The most recent novel by Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh, My First and Only Love, is out this week from Hoopoe. The book follows the protagonist, Nidal, as she returns to her family home in Nablus after decades in exile. In the excerpt below, translated by Aida Bamia, a visit to the old house sparks vivid memories of Nidal's beloved grandmother.
My grandmother used to spend time in this spot every morning, sitting on a mattress stuffed with soft wool and covered with a striped honey-and-mulberry cotton case. It was located below the eastern window. But when she got up for the dawn prayer, she usually sat by the kanoun, prepared her coffee, and sprinkled the ﬁre with cardamom seeds and orange peels to cover up the smell of charcoal. She would prepare a delicious traditional breakfast of white nabulsi cheese, za’atar, olive oil, labneh, and halva.
My mother usually woke up in a bad mood and uttered an unfriendly “Good morning.” She would sip her coffee sitting on a small straw-seated chair near the ﬁre. I usually sat at her feet to have her comb my hair into two braids that fell behind my back. My grandmother would ask her gently, “Shall I make you an arous?” My mother would not reply but I would ask my grandmother for a “labneh arous.”
The word arous usually triggered my grandmother’s journey with dreams—what she had dreamed last night and the meaning of the dream. She would begin with my grandfather, then the forgotten dead, mentioned one by one, and then she would turn to the living, to my uncle Wahid, then my uncle Amin and my uncle Samir in Saudi Arabia, followed by my mother, and ﬁnally me. My mother would hurry to ﬁnish combing my hair, while my grandmother asked her, “Do you hear me, Widad?” I would hear my mother blow steam through her nose, then give me a light, painless tap on the back and say quickly, as she got up, “I heard you, I heard you.”
I would rush to my grandmother while my mother hastened to put on her uniform and headscarf, saying as she moved toward the door, “Today and tomorrow I am on guard,” while my grandmother shouted after her, “Take a small bite, something to put in your stomach. Have pity on yourself! Shall I make you an arous?” She would have the arous ready as she called her, but I would end up eating it.
My grandmother would then look through the window, beyond the jasmine and the poppy tree, and whisper sadly, “Poor Widad, she is not lucky.” I would ask her quickly, to help her forget her sorrow, “What about me, Grandmother? What will I be?”
She would reply, gently but somewhat sadly, “Arous, arous. Take this arous and eat it.” I would reply angrily, “No, Grandma, I mean when I grow up what will I be?” She would smile and say, “A bride. A bride dressed in white from head to toe.” I would ask, concerned, “You mean I’ll wear a uniform like my mother’s? No, Grandma, when I grow up I want to be—” And I would stop because I did not know what I wanted to be, and because I saw my grandmother wipe tears from her eyes and mumble some Qur’anic verses. My heart would ache for her and I felt extremely sad.
“I wanted to be with her everywhere she went.”
On that summer morning, after my mother had left for work, my grandmother said, “I saw it in a dream. God only knows.”
She was immersed in her thoughts, looking through the window. I watched her, examining the color of her eyes, her tightened lips, her skin color, and the parting in her hennaed hair. The hair that she sometimes neglected, revealing gray, chalklike lines. Her hennaed hair, on the other hand, looked like corn cockle ﬂowers and contrasted with her skin, which was as white as marble, accentuating her blue, clearly visible veins.
She whispered, “Last night I saw your grandfather in my sleep. He told me to go visit your uncle Wahid.”
As I had gotten used to this kind of talk, I did not ask her how a person who had died many years ago and had turned to dust in his tomb could tell her to do this or that. The souls of the dead roamed around her everywhere, and I took her with me wherever I went: to religion classes and Qur’an-memorization gatherings, to calligraphy and sewing lessons, and even to my history and geography lessons. I graduated from level ﬁve and I memorized Sakakini’s books, The ABC Book, The Clean Boy, and The Golden Sun, all by heart.
I begged my grandmother, “Would you take me with you?”
She replied forcefully, “Of course, of course! You are grown now. You are moving to level six without a remedial exam. You are intelligent. Give me a lemon peel; your grandfather used to like the smell of lemon.”
I rushed to give her the lemon peel because I wanted her to continue depending on me. I wanted to be with her everywhere she went. I continued to observe her face lovingly and eagerly while I ate the labneh arous.
She was distracted again, and looking through the window she said softly, as if talking to the deceased, “His soul is in the house and his eyes are with me. He can see me.”
“Can he see me, too?” I asked.
She smiled as she turned the coal in the kanoun, shaking her head, “Sometimes, sometimes.”
“When? When I misbehave or when I am well behaved?”
When the conversation turned to that topic and my mother was at home, she would shout from afar, “We have had enough talking about spirits and all this nonsense! Let’s live like normal people.”
My grandmother would whisper, “Poor Widad! I wish you better luck than her. Her luck is rotten, may God help her.”
From My First and Only Love, copyright © 2010 by Sahar Khalifeh; translation copyright © 2021 by Aida Bamia. Available April 2021 from Hoopoe, an imprint of AUC Press. By arrangement with the publisher.