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Against the Loveless World

A Novel

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2020 Palestine Book Awards Winner
2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Finalist

“Susan Abulhawa possesses the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices, and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us.” —Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author

In this “beautiful...urgent” novel (The New York Times), Nahr, a young Palestinian woman, fights for a better life for her family as she travels as a refugee throughout the Middle East.

As Nahr sits, locked away in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been. After trekking through another temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, falls in love, and her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation. Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity will resonate with fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer, and her dark, contemporary struggle places her as the perfect sister to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

Written with Susan Abulhawa’s distinctive “richly detailed, beautiful, and resonant” (Publishers Weekly) prose, this powerful novel presents a searing, darkly funny, and wholly unique portrait of a Palestinian woman who refuses to be a victim.

THE CUBE, EAST

I LIVE IN the Cube. I write on its glossy gray cinder-block walls however I can—with my nails before, with pencils now that the guards bring me some supplies.   

Light comes through the small glass-block window high on the wall, reached only by the many-legged crawling creatures that also reside here. I am fond of the spiders and ants, which have set up separate dominions and manage to avoid each other in our shared nine-square-meter universe. The light of a world beyond, with a sun and moon and stars, or maybe just fluorescent bulbs—I can’t be sure—streams through the window in a prism that lands on the wall in red, yellow, blue, and purple patterns. The shadows of tree branches, passing animals, armed guards, or perhaps other prisoners sometimes slide across the light.

I once tried to reach the window. I stacked everything I had on top of the bed—a bedside table, the small box where I keep my toiletries, and three books the guards had given me (Arabic translations of Schindler’s List, How to Be Happy, and Always Be Grateful). I stretched as tall as I could on the stack but only reached a cobweb.

When my nails were strong and I weighed more than now, I tried to mark time as prisoners do, one line on the wall for each day in groups of five. But I soon realized the light and dark cycles in the Cube do not match those of the outside world. It was a relief to know, because keeping up with life beyond the Cube had begun to weigh on me. Abandoning the imposition of a calendar helped me understand that time isn’t real; it has no logic in the absence of hope or anticipation. The Cube is thus devoid of time. It contains, instead, a yawning stretch of something unnamed, without present, future, or past, which I fill with imagined or remembered life.

Occasionally people come to see me. They carry on their bodies and speech the climate of the world where seasons and weather change; where cars and planes and boats and bicycles ferry people from place to place; where groups gather to play, eat, cry, or go to war. Nearly all of my visitors are white. Although I can’t know when it’s day or night, it’s easy to discern the seasons from them. In summer and spring, the sun glows from their skin. They breathe easily and carry the spirit of bloom. In winter they arrive pale and dull, with darkened eyes.

There were more of them before my hair turned gray, mostly businesspeople from the prison industry (there is such a thing) coming to survey the Cube. These smartly dressed voyeurs always left me feeling hollow. Reporters and human rights workers still come, though not as frequently anymore. After Lena and the Western woman came, I stopped receiving visitors for a while.

The guard allowed me to sit on the bed instead of being locked to the wall when the Western woman, who looked in her early thirties, came to interview me. I don’t remember if she was a reporter or a human rights worker. She may have been a novelist. I appreciated that she brought an interpreter with her—a young Palestinian woman from Nazareth. Some visitors didn’t bother, expecting me to speak English. I can, of course, but it’s not easy on my tongue, and I don’t care to be accommodating.

She was interested in my life in Kuwait and wanted to talk about my “sexuality.”

Photograph by T. Sauppe

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian-American writer and political activist. She is the author of Mornings in Jenin—translated into thirty languages—and The Blue Between Sky and Water. Born to refugees of the Six Day War of 1967, she moved to the United States as a teenager, graduated in biomedical science, and established a career in medical science. In July 2001, Abulhawa founded Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-governmental children’s organization dedicated to upholding the Right to Play for Palestinian children. She lives in Pennsylvania.

