A Beautiful, Urgent Novel of the Palestinian Struggle

A Beautiful, Urgent Novel of the Palestinian Struggle

By Susan Abulhawa

Exhausted writers sometimes try to simplify their trade by boiling all stories down to only two essential trajectories: Someone comes to town, or someone moves away. But Susan Abulhawa’s third novel, “Against the Loveless World,” disproves this reductive hyperbole, artfully looping together comings and goings, entrances and exoduses, burials and birthdays in a humming narrative of human movement.

Nahr, the novel’s middle-aged narrator, is a daughter of migration. A Palestinian who has never known Palestine, she recalls her coming-of-age in Kuwait with her exiled mother, brother and snippy grandmother. She has no interest in the traumas of her ancestry, and is instead enamored of all things Kuwaiti. “It was my home,” she says of her adoptive country, “and I was a loyal subject of the royals. I lined up every day of school with the other students to sing the national anthem. … I even taught myself to speak their dialect and could dance Khaleeji ‘better than their best.’ That’s what someone told me.” Snubbed in her youth by an Independence Day dance troupe because “such an honor should be reserved for Kuwaiti kids,” Nahr doesn’t flinch, or feel offended as her mother does — “for her, everything came down to being Palestinian, and the whole world was out to get us.”

Instead the young Nahr seeks belonging elsewhere, breaking rules and expectations as she goes. She “back-talks” and steals, is promiscuous and unapologetically grounded in her body. Her premature marriage to a Palestinian war hero, the result of her sexual curiosity, is believable in both its hope and desperation. Abandoned and confused, Nahr cedes control of her sexuality to Um Buraq, a worldly Kuwaiti woman who sends her to work as a high-end prostitute.

Initially appalled by the job requirements, Nahr is intrigued by the power of her earnings, and soon it is she who pays her family’s bills, her brother’s school fees. When she is gang-raped on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, she leaves sex work and becomes involved with an Iraqi soldier. “I wasn’t yet ready to give up on men,” she thinks. “Part of me wanted to know if men could be good.”

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