David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by A Wild Promise, an illustrated celebration of the Endangered Species Act in which acclaimed artist Allen Crawford beautifully illustrates over 80 animals that embody the spirit, legacy, and commitment of the Endangered Species Act. In his trademark inventive style, Crawford’s full-color illustrations and illuminated text create a vibrant tapestry of our nation’s habitats, and the varied species that call these places home and are accompanied by a powerful and moving introduction by award-winning writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams. Says Richard Louv, “In our eleventh hour, the art of Allen Crawford and the words of Terry Tempest Williams offer witness and warning. This gentle, strong book marks this moment of peril and promise.” A Wild Promise is out on July 11th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. The episodes of the show where I feel like I get to explore, learn, and grapple with mainly new material for me, whether the status of African languages with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the legacy of the century-long debt Haiti was forced to pay France for liberating themselves from property to human beings with Myriam Chancy, these episodes are often the ones that stick with me the most. Today’s episode with Isabella Hammad is one of those episodes, a conversation that sticks with me not only because her new book Enter Ghost is an unforgettable novel but also because I got to explore the history of Palestinian Theater and how the history of theater intersects and reflects the history and contemporary moment of the people themselves, how political theater and the theatricality of politics speak to each other, and how vital creating spaces where art can bloom is to being able to live in the impossible now and to envision an otherwise. Because of this, there are just a ton of references and recommendations collected in the email that accompanies today’s episode for supporters of Between the Covers. All listeners who become listener-supporters get the resource email with each episode and all supporters can also join our brainstorm of future guests that plays a big role in shaping each year’s roster of writers, then there are a lot of other potential things to choose from including the Tin House Early Readership Program where you receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to the bonus audio archive which is full of readings, long-form interviews with translators, craft talks, and more. Isabella contributes a reading of a letter written by the Palestinian political prisoner Walid Daqqa who has been in prison for nearly 40 years and was recently denied parole despite his cancer diagnosis. This letter is translated by Dalia Taha into English and this letter has yet to be published in English though, according to Isabella, it is finding some interest now from publishers. This letter was written 20 years into his captivity. In 2014, a Haifa-based Palestinian playwright produced a theatrical version of this letter, the letter and the play both called Parallel Time. When it was staged at the Al-Midan Theater, the Israeli culture minister froze federal funding for the theater, defunding it and threatening its ability to continue. This is the world of Isabella Hammad’s new book Enter Ghost, a world of coming together to create a shared space of art making where doing so is, by its very nature, political and powerful. To learn how to subscribe to the bonus audio and about the other potential benefits of joining the Between the Covers Community, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, without further ado, today’s conversation with Isabella Hammad.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest British-Palestinian Novelist Isabella Hammad grew up in London, studied English at Oxford, did a graduate fellowship in literature at Harvard and an MFA in Creative Writing at NYU. Her debut novel The Parisian set in early 20th century Palestine at the end of Ottoman Rule and at the beginning of the British Mandate announced an important new voice both in Palestinian literature and in the literature of the anglophone world. The Parisian was the winner of the 2019 Palestine Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and named the best book of the year by everyone from Lit Hub to Vogue to Amazon. Zadie Smith says of Hammad’s debut, “The Parisian is a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful. It is realism in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal — everything that happens feels not so much imagined as ordained. That this remarkable historical epic should be the debut of a writer in her mid-twenties seems impossible, yet it’s true. Isabella Hammad is an enormous talent and her book is a wonder.” It seems that people agree with Zadie Smith. Hammad is a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree named in the once a decade Granta list of Best Young British Novelists whose judges included Rachel Cusk and past Between the Covers guest Helen Oyeyemi. She’s a Lannan Foundation fellow. Her writing has appeared everywhere from Conjunctions to The Paris Review to The New York Times and her story Mr. Can’aan won the 2019 O. Henry Prize, and the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction. Isabella Hammad is here today to talk about her latest much anticipated follow-up to The Parisian, Enter Ghost, a book set in contemporary Palestine in Israel, one that follows a Palestinian Theater group aiming to put on a production of Hamlet in the West Bank. With starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times, Namwali Serpell says, “Enter Ghost is a masterful, deeply convincing portrait of the all-too-real consequences of political theater—in both senses. A moving and important novel that presses upon the urgent question of how we ought to live in the midst of the rubble (and ongoing chaos) of political crisis.” Leila Aboulela adds, “Aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, and culturally satisfying. It is astonishing but true that Isabella Hammad is incapable of striking a false note. She immerses her heroine in volatile territory with the accuracy, compassion and coolness of a surgical knife sliding into a diseased body. The result is a stunning beauty — an eye-opening, uplifting novel that grants its vulnerable cast and their endeavors a rare and graceful dignity.” Finally, Lily Meyer for the New York Times says, “Enter Ghost, though contemporary, is thoroughly infused with Palestine’s past — and thoroughly haunted by Sonia’s. Hammad, who is both a delicate writer and an exact one, intertwines the two, taking care to give Sonia as many personal ghosts as she does historical ones. Indeed, the novel seems to argue, real growth and connection, both political and personal, cannot begin until everyone’s ghosts have emerged from hiding. Art is, if nothing else, a powerful tool for coaxing them out.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Isabella Hammad.
