47 pages 1 hour read

Susan Abulhawa

Against the Loveless World

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Against the Loveless World (2020) is the third novel by Palestinian American author Susan Abulhawa. It chronicles the life of Nahr, a Palestinian woman born in exile who is eventually imprisoned by the Israeli government after returning home and joining the Palestinian resistance. Like Abulhawa’s previous novels Mornings in Jenin (2010) and The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015), Against the Loveless World depicts life for members of the Palestinian diaspora as they move between Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, and other communities in the Middle East. Against the Loveless World shares with Abulhawa’s other novels a particular interest in the gendered experiences of Arab women, but also engages with themes related to displacement and diaspora, resistance in the face of political oppression, and Western misconceptions of Arab identity.

This guide uses the 2020 hardcover edition by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuster

Content Warning: This guide contains discussions of the source text’s depictions of sexual assault, rape, sexual exploitation, abuse, anti-gay bias, and political violence.

Plot Summary

Narrated by incarcerated Palestinian protagonist Nahr, the novel unfolds in chapters that alternate between the present day and the past. The chapters set in the present describe her life inside “the Cube,” a specialized cell in an Israeli prison, while chapters set in the past tell the story of Nahr’s life in Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine.

The novel begins in the Cube and then flashes back to Nahr’s early days in Kuwait, where her family settled following the mass Palestinian displacement in 1948. During the Israeli invasion of Palestine that year, advancing troops occupied the homes and properties of family members on both her mother’s and her father’s sides, and everyone in her family’s home communities fled to either Jordan or Kuwait. Nahr’s childhood and early youth were marked by a feeling of disconnection to Palestine, even as her mother and grandmother still felt drawn to their homeland and the family was surrounded by other displaced Palestinian refugees.

Nahr married late in her teens but the union was unhappy and brief. Her husband Mhammad left her before she turned 20, and she recalls the anger and shame of having been abandoned by her spouse. Not long after Mhammad left her and returned to Palestine, Nahr met Um Buraq, a middle-aged Iraqi woman who ushered her into the taboo world of sex work in Kuwait.

The narrative traces Nahr’s experiences working for Um Buraq while first the Iraqis, and then the Americans, invade Kuwait. She navigates both war and personal turmoil in a country that is increasingly hostile to its Palestinian refugee community. Nahr meets a series of men, some of whom become financial benefactors, but all of whom subject her to some degree of discrimination and gender-based violence. Although she eventually decides to give up sex work and only dance for men whom Um Buraq finds, she continues to see men on the side to finance her brother’s education. He has been accepted at Moscow University and the family would not otherwise be able to afford his tuition.

Since the Palestinian president supports Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait, life becomes increasingly difficult for Palestinians in Kuwait. Many Palestinians—Nahr’s brother Jehad included—are imprisoned by Kuwaiti authorities on charges of collaborating with the enemy. Stores close, money becomes scarce, and Nahr’s family is evicted from their home by a landlord who blames all Palestinians for the perceived crimes of their leader.

Nahr and her family eventually flee to Amman, Jordan. Nahr’s mother and grandmother have prior experience as refugees, as they were internally displaced within Palestine and then fled to Kuwait. Nahr, however, was born in Kuwait and has never lived anywhere else. She feels particularly lost and lonely in Amman. Conflict and political instability continue to rock the Middle East, and it becomes clear that Nahr’s brother is involved in some kind of clandestine resistance activity. After the signing of the Oslo Accords, many Palestinians hope for liberation, and the Israeli authorities loosen return restrictions for diasporic Palestinians. Jehad arranges for Nahr to return to Palestine, primarily to obtain an official divorce from her husband Mhammad, but also to reconnect with her familial homeland.

In Palestine, Nahr meets and begins to fall in love with her brother-in-law Bilal, who is also a resistance fighter. He introduces her to his particular cell of combatants. Although they hope that she will help them transport weapons, she is afraid of the consequences. She travels back to Amman, but still cannot find a foothold there. After receiving an email from Bilal, she returns to Palestine. There, Nahr witnesses the political oppression of the Palestinians and learns about the many tactics that the government uses to disenfranchise Palestinian citizens and to continue the occupation of Palestinian homes, businesses, and farmland. Newly exposed to this situation, Nahr agrees to help Bilal and the other dissidents.

Bilal is imprisoned twice, and after his second release he and Nahr marry. They plan and execute a series of anti-government and anti-military operations, and ultimately Nahr is taken prisoner by the Israeli army. Since Bilal was able to flee and the Israeli government does not know his whereabouts, they hold Nahr indefinitely, hoping to gain access to Bilal through her. After a trial and conviction for terrorism, Nahr is transferred to the Cube, where she begins what turns into a 16-year prison sentence.

Although Nahr has various Western visitors, she finds that they all view her through the lens of a stereotype, and she has ample time to reflect on the damaging impact that Western stereotypes have had on the Middle East as a region. Through the entire length of her imprisonment, Nahr never loses sight of her identity as a Palestinian woman and remains strong in her love for Bilal.

Eventually, Nahr is freed and returns to Jordan to live with her mother. There, she reconnects with Um Buraq and the two remember their days together before the Iraqi invasion. A worker in one of the bathhouses that the two women frequent passes a message to Nahr from Bilal. As the novel ends, the two have arranged a meeting and she is looking forward to seeing him again.

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By Susan Abulhawa