Book Review: Rula Jebreal’s Miral

Miral, a novel written by Rula Jebreal and made into a film by American filmmaker Julian Schnabel, is the story of a young girl’s coming of age–physically, emotionally and politically–in a Jerusalem of the 1980s, which finds itself smothered with student demonstrations, violent resistance, and unrelenting occupation alongside everyday uncharted life.

After the tragic death of their mother, Miral and her younger sister, Rania, are put in Hind Husseini’s school for young girls. The girls visit their father, an imam at al-Aqsa, as well as spend their summers with him. The school becomes a second home for the young girls as they find themselves trying to deal with the seemingly worsening political situation in the Occupied Territories and also with life’s daily hurdles and occasional struggles.

Miral becomes increasingly involved with the political resistance, particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, much to the dismay and worry of her family and her school. Her impulsive nature, immature experience and resounding passion for her people put herself, her family, and the her fellow students in constant danger. Ultimately, Miral is forced to make a decision having to choose between joining the resistance movement and continuing her education. She pursues studies to use her mind and ability as forms of resistance– to be, as Husseini says to Miral, “future women leaders of Palestine, not martyrs.”

Despite some memorable characters and moments, as well as the (ultimately brief) acknowledgment of Hind Husseini’s work and life, the books fails to be anything more than, as the Omar El-Khairy notes in a review of the film, “Palestine as Hollywood fantasy.” While the film is markedly different from the novel in many ways, El-Khairy’s critiques remain as relevant as for the book as they do for the movie. The book is written to be a film seemingly more about sexually adventurous, politically aggressive and unorthodox Palestinian Muslim women who stand against the almost invariably abusive, rigidly-traditional minded men who try to exert certain sort control over the various women in the novel, as opposed to a novel about the Palestinian experience, during the volatile period of the Intifada, especially for young women.

The novel is filled with weak and forced metaphors, poor writing and a severe lack of flow in narration, lucidly highlighting the author’s personal political beliefs and agenda, deeply drenched in an exoticized Western perception of Arab women. There is belly dancing, there is a lot of guilt-ridden sex, and there is the use of the words “exotic Middle Eastern features.”

There is also no organization and no sense of time as well. The book begins in 1948 Palestine, jumping back and forth between the beginning of the Oslo period and the Nakba, finally settling into the ‘80s, during which most of Miral’s life and story develops. Yet while the stories of different women “strangely” connected by fate and challenges they’ve faced in their lives (coming mostly from men) relate heavily to Miral, they ultimately play very little relevance in the development of the plot and Miral’s character.  In fact, many characters fall flat in their development, primarily due to Jebreal’s ‘on-the-nose’ and rushed style of writing, which leaves very little to the reader’s imagination. Intimate moments and otherwise momentous self-awareness occasions are reduced to obvious statements made by Jebreal. For instance, in the scene where Miral and Rania spend their first few nights in the new school, all the other girls – orphans, abandoned in one form or another – push their beds together and hold onto one another tightly, at night, just before falling asleep.

This particular scene is described warmly by Jebreal and set up for the readers in the previous chapters, which described the backgrounds of the school, its founders and the various girls staying there. The instance of intimacy shared between these girls beautifully and wrenchingly highlights the loss and feelings of loneliness as a result of their collective and individual abandonment, most apparent at night in those moments before falling asleep.

Yet rather than allowing the reader to discern his/her own meaning from this intimate moment, as predicated by the author previously, Jerbreal ends the scene by letting the audience know that “[s]uch gestures of affection were means of compensating for the lack of physical contact with their mothers” and thus in effect kind of ruining that sweet moment of intimacy.

Finally, there is the overall portrayal of women, sex and general gender in the novel. There is nothing more evident of the audience to whom Jebreal is writing than when she is discussing the various, dispersed female characters, both those who are seemingly integral to the story and those who are in passing. They are all sexually “expressive” women, breaking the shackles of tradition, feeling little to no guilt, reclaiming their womanhood from men who’ve tried their hardest to exert some sort of abusive or ideological control on their lives. As El-Kheiry notes in his review, “[a]part from the benign figure of Jamal, Palestinian men spend their time raping, drooling over or marrying off their daughters.” And women are either weak and subservient or defying tradition, asserting their independence and strength by never getting married and becoming in some sense, “masculated” themselves. There’s even an instant of lesbian sexual experiment as well as young girls demanding Middle Eastern-looking Barbies, in contrast to the blonde-haired blue-eyed voluptuous devils to which the rest of us are accustomed.