Isabella Hammad: Thank you so much for having me.
DN: I was intrigued by the way Robyn Creswell of The New York Review of Books framed his review of your first book The Parisian. He starts with a quote from Edward Said that goes, “The striking thing about Palestinian prose and prose fiction is its formal instability,” then Creswell says, “While readers may be tempted to look for political messages, Said suggests that the real drama in this body of literature is the writers’ struggle to come up with a coherent form. ‘A narrative that might overcome the almost metaphysical impossibility of representing the present. Our characteristic mode, then, is not a narrative, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, and its limitations.’” Creswell then goes on to talk about how the formal instability that Said identifies as characteristic of Palestinian prose from the novels Men in the Sun to In Search of Walid Masoud, books that are in his words variously episodic, discontinuous, and elaborately unresolved, that your book, in contrast, The Parisian, adopts the cohesiveness of a 19th century novel. That in a way, it’s defiantly, formally old-fashioned. That unlike the setting of most Palestinian fiction whose conditions are usually dislocation and displacement, you’re evoking an era at the end of the Ottoman Rule in a city novelist that is vibrant and self-sufficient, and exists within a continuity. That your Palestinian book not being about exile is actually one of its remarkable aspects. On the other hand, your latest novel moves us to contemporary Palestine with our protagonist Sonia, a British actor of Palestinian heritage who goes to visit her sister Haneen who lives in Haifa and where Sonia finds herself roped into becoming part of a production of Hamlet that’s going to be performed in the West Bank. Thinking of Creswell’s framing of The Parisian using Said’s framing of Palestinian literature and the ways form can mirror the existential state of the country, I wondered if there are ways that you think the form is changed because you set us within the impossibility of a “normal life” in contemporary Palestine, whether living in Israel, Ramallah, or Gaza.
IH: Yeah. I think it’s a great question, the question of form. I think I disagree a bit with Said, the kind of categorical way in which he implies or states that forms have inherent political meanings. I think, in fact, you can use what’s available in a form for different kinds of purposes, for different kinds of meanings. In narrative coherence or storytelling that is maybe old-fashioned in a certain way, I think he has a bone to pick with novels that have cohesive, narrative structures and he calls them totalitarian in a way, the novels of empire. I think this isn’t quite true. I think you can make that argument with certain texts and not with others. You can’t really claim that fragmentation is an inherently liberatory form, inherently mournful form, or any of these things. Modernism produces Ezra Pound as well as poets of the left. I think that it’s up to the artist how they use a form to express political positioning and so forth. I guess with my first novel The Parisian, of course, I was harking back to a kind of 19th century bourgeois national project in a way by writing a novel that’s old-fashioned in this way with lots of characters, a bit like a Russian novel that’s like the novel of the imagined community of Benedict Anderson’s formulation, that the rise of the novel is for the rise of the newspaper and this is the beginnings of national consciousness around the world at different times. But the irony is that I obviously wrote this novel in 2015 or whatever and the reader knows that the nation doesn’t come into being. That’s I suppose the meaning of that form. With the new one, I guess it is fragmentary in a sense and it is a little more based on the scene. But I think perhaps I felt more unbuttoned from the kind of the strictures of what I was trying to achieve in the first one, so I was being playful. I don’t know that I necessarily was thinking about what it meant or I think a lot of it is unconscious.
