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My Life, Myself, and the World
By Sahar Khalifeh
Sahar Khalifeh is a well-known Arab novelist from Palestine. Her latest published novel is titled "Al-Mirath" (The Inheritance). Previously she has published "Lam Na'ud Jawari Lakum" (We Are No Longer Your Slave-Girls), "As-Sabbar" (The Cactus), "Abbad Ashshams" (The Sunflower), "Muthakkerat Imra'a Ghayr Waqi'yyah" (The Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman), and "Bab Assaha" (The Plaza Gate). In the following essay, Sahar Khalifeh presents some aspects of her life and literary work.
It all began with the birth of a little baby girl into a Palestinian family from Nablus. Not unexpectedly, the baby girl was received with discomfort punctuated with sobs and tears; she came fifth in a chain of eight girls. The father, who was yearning for a boy to preserve his name and inherit his property, was badly affected by that unhappy event. The fact that girls were unable to preserve the family name was not the only reason for disappointment. He felt that his image as the "father of girls,"as Arab tradition has it, with all the concomitant implications of a diminished virility, was fixed for good. Mother's reaction, however, was far stronger. She wept for days on end and considered herself a most accursed and unfortunate women.
In such a gloomy and hostile atmosphere, I learned the meaning of my existence and my value in this world. I learned that I was a member of a miserable, useless, worthless sex. From childhood, I was taught to prepare myself for the risks associated with being a woman. I was told time and again that I had to train myself to obey and comply with all kinds of rules that covered every single aspect of my life.
I resorted to reading, writing, and then painting as means of escape. I could not think of myself as belonging to any society; I was rather an outcast and an outsider, a victim, a lost soul unable to find a safe haven. This is reflected in my first novel, "We Are No Longer Your Slave-Girls," my first experience with characterization, where all of my characters are prisoners of chronic problems and intractable circumstances.
From childhood, we women became accustomed to watching somebody else make decisions on our behalf. This is why we remain stuck in the same place; we opt for words rather than deeds, and settle for sobs, prayers, and curses rather than for action.
It was Mother who stood against my rebellion at that time. She was an intelligent woman with a strong character, iron will, and unbeatable pride. At that time, I understood her power as an expression of nothing more than her bitterness, grief, and desire to defend herself. She was simply afraid that I might do something outrageous, being the most troublesome girl in the whole family. She also felt guilty for spawning a whole brood of creatures belonging to a weak and worthless sex. However, Mother's pride would never allow her to show her buried feelings. With her sharp intelligence and innate ability to tell and enact stories, she managed to cover her fears and pretend to be as strong as steel, as stable as rock. She always felt that she deserved better than she had received: eight girls and a single boy - a SINGLE boy! She was the smartest, most beautiful, and strongest person - not only in the family but in the vicinity. But, with that "brood" of girls, she felt a nagging guilt.
I sensed her thoughts and they tortured me. Somehow she bore a grudge against me for seeing through her pretenses. I, too, held a grudge against her because she did not accept me for who I was. I accused her of hypocrisy and heartlessness. I gave her reason to cry more than once; she swore time and again that she would break my neck, and when she couldn't do that, she sent me to a boarding school in Jerusalem. The school was run by the strictest martinets imaginable - the Nuns of Zion, but even they failed to break me. Then they yoked me in a hasty, senseless marriage that broke my heart.
Sobs, Prayers, and Curses
It was a miserable, devastating marriage. With encouragement from my family, I finally broke loose after 13 years of suffering. I did need encouragement because I lacked determination and perspective, proving that even the strongest woman - if I really qualify as one - gets cold feet when motherhood is at stake and when it comes to making a decision. From childhood, we women became accustomed to watching somebody else make decisions on our behalf. This is why we remain stuck in the same place; we opt for words rather than deeds, and settle for sobs, prayers, and curses rather than for action.
That was exactly what I had done for years, until salvation came in the form of a letter from Hilmy Murad. He was the editor of the Kitabi series published by Dar Al-Ma'arif of Cairo. At that time, Dar Al-Ma'arif was the largest and most famous publishing house, not only in Egypt, but in the Arab world as well. In his letter, Hilmy Murad said that he saw in me the signs of a great novelist. Naturally, this thrilled me to the point of euphoria. I believed him; I wanted to believe him. As God is my witness, I have done my best for a quarter of a century so that his prophecy would come true.
