The Blue between Sky and Water

  • By Susan Abulhawa
  • Bloomsbury
  • 304 pp.

A deeply felt, occasionally foul-mouthed tale about a Palestinian family navigating the birth of Israel.

Gaza is “the largest open-air prison in the world.” Thus, Susan Abulhawa transports readers, via four generations of the Baraka family, to a briny Mediterranean edge: the place where freedom is longed for but is as intangible as the sea air.

The “blue” referred to in her latest novel’s title is said place, on the horizon, where control and borders have no power. It’s also a place existing of its own dimension, where the spirits of the living and departed mingle. In this other place, hearts join across time, space, and circumstance.

The novel opens in the historical Palestinian village of Beit Daras, just before Israel forms in 1948. Um Mamdouh Baraka is a single mother of three and the village eccentric. Her frequent possession by a spirit named Sulayman earns her scorn and fear from the community, but when she foresees the Israeli invasion, people begin to respect her as a seer.

Nazmiyeh is the eldest daughter of Um Mamdouh. Sensual and dirty-mouthed, she spends her time defending the family’s honor and protecting her strange sister, Mariam, who has one brown eye and one green eye. Their little brother, Mamdouh, finds solace and stability working for the village beekeeper, who has become his father figure.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates, Um Mamdouh’s children each bear their exile differently: Nazmiyeh will become a matriarch, recreating a sense of Beit Daras in a refugee camp for the next two generations; her brother, Mamdouh, will leave Palestine for the Gulf and, finally, emigrate to America; Mariam, who sees auras from the time she is born, will go permanently into the blue between sky and water.

Two generations later, the Baraka descendants continue along the paths already forged by the choices of their parents, grasping at what makes them whole and what separates them: There will be a homecoming, a jail sentence, a life of piety, and another departure into the blue.

Though the novel isn’t without male characters, the story belongs to women. Principally, Nazmiyeh, whom the reader will follow for close to 70 years. However, with the book’s mythical quality and multiple viewpoints, it’s a study of shared memory and culture more than a deep psychological portrait of any single character, thus underlining the people it depicts: deeply communal and religious.

For all of the constant references to God and his infinite mercy, readers may be surprised by the comical banter, often vulgar references which reveal taboos and preoccupations. Of Mariam’s green eye, Nazmiyeh says, “Some Roman stud probably stuck his dick in our ancestral line a few hundred years ago and now it’s poking out of my poor sister’s eye.” The tunnel between Gaza and Egypt, where goods are smuggled under Israel, is “as cold as your mama’s pussy.”

When a snobby woman from the uppity part of the ghetto tells her guests she only speaks French and English to her children, the women mock her later on, “Do you think Maisa yells in French and English when el doctor fucks her?” The salty talk is the necessary light side of an otherwise emotionally fraught book: the bitterness of occupation and uneven warfare, the consequences of broken family ties.

The story follows brother and sister Nazmiyeh and Mamdouh into old age, but neither offers much in the way of wisdom. Perhaps because both are too intent on surviving to lose time in reflection. Nur (Mamdouh’s granddaughter), on the other hand, tries to discern the recipe for human connection: “It’s all about having a thread that links your years. To have another living person who just knows you. Someone who has seen you from childhood.”  

The thread linking Nur to the rest of the Barakas may not run through all the years of her life, but like the line between the seashore and the sky, she’s joined to them through something more profound: the experience of exile and the mismatched eyes of her great-aunt Mariam.

Readers of The Blue between Sky and Water are sure to be charmed by Abulhawa’s glittering language and to remember (and love) the characters long after the book has ended.  

Dorothy Reno is a Washington, DC-based short-story writer, who grew up between sky and water in Nova Scotia, Canada. 

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