DN: Well, contrary to The Parisian which opens with an immense family tree and a map, in Enter Ghost, we are immediately confronted with questions of ease of movement and government surveillance. Sonia arrives at the airport and has to pass through a gauntlet of security searches by Israelis, “What are your ties to this place? Why haven’t you been back in 11 years? Why is your sister an Israeli citizen and not you?” It’s quite invasive. Her belongings are searched, a strip search ensues, and it takes a long time. But in her experience, it’s relatively speaking a “good experience,” a quick and lucky one. But it is clear that the airport is the first topic family brings up, not only when she arrives but when any Palestinian does, “How did it go at the airport? How bad were the interrogations?” You yourself are in Palestine now, took part in The Palestine Festival of Literature, launched your book, you were interviewed, and you yourself interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mohammed el-Kurd. I’m wondering about you coming back or coming to Palestine during the recent shift of Israel’s government to its most far-right government ever and in recent protests by Israelis against it, and recent events like the Pogrom and Hawara where Israeli settlers lit Palestinian homes and schools on fire that were occupied where the Israeli military was present but not doing anything about it and afterwards where the finance minister said Hawara, a city of 6,000 people should be wiped off the map. This government says out loud without any coded language what other governments might have thought but not said. It makes me think of the political scientist Dana El Kurd who is Palestinian I believe, who tweeted, “It’s actually quite harmful to downplay the seriousness of conditions in Palestine right now. While absolutely justified to argue that the current government in Israel is not an aberration, it’s also simply not accurate to say the current state of affairs is business as usual.” It just made me wonder if anything feels substantively different for you this visit or if it’s simply more of the same.
IH: I think every time I come, I try to come once a year, it takes me a little while to adjust. I’m sometimes not certain if the change is in me or if it’s in the place. Obviously, there are appreciable changes. You can see the land disappearing for one thing. It used to be that the settlements were far away, then they just got closer and closer to the road, so you literally see the land of the West Bank disappearing. Obviously, there are moments when you feel an upsurge of violence or you feel particular tension where you are. I’ve only been here two weeks and I obviously can’t generalize from what it feels like right now. But I think that part of the reason why it’s important to say this government is not an aberration is that it’s actually expressive of a huge portion of Israeli society, it’s expressive of the nature of Zionism as an ideology, as an expansionist ethno-nationalist ideology, so it’s totally consistent with the state project so far. What we’re seeing is just [Nakba] continuous essentially but it is important also to recognize that the flagrant way in which this government is fearlessly saying those kinds of things like, “Let’s wipe a water off the map,” [laughs] I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is major danger for a lot of people on a daily basis and not to speak lightly about that. I haven’t felt myself since I arrived anything acutely different but I think I always feel pretty shocked I suppose, even if it’s at the sameness, it’s always shocking in a sense.
DN: Well, before we get into the story of Enter Ghost, I wanted to spend one more moment with the connection between the two books. You said that in your household, Palestinian history began with the Nakba, the catastrophe where 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes and land in ‘48, that you knew very little of the Palestine of before other than the stories of your great grandfather who became the inspiration for your protagonist in The Parisian so that writing into late Ottoman Palestine in early British Mandate Palestine was a way for you to not only evoke Palestinian culture before fragmentation but also to learn more about it yourself including about Arab Nationalist Movements during British rule. I wondered if there were any things you learned that deeply changed your own conception of Palestinian history and if any of those discoveries carry forward into the ways you’ve chosen to depict life in Enter Ghost.
IH: Probably the main discovery was how far back the struggle for self-determination went and that’s maybe a little obvious now that I’m a grown-up. [laughs] But I think as a child, I thought everything began at ‘48. That was the time of trouble and there was no trouble before that. I didn’t really understand when my grandmother talked about the great revolt or the strike of the 30s. I couldn’t really grasp it. Also, I must say that growing up in Britain where there is still a remarkable and worrying reluctance and willful myopia about British colonial history and British responsibility for such situations as what has happened to Palestine, I think that also contributed to an obscuring. I actually think the role of Britain in the story was that I didn’t understand it. It took me a very long time to learn about empire, which seems outrageous that it really was only when I started to read Chinua Achebe that I was like, “There’s something to this history that’s being blocked from my understanding.” [laughter] I think those are the main things that I began to see with great clarity and I suppose also the fact that the character of Midhat whose stories were unpolitical in a way. There were stories about a man who was obsessed with France. He was away with the fairies. He loved his clothes. He was in love with a French woman. He was bumbling in a way but very beloved by his family. I couldn’t really see this in its political, social context either, the fact that what would it mean to be in love with France at this time when France and Britain have carved out the Middle East like, “What does that contextually mean?” I didn’t want to just dismiss his infatuation with French aesthetics or with France as just the colonized longing for the colonizer because it wasn’t quite that either. They were part of the Ottoman Empire. The British and French Colonial project in the Middle East was just beginning at that point. Those were complications that began to emerge. The more I dug, the more I listened, the more I read.