In spite of the pain, my marriage produced two achievements: two beautiful daughters who gratified my need for warmth and maternal affection, and the chance to channel my energy towards reading and painting. During my husband's continuous absence, nothing could deliver me from the vortex of myself and the narrowness of the place except the worlds of painting and the written word. All the longings of my deprived heart lived in those two worlds. I discovered that I could sail, fly, and roam without leaving my house. I discovered my ability to live different lives through the novels and their heroes and heroines. I could be the other and myself at the same time. Imagination gave me the freedom to venture, maneuver, and turn the whole world upside-down. I was neither caught nor punished, not even once, for no one discovered my mysterious offence. My husband was suspicious of my intentions, but he could not prove any "misdemeanor" so he turned his life and mine into hell. I left him when I was certain that I knew what I wanted and what I was going to do: I wanted Hilmy Murad's prophecy, I wanted words and ideas, I wanted color, my wings, and music.
During the years of my marriage, three momentous events took place that changed my relationship with my mother and the world. First, my only brother was in a car accident when he was sixteen. His spinal cord was severed, leaving him paralyzed for the rest of his life. As a result of this calamity, the family fell apart. My mother lost her desire to live and shrank away. My father, however, reacted completely differently; after crying for weeks, he suddenly woke up, regaining his vitality, energy, and appetite for life. He looked for a young blond girl to take as his new bride. I have never hated my sex the way I hated it at that time. I chased my father everywhere, begging and pleading with him to have mercy on us, but he was deaf and blind to my words and tears. He minced no words: "Tell you what, Missy. God has allowed it! Do you want me to die with no successors?" Just because God has allowed it, my paralyzed brother, my sisters, and I are good for nothing, for we are unable to bear his name for posterity. His words were engraved on my heart until he died. I bore them for a quarter of a century like a bleeding wound. Years before his death, when I had already become an established writer, he, seeing my books before me, asked reproachfully: "Your name only? Where's mine?" I looked at him and pretended that I did not understand.
After Father's death, Mother grew more hopeless and sorrowful; she became a mere lifeless body. She lost her intelligence, her beauty, and her power, and became a nobody. I discovered, for the first time, that my mother - like me, like all women, like my sisters and all the sisters - was a mere victim. In her tragedy and mine, I saw the tragedy of all women regardless of traditions, laws, or cultures. That is how I became a feminist.
Our defeat in 1967 was the third tragedy to take place during my marriage. I discovered that our political defeat was a result of our cultural defeat. I could see very clearly that the debacle of 1967 was the fruit of a rotten tree that needed a cure - the internally defeated do not triumph. The cure must start with our households and with those in power, with our social values and ties, with the fabric of the family, with the rules and basics of the upbringing of the individual at home, in school, and at university, and then progress to the street. Mothers can be both the dough-baker and the steel-maker of nations. Mothers are the nation because they are the source and the cornerstone.
I started afresh at the age of 32. I enrolled in the Department of English at Bir Zeit University. My appearance, my behavior, and my enthusiasm could deceive any observer; I looked 10 years younger, and I thought I could regain my youth where I had left it. I started to act like a teenager again. With great zest I sang in parties and danced in squares and got into cafeteria fights. Then I fell in love with the professor. For four years, I exhausted my heart and racked my nerves with a hopeless love. He was kind, sweet, amiable, talented, and sensible; he was the best person I have ever met. Naive as a child, I began to deify him, and then I worshiped him. Of course, my idol encouraged me. One day I woke up from my dreams, looked at myself in the mirror, and whispered: "You are stupid; he's not a god but a man. Your love for him is good for his self-image but not for yours. Your adoration of him satisfies his vanity and inflates his ego, but your heart doesn't mean anything to him." Four years later he proved it when he said so softly, ever so softly: "You are cute, you make me think."
My failure in love stimulated my desire to prove myself and find a meaning for my life. I took two semesters off, and during that time I completed "The Cactus." It earned a success I never expected or dreamed of. In "The Cactus" I tried to register the stirrings of Palestinian society under occupation through heroic tales and popular stories. "The Cactus" portrayed the romantic revolutionist phase which we lived and, to a certain extent, enjoyed, despite the torture of occupation and the loss of equilibrium. By romanticism, I mean our firm belief, at the time, in the inevitability of change for the better on all levels: individual, communal, and social.