“This utterly compelling novel of love, passion, and politics is also a story of personal and revolutionary awakening. Susan Abulhawa weaves a thrilling account of Nahr and her life—from young girl to independent woman—into the larger tapestry of Palestinian dispossession and resistance. Formed through the calamitous experiences of invasion, war, occupation, and sexual exploitation, Nahr becomes a political prisoner who is yet free in her own mind. An agent of history and a full-fledged subject of her own existence, Nahr stands at the center of Abulhawa’s ambitious epic.”

– Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer

“Susan Abulhawa possesses the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices, and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us, who are too often oblivious. A major writer of our time, to read Abulhawa is to begin to understand not simply the misinformation we have received for decades about what has gone on in Palestine and the Middle East, but to come to terms with our own resistance to feeling the terror of our own fear of Truth.”

– Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart

Against the Loveless World is a masterpiece! As she does with every book, Susan Abulhawa paints stunningly beautiful and humanizing images of Palestinian women as they navigate the violence of settler-colonial oppression with dignity and agency. With this novel, she also forces us to wrestle with the complexities of love, freedom, struggle, and shame in ways that both inspire and challenge our very conceptions of what it means to be human. This is a major literary contribution that further cements Abulhawa’s status as one of the most important writers of our generation.”

– Marc Lamont Hill, award-winning author of Nobody

“A thrilling, defiant novel. Abulhawa’s latest novel reads as a riot act against oppression, misogyny, and shame.”

– Fatima Bhutto, author of The Runaways

“A powerful and expansive story of love, resistance, and the search for freedom. Abulhawa’s characters are raw, unapologetic, and unforgettable.”

– Saleem Haddad, author of Guapa

“Nahr is a wonderful creation, strong-willed, passionate, unapologetic, and adventurous. Her refusal to accept the subordination expected of her propels the story at a thrilling pace. Her determination to find love in a loveless world and her unquenchable spirit in adversity shines a ray of hope into some very dark places.”

– Michael Palin, actor and philanthropist

“A fearless work of imagination and documentary.”

– Ahdaf Soueif, author of In the Eye of the Sun

“[A]t its heart, Abulhawa’s novel is a love story . . . but this is a love story that cannot escape its geography, and Abulhawa elegantly crafts a world where the tension between desire and survival is laid bare.”

– New Yorker

“A meditation on love and alienation in a setting that is by nature political [. . .] Exhilarating and contemplative.”

– Los Angeles Review of Books

“Abulhawa has created a spirited protagonist who lives invisibly and in opposition to her ‘loveless world,’ telling her own story on her own terms.”

– New York Times Book Review

“The detailed explorations of a woman’s pain and desperate measures make this lush story stand out.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Through Nahr, Abulhawa seamlessly, affectingly parallels Palestine's brutal, occupied history during the last half-century, humanizing headlines with names, families, dates, memories that belong to people with whom readers can identity, believe, empathize, mourn and ultimately, albeit tentatively, celebrate.”

– Shelf Awareness

“In this moving and nuanced novel, Abulhawa takes a hard look at the inheritance of exile and the intersection of the political with the personal, as Nahr’s story reveals the complexity beneath the simple narratives told on both sides of a deep divide.”

– Booklist

“A remarkable story filled with lyrical prose and breathtaking humanity.”

– Book Reporter

“From the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which made her a refugee, to jilted love, poverty, prostitution, a trek through Jordan, and falling in love, Nahr’s life unfolds in twists and turns, told beautifully by the internationally bestselling author of Mornings in Jenin.”

– GMA.com

“This is one masterfully written story you won’t be able to put down.”

– CNN.com

“Palestinian-American writer and political activist Susan Abulhawa has given us another powerful novel, this one of a woman’s fight against misogyny and oppression to find hope and meaning in the darkest of times.”

– Ms. Magazine

Against the Loveless World gives readers a lens that focuses on the experience of a woman trying to assimilate into Palestinian culture as she moves forward to find a better life, the one she always dreamed of.”

– Apartment Therapy

“Susan Abulhawa’s writing has the rare quality of allowing us to hear the sound, taste the flavor, smell the fragrance, and feel the pulse of Palestine. She offers a rare insight and we would be foolish not to accept it.”

– Mint Press News