My First and Only Love by Sahar Khalifeh, translated by Aida Bamia, Hoopoe (2021)
Sahar Khalifeh’s newest novel, My First and Only Love, shows how the actions of a moment can change the path of history.
It is also an account of how petty-mindedness and trivial jealousies can destroy peoples and thwart national causes. Khalifeh points to the betrayal of leadership by individuals who were too mean, too complacent or simply too plain jealous to provide the support needed at a critical juncture in Arab history.
My First and Only Love reflects on a cause betrayed and a nation pitted against a vicious and ongoing process of systematic destruction.
Khalifeh, who was born in 1941, has published 11 novels. Her most seminal work – Wild Thorns (1976) – is set in the West Bank and includes some of the first accounts of Palestinian laborers in Israel and the fissures in Palestinian society under the pressure of the occupation.
A novelist as well as a feminist and social and political activist, Khalifeh’s writing reflects a desire not just to witness history, but to make it emotionally resonate. Her novels not only explain past failures but also explore future possibilities and current strengths.
My First and Only Love works along two story lines. Both are linked to the same female narrator, the sandal-wearing artist Nidal, who grew up in Palestine, left and has returned to Nablus to rebuild her family’s home.
“Children of well-known families, like you, studied in America and Europe and stayed there, leaving the country for the hungry and the greedy, the thugs of the Palestinian Authority and turbans of Hamas. The country turned into a hisbeh, a slaughterhouse,” Yasmine, the divorcée who lives next door, remarks.
Nidal, now in her 70s, decides to take on this slaughterhouse, where people are, according to her neighbor, hanged where they piss.
Nestled within the framing narrative of the return to the homeland – one frequently found in contemporary Palestinian literature – is a story of young love set during the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine.
Prior to the Nakba – the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland around the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948 – Nidal lived with her grandmother in the house to which she returns decades later.
She recalls falling in love with Rabie, a young freedom fighter. Active political resistance is expected from both Nidal and more so Rabie; both of them frequently feel too young for the expectations placed on them by themselves and others.
“I saw Rabie bend his head over his knees,” Nidal narrates, “as if to hide his face, and maybe his eyes, as if he did not want us to see that he was still young like me, and emotional.”
Within this personal love story lies a greater, collective love story: My First and Only Love is also an elegy to military leader Abdel-Qader al-Husseini and the integrity of the Palestinian resistance. The love felt between a boy and a girl parallels the innocent love for a political cause and both are destroyed or deranged by circumstance, with only ghosts of their spirits remaining.
The contemporary part of the novel is set in Nablus while under siege around the time of the second intifada, paralleling the sieges on Jewish settlements around Jerusalem prior to the Nakba. These are referenced in the novel when Palestinian fighters, led by al-Husseini, and Arab militias blockade the corridor from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in early 1948.
This could have been the decisive moment in capturing control of Jerusalem had Arab leadership provided some of the arms and munitions they had, according to al-Husseini, “stacked” in their warehouses. Instead, al-Husseini was left with faulty weaponry and insufficient means to achieve victory.
Al-Husseini realizes the severity of the situation.
‘You do not know the Nakhshun plan,” he tells the Arab leadership in Khalifeh’s novel, referring to the initial step of Plan Dalet – the Zionist militia’s strategy to depopulate Palestinian communities.
“It is as follows: first of all, they want to assassinate the leaders, including you here in Damascus. Second, they want to empty the country and push people away by committing mass killings. Third, they want Palestine, the whole of Palestine, from the sea to the river. Then they will come after you, all the way to the Euphrates, to control every Arab capital.”
But the Arab leadership, as portrayed by Khalifeh, quite simply doesn’t like al-Husseini. He looks too much like a film star, comes from a high-class family and they don’t buy the sense of urgency he desperately tries to convey. The young Rabie witnesses this betrayal and is haunted by it the rest of his life.
One of the novel’s most complex characters is Rabie in his older years: materially rich, but tormented by betrayals of the past and the realities of the present. He finds himself in the older Nidal’s presence then tracks his way through the past as he unravels the guilt and anger at their loss.
Nidal’s neighbor, Yasmine, is wonderfully drawn: a woman who observes everything, even events which couldn’t have happened. She tells chilling tales of the first intifada and the deaths and torture carried out in Nidal’s abandoned family home.
Israeli forces raid the house multiple times, according to the neighbor. But she suspects Palestinians of having tortured and killed one another there.
“Once they hanged a man from this tree and once they slit the throat of a collaborator there, in this spot in front of you, on the stairs,” Yasmine tells Nidal.
Khalifeh’s style is traditional, reminiscent of novelists of the 19th century. Her imagination and scenic range are epic, the casts of characters varied and multiple.
My First and Only Love brings battle to life with attention to detail, depicting the emotional and physical strain on the characters. Decisive political and military confrontations are brought to the fore.
It is regrettable that the translation, although smooth, is frequently too literal.
Most of the historical episodes are undated, which is understandable from Khalifeh’s perspective, to provide the flexibility required when creating a world which combines both real and fictive historical characters.
A sense of struggle is portrayed, but the emotional impact of well-plotted events can be obscured by the style of the language and the lack of anchoring within the time periods covered.
A particularly memorable passage is found in the modern descriptions of West Bank life under occupation, when the neighbor describes hiding a young man who is fleeing from Israeli soldiers.
Khalifeh has a sharp eye with which she observes the tensions that arise when the man arrives at the door: the combination of desperation, courtesy, shame and fear that moves between him and the two older ladies whose house he is seeking sanctuary in.
Introducing Khalifeh and her work in London in 2015, the scholar Karma Nabulsi spoke of how “Palestinian literature, like our identity, is not based on a combination of national particularities that give rise to the people, but rather on the glue that keeps us together.”
It is this focus on the “glue” that fiction is so capable of emphasizing to readers. It is the bonds of respect, love, pride and dignity that connect the characters, however flawed their relationships, and however bleak their political landscape, that Sahar Khalifeh demonstrates so well in her writing.
Selma Dabbagh is a writer of fiction and a lawyer.