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The storyteller returns: Susan Abulhawa’s tale of displacement and destiny

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The Blue Between Sky and Water is another legendary literary swooner by Susan Abulhawa, her second novel after the iconic Mornings in Jenin (a tough act to follow). This new captivating  familial story weaves archetypal characters, shapeshifting through time with enviable fluidity, with a supple network of interconnectedness running through all their lives.

Cover Art: The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa

Cover Art: The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa

Abulhawa opens every chapter with a narration from a boy, Khalid, who guides the reader through generations of the Baraka family from Beit Daras, a village in southern Palestine “consumed by the fog of death” during the catastrophic destruction of 1948 when

the violence of an alien story burned those meandering native days, and the Mediterranean Sea lapped at our history’s wounds along the shores of Gaza.

Khalid first appears as the imagined friend of a visionary little girl, Miriam, generations before his own birth. Thus a primarily matriarchal story runs through Khalid; and his presence, and unfaltering conscience, are constant narrative reinforcements through even the darkest, most lacerating and vulgar, gut-wrenching and turbulent passages.

Miriam and her sister Nazmiyeh are daughters of the village crazy woman, Um Mamdouh, whose eyes could roll in her sockets as she’d turn into the harrowing djinn Sulayman. As his presence emerged within her Um Mamdouh would spit gibberish

in a voice that thundered from all directions, and a cauterizing smell, like pollution, soaked the air.

After the massacre of Beit Daras, many of the surviving villagers who were violently expelled became refugees in Gaza, as others fanned out into the diaspora. Nazmiyeh “hung the sky every morning, like a sapphire sheet on a clothesline pirouetting in the breeze”, while another child, Nur, gets lost along the way — separated from her family through a series of tragic circumstances, and forced to navigate her way through an impersonal foster care system in the US. A sexually exploited child who’s out of place and doesn’t like herself– “Fate had been cruel to take one of our own, assembled her destiny from pieces of loneliness, exile, rejection and longing“– Nur fortunately has a persistent real life guardian angel in Nzinga (reminiscent of Maya Angelou – whom I thought of several times throughout the story although her name wasn’t mentioned). 

The story involves Nur finding her way back home, to her family and the home she never knew and didn’t know she was missing. Through an inheritance of her birth — not knowing its true value  — she unknowingly hides the clue to her ancestry. 

Nazmiyeh, the story’s charismatic exotic matriarch, (once the “prettiest and baddest girl” in all of Beit Daras with her wild crop of arrogant curls) is forever on the lookout for Nur. The tension and anticipation of discovery is achingly alluring. Although many secrets are woven into the book, like life’s puzzles, they become masterfully untangled as the story unfolds. Once Nur arrives in Gaza from the U.S., where she’d been living in a mental cocoon, the rhythm of her destiny shifts momentously.

It took some effort for Nur to unlearn the American assumptions she came with. The first time she took a shower in our home, Teta had to storm into the bathroom and shut the tap water off before she used our entire water supply for the month. Then Moma taught her how to wash by scooping water from a small wash bucket and to recycle as much of the used water as she could. The dirty water had to be captured in another bucket that we used for flushing the toilet. Rhet Shel helped her learn to navigate life without electricity during the long power cuts. And Teta taught her the best curse words, when to use them, and how to confront harassment from men on the street. “If you tell them to get lost and they don’t, pick up the biggest rock you can lift and go at them with every intention to bash it on their heads. Look crazy. Trust me, they won’t bother you anymore.” My uncle’s wives taught her how to remove the hair with caramelized sugar. “Men shave. You’re not a man,” they had admonished her. Her most intractable assumption, perhaps, was that fate could be controlled with a host of myths ranging from hard work to winning the lottery; or that ill fate could somehow be redeemed by objections or lawsuits. The day following the violence at the Dunes, without intending to, Mama and Teta showed Nur how to carry on without bitterness.