DN: Well, I’m sure you get the question a lot, “Why Hamlet? Or why Shakespeare? Why is this Palestinian novel centered around the production of a British play in the occupied territories?” As a pushback to this, I think of a line in your essay for Lit Hub, The Revolutionary Power of Palestinian Theater, where you say, “It is wrong to think that artists can only choose between wholly imported Western forms and a local tradition that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. In fact, this is a colonial attitude.” Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular have an interesting and I think multifaceted history in the Arab world and Palestinian Theater also having a wide variety of influences contrary to this possible notion of it not changing for thousands of years, indigenous influences theater across the Arab world but also Brechtian, European avant-garde theater, Latin American, Brazilian Theatre of the Oppressed, and others. I know that Hamlet’s first production in Arabic in the Arab world was in Gaza over a hundred years ago and that during the First Intifada, Hamlet was on the list of books banned in the West Bank because of lines like, “To be or not to be” and “To take arms against a sea of troubles, /And by opposing end them,” also Edward Said’s own writings about Hamlet in his memoir and that Hamlet is the most translated of Shakespeare’s plays into Arabic. But I think most people in Europe and the US often think of Hamlet in mainly psychological terms and on the scale of the family, even if it is also equally political and about the nation. Talk to us about how you decided that this play would be the core text for this novel versus Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or a play by an Arab playwright.
IH: Yeah. I became interested in theater in Palestine when I first saw a film called Arna’s Children by Juliano Mer Khamis about his mother Arna who established a theater school for children in Jenin refugee camp and subsequently, Juliano turned this into the Freedom Theater. The way he spoke about it was about a cultural intifada. It was very much about theater not being therapeutic but actually being a contributor to a resistance which is also ameliorative and healing in its own way but it’s not about diffusing anger. It’s about contributing to a feeling of resistance or the energy that goes into that. I think to speak again to your previous question about crossing borders, there is something very much about the colonial context and the structures of checkpoints of border crossings that are very, very theatrical but I feel very weirdly theatrical and performative. The soldiers are very performative and there’s something about that and something about the history of theater that I knew a little bit of and grew to know more about that was provocative to me and seemed exciting to play around with on the page. Then Hamlet, I thought, “Well, yeah, maybe I could write my own play and I could use an Arabic play.” Then I thought Shakespeare is good because even though obviously he’s an English playwright, he’s also global in a certain way and there are these other traditions. There’s a Soviet tradition, there are all these post-colonial reinterpretations of Shakespeare and these are all part of the Shakespeare heritage, then I found out about the history of Hamlet in particular, as you say, Hamlet being banned in the prisons during, I think it was the First Intifada, and seen as an incitement to violence. Then I read a book by Margaret Litvin about the history of Hamlet particularly in Egypt and the way in which “to be or not to be” was translated as “shall we be or not be” because there’s no infinitive in Arabic and this was a slogan for Arab nationalism. In fact, the play that in the West is seen as like the psychological drama is also about a historical coming to consciousness of the Arab nation. It has this other history to it and I thought that it was adding to the palette of things I could play around with. It seemed very rich I guess in resonances that I could draw on. I also think, in fact, to refer back to your first question about Said, and this is something that I obviously don’t necessarily think about while I’m writing but then when I look back at what I’ve written, I can see it very clearly, is that I’m obviously the heir of the two traditions specifically, which is the Palestinian or Arabic language tradition at large, an English language tradition, and an heir to other traditions as well. I think that they’re all part of our heritage collectively. But I think that those being ones that I know more intimately, they’re ones I can play with in a direct way, then also play with the audience in a direct way. Different audiences are going to read different resonances, so I can make jokes about [inaudible] funny in the book that a Palestinian audience will get and maybe ones about English novelists that an English or an American audience would get.
