CHICAGO: In the Bab Al-Saha quarter of Nablus, Palestine, the first Intifada has taken place, and residents have adjusted to a new normal with soldiers, night raids, and perpetual worry in “Passage to the Plaza,” written by one of Palestine’s most prominent authors, Sahar Khalifeh.
First published in Arabic in 1990, the novel follows a multigenerational cast of female characters who are forced to adapt to an ever-changing political landscape as they contemplate notions of resistance and freedom.
Khalifeh starts this tale with Sitt Zakia, a midwife whose encounter with Israeli soldiers leaves her in a state of shock. She fears the night and the raids, the sudden skirmishes that manifest out of thin air, and the stray bullets that find the young. Some of the young men she has helped bring into the world have died before her very eyes. She has no contact with her children, who have married and left for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman. She hopes to see them after the Intifada, but will it ever end? Her worries and heartaches are endless, and only her hookah helps to mask the despair around her.
Alongside Sitt Zakia are her step-nephew, Hussam, a fugitive and resistance fighter; Samar, a researcher who wishes to know the impact of the Intifada on women’s lives; and Nuzha, a woman who lives in a house of ill-repute, whose prison is not only Palestine but also the people who have smeared her and confined her to their narrow judgement.
The characters’ lives are plagued with difficult family structures, rampant patriarchy, and violent resistance, which usually leads to the break-up of families or death.
Khalifeh masterfully creates a world within a world, where chaos festers but does not get the better of her characters. As the resistance continues, Sitt Zakia, Hussam, Samar and Nuzha find themselves locked together when a curfew is imposed. The characters all come from different generations. They have all witnessed and experienced different aspects of the Intifada, and each feels differently about it.
Translated into English by Sawad Hussain, the novel brings to life these extraordinary women, whose strengths lie in their presence, fortitude, and fearlessness. Khalifeh’s careful storytelling is provocative as she explores the bounds of homelessness in a general context and how survival plays its part within that realm.
Her characters lead complicated lives, intertwined with social politics they cannot escape. Some are more tainted than others; her younger characters still see hope in the future. Their resistance is here to stay as they continue to fight for the land and for the people who have died for Palestine.