The Middle East is arguably a man’s world. The current crop of regional leaders is male. The leaders that have been overthrown were all males. Unsurprisingly the biggest terrorist organisations in the region also were/are run by males. And by coincidence all the non regional states that initiated some sort of intervention in the 21st century were run by males at the time of intervention.
Perhaps because of this author Susan Abulhawa decided to focus on the female voice with her character Nahr in her book Against the Loveless World. The book centres on perhaps the biggest Middle Eastern conflict of them all, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The start of the book finds Nahr in The Cube, an Israel prison for terrorists. She is locked in an isolation cell and occasionally brought out for either interrogation or interviews. The rest of the time it is back in the cell ruminating on how she got there. This ruminating is the basis of Abulhawa’s book as we the audience get to share in Nahr’s life journey as she moves from Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Israel/Palestine. Her story, it can be said, is the story of the Middle East as Nahr becomes a witness to many real life events such as the Gulf War and the Palestinian Uprising, the Intifada. But it is also a personal story about a young woman trying to live her life in less than ideal circumstances. Next to well known events the book depicts Nahr’s attempts, among other things, to find love and to provide for her family.
The book is written in first person and alternates from Nahr’s present day circumstances in The Cube to her past. Unlike other stories, be they on page or on screen, this is done well. Before the story begins several pages of the book is dedicated to translations of Arabic words into English. Though this is indeed helpful, I feel that there were too many translations and the book could have done with a more condensed list.
As a character Nahr is complex. She isn’t an especially intelligent person, she remarks on this herself, but though not the brightest academically she is what some could describe as street smart. Is Nahr a good person? That depends on which side you take. Imprisoned as a terrorist Nahr is no innocent petal (and to say so would be demeaning to the character). But she is also not a psychopath. It is clear that she loves and wants to be loved in return. Is Nahr’s character a sympathetic one? Some would say definitely yes; she is a victim of a great injustice. Others would say definitely no; that despite circumstances, Nahr had a choice and she must pay for her choices. What to make of Nahr is up to each individual reader.
Writing a book about the Middle East and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is difficult. It is a very emotive issue. Susan Abulhawa is Palestinian herself and from her character you get a very one sided perspective of the conflict, which is understandable for obvious reasons, though it must still be taken into account. The book is dark and no light read which in a way, is entirely fitting with modern Middle Eastern history. Is it worth reading? Nahr’s character is believable and as a fictional story that weaves around historical events it is interesting.