DN: Well, near the beginning of the book, Haneen, the sister with Israeli citizenship, takes Sonia to a play at an Arab theater and Sonia knows nothing about Arab theater or the history of Arab theater, and the play is called The Jester. I looked it up, it is a real play by a Syrian playwright written in 1969, a historical satire that, among other things, is critiquing Shakespeare’s Othello but it’s also using the presence of Shakespeare within the play to critique Britain and America as well as parodying a certain Arab heroism, and the play apparently is also partially a reaction to the 1967 Six-Day War but it also has a meta aspect like your book in that the play itself is about the actors arriving to perform the play Othello. It reminded me of a funny exchange between the actors in the Hamlet of your book where Amin brings up that there’s a version of Hamlet in Arabic that has a happy ending without a suicide which stuns our protagonist Sonia. Then Amin wonders if the play can still have catharsis with a happy ending and Sonia says she hasn’t read her Aristotle in too long. Then Amin says Arabs translated Aristotle but skipped the part about catharsis. They said instead the purpose of tragedy was happiness. Then Ibrahim interjects, “That’s why we don’t have a tradition of theater here,” and Amin says, “We have a tradition. It’s comedy, satire.” “Even though our history is all tragedy,” says Ibrahim. But back to The Jester, Sonia doesn’t seem impressed by the play. It’s through her eyes, so I’m not sure how much of this is because of her unfamiliarity with the tropes of this comedic style of Arabic theater or more that this isn’t a very good production of this play, but I wondered if you could speak to what work The Jester is doing here in the book and what, if anything, it not being great is signaling either about Sonia or the state of theater in Haifa or anything else if it’s signifying anything.
IH: That’s such a great question. I think partly I love that play. It’s hilarious. It does those things that you mentioned, it’s plays within plays. Obviously, Hamlet has a play within a play, then I’ve got a play within a book and they’re always like things to play with I guess. But it’s also including that accusation that Shakespeare is a cover for British imperialism, and therefore for American imperialism, I don’t want to generalize, but there’s a common trope also for Arabs to be conspiracy theorists with good reason because there have been a lot of conspiracies against the Arabs, [laughs] so I think that I wanted to also get that in there, then I could voice that, then it could be one of the things I’m juggling with as well. They’re multi-tradition but also the suspiciousness about importing a Shakespeare as a Western playwright, Western text, and what that means about Mariam, the director’s ambitions, why does she want to put on Hamlet? Why does she want to put on this grand highfalutin play about interiority, the kind of complex language from this old tradition? It has to do with her ambitions as a theater director that she wants to do something really grand at scale. I think Sonia’s response is probably partly justified. I think it’s probably not very like a superior production but I think it also has to do with what she is valuing, what she sees as valuable in a theater production. This is another thing that the characters also debate, “What is the purpose of theater? Is it to be a perfectly sealed aesthetic object? Or is it something that might be rough at the edges but actually intervenes in a cultural context?” These are different ways of thinking about a play that will vary depending on the context. Sonia opens the play aspiring to Western theater, to high London theater and she feels she didn’t really make it. She feels she’s failed. By the end of the book, she’s seeing her role as actually potentially something quite different and that there might be a different set of values by which to evaluate, to think about her role and what makes good theater.
DN: Well, let’s hear a little section from them rehearsing the play Hamlet.
IH: This takes place in Bethlehem. One thing that’s important to point out is that Wael who’s playing Hamlet is a famous pop star who has no acting experience but he’s been cast because Mariam the director wants to attract as big a crowd as possible to see the play.
[Isabella Hammad reads from her latest book Enter Ghost]
DN: We’ve been listening to Isabella Hammad read from her latest book Enter Ghost. I wanted to ask you about having protagonists in both books who themselves I don’t think have a very sophisticated political analysis or political sensibility, at least not as we begin. I think also the character in the contemporary half of Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail who also doesn’t have a framework of analysis, actually much less of one than your characters. In her case, she even blames herself for things that are clearly the result of the impossible situation she lives within. In Enter Ghost, there’s a lot of political discussion among characters and political differences between characters that makes things quite dynamic. But I both wondered if as a writer, there was something compelling about moving through the story and the space whose every square inch is politically fraught with a main character who has lived most of her life not directly engaging with the situation, if that affords advantages or ways of telling the story that appeal to you versus say if the director of the play Mariam, who’s a very interesting and dynamic character, had been the main character, someone who not only is very engaged and oriented to everything but also someone Sonia envies for what she sees as an uncomplicated sense of her own destiny, her straightforwardness, her clear-headedness of her place, and her role politically and otherwise I think.
IH: In fact, at one point, I did consider making Mariam the main character because she has some of the weight, the complication, and the charisma of a protagonist, maybe even more than Sonia who is not necessarily that charismatic. She’s quite funny but she’s also brittle and grumpy. [laughter] But I think I’m interested in ambivalence and I’m interested in the processes by which people become politicized or politically aware. Obviously, that happens more to Sonia than it does to Midhat. He’s political because his contexts are politicized to the extent that everybody living in Nablus has a political sense, it’s the air they breathe but he’s not a political actor and he’s not a hero. I suppose I’m interested in that process, how the mind changes, how individuals recognize themselves as part of a collective. In addition, there isn’t also the way in which having a character who is contemplating or dealing with the edges of a political sense or the sense in which they’re part of something larger enables me to engage with the political material in a less direct way and somehow it eases a reader who might not be so familiar with the context as well. I never want it to be like I’m hand-holding to a Western reader but I also want it to be accessible to people who aren’t familiar with Palestine. I know there is a lot to explain to help people to understand Palestine. I’m interested in those hinges of consciousness.