To my disappointment and great chagrin, I found the "theme" of exploitation, inferiority, and sexism that branded and poisoned my life and that of my mother, sisters, and many other relatives, reflected crystal-clear in every story I heard, with slight differences in form but not content. The tragedy was further compounded for me by my discovery that these women, in spite of their education, had internalized a feeling of inferiority and self-disdain.
During my work on "The Cactus," I met a leftist young man. He was intelligent, ambitious, and a bundle of nerves. He wanted to change the world, and that was exactly what I too dreamed of. But where would we begin? He said confidently: "We start by changing the system, by breaking the rules, and by setting examples for others." But I thought to myself: "I have already broken the rules, but nothing has changed; the law of people has not changed, the family system has not changed, and I have not changed either. So what will it be like for a woman in a society against which she rebels? Can she effect any change if she is outside the system?"
At some point I resolved to wage a new war by starting debate about our own leadership. After conducting in-depth interviews with more than 50 leading intellectuals, revolutionaries, and ideologues, I decided to conduct similar interviews with their wives, girlfriends, or the most active women in their respective communities. To my disappointment and great chagrin, I found the "theme" of exploitation, inferiority, and sexism that branded and poisoned my life and that of my mother, sisters, and many other relatives, reflected crystal-clear in every story I heard, with slight differences in form but not content. The tragedy was further compounded for me by my discovery that these women, in spite of their education, had internalized a feeling of inferiority and self-disdain. They firmly believed that whatever a woman did or sacrificed, or how high she rose - politically, professionally, academically - she remained far inferior to man; her sacrifices to keep the household and family together, and her struggle at work or in jail, were too insignificant to be noticed.
I discovered that our leaders - those I took for pioneers, revolutionary avant-gardes, and progressives - were no more than a carbon copy of a former generation with modern looks. I learned how deplorable our male leadership was; that the revolution, our revolution, was sterile and limited because it did not deal with the internal issues. Everything I saw, heard, and discovered added a new dimension to my fears: we have no hope and no way out; we are going to be defeated again and again, and we shall not be liberated. It was with this pessimistic backdrop that I started writing "Abbad Ashshams" (The Sunflower). I was psychologically drained and shaken, and got sick more than once.
With the suddenness of lightening, I fell in love. Another tragedy, as usual. He was married, and about to divorce his wife - anyway, that was what he said. Of course, he was very miserable - or that was what he said. Of course, he was looking for me, his dream woman - or that was what he said. Of course, I believed him. It took me no more than a few weeks to discover the truth: he was bored, and in need of a little refreshment and recreation. Not only was I sorely shocked and disillusioned, but I also discovered something far more painful than the wounds. I discovered that my reason did not help me much, nor did it save me from being overwhelmed by my emotions. I was still young - too young - and emotionally immature. That is why when I fell in love, I forgot myself: I forgot my work, my ambitions, and even my two daughters.
The one thing I gained from this chapter is a deeper insight into the psychological make-up of the Arab woman. I recognized that our emotions, formed and shaped in early childhood, do not change much when we grow up, or perhaps - I still hold out hope - they undergo a slight change at later stages in our lives. Didn't this mean that women, dispossessed and repressed since childhood, have little or no hope in effecting change and reaching maturity? I was greatly confused and in a crisis. Once again, literature was my savior; this time it came in the form of an invitation to join the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa in the United States. It was a momentous experience, as it helped me stand on my feet again, reclaiming my soul, and rekindled my desire to go back to work with the utmost zest.
That is how "The Sunflower" came about. With it, I have achieved yet another success. Like "The Cactus," it was translated into several languages and went through many printings in Arabic. Moreover, the Palestine Liberation Organization bought the rights to turn it, along with "The Cactus," into a long television series depicting the experience of Palestinians under occupation. In "The Sunflower," I had written about the phase of collision between revolution and reality, the phase of disenchantment with the revolution. Two years later, I focused on one woman in "The Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman." My goal was to chart, step-by-step, this woman's emotional and conceptual growth from childhood to youth, until she was transformed into a jittery woman overcome by fears, frustration, helplessness, and inferiority.
