New from Hoopoe Fiction, An Excerpt of ‘My First & Only Love’

Yesterday, Hoopoe Fiction published Sahar Khalifeh’s My First and Only Love, in English translation by Aida Bamia:

Last year, Bamia talked about why My First and Only Love was such an emotional translation experience. Earlier this week, an excerpt from early in the novel appeared at Words Without Borders.

Here, with permission, a later excerpt:

Chapter 8

My grandmother told my uncle that she wanted to prepare a decent, home-cooked meal for the fighters. My uncle told her that the present circumstances made it impossible for them to relax and eat a special meal. The English were still looking for the freedom fighters everywhere. They attacked Rubin, Tulkarem, and Zanaba; they dynamited the houses and arrested hundreds. He could not understand why she had chosen to come to the village, climb to the top of the mountain, and bring a child (referring to me) into these conditions. Her presence would make the women in the village and the men in the mosque gossip, thus attracting attention to his location. Spies were everywhere.

His words upset my grandmother; he did not seem to appreciate the hardships she had endured to reach his location. He did not understand her feelings throughout the years; was it because he did not know how a mother’s or a father’s heart worked? She repeated what she had gotten used to telling him: that if he had a son or a daughter he would have been concerned for their safety; a child is dearer to parents than their soul and the light of their eyes. Would he have lived the way he did had he a child and a home? Many revolutionaries got married and had children—they had wives, whereas he had no home, no wife, and no children. This explained why he continued to live in the wild and in this forest, in filthy surroundings, without a decent meal to eat, a comfortable bed, or a wife. He did not have even a mirror that would reflect his graying hair—gray, though he was a young man in his thirties. He did not reply despite his gloominess, but he turned to Rabie and asked him to escort me to see the rabbits and the bird’s nest. Rabie was slow to leave his position at the entrance of the cave; he probably wanted to hear my uncle’s answer, as I did, wondering how he would counter this attack. It was an odd situation. Losing patience, my uncle said to him, “Get up, son. Move!”
He then turned to me and said, with ire and repressed exasperation, “You too, Nidal. Get up. I need to talk to your grandmother; I have to explain certain matters to her. Come on, get up!”

I dragged my feet; I did not want to appear eager to leave the cave and go out into the sunlight, and with whom? With the person who had a hold on my mind, controlled my imagination, and made me feel like the heroine of a new novel by al-Manfalouti, similar to the story of Majdolene or Snow White.

The two men at the entrance of the cave did not pay any attention to me when we stepped out, as if I were still a little girl. I believe that my uncle thought that too, when he entrusted me to Rabie. He too must have considered me a young girl who would not attract men’s attention. I walked behind the young man, who was as embarrassed as I was, walking fast, as fast as he had the day before. He would stop every now and then for me to catch up, without once looking behind him. He walked along the dusty passage, then started climbing between the rocks, in the direction of the hill above the cave. There, the creepers and grass reached his waist. He moved them aside so I could pass, then proceeded climbing, using his hands now, as did I, in order to reach the summit. A huge, impressive rock stretched out like a tongue, from which we could see the whole world and the confines of the sea.

Rabie shouted to a man sitting on a rock, calling him Uncle Abu Tir. The man stood up and gave us both his hands to help us climb up to reach his location. His task was scouring the surrounding area using huge binoculars, which according to him were left behind by the Ottoman army. That simply meant they were old, and so were his weapons and those of his companions; but the binoculars were useful—certainly better than nothing! He was able to see the whole region, from Wadi al-Badan and al-Farea all the way to the coast and the boundaries of the sea. He could see all the valleys, as well as the nests of the birds, the location of the turtles, the ant holes, and the snakes. He told me, “Take it and look.” I took the binoculars, handling them carefully and respectfully, lest they fall. He helped me hold and look through them. I saw birds as big as eagles, I saw pigeons, I saw children on rooftops in the city, and women shaking mattresses and bed covers, and hanging out the washing. A flock of pigeons came close to us and almost hit the binoculars. Pulling my eyes away, I found that the pigeons were high in the sky and the women on the roofs were mere black spots.

Rabie turned to Abu Tir and said, “Show her the partridge’s nest.” I added enthusiastically, “And the rabbits!” The man laughed and told me that the rabbits never settled in one place and anyone who wanted to see them had to look through the binoculars for a long time, waiting for them to come out of their holes dug between the rocks. As for the nest, it was there, between the leaves. I looked and saw a nest filled with young birds, opening their beaks wide to get the food from their mother. The young birds looked as big as vultures, like the ones I saw in my children’s books and my uncle’s books. Their open beaks resembled the entrance of a cave or the jaws of enormous snakes that could swallow a human being or a cow. I lowered the binoculars and said fearfully, “The partridges are scary.” Rabie laughed and said to the guardian, “A city girl!” I was angry and disappointed, because he considered me a city girl, which meant spoiled and fainthearted, superficial and weak. It meant that he did not have any respect for me and I did not count for him! I blushed and said angrily, “What’s wrong with city girls, mister? Do you not think highly of them?” He did not reply, but looked toward the horizon and said with the seriousness of a mature man, somewhat ignoring me, “I see an unusual movement there. Do you see it?”