DN: Well, I was going to play a question from someone else later that I’m going to play now I think because I wonder if it’s related to your answer a little bit. We have a question for you from Yara Hawari, the author of The Stone House, a new Arab book of the year in 2021, who’s the host of the podcast Rethinking Palestine and a Senior Analyst at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. I had no idea until I reached out to Yara and she told me that you’re actually staying together, at least for part of the time while you’re in Palestine. [laughter]
IH: So you can see her name up there.
DN: Okay. [laughter] Here’s a question from your housemate, Yara Hawari.
Yara Hawari: Bella, the main character in Enter Ghost is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, what we Palestinians call a 48er. Why did you decide to focus on that particular Palestinian experience?
IH: Well, thank you, Yara. Actually, Sonia doesn’t have a passport but her sister does and that’s something that complicates their relationship in fact, and distinguishes their position in historic Palestine. But I was interested in 48ers. 48 refers to the territory taken in 1948 as opposed to 1967. I was interested in that experience because it wasn’t an experience that I was so familiar with. My grandfather was from Haifa but I didn’t know him. He was a refugee. My family is in the West Bank or outside Palestine. I’m interested in, I suppose, the particular complicatedness of that positionality to have Israeli citizenship but to still be a second-class citizen but also have mobility and to have the citizen’s rights that West Bank Palestinians or Palestinians in Gaza or refugees don’t have or indeed Jerusalemites. I suppose part of the project as well of this novel was to imagine a context in which Palestinians of all these different legal backgrounds are working together on a play and logistically, putting my protagonist in 48, I get the maximum freedom of movement to my character, to the narrative to actually cover as much of the historic Palestine as they can with the exception of Gaza, which I couldn’t realistically include although that absence is gestured too. But I think the Palestinians in ‘48, there’s an old trope about Palestinians in ‘48 which is that they’re not very political and that they play good Arab, that they are quiet. I think this also is not really true. In fact, they have a very strong sense of being Palestinian or at least, I mean I’m friends with them and I think that partly has to do with the security that position confers on them. They’re not so afraid to speak out. There’s less fear of repercussions. But nevertheless, they’re Hebrew speakers, they’re growing up in this context. It’s very different to growing up in the West Bank.
DN: One thing that having this less political protagonist does in both your book and Shibli’s is that it allows the situation of the land itself to speak for itself. In Minor Detail, our protagonist is disoriented, bewildered and even though she blames herself, and frames it psychologically, it’s clear to the reader that the disorientation is from the erasure and replacement of place names, and the labyrinthine system of checkpoints, each one sort of an existential gauntlet with regulations around who can be in area A or area B and so on. I really love what you’ve done with this group of actors who are rehearsing to perform Hamlet. They’re from Ramallah, from Jerusalem, from a refugee camp from Haifa, from the diaspora, and as you say everywhere but Gaza because that would have been unrealistic that a Gazan would be able to move at all to gather in the different places that they rehearse or perform. Each has a different situation at a given checkpoint. Even though the objective distances that they have to travel are small, the time to get to a given place can be immense and sometimes rehearsals are delayed because of this. But it’s also the frequent topic of conversation, like the airport. It feels like the politics speak in these situations without a character having to speak them. But having these very different Palestinians, some from the diaspora, some from the West Bank, some from the 48, it made me think of something you read and spoke about for the Read By Podcast, and there you chose to read from Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love which is a chronicle of his time with the Palestinian fedayeen and the refugee camps in Jordan in the 1970s. You quote Said who called the book, “A seismographic reading, drawing and exposing the fault lines that a largely normal surface had hidden.” You say that throughout the book, Genet meditates on the black panthers who he had visited in March of 1970, just a few months prior to joining the Palestinians. In each context, he describes feeling like a dreamer inside a dream. In each context, he felt at home and he considered the similarities of the movements. Both people are deprived of a territory from which to launch their revolutions and therefore they rely on spectacle to assert themselves. But spectacle is transitory and sometimes shades into illusion. You say, “Spectacle, says Genet, is ‘the product of despair.’” I was thinking of the reliance on spectacle to assert oneself and the idea of a dreamer inside of a dream when I think of this choice you’ve made in the book, to include so many different Palestinian experiences and situations among your Hamlet troop, and to have them come together against the impossibilities of doing so, to do this thing together, it felt like your gesture, this enactment almost felt like a dream, a utopian dream, or an aspirational map. I wondered if this gesture toward Hamlet is also a gesture toward cohesiveness, perhaps similar to what Creswell was saying about the cohesiveness of pre-Nakba Palestine in The Parisian but not by going before fracture and fragmentation to write the story but almost as if this is the response to it, creating this aspirational performative space that Genet would have called the spectacle as the product of despair.