I wrote "The Cactus," "The Sunflower," and "The Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman" while studying and working at Bir Zeit University, but after several years, life there started to lose its innocence and halo. Love no longer consisted of a fresh walk or a sweet song by Abd Al-Haleem Hafez. Moreover, the academic atmosphere was no longer cozy, for political factions moved in on campus and we began to fight over power. I jumped into the fray of unionist work and politics, and, in spite of our poor resources and the oppressive political situation, I helped found the Union of Palestinian Writers. I was attacked by both the Muslim Brothers and some leftist writers. By 1980 my energy was sapped, and I started to look for an opportunity to make a change. My two daughters had already finished high school and gone abroad. Thus, I left Bir Zeit without regret.
Abroad, I managed to bury my head among research papers; and from the world of academia I devoured what was good for me. So for a number of years, 10 exactly, my pen remained dry until I came back to the West Bank and Bab Assaha.
In America I sought sanctuary and compensation. My sense of personal and national fragmentation gnawed at my heart. My failure in love, my disgust with the internecine warmongering among parties and factions, the tales of corruption and degeneration, the all-encompassing mist of passive thinking, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the relocation of the Palestinian leadership to Tunisia - all these factors made me feel like a lost orphan. I began looking for an oasis of oblivion, and I found some relief and peace of mind for a few months. Nature and the shopping malls soothed my nerves and hypnotized my mind. Then I began trudging through my MA and Ph.D.
The Intifada broke out in January 1987. A few weeks later, I left America for the West Bank to witness something hair-raising: women and children out on the streets hitting and being hit without blinking; young and old men languishing in jails, wilderness, or mountain caves; live bullets whizzing all around; tear gas and tanks; mosques stormed with cleavers and bombs; chants broadcast from cassette players everywhere. The rhythm of the street was rapid and the blood hot. These were days like dreams, and the tales of sacrifices and heroism were like what we read in fiction or history books. Woman proved to the whole world that she was not a nonentity, but the heart, the mind, the feeling, and the living conscience of the revolution. Out of that dream, that momentum, that rapid rhythm and hot pulse was born "The Plaza Gate."
When the Madrid negotiations started, we were still languishing in captivity. Our energy had been sapped and depleted by the Intifada. Our leadership had splintered for the umpteenth time; gangs had taken control of people's lives; we were living under two occupations: an occupation from the inside and an occupation from the outside. Then suddenly we were told that the Oslo accords had come up with a solution; so we went out on the streets declaring that we supported the solution. We were soon to discover, however, that Oslo had been a hoax, and that the solution was still a long way off. Liberation has been our dream; now it has become our nightmare.
Against this background I wrote "The Heritage." "The Heritage" is a reflection of this reality, a reflection of the ever-growing sorrow, of lay people's complaining and of earth's lamentations. It is the story of a people defeated on all levels: the leader's defeat by his revolution, the father's defeat by his family, the children's defeat in their world.
I have reached the end so far - where do I go from here? Some people tell me, "You can't go on like this with your panoramic approach. What survives in literature is the timeless, the universal-like stories about love, sacrifice, treason, war, peace, sorrows of separation, joys of reunion, and the madness of lovers." This is all true. But who says that my stories do not have all these elements? By panorama we establish the connections between individuals, on the one hand, and their realities, on the other. Is there an individual with no reality? This is our reality: a reality of humiliation, of captivity, of rebellion; a reality of a people longing for liberation without finding it; a reality of people who try time and again, and each time they pay their blood and youth as the price for the revolution - which, because it is rotting from the inside, scatters their dreams, slows down the pulse of the street, and invites death to prevail. The people wake up and go on dreaming again until they storm out of the prison cells and into the light. Now, is this a story or a non-story?
I had discovered these truths, gone out, and become happy - or I dreamed of that. I had become a revolutionary fighter strong enough to fight tyranny, or I dreamed of that. I had become a palm tree rising above walls, swaying in the expanses of horizon, and towering above fear, or I dreamed of that. In my dreams, I rise above the self, sublimate it, turn the world upside down, and speak out my mind for the love of God and truth, even if the price is the edge of the knife.
And they have never caught me, not even once; nor have they found out my mysterious crime! AJ
Translated from the Arabic by Musa al-Halool and Katia Sakka
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 39 (Spring 2002).