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from the March 2020 issue

University Student

In this excerpt from her autobiography, novelist Sahar Khalifeh describes how she and two of her friends became the first middle-aged university students in Palestine.

Birzeit University offered me a place, and I grew wings, feeling that the world was finally opening up to me. I forgot about my novel completely and cast it aside. It felt too small, too frail, to be a real source of support, one that could restore the balance I had lost because of my ignorance, my dependence on others, and not having my own money. I had to stand on my own without relying on anyone, whoever they may be. My first novel, or any novel for that matter, wouldn’t provide me with the financial or moral support I craved.

Financial independence was to be my foundation. How did those creative types even survive? Who were they, those novelists, poets, and storytellers? Like Ihsan Abdel Quddous, they had to be journalists, or influential officers like Yusuf Sibai, or government officials like Nizar Qabbani and Naguib Mahfouz; otherwise they were beggars who lived a life of poverty and scarcity, drowning themselves in cigarette smoke and the fumes of bars and cafés to forget their degrading existence, and embellishing their reality with narratives that made a sacrificial offering out of poverty and a tale of heroism out of humiliation.

In other words, novels couldn’t be a real source of income to live off. And all those artistic souls, if you dug into their histories and lives, not one of them made ends meet from their artistic work alone. They had to earn a fixed salary from a stable job, writing on the side, in their spare time: novels, stories, and verses. And so I put my novel out of my mind, as if it were an experience from my bygone past, a fleeting fling, or a whim that didn’t deserve to be indulged.

I started to prepare myself for university, physically and mentally. I chose a room on the ground floor of our family home, put in a Spartan iron bed and bookshelves, and designated a corner for reading, writing, and studying. The room was spacious; its windows overlooked my mother’s garden, abloom with white calla lilies, pansies, damask roses, and a giant jasmine tree that clambered against the western windowpane and stretched all the way up to the second floor. There, the glass veranda had the most breathtaking view of the Nablus mountains from the west, as well as the path leading to Tulkarm, Netanya, and the distant coastline that revealed itself at night in the lights of the ships and the port and the sea mist.

In that house, that room, I lived some sweet days, but some very bitter ones too. It was there that I discovered that my shackles were not temporary or limited, not something I could just shrug off by ending my horrendous marriage and alienation in Libya. I was a woman: young, alone, divorced, left without a guardian or virtue, meaning that in society’s eyes I was an easy target; after all, access to me was unobstructed, and whoever knocked on the door would of course immediately be welcomed in without the slightest dawdling. A woman in this situation, in this generation of ours, with our societal conventions, our Islamic and secular laws, won’t find freedom by quickly crossing a border or with the flourish of a magic wand. Women’s struggle for liberation isn’t much different from that of the nation. One is as political as the other. The difference is that national politics are glorified, crowned with a halo. But when it comes to the feminist and sexual struggle, there are challenges, grumbling, and arbitrary accusations that sometimes reach the heights of heresy or even treason. Yet this struggle is also political. The road to freedom is political. And freedom in any field, for any issue, has its price: as a poet once said, “Every bloody hand knocks on the red door of freedom.” Was I really prepared for such freedom and its consequences?

I enrolled my two daughters in one of the Nablus schools while I too went back to being a student. I got rid of my old attire and replaced it with clothing that had a predominantly sporty look. No high heels, no frills, nothing too tight or too loose. Jeans or linen pants, cotton blouses and wool sweaters. Then when winter came, a black leather biker jacket and knee-high low-heeled leather boots. In that getup, I could have been a guard or a traffic cop.

Two or three weeks before I started university, three young women I had known before departing for Libya—when I was still married and living on the west side of Nablus—came to pay me a visit. The first had been my neighbor and an old acquaintance. The other two were a friend and her older sister; I had known them and their family for many years. Following the painful loss of their mother at a young age, this older sister, being the oldest female among her siblings, had taken on the role of her mother and was unable to finish her university degree; she settled for a post of limited opportunity in one of the ministries that we had inherited from the Jordanian government before the occupation.

My visitors asked what I was going to do with my life now that I was set free from a marriage they knew to have been sinister and thorny. Bursting with enthusiasm, I crowed, “I’m going to Birzeit University to study, get my degree, and then a job.” Their eyes widened. My friend, who had accompanied her older sister, stayed on to fire off questions. I said that I had lived my life like a fool. That from then on, I would go back to being a stellar student: studying and educating myself.

“But you’re already educated, Sahar,” one of them countered. “No one else in Nablus reads the way you do!”

