‘My life returns to me in images, smells and sounds, but never feelings. I feel nothing.’
We meet Nahr in ‘The Cube’, a high technology Israeli prison where Nahr is in solitary confinement. Incarcerated in a cell under constant surveillance, Nahr narrates her story. She is a child of a family displaced in the Palestinian exodus of 1948 (the Nakba), a family that fled to Kuwait.
‘Palestinians learned the first time in 1948 that leaving to save your life meant you would lose everything and could never go back.’
Nahr receives some visitors in her cell, mostly journalists who are less interested in Nahr’s story than they are in confirming their own views. The past serves only to reinforce their fears. But these visits take Nahr (and us) from the present into her story.
Nahr grew up in a Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait. She, her mother, grandmother, and her brother Jehad form a family unit. Her father is absent, requiring Nahr to become the family breadwinner. She is responsible for earning enough money to support her brother’s education. A young woman, who dreamt of marriage and children, of perhaps having her own beauty shop, Nahr has few choices when it comes to earning money. She is led into prostitution by Um Buraq, and into a double identity.
This a complex, layered story. Nahr’s life changes after Iraq invades Kuwait. Another move, another change for Nahr. All choices, it seems, are dangerous. A failed marriage, a search for family roots, delving into Palestinian politics. Nahr’s brother joins the resistance. He is arrested, tortured, and released after Nahr pays. The family decides to leave for Jordan. Can Nahr find a place to belong? And how will Nahr know? Her mother embroiders caftans, her brother encourages her to visit Palestine.
I found this a challenging novel to read: difficult because of the subject matter and heartbreaking because it is difficult to see the situation improving for Palestinian refugees. The reality of displacement and dispossession is confronting and uncomfortable.
‘To be committed is to be in danger. I have never forgotten those words.’
In Nahr, Ms Abulhawa provides a complex character telling a thought-provoking story.