Hind Husseini, based off of a real woman by the same name, was perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel, given her very real existence and integral place in Palestinian history, particularly immediately following the Nakba. Had the story circulated around her, as opposed to taking several detours and tangents before deciding to focus on Miral, there could have been great potential for this novel to have a place in a long list of books about the varying Palestinian experience.

Instead, poor writing and blunt ideological rants expressed through various characters render this book as only a vehicle for the big screen, with an ending to match. My suggestion? Read Gate of the Sun or The Yacoubian Building. It will have been time much better spent.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thank you for this insightful review. I was thinking of watching the movie version of this story; all I kept hearing about with regards to the movie was how “unsuitable” actress Frieda Pinto was playing a Palestinian female character based on her “Indian” physical features. I don’t really know whether she can or can’t pass as Arab (Arabs can pass as many other races/ethnicities, white, black, South Asian, Latino, etc). But the criticism surrounding her made me feel uncomfortable in the sense that if it was Arabs complaining, it seemed like they took it as “insult” to have their looks be equated with “lowly” South Asians (unfortunately alot of Arab nationalists hold racist views towards South Asian and other groups).

    Anyway it’s too bad to read that the film doesn’t explore the Palestinian resistance and life under occupation as much as it does other issues. Maybe that’s why a movie version of this book was greenlighted, because it wouldn’t be a critique of the occupation so much as the continuation of “exoticized Western notions of Arab life” in particular women.

  • Sana

    The interesting thing about Pinto as the choice for Miral is that she looks strikingly like Rula Jebreal.

    Additionally, the book explores Palestinian resistance, particularly during the intifada but it is made extremely clear by Jebreal where she stands on the matter. Yet, it doesn’t matter what Jebreal’s personal position on Palestinian resistance is, rather it is her treatment of it which renders Palestinian resistance that employs violence as completely fueled by irrationality, unrelenting passion and immaturity. Jebreal’s discussion of Palestinian resistance completely avoids the intellectual and strategic framework – as well as the political context – in which it was born (particularly after 1967).

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  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks for that info Sana and you’re right taking out the intellectual and strategic framework just makes the resistance out to be only fueled by emotions and does nothing to dispel the Western stereotypes of Arabs supposedly being “hot-headed and irrational” that were popularized by books like “The Arab Mind”.

  • Deema

    Rule #1 when picking up a book with a photo from the movie version of it: it is the movie version of the book. Not criticizing, but it’s a common mistake.

    I had thought about seeing the movie, but was a little turned off by the trailer.

  • Krista

    @ Deema: I would disagree there; a lot of books are re-published once movies come out, with new covers that relate to the movie, but it’s still the original book. It appears that that’s the case here.

  • Myr

    This review reflects my thoughts exactly about Miral. I kept wishing the author had a decent editor to stop her from being clunky and over-obvious.

  • E. Nina Rothe

    At first, upon reading your review, I wondered if you had read a different book altogether from the one I devoured back in October, when I was given an advance copy to write an article about Jebreal. Then, the more I found you quoting Omar El-Khairy’s review of the film, I speculated that perhaps you had not even attempted to read the novel Miral but rather formed an opinion of it based on the writing of another, MALE, critic.

    I declare unfalteringly, proudly and gladly that both Miral the book and Miral the film are personal favorites, to be read and watched more than once! Both are works of art that also teach something, about a woman’s courage in the face of her world falling apart around her, and the courage of those who made her a success in life, even sacrificing their own in the process. Miral is not only Rula Jebreal’s own touching, simply told story, but also enlightened those of us who may not have known about it in full detail to the Palestinian struggle, as seen from the POV of woman. FINALLY. In a world where everything “meaningful” is always told from a male POV, this is a refreshingly personal look at a conflict that ultimately can only be resolved if both sides bring the analytical help of women, not the battlefield mentality of men to the table. Far from containing sex, cliches and stereotypes, the book and the film enlighten the viewer who is truly ready for such statements to a new way of looking at life, a world where it is possible to escape the “crabs in a bucket” mentality inside which most of us are stuck.

    Before reading and watching Miral, I never considered myself a feminist, but because of the battles that this novel – and Schnabel’s poetic, caring film – have been facing, I’m now aware of the destructive power of men with a chip on their shoulder, who dismiss these works only because of their jealousy for a woman who made it against all odds, and now gets to share her life with a beautiful artist and contemporary Renaissance man – Schnabel himself.

    Sadly, what I never expected was another woman such as yourself – a modern, Muslim woman, well educated and who must have faced some of the same struggles as Miral/Rula in life – to dismiss this important work, perhaps only out of spite. Both the novel and the film need to be read and seen to understand this fully.

  • Sana

    Rothe,

    My guilt is that I can read and be critical. I am sorry.


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