IH: I think that there’s certainly some aspect of it that is a fantasy in a way but it is also in a way true. For example, in May 2021, when we had the Sheikh Jarrah happenings, when the houses were being taken over by armed settlers in East Jerusalem, what happened was what they call the Unity Intifada or the Intifada of Unity which was actually where Palestinians from all geographies were gesturing at each other and supporting each other within 48, within Jerusalem, within diaspora, within Gaza and that there was something very moving about those moments of unity of working together, and collectively striking or whatever it is. They seem to happen largely at moments of crisis but they do happen and there is something to be said for the younger generation, and the links that are made, I don’t know, this is also partly the role of the internet, but those links are there. I think that they can be encouraged and give me a good feeling in the midst of everything. [laughs] But also I guess there’s something about putting on a play that the dynamics of the group project, it’s also a cipher for other kinds of collaboration, in the positive sense, not in the negative sense, of working together, of solidarity. It’s also not just a play. It’s also an action, it’s also an operation that they’re doing, it’s also flirting with danger, it’s also confrontational. Those internal dynamics within the play structure also stand for something else or they gesture at something else as well. But the Genet book the Prisoner of Love was one of the books that I was reading as I started writing the novel. It provided me with quite a lot of material I suppose or important images that stayed with me and among them was that passage that I read which is a moment when they’re playing cards, when the fedayeen are playing cards even though gambling has been banned and after this long description of them playing cards, cheating, and whatever or winning that Genet is witnessing. He then switches to a description of the Japanese Obon feast of the dead at which the dead are not absent and it’s celebrating that which is absent. Then in a parenthesis, he tells us that in fact, the card game was fake. Their hands were empty. It was all mimed. When I read that, the hair stood up on the back of my head. Obviously, he’s using it as an image of Palestine, the ceremony in celebration of that which is absent, and that being the fedayeen who are in Jordan, who can’t be in Palestine. It provokes something in me about illusion and collective illusion that I could play with on the page. It’s one of those things, one of those moments that I can’t really articulate in words. It was almost just a feeling that it gave me that rushed me into writing the book.
DN: Or one of the boundaries that you handle so well is not just the geographic one but linguistic. I remember Adania saying in our conversation that in many settings, for example, waiting at the post office in Jerusalem, you can’t tell visually if someone is Jewish or Arab. That phenotypically, it often isn’t clear, that things become political only when you choose the language you’re speaking, which places you in a certain way within the public sphere. Language is really fraught in your book. There is a shape-shifting quality that Sonia uses and that Midhat in The Parisian used in your last novel where Sonia emphasizes her Englishness, and the English language to get through the airport, a checkpoint, or if she’s in a taxi and she isn’t sure if the taxi driver is Palestinian or Israeli. Notably, she doesn’t know Hebrew unlike her sister Haneen. She’s even shocked to discover that her sister reads in Hebrew for pleasure. I found a statistic that seemed relevant that 90% of Arabs in Israel speak Hebrew while only 3% of Israeli-born Jews speak Arabic and some portion of those are learning Arabic not to build bridges but because of their aspirations to join Israeli intelligence organizations. Sonia understandably moves through Haifa, wary of speaking Arabic but also unable to speak Hebrew. Each encounter in what should be the most banal of circumstances, going to the beach or to an outdoor cafe, feels like it has to be negotiated for her. Part of this is linguistic, a significant part of it, and how that announces her status. In The Parisian, you use untranslated phrases in Arabic that Cresswell suggests, “Break the realist illusion, the illusion that we are somehow both magically in a foreign place but also understand everything that is being said,” and that it also forces the reader to wonder whether we have full access to the thoughts and feelings of these Palestinian characters. But here it feels like it is something different, almost like all of these encounters are similar to checkpoints, linguistic checkpoints where power dynamics are being negotiated in real-time. I guess I wanted to hear you talk more about language and identity in Enter Ghost in light of this.
