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from the May 2021 issue

Returning Home in Palestine: On Sahar Khalifeh’s “My First and Only Love”

Reviewed by Max Radwin

A new novel by the celebrated Palestinian writer travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship in her homeland are shaped by violence and war.

Decades after being exiled by the colonial forces occupying her homeland, a woman returns to Palestine to repair her childhood home––and to confront a past filled with heartbreak and bloodshed. Her name is Nidal and, now in old age, she has spent her life running from the memories of the armed confrontations that roiled the region during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Many of Nidal’s memories have to do with Rabie, a boy she fell in love with at the start of the armed conflict. Torn between romance and the sense of duty young people feel, Rabie disappears into the fog of war, leaving Nidal with lifelong questions about what happened to him. Is he even alive?

Long-lost love is just the starting point for Sahar Khalifeh’s sixth novel, My First and Only Love, but don’t let the title deceive you, it’s so much more than that. The book travels back and forth in time, across decades, examining the way family, politics, and friendship are shaped by violence and war, and whether or not collective memory of such things is set in stone.

Khalifeh is one of the most respected Palestinian writers working today. Since her acclaimed debut Wild Thorns (1976), she has written eleven novels and won several prestigious literary accolades, such as the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The life of Palestinians under occupation is a recurring theme in her work.

For this book, she doesn’t require you to be an expert on the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does she try to educate you on the history. This approach has a way of bringing the humanity of the characters into focus.

“I find myself without a friend and without a home,” Nidal says, after reconstruction on her home begins. “I am alone, like a sword. Members of my family had left and I too left like many others. Who stayed behind? All that is left for me is this house, and that is why I returned. I want to make of this house––the family home, my first home and my last home––a gallery with pictures, paintings, and frames. In short, a museum.”

While Nidal seems ready to engage with her memories through the reconstruction of the house, she is also, simultaneously, reluctant to delve too deep. She has spent her life separating herself from the traumatic experiences of British patrols, cave hideouts, and “the screams of peasants.” There is a sense, for nearly the entire novel, that she believes she already knows everything she needs to know about these things, and how they impacted her family. This is very obviously a defense mechanism, which protects her from trauma and a lack of closure.

She is stubborn. If a museum is what she wants to make of her house, then it is not one whose artifacts she will readily engage with. Nidal is the most successful member of her family, having gone onto become a successful painter, with exhibitions for UNESCO in Paris. When troubling memories of Rabie get too close, she cuts off conversations or fixes her mind on painting. Who needs lost lovers, anyway?

The story’s feminist undertones belie the narrative’s time period and setting. A significant theme is whether or not a woman can find fulfillment without having children. Some of the strongest characters in the book are women, Nidal’s grandmother among them, who feel equally capable of having careers as they do of running households. It helps to ground the romantic plot lines, which could have easily turned melodramatic under the direction of a less capable writer.

For example, early in the novel, the plot seems to be headed for a traditional, almost sappy, romance storyline––Rabie is becoming increasingly involved in the fighting and Nidal is lost in thoughts of her “collapsing” love affair. But for every moment in which sobbing lovers hold hands in the forest, there is a scene that is so run-of-the-mill that the whole feels taken from real life. There are countless scenes of characters discussing the logistics of the conflict––obtaining food for troops, mapping out which cities to attack. These conversations are long and detailed, even tedious, but they help to remind us of the messiness inherent to the time. 

In one scene, an angry crowd forms around the mayor’s house, but it is not the kind that explodes into violence. Its members are strikingly articulate, sharing their concerns about the Jewish settlements that are encroaching on their land by picking up fence posts during the night and inching them closer toward the locals’ property. They discuss the different ways to stop the encroachment, the different sizes of their lots, the ins and outs of having to move. Yes, they are angry and the crowd becomes dangerous. But there is also an attention to the details of displacement that another story might have overlooked.

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