"Occupation is akin to an earthquake, and so are immigration and desolation and everything people leave behind." This rumination by Nidal, the protagonist in Sahar Khalifeh's literary novel, My First and Only Love (Hoopoe Fiction, 2021), is a tempestuous introduction to a love story that spans decades, in much the same way as the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle does.
The book shifts from past recollections of the last days of the British Mandate to the present, where Nidal returns to her family home in Nablus which she seeks to renovate, after decades of exile. An artist who comes from a family of revolutionaries, Nidal's journey to the past through memory is heightened by one recollection of her uncle urging her to expand her horizons and to become more perceptive in her art. Her past memories are mostly imbued with recollections of her grandmother, with whom she had a strong connection. As Nidal gets acquainted once again with the house she lived in as a child, she comes across her paintings, which stir memories of the young man she fell in love with, a freedom fighter named Rabie who she met when the village was under curfew.
Through Rabie, from whom she is later estranged, Nidal experiences slivers of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle, the plans to thwart colonialism and the secrecy under which family meetings had to take place. Their later estrangement is a consequence of circumstances, with promises that are broken as Nidal and Rabie move through life and relationships. Her return to Nablus prompts a journey of pondering and reckoning as her neighbour, Yasmine, narrates stories of resistance, colonial violence and the current Palestinian political situation. Of particular interest for Nidal is Yasmine's story of sheltering a young man, who is reminiscent of Rabie. While the young man in Yasmine's narrative actually has nothing to do with him, Nidal's memories are stirred further as she ponders the meaning of love in such exceptional circumstances.
It is not just love for Rabie, but love for Palestine — for the revolution — that has been instilled in Nidal. Her reacquaintance with Rabie evokes several ruminations about the different trajectories of love. "We were the heroes, the lovers, and the revolution. Even love at that time was a heroic act. It was a dream and self-denial."
Rabie's arrival at her house, which causes some consternation for Nidal due to societal norms, offers not only a chance to understand the love that bound them together, but also the opportunity to learn more about her family's history in relation to the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.
The author's rendition of the character's different temperaments is particularly noteworthy. Nidal's grandmother is described as a seer, whereas Nidal describes herself as someone who expects. "Whoever understands my paintings will understand me and my secret," she says. "If he fails to understand it is his business. Whoever does not understand does not deserve that I reveal my deepest secrets to him."
However, there is much of her family that Nidal has never understood. The information, however, is at her disposal, in diaries left at the house by her Uncle Amin. At Rabie's insistence, she delves into her family history, learning about their role in the last days of the British Mandate, and the choices that brought them closer to the revolution and further away from family. Nidal's mother is one example of such estrangement; through her uncle's writings she discovers her mother's history and love for a Palestinian freedom fighter, Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini. Her mother's abandonment now has context, and it is through these diaries, and to a certain extent through Rabie's arrival and his perspective on the revolution, that Nidal is able to forgive.
Meanwhile her uncle's diaries detail the false hopes which Palestinians were given, all of which were broken and which are exemplified in the novel by the Deir Yassin massacre.
Conscious of love for Rabie stirring within her again, Nidal questions her own feelings for the man who is now in her house, clearly adamant on establishing a relationship, and through whom Palestine and the revolution became inseparable. One of her parting reflections sums up the book eloquently: "This old man is that youth, and the delicate love that existed before the years of exile and the dust of the soul."