As that passage demonstrates, Abulhawa has the gift of storytelling. Like Mornings in Jenin, readers experience the story as a timeless legend that’s been around for a long long time. Her multi layered characters have an air of surety for the reader, even the fantastical Sulayman. Everything is immensely believable — her capricious movements through time and space merge concisely with hilarious erratic dinner table banter and sideways all-knowing glances. Love is pervasive and vaporously present even when it’s seemingly inaccessible.

When you reach the end, the story continues in imagination through hope, possibility, rejuvenation. The Blue Between Sky and Water is mercurial, ethereal yet dense. I’m not sure how Abulhawa pulls it off so lyrically. She has that inherent poetic capacity.

Her voice and style will be emulated by young writers way into the future. Her literary characters traverse time and space in a manner that makes for depth of understanding between generations. Very fitting for a story about Palestine, very fitting for people destined to survive.

Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is a mom, a human rights activist, and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area and likes to garden. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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10 Responses

  1. BI on September 12, 2015, 6:04 pm

    Wonderful. Thanks for this review.

    • annie on September 12, 2015, 9:20 pm

      my pleasure BI, needless to say — i highly recommend the book.

  2. Citizen on September 13, 2015, 10:52 am

    Thanks for this article, and the author for her latest book.

  3. dsowd on September 14, 2015, 1:34 pm

    Hate to be nitpicking, Annie, but how could a book that’s just coming out be called “legendary”?

    • annie on September 14, 2015, 3:00 pm

      that’s ok dsowed, you can be as nitpicky as you want. i thought about that word a lot actually. re legendary literature:

      Legend, traditional story or group of stories told about a particular person or place. Formerly the term legend meant a tale about a saint. Legends resemble folktales in content; they may include supernatural beings, elements of mythology, or explanations of natural phenomena, but they are associated with a particular locality or person and are told as a matter of history.

      Some legends are the unique property of the place or person that they depict, such as the story of young George Washington, the future first president of the United States, who confesses to chopping down the cherry tree. But many local legends are actually well-known folktales that have become attached to some particular person or place. For example, a widely distributed folktale of an excellent marksman who is forced to shoot an apple, hazelnut, or some other object from his son’s head has become associated with the Swiss hero William Tell. Another popular tale, of a younger son whose only inheritance is a cat, which he sells for a fortune in a land overrun with mice, has become associated with Richard Whittington, thrice lord mayor of London in the early 15th century. The story told about King Lear is essentially the folktale “Love Like Salt.”

      Local legends sometimes travel. Though the Pied Piper of Hamelin is famous through literary treatment, many other European towns have a similar legend of a piper who lured their children away. See also folklore.

      for me, a legendary story is one set in a time or place that contains archetypal characters that also transcend in such a way as to be relatable throughout time/ and location while speaking specifically to the era that’s being depicted, and often or generally include fantastical or larger than life elements. because the way the story is told thru the boy who is both real in the story but also mythical in that he was conjured (so the speak) as an imaginary teacher or partner of mariam, who taught her how to read and write. this alone, just this very simple concept (because lots of children have imaginary friends) appearing in the era he appears begins the story also informing us about about the life of girls in that era. that she wasn’t going to school like the little boys who would march up the hill to an enchanted place (the two room school house). so she would go to the river and wait for her imaginary friend who would teach her how to read and write.

      now, this is how legends are made. is it a lie? can that be authenticated? a legend is “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” well no it can’t. but some children do teach themselves to read, which is a mystery to me but it’s known to happen. in fact i am reading another book at the moment, my brilliant friend by elena ferrante, it is a good book but i wouldn’t call it legendary for many reasons. but the circumstance of a gifted girl who has visions (and coincidentally she had a gift i had as a child so that blew my mind and i wrote abulhawa — like — omg i could do that too as a child and she wrote back “a lot of kids can do and see things that they have no idea are extraordinary” and went on to tell me about her own childhood in this regard) and an important character teaches her, and in this way, an imaginary character is born who becomes real, transcends time and has a quality that any child could, potentially, access. and the same character later in life, when he is a ‘real person’, has qualities and character (without giving away the story) that seem both completely fabulous, but definitely could be true.