“Aimless reading is what I do, with no ultimate goal or guiding principles. I’ve got to study within a curriculum, with criteria and an objective in sight. The goal, of course, is a degree, and then a job. Then I’ll be able to write novels and be a highly regarded author.”

The three of them exchanged looks when I mentioned writing novels. They knew my hobbies as drawing, singing, music, reading novels . . . but writing them? What was that? One of whimsical Sahar’s latest pipe dreams?

I spoke to them about my novel, but they didn’t pay that much attention; they went on instead about university and my ability to study at this mature age. Would I succeed? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to share a bench with students the same age as my own children? I let them know that their way of thinking was outmoded, and that in other, more open, more developed societies, there were hundreds, no, thousands of individuals going back to study at a later stage in life.

“But that’s in America or Europe. Here, in our society, what will people say? How do you think people will look at you?”

My friend, who was a university graduate and a teacher, stood in my corner and turned to her sister to ask, “Why don’t you go with Sahar to Birzeit?”

“Me?” she coughed. “I’m in my mid-forties!”

“But you’ve already sacrificed so much for us,” her sister said. “You’ve been a mother to us and forgotten yourself in the process. Now that we’ve all grown up, finished our studies, and have jobs, don’t you think it’s time to chase your own dreams? Go with Sahar, throw yourself into the university experience. Live your life!”

Her older sister bowed her head for a bit, and when she raised it, her eyes were glistening and she was smiling faintly. “You mean it?” she asked hesitantly. “It’s really okay?”

“Of course it is!” we all chorused. “It’s your right.”

The two sisters hugged, then I too hugged my future classmate because we were now on this journey together, this arduous journey for the sake of our education.

In the evening, two or three hours after my visitors had left, my old neighbor called to announce in her serious, matter-of-fact manner, “Me too, I’m going to Birzeit to study. I asked my husband and he’s all for it. I’ll be the third.”

For me, getting a degree was just the first step in my self-development plan. For my friend’s sister, it was a far-off wish that seemed unattainable even in her wildest dreams. She had gotten used to the idea of being a stand-in mother for a family starved of a mother’s love. She turned away many suitors in favor of keeping the family together and filling the void that her mother had left behind. She raised the young ones and took care of the older ones, and her venerable father helped her with it all, he who had refused to remarry after the death of his wife, afraid that a stepmother would mistreat his children. All the siblings went to school, including the youngest before she was martyred in one of the Palestinian resistance operations.1 A highly respected family. All of its members, without exception, were nurtured in an environment of learning and incandescent nationalistic fervor. I used to envy them for that, and for their father. And so, when the eldest sister decided to join me in achieving this dream, I was overjoyed. As for my neighbor, she was a woman with a razor-sharp analytical mind. She didn’t have kids, but she had lucked out with her open-minded and forward-thinking husband.

And then there were three. Three musketeers in a battle for knowledge. At Birzeit that’s what they nicknamed us, “the three musketeers.” Knowledge was our right, and we took the matter very seriously; foot soldiers ready to martyr ourselves for the sake of achieving our dream. We were the first mature students in Palestine, possibly Jordan as well. After us, the road was wide open for mature students to enroll in universities and learn in the main programs, not just associated courses.

We would get up at the crack of dawn and share a taxi from Nablus to Ramallah. Then we’d wait for the Birzeit bus to fill up or the minibus to reach the town of Birzeit itself. The whole thing took at least an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, and it was the same on the way back. Which meant we spent no less than three hours every day, sometimes four or even five, getting to and from the university. We didn’t see it as an obstacle, but approached it with optimism—as if we were going for a trip somewhere—and filled our time on public transport talking about big and small things, what had happened the day before or the precarious political situation. There were times, especially on frosty winter days, when we’d be forced to turn back midway because of how much snow had accumulated or because the security checkpoints had blocked certain areas off. And there were other times when my neighbor and I would grasp any opportunity, because our older companion, weighed down by her responsibilities, was too serious to join us, to go to the Grand Hotel in Ramallah and enjoy their delicious drinks with their mouthwatering mezze.

Public transport wasn’t the only obstacle we had to overcome. Our studies required a certain level of concentration and the ability to retain names, numbers, and dates. I don’t think that I was the only one who struggled with this. Us three, compared to our classmates who were all under twenty, came out wanting in the recall function department. But we still did well. Our younger classmates excelled because their minds were like sponges, whereas we excelled due to our ability to analyze, justify, make logical connections between events, and use language to express ourselves articulately. So in the end, our names were always at the top of the honor roll.  


From A Novel for My Story. © Sahar Khalifeh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.


1 The young martyr was called Shadia Abu Ghazala, one of the members of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. 

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