Book Review: The Scar of David

Susan Abulhawa’s first novel, The Scar of David, is an intricately woven tapestry of historical fiction chronicling the Palestinian Abulheja family over four generations. The novel begins in Ein Hod, the village where patriarch Yehya Abulheja, a peasant olive farmer, and his family, wife Basima and sons Hasan and Darweesh, live. This land of olive trees has been nurtured by Yehya’s relatives and ancestors for over forty generations. We witness the simple and charming life of these peasants when son Hasan, on errands for his father to the Old City in Jerusalem, meets with his best friend Ari Perlstein; both boys share their lives, families and dreams with each other. Many years later Hasan tells his daughter Amal about his boyhood: “ ‘He was like a brother,’ Hasan said, closing a book that had been given to him by Ari in the autumn of their boyhood.”

As Hasan and Darweesh grow up and marry, Hasan to the gypsy-like Bedoiun Dalia, the impending Zionist enterprise — the creation of the Jewish state of Israel — encroaches on their homeland. The initial realities and symbols of the Jewish state come to the Abulheja family in the form of Zionist bombs and soldiers. From the 1940s to 2002, the unrelenting Israeli soldier, who brings with him violence and terror, is the dominant figure of the story about the Abulheja family, oppressed by the Zionist state. In the midst of the 1947-1948 massacres and forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land during the creation of the State of Israel there is the traumatic theft by an Israeli soldier of Dalia’s baby Ismael, who bears a deep scar on his cheek. That soldier, named Moshe, brings Dalia’s son home to his wife Jolanta, “who had suffered the sordid history of genocide … whose body had been ravaged by Nazis,” and who had been “left barren.” Jolanta names him David.

Through the Abulheja family, we come to feel and relive the various meanings and stages of dispossession and displacement of the 21st century’s largest refugee population. For these refugees, to return is ultimately an unfulfilled dream. After patriarch Yehya’s audacious, rebellious, final “return,” to his family and fellow refugees,

[His] death unveiled a truth … How was it that a man could not walk onto his own property, visit the grave of his wife, eat the fruits of forty generations of his ancestor’s toil, without mortal consequence? Somehow that raw question had not penetrated the consciousness of the refugees who had become confused in the rank eternity of waiting, pining at abstract international resolutions, resistance, and struggle. That basic axiom of their condition sprang to the surface as they lowered Yehya’s body into the ground, and night brought no sleep.
Yehya’s family story continues with the third generation, Hasan’s three children often telling their story through the voices of the oldest son Yousef and daughter Amal. Their brother Ismael a.k.a. David comes to terms with his Palestinian heritage despite the fact that he was raised and passed as an Israeli. It is Amal who captures the ironical truth of the Palestinian condition:
The parallelism, the bitter fangs that sank into my mind, was that Mama, David’s biological mother, also survived a slaughter that claimed nearly her entire family. Only the latter occurred because of the former, and is ultimately a small piece of the inescapable truism that Palestinians paid the price for the Jewish holocaust. Jews killed my mother’s family because Germans killed Jolanta’s.
The theft of Ismael is intimately connected to the crimes of the Nazi Holocaust. The novel illustrates how Palestinians have paid with blood and land for the horrific crimes commited in Europe against Jews. The crimes of ethnic cleansing seem almost infectious in The Scar of David, spreading like a malignant virus from Holocaust to the Nakba, from Nazi to Zionist, reinscribing the evils of racialized nationalism. Abulhawa destroys the myth of racial solidarity through characters like Ari Perlstein and Jack O’Malley, the United Nations worker. “So far as [the refugees] were concerned, Ammo [uncle] Jack was an Irish Palestinian who visited his daughter in Dublin once a year and lived in squalor with us the rest of the time. He spoke Arabic as he did English …”

Having contested the myth of racial purity or unity, especially in the body of David, the novel almost subconsciously supports the argument for the one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The characters unavoidably transgress cultural, ethnic or national boundaries; David is a Palestinian raised as a Zionist Israeli. Abulhawa provides transcultural narratives that never rest in the security of cultural homogeneity, that false security offered by the present-day Israeli Separation Wall and other forms of apartheid, racialized nationalism, or religious fundamentalism. Talking about her new life in Philadelphia, Amal herself crosses cultural boundaries:

I metamorphed into an unclassified Arab-Western hybrid, unrooted and unknown. I drank alcohol and dated several men — acts that would have earned me repudiation in Jenin. I spun in cultural vicissitude … What I knew for sure was that people in West Philly thought I was beautiful, not different, and my accent was not a call for mistrust. The very things that made me suspect to the white world were backstage passes in the black neighborhoods.
Of course, Amal’s life in America is one in which she is forced to repress her personal history in favor of her shallow westernized alter-ego “Amy”: “I dampened my senses to the world, tucking myself into an American niche with no past.” Amidst the spectacles and surfaces of an image and sound-byte saturated North American media culture, history has little if any role. The histories of western, including Zionist, imperialism in the Middle East are ignored here in North America — a willful ignorance in the interest of Western military-industrial capitalism. Abulhawa’s novel attempts to intervene in this sorry media environment by providing history where history is repressed, marginalized, or made irrelevant. While documentaries and sympathetic news stories of the Palestinian tragedy serve to inform and educate us, to Abulhawa’s credit, The Scar of David invites readers to enter and become emotionally invested in the history and humanity of its characters.

Sanna Towns and son, Joseph Towns, are active in the Twin Cities Coalition for Palestinian Rights. During June 2005, Sanna, a high school teacher, traveled to Palestine-Israel under a travel grant to educate students and educators about the conflict. In July 2006, she conducted a “Teaching About the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” workshop for high school teachers at the University of Minnesota, Institute for Global Studies. Joseph is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and currently on hiatus from pursuit of a graduate degree in cultural studies. He is a founding member of the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter and was one of the chapter’s delegates to the first National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement at Berkeley.

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