Sahar Khalifeh : الأول : رواية (My First and Only Love)
Our heroine/narrator is a Palestinian woman who, after many years living abroad, has returned home to her house in Nablus. Her name is Nidal, an epicene name which means struggle, reflective of the era when she was born – it would seem to be the late 1920s – when the Palestinians were struggling as, indeed, they have been ever since. Her family home – the house where she was born – had been long abandoned as everyone had either died or emigrated but was still standing, though was not in particularly good condition. She hires various workers to restore it.
She had worked as an artist and had had some success (my paintings, a huge one, is on display at UNESCO). However, she now seems to be alone. I find myself without a friend and without a home. I am alone, like a sword.
Inevitably, much of the book focuses on her early life. We start when she is a young teenager. Her mother, Widad, is not in good shape, as her husband and gone off and married a Jewish woman. Nidal is particularly close to her grandmother, the loving but tough matriarch of the family. At the time the story opens, the Palestinians are facing extensive repression. Firstly, there are, of course, the Jewish settlers and secondly the British who had the UN mandate over Palestine at the time. The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine is going on. The Palestinians are resisting while the British are attacking and killing, including using planes to attack villages. Some of Nidal’s relatives are involved in the resistance including, in particular, her Uncle Wahid.
One day Nidal and her grandmother are visiting a friend of the grandmother. There is an air attack and they shelter. The grandmother’s friend is joined by a young man, her grandson, Rabie. We soon realise that he is the eponymous First and Only Love. Nidal falls for him at once, admiring a young man barely older than her who is fighting for their country.
She will meet him a few times afterwards, for example when they are visiting Uncle Wahid. I was totally under his spell; I saw nothing but his shadow and heard nothing but the sound of his voice. He was the man who had awakened me like the prince awakened Sleeping Beauty in her glass house.
While we are following this story, we are also following Nidal’s return to Nablus. She gets to know her talkative neighbour, Yasmine, whose marriage had been a failure. It is Yasmine who tells her horror stories of what happened to Nidal’s house in her absence. The young men of the intifada had broken in and had used the house not only as a resting place but also to bring prisoners who were tortured and executed. Yasmine suspects there may be bodies buried in the garden.
Yasmine is also critical of the exiles, leaving the country to the hungry and the greedy, the thugs of the Palestinian Authority and turbans of Hamas. The country turned into a hisbeh, a slaughterhouse.
Meanwhile things are not going well for the Palestinians back in the 1930s. We see a village which is essentially stolen from the locals and handed over to the Jews for a kibbutz. The British would take the communal land and claim it was government property. And the government would then give it to the Jews. Rabie and the others resist. However, the resistance is not working well. People are killed, people return to their families and some of the fighters simply become bandits.
Uncle Wahid has given his life to the struggle but now that things are going badly, he seems to lose his spark, getting increasingly despondent and spending his time in the mosque. He has fallen for Hasna. She was herself a revolutionary and wife of a revolutionary leader, who was killed fighting for the cause. She seems to be interested in Wahid only so he could take on the mantle of her late husband.
Nidal gets to meet al-Zaybaq who is really a bandit but also happy to fight for the cause but, when the British and Jews are stealing the land of the local village, he fights back but they are massively outnumbered. A few days later, the United Nations announced the partition plan. We received the news like a thunderbolt.
Rabie goes off to fight with another revolutionary but then manages to escape with the help of a Canadian diplomat and flees to Canada with her. Nidal also leaves and goes to Rome. From that point I began my life as an artist. I lived my life the way I wanted it; I married and divorced, then remarried, then rebelled, then fell in love a second and a third time, and a tenth time.
Now in her seventies, she is back. It is the intifada period – late 1990s-2000 and things are not working out well.The Israelis are being brutal. They disconnected the electricity as a punishment, and they did the same with the water and the phone lines, and also our ability to breathe. When they invaded our neighbourhoods, they urinated and defecated in the water tanks where we got our drinking water. They even shot at the water tanks, which became like sieves.
One day she hears a knock at her door. Is it the soldiers or someone escaping from the soldiers? It was a strange man with a goatee. He looked quite old, with grey hair and glasses. He was wearing an American plaid shirt and faded blue jeans. His general appearance suggested that he was a foreign employee volunteering in one of the associations that abounded in the country and were here to help us — they didn’t, but were better than nothing.
It was, of course, Rabie. He had come to Nablus – he lived not far away – but could not leave because of a blockade. The blockade lasts several days so he has to stay. To preserve proprieties she sleeps in Yasmine’s house. (She gives a long diatribe on how badly women are treated.) She learned that he had made money from a company he owned selling copiers, computers and the like and that he moved between Palestine and Canada. He was a widower with adult children.
While sleeping there, he discovers Nidal’s Uncle Amin’s memoirs which were in the spare bedroom, which she had not yet had time to read. In the memoirs he discovers a whole load of information about Nidal’s mother (who had disappeared), her Uncle Wahid and her Uncle Amin, which she did not know. In particular we learn about the revolutionary leader Abd al-Qader al-Husseini and Nidal’s mother’s involvement with him. We also learn how the Arab League spectacularly failed to help the Palestinians as the British were leaving and Israelis moving in, aided by the British, as well as the atrocities committed by the Israelis, particularly at Deir Yassin.
Rabie also seems to suggest they get back together. If I were young, I would have married this man, had children with him, and filled the house with my children, she says.
The title implies that this is about Rabie and Nidal and how they loved each other but circumstances prevented them getting together. However, as Uncle Amin’s memoirs showed, there were three other couples similarly blighted, involving Nidal’s close relatives – her mother and her two uncles Amin and Wahid. All four couples were in love and all four relationships abruptly ended not because of lack of love but because of the political situation. Yes, for the Palestinians the Nakba was a great tragedy, in that they lost their country but, Khalifeh is telling us, there were also a whole host of minor, personal tragedies.
Khalifeh is a first-class story-teller and, whatever your views on the political situation she tells a first-class, albeit poignant story on love and loss in a period of war and oppression.
First published in 2010 Dār al-Ādāb
First published in English in 2021 by Hoopoe
Translated by Aida Bamia