When Sahar Khalifeh was young, her family didn’t support her dream of becoming a writer. They regarded art as a sin that would ultimately destroy the family’s reputation.
“The word ‘art’ means to uneducated people, and to most semi-educated people in the Arab world, singing, acting and belly dancing,” Sahar explains. “To become a singer or actress means to be exposed to people’s eyes in a shameful manner.”
“A woman’s natural place is at home,” she continues. “A decent woman is supposed to be hidden, not exposed. A decent woman should follow the rules. Mainly, a woman is supposed to get married, breed children, cook and clean and hide from real contact with real life.”
Despite her conservative upbringing, Sahar went on to write two novels and then a third that was published, giving her the financial independence she needed in order to leave her husband, and as she describes, a “lousy marriage”.
Today, Sahar is one of the best-known Palestinian authors and has 12 novels to her name that have been translated into multiple languages. She has won several awards, including the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
Sahar is from Nablus, and despite leaving to study for her MA at the University of North Carolina and then a PhD at the University of Iowa, she returned to the region and lives between Amman and Nablus. Palestine still remains at the very heart of her work.
“I am a committed writer,” she says, “I have a cause. I am a Palestinian who witnessed what happened to my people and my country. I lived, and still live, under Israeli occupation. My writings reflect what I feel and think, and what my people live through. I am very politicised.”
“But this does not mean that my writings are colourless or rigid,” she continues. “By ‘politicised’, I mean that I understand my society and its problems and limitations. I also understand the occupiers’ drives.”
“My writing is political and artistic. Political in the sense that it deals with national politics and sexual politics. At the same time, it is full of humane characters and enjoys a high amount of humour. This is what makes good art. It should be meaningful and beautiful.”
Sahar’s latest novel released this week in English, My First and Only Love, is set during the final days of the British Mandate. The story is told through a young woman, Nidal, who falls in love with a freedom fighter, Rabie. “Women of my generation viewed freedom fighters as similar to Guevara, Castro and Mandela,” recounts Khalifeh.
At the same time as navigating her feelings for Rabie, Nidal falls in love with the revolution and the struggle for Palestine, which ebbs and flows, much like her feelings for Rabie. “That’s how we were – two birds, lost and confused, searching for a purpose and a meaning, and loving life,” reflects Nidal in the novel. “But life was too harsh and powerful. What could we do?”
The shape that these two characters carve out in the resistance against the British occupation is rounded with details inspired by interviews that Sahar carried out with older people who had lived through this moment in history. They are the forests, caves and quarries that the revolutionaries hide in, meals of prunes and goats’ milk gifted by villagers, or Fairuz’s velvet voice on the radio, “that helped us forget – or pretend to forget – what had happened yesterday and what was to come tomorrow,” in the words of Nidal.
Most of the heroines in Sahar’s novels are women: “The interesting thing is that we do not ask why male writers mainly write about men,” remarks Sahar. “We think this is normal and natural. Why? Because we are used to the idea that men are the centre of the universe. They are the important beings, while women are secondary, they are on the periphery.”
Not only are her female characters centre stage, but they are different to the women painted by the media in Europe and America. “We see how the West suffers, until now, from racism which is deeply rooted in its system,” she says. “We see how America treats the Blacks and People of Colour. We also see how other Western societies, whether in Europe or Australia, treat people of different colour and different religions.”
“When I read or hear how we, Arab women, are presented in Western popular culture, I feel embarrassed and sometimes furious. We are portrayed as ignorant, wrapped up creatures with hidden faces and dumb features. In my novels, I portray women as humans who suffer from different types of chains.”
“Women suffer from internal and external manipulations at the same time,” she continues. “They suffer from Arab patriarchy and Western colonisation and occupation. Women are victimised by both powers. Most women find it difficult, even impossible, to rebel against both powers. Ironically, Palestinian women find it easier to rebel against their Israeli occupiers than rebelling against their own men. This guides us to the conclusion that women find it easier to break external chains than internal ones.”
All these years on from when Sahar broke her own chains and rebelled against her family, who believed that a woman’s proper place was at home, her family have finally come to terms with the path she chose to take.
“When my family saw what I have done with my life, outside the regular rules, outside marriage, they were at the beginning cautious, and later on satisfied,” she says. “Now they are proud of me. I don’t know how to put it. They are really very proud. They consider me a great writer and artist. The word ‘art’ is no longer bad or shameful for them. It is glorious and beautiful.”
As a young girl fighting against her parent’s expectations, Khalifeh had received a letter from Palestinian art historian and writer Ismail Shammout, praising her work and encouraging her. As a frustrated housewife, she returned to read it numerous times. Has she ever written such a letter to someone else?
“Yes, I have,” Sahar replies. “In fact, all my writings are letters to someone else. Whether that someone is women, leading men, educated and semi-educated readers, and hopefully outside readers. My writings manage to reach quite a large audience.”
“Women love my writing; it speaks about them and for them. Highly educated men also appreciate my writings… so, in a way, I am a good letter writer. When I receive letters from readers or read reviews about my writings, I feel connected. I am no longer speaking to myself. People hear me. We correspond. I am not alone.”