My First and Only Love: An ode to the unshakable Palestinian zeal to preserve their history and land
Stories of Palestinian valour are commonplace, and many people worldwide have seen this impressive zeal, particularly in the past weeks following the #SaveSheikhJarrah campaign. The campaign hit social media when Israeli settlers began to forcefully expel Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
Very quickly, this campaign expanded to cover other communities under threats of depopulation like Silwan and the broader oppression and apartheid that Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank experience. Now more than ever, this formidable Palestinian will of survival is visible to the world and My First and Only Love by Sahar Khalifeh is an ode to that Palestinian will.
The story trails Nidal, a woman in her seventies who returns to rebuild her family home in Nablus after years of exile. The house and its contents bring memories of her first love, Rabie, during the final days of the British Mandate and the height of the Palestinian resistance against their actions.
One day, as Nidal sorts through her memories, the realities of living under Israeli occupation and the ruins of the Qahtan family home, Rabie appears on her doorstep. He brings more memories and encourages her to rediscover her family and national history through her uncle’s unpublished memoirs.
My First and Only Love alternates between the 1930s during the resistance before the formation of Israel and the 2000s with the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli occupation. These multiple snapshots allow us to experience different facets of the Palestinian experience. The book is an ode to the unshakable Palestinian zeal to preserve their history and land and is highlighted in how Khalifeh’s characters constantly arrive at this passion, even when they are riddled with pessimism, lose faith, or face apparent loss – they always manage to reconnect with that zeal and stand firm in their struggle with it.
Khalifeh starts the story from the beginning of today’s occupation, detailing the factors that facilitated the loss of the “holy struggle”, despite the strength of the Palestinian will. These factors include Britain's unfair support for the settlers while feigning neutrality; foreign support for the settlers from powerful countries like America; the greed and divide within Palestinian ranks; the decisions that the Arab league made that are fuelled by motives other than concerns for Palestinian lives; and patriarchal practices within the communities.
In this way, she effectively distributes the blame thus identifying the oppressor without ignoring ills within the community that encouraged other forms of oppression or the loss of lives and lands.
Khalifeh also debunks many untruths in this story. A case in point is the widespread notion that Israel was created on empty, dead land, which Israelis groomed to be fruitful, the “a land without people for a people without land” myth. To demystify this, Khalifeh’s narrators evoke the sceneries around them using delicate and poetic language.
During the resistance, Nidal describes varied fruits, water bodies, insects and other animals, the skies and nature in colourful and calming ways. Her uncle Amin also employs this same tone to characterise the environs even as the tension increases and the creation of Israel draws near. This emphasis on the colourful, beautiful, and captivating nature of Palestine vehemently expose this myth as untrue.
Khalifeh’s female characters are strong, stubborn, and firm in their desire for freedom
Additionally, Khalifeh’s female characters are strong, stubborn, and firm in their desire for freedom. They are different and nurse a varied relationship with the patriarchal standards of their community.
Hasna, the love interest of Nidal’s eldest uncle, is outspoken, physically strong, and firmly engages with freedom plans. At the same time, Widad, Nidal’s mother, is enigmatic, aloof, contributes to the holy struggle by providing medical aid as a nurse. Other characters often dismiss her, but she is quickly revealed to be more than just a “standoffish nurse”.
Nidal’s grandmother is conservative and believes in her faith and the patriarchal rules guiding their society. However, she also has a staunch side that readers see when she admonishes and encourages her sons whenever they lose sight of the struggle.
Lastly, Nidal herself is the epitome of strength. After surviving many years alone in strange countries, with no news from her family, she returns to rebuild her family home in a city that is now under siege. These characters dismantle the misconceptions, although sometimes founded, that Palestinian women are subjugated because of their identity and that the Israeli occupation is somehow more liberating for them.
Despite the painful and jarring history lessons in My First and Only Love, Khalifeh gifts readers with a momentous joy to rekindle hope, as is customary and representative of the Palestinian will
Love and clocks are two interesting analogies that repeatedly appear in the story. Khalifeh prompts us to re-examine the idea of love because to love fiercely in an environment that routinely threatens one’s life and dignity is a loud act of resilience.
The characters in My First and Only Love fall in love unabashedly. Their romantic love often tangles up with love for their land so that readers cannot tell where one ends, and the other begins. Khalifeh explores this mixing together of love in the ‘leader’, Abdel Qader al-Husseini and the love, reverence, and adoration the characters have for him. Thus, like a picture in motion, this exploration becomes a historical lesson that livens the events that led to the demise of al-Husseini. Readers also get a glimpse into how his death triggers the smooth activation of the “Nakhshun/Nachshon plan” that leads to the formation of the Israeli state.
Khalifeh also emphasises the strength of the pen and teaches us the importance of documentation in uncle Amin’s character. At the height of the resistance, some characters mocked Amin’s preference for the pen and question its usefulness for the struggle, unlike arms. Khalifeh establishes the pen’s strength with the power that uncle Amin’s memoirs gifts Nidal when she eventually reads them. This strength is further evident in how works by Palestinian authors preserve history and further the Palestinian cause for freedom to date.
Despite the painful and jarring history lessons in My First and Only Love, Khalifeh gifts readers with a momentous joy to rekindle hope, as is customary and representative of the Palestinian will. It is also pertinent to point out how Aida Bamia’s translation emphasises the beauty of the Arabic language in which this story was initially written.
She imbues the eloquence, flavour, and rhythm that Arabic is known for so that readers get a clear sense of what Khalifeh’s original writing feels like. She further highlights the deficiencies of the English language in relating some Arabic words by keeping Arabic words with no English equivalents. I find this to be a small act of resistance that effortlessly grounds the Palestinian-ness of this story.
My First and Only Love is a sombre but hopeful, brilliant, and essential book that every reader deserves to experience at least once.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha