several years with grandfather Mamdouh after Mhammad died in a car crash and Nur’s mother essentially abandoned her. Although Nur ended up in foster care, her Palestinian roots run deep and when she finally meets Nazmiyeh, Alwan, Khaled and Rhet Shel, she finds the familial connection she has craved since childhood.
Yes, there’s a lot of drama here, but Abulhawa never allows the story to lapse into soap opera. Still, there are a lot of intertwining characters, including some ethereal beings that may or may not be real. Multiple themes also emerge: among them, love, romance, courtship, insecurity, sexuality, sexual abuse, death, childrearing practices, incarceration, the US foster care system, cancer, alternative healing methods, friendship, competition, fidelity and faith.
Throughout, Abulhawa presents what she calls “the world of women, mirth and myrrh,” and it is here that the book’s biggest surprises are found, for while readers likely imagine Gaza to be grim and colorless, the residents of Abulhawa’s Gaza are largely upbeat. In fact, the sisterhood presided over by Nazmiyeh is full of love and emotional generosity and despite hardships and recurrent disappointments, the women she conjures help one another by listening, gossiping, matchmaking and meddling. They’re the family you’d want if you could choose your kin.
This makes The Blue Between Sky and Water – the magical place where spirits hover – simultaneously joyous, tragic and unsettling.
Abulhawa makes the everyday lives of Gaza’s residents incredibly vivid and I can’t imagine anyone closing the text without feeling compassion and admiration for Nazmiyeh, Nur, Alwan and their community. That said, it’s often hard to know the when of the story – whether events are years, months or days apart, or whether Khaled and Rhet Shel were elementary school aged or older. I was also often unsure whether the adults in the story were octogenarians or simply middle-aged. They’re inessential details, but would have helped to ground the text in the lived history of Palestine’s liberatory struggle.
Abulhawa closes the book with a brief salute to that struggle and the thousands of women, men and children who continue to oppose the occupation. As she was told following the summer of 2014 siege that left more than 2,100 Gazans dead, “We’d rather die fighting than continue living on our knees as nothing more than worthless lives Israel can use to test their weapons.” I can almost hear Nazmiyeh and Un Mamdouh saying a loud amen to this assertion.