Abu Tir took the binoculars, examined the surroundings carefully, shook his head, and said to Rabie, “You have the eyes of an eagle, may God protect them. You are right, you are right. The army is moving at Ras al-Ain. Go tell the sheikh that they are searching Ras al-Ain. Go as fast as you can and tell him.”

Rabie jumped off the rock in the blink of an eye and almost flew between the rocks and the brush. I was watching him, my heart beating hard, but I was mad at him for ignoring me and failing to reply when I had challenged him and said, “What’s wrong with city girls, mister?” He had described me earlier as a city girl, as if belonging to the city was an embarrassment, and the peasants were better than us city people; as if the difference between the two could not be ignored. That was how it was at the time—something that could not be disregarded.

I sat on the edge of the rock and dangled my legs like Abu Tir. All the while I was thinking about a subject of conversation for his return, and whether this was the end of my love. I became aware that it felt like a one-sided love that destined me for a tragic and painful end, like Majdolene’s love, a love that would cause me to suffer for eternity!

The man asked me, “Is the sheikh your maternal uncle?” Surprised, I asked, “The sheikh? What sheikh?”

He smiled, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. His scarred face was burnt by the sun, but his eyes were as gentle as those of a mother; rather, a grandmother.

“Sheikh al-Qahtan, our leader.”

I did not respond. I thought he was making fun of our family name, Qahtan. He went on, saying, “The sheikh is the best of men.”

I said sarcastically, “Sheikh al-Qahtan is a city man.”

He laughed wholeheartedly at my comment, as if I had made a joke. “From the city? And what is wrong with the city, young girl? I have high consideration for the city. I value it as I do my eyes and my head; it is full of beys and gentlemen.”

I said with feigned sarcasm, “Does this mean that my uncle is a gentleman and I am a gentlewoman?”

He rushed to explain, saying, “By God, Sheikh al-Qahtan is the best of men. It is not even conceivable that I would lack respect for him or for you.”

I was still suspicious, thinking that this man called Abu Tir, who seemed nice and kind, with eyes like those of a mother or a grandmother, was making fun of me the way Rabie did. I said tersely, “Sheikh al-Qahtan died a long time ago.”

He said, surprised, “Do you mean the older Sheikh al-Qahtan who lived a long time ago? We have nothing to do with him. We are today’s children, and what we are today is nothing to be proud of. Damn the hard times.”

Sensing that he spoke words beyond my age and my thinking, he said, smiling to lighten the mood, “What class are you in, young lady?”

“I am moving to level six,” I said proudly.

“May God be blessed, do you read well?”

I replied, serious and disapproving, “Of course I can read!”

“What about writing?”

“Of course I can write!”

He fell silent for a few moments.

Then I surprised him, asking, “Can you read?”

He sighed, saying, “Me, read? How can a man like me read?”

“What about writing?”

“During those days, things were handled differently.

There were no schools and no kuttab.

“What about Rabie?”

“Rabie can read. He reads the newspaper and understands what he reads. But poor boy, after what happened to his father, things changed.”

“Did his father die?”

“No, young lady, he did not die; he made other choices. Let’s not talk about him.”

“How did this affect Rabie?”

“What do we have to do with these stories? It is none of our business.”

“Was Rabie a good student?”

He replied enthusiastically, probably to distract me from mentioning Rabie’s father again, “Rabie was a good student. He used to walk to school in the city. He never missed a day.”

I was curious, and asked, trying to pull his leg, “Did he miss school today?”

He raised his hand to stop me talking, listening carefully. I heard the grass rustling and turned to see my uncle followed by Rabie, getting close to our location. When they reached us, my uncle took the binoculars from Abu Tir’s hands and looked through them, while standing on top of the rock. He was watching the activity on the mountain facing us, on the other side. When things became clear to him, he gave Rabie his directions: “Go down and call Abu Aref and Abu Sayel. As for you, Abu Tir, keep your eyes on the Sharaf county road. Do not fall asleep—they might surprise us with a second attack. And you, Nidal, you are grown now. Tomorrow morning, you and your grandma must go back home.”

“How can we go back with the curfew still in place?” I asked, confused.

“I discussed the matter with your grandmother. Come, let’s go.”

He took hold of my hand to help me get off the rock. Rabie had preceded us and disappeared into the grass and among the tree trunks. When we reached the cave, my grandmother was still sitting on the pile of mattresses, frowning and motionless.

A few minutes later, Rabie returned, accompanied by two men who entered the cave with some hesitation. My uncle ordered them to come in, and as they complied, they kept their eyes fixed on the floor, looking neither left nor right. They moved close to my uncle, who took the lamp hanging from the roof and led them to the far end of the cave. They sat on the floor and started gesticulating and whispering, in a way that made us worried. Their voices expressed concern. Rabie was kneeling behind them, watching. He was breathing rapidly. Perhaps he was still out of breath from running, or perhaps he was concerned too. I felt his fear transmitted to me and I was sorry for him because of his circumstances. He was, like me, without a father, and without a school, and because he lived in this environment, I was no longer angry at him because he had called me a city girl.

Find more about My First and Only Love at the Hoopoe Fiction website.