CHICAGO: This incredible tale, which recalls Palestinian history in all its joys and heartbreaks, begins and ends in the Habs Al-Dam neighborhood of Nablus, following the lives of Nidal and the Al-Qahtan family. They are but one of the many taking part in the Palestinian resistance during the British Mandate in “My First and Only Love,” by literary giant Sahar Khalifeh.
Translated by Aida Bamia, Nidal recalls her childhood in Palestine, waking to the goldfinch’s song and walking among lemon trees as her uncle Wahid leads a resistance faction in the mountains and her uncle Amin sets up as a journalist in Jerusalem to document events as they unfold up until the death of their leader Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini in 1948.
Returning to her family home after decades, Nidal’s memories awaken in the place where she, her grandmother and mother used to live in the West Bank. The house is empty but was once full of people and hope — hope that the resistance would be successful, that Widad, Nidal’s mother, would have some luck for once, and that Nidal’s future would be bright. While not all their dreams came true, Nidal is determined to live where she wants after a lifetime of running, surrounded by her home, in all its beauty and where she initially saw her first love, a resistance fighter named Rabie.
Khalifeh invites readers into her character’s lives with fluidity and charm. She paints a Palestine that is fertile and whose people are bonded like branches of the same tree. They have been each other’s neighbors for generations, know each other’s histories and secrets.
In Asira, Nidal and her grandmother Zakiya visit Umm Nayef, who makes yogurt and gives them news of resistance fighters while British planes fly overhead. Country women carry basketfuls of grapes, figs and cheese for the market despite the exhaustion of resistance, the prisons that are overflowing with sentences that are longer than time itself, the olive trees that do not produce olives, and the young men scattered in the mountains, fighting for their home. They all look old to Nidal, but they are not. Fighting for independence takes its toll.
At a turning point for Palestinian independence in 1948, Khalifeh lays out the details from start to finish of the refusal of the Arab League to help the Palestinians before the end of the British Mandate in this heartbreaking narrative from an intimate perspective. Despite the pain, life still moved forward, love still flourished, hope still bloomed and the future continued to be fought for. Khalifeh writes stories that can move the earth as powerfully as she can move hearts.