      anyway, i could go on and on. this example (of miriam and khalid) is just from the intro of the book, but it sets the tone. of course when you come to the djinn more legendary aspects come into play. and then certain themes of our times but that are also timeless — that of refugees, abandon child, finding ones way back home often mixed with a tinge of the supernatural (but life is in many ways supernatural). all of these ideas are universally recognized themes which lend an everlasting quality to the story. also, the sexual exploitation and my reference to maya angelou, when she wrote her first autobiography (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), her book was labeled as ‘autobiographical fiction’ because of the structure and quality. imho, her writing has a legendary quality she pushed the autobiographical genre.

      anyway, i’m not really well versed in these sorts of things. i feel them more than know what i am talking about (seriously, i definitely never studied literature, but i love it – especially historical novels). but believe me, the book has a legendary quality. and mornings in jenin has now been translated into 26 languages (and i think blue between is already translated into 19 — i can’t recall). they tell a historical (yet original) story in a universal way. i hope that answers your question. of course, i could be wrong ;) lol.

    • annie on September 14, 2015, 3:22 pm

      also, one more thing. have you heard the term, this is how legends are made? when i first read about mohammed assaf i thought, this is legendary. a legendary story. but it was real (and now the theme is made into a movie, but it’s not ‘true to life’ the beginnings of it. but the legend of his rise is there.

      in this way, the character khalid could be told as a bedtime story that one could build upon. he could be the imaginary child that visits children and helps them with their homework. ‘did khalid visit you this afternoon?’ a parent could ask a child when they finally understood something they had been trying to learn, when they ‘got it’. because we all know great ideas come in altered states of mind. when te mind is able to transcend and just ‘understand’ something. so a character introduced in a story like this has powerful potential of a legendary quality as he does in a different capacity in his real(non imaginary) character in the story after he is born. and i would be giving away the story if i told you what that is, so i won’t — but it too is universal.

      and this is just one of the characters. it’s by no means the main theme of the book nor does he encapsulate all the legendary qualities in the novel. like i said, it’s a primarily a matriarchal story.

  4. mcohen. on September 14, 2015, 6:57 pm

    annie says

    “we all know great ideas come in altered states of mind”

    beautifully put.legends retain elements of truths that shine like stars in a dark sky.more important they add to one,s accumulation of positive knowledge, to be passed on from generation to generation.threads woven in the tapestry of life

    • Mooser on September 14, 2015, 7:18 pm

      .“threads woven in the tapestry of life”

      Yeah, thank you, Carole King. I don’t think Annie is saying that legends should be used as a basis for a colonial project. Or used to manipulate children into hate, especially by a concerted effort from adults which replaces ignorance with legends instead of facts.

      • mcohen. on September 15, 2015, 1:27 am


        why are you defending annie……you reading it wrong

        what colonial project…..manipulate hate ignorance facts….all crap

        cannot help you with those

        i am more interested in the altered states of mind comment

        i am losing intetest in the whole i/p conflict to be honest.the palestinians and israeli,s need to sort it out themselves…..since posting here i have picked up some stuff ….i call it positive knowledge….so that is good on a personal level

        i was looking at the news on the stone throwing on the temple mount……..supposed to be a holy place….what kind of spirituality is that……….jews and moslems should hang there heads in shame….

        maybe a shake shake will wake people up.

  5. Jan on September 14, 2015, 10:13 pm

    Annie this is a wonderful review for an exceptionally wonderful and magical book. I bought the book last Thursday at Book Passage in Corte Madera and could not put it down as every page drew me further and further into the story which I read through occasional tears and admiration for Susan’s writing. On the next Thursday Susan was giving a reading at Book Passage in San Francisco and a friend and I went to see her. The group of people at the event was small and intimate and it gave us time to connect with Susan and to ask the questions that might not be asked were it a large group. I give The Blue Between Sky and Water five stars and I’m eagerly awaiting the next book from Susan. It can’t come soon enough.

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