IH: Yeah. What you’re talking about is code-switching, isn’t it? It’s about having the repertoire available for certain kinds of code-switching that are smooth which Sonia doesn’t have but which other 48ers would have if they’d grown up with Hebrew. Her tools are more blunt. She has to play it being English when she feels uncomfortable about being Arab. Then when they go to the beach when they’re kids, they’re worried about speaking Arabic because we’ll identify them as Arabs and so forth. There’s also the question of the play being translated into Arabic. I was using the Arabic in The Parisian for a specific purpose in a way which was Midhat has had this experience in French, then he goes back to an Arabic language context. Obviously, I was writing in English, so I felt like I wanted to give some texture of those languages to gesture at the division in his own mind. The whole book is a map of his mind. That division takes a concrete form at the end when he confronts the marker in his head in a way. I had different kinds of intentions with this book and apart from those moments, which I guess so much of writing novels is unconscious. I don’t know that I was necessarily orchestrating them, I think I was just trying to paint how it is in a way but obviously, that is a fabric of the reality here. The West Bank is bound to stand to basically enclaves, so if you have the freedom of movement, you’re moving between these contexts where there are different kinds of references, there are different kinds of signaling, people are often judging where someone is from by what they’re wearing, what do your clothes signal. In addition to language actually, what do your clothes signal, where did you get those clothes, what are you wearing around your neck? These things also signal identity and politics. I find that very interesting, that kind of way in which people read each other. The Hamlet itself, I’d use the translation by Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra who’s from Bethlehem. He translated lots of Shakespeare very beautifully. I used that text and translated it back into English to defamiliarize the reader in a way from the Hamlet. Although obviously, it bastardized Shakespeare’s lovely words but it also places Sonia in an awkward position because she doesn’t have such sophisticated grasp with classical Arabic because she is rusty. She doesn’t really read much in Arabic for pleasure. She’s obviously fluent in spoken Arabic because they’re different unless they’ve really practiced it or unless they’re trained. That dynamic is also something that I wanted to play up in Sonia’s discomfort perhaps and also being part of this production.
DN: Well, in your essay about Palestinian Theater, you talk about how part of that particularly vibrant revolutionary era of theater in the 70s in the shadow of the defeat in the Six-day War is that the theater companies or some of them started moving from performing plays in classical Arabic to Palestinian dialect. That they were using the language that most closely comes from and reflects the conditions of both those in the play and those watching the play. Is that also part of why you would want to start with an Arabic translation of Hamlet, then carry that back into English with that changed syntax? I mean obviously, it’s creating a third thing, it’s creating a different English from a translation into Arabic, which I understand the defamiliarization but I’m also wondering about this other element potentially.
IH: The question of spoken Arabic. Yeah, I put a game in the book where Mariam makes them sail their lines in dialect, which is actually an idea I got from, I watched lots of different Hamlets to just experience the play again and again, and see how different directors had done, how different actors have performed. My favorite English one was an actor, I can’t remember his name now. He’s in Fleabag. Did you ever watched Fleabag? He’s a British director and he plays the priest.
DN: Oh, yeah. I like that actor.
IH: Remember his name?
DN: I don’t know his name.
IH: He’s a very good actor. He’s a TV actor. I really liked his Hamlet in part because he brought the spokenness to it. I think some of the temptation in doing Hamlet in English is to put on a special Shakespeare voice into these like [inaudible] about it. But in fact, he found ways to make the language really earthy and to really communicate what was the content of the sentences, even if you couldn’t understand the complicated prose or the archaic language. I thought about inserting this game into the rehearsal process where they have to use spoken Arabic to communicate their lines to bring the language down into the context and down to real feeling rather than something rarefied and literary. I don’t know if this is quite answering your question but. I think these are things I thought about in the putting on the play because, in a way, I got to put on the play. It was something about playing around with the putting on a production. I could stage it. I chose the costumes but without having to actually go through with it. [laughter]
DN: Well, I think it speaks to my reading experience that something that I would imagine without encountering it would be the most static part of the book, the reading of the play Hamlet and us being with the actors reading their lines, that was the best part of the book. The most dynamic and electric part of the book was when they’re practicing Hamlet strangely enough and the lines from Hamlet but then the debates in between the lines and the interpersonal dramas that are happening as they’re trying to assemble and then assembling and practicing.
IH: Cool. That’s great to hear.
DN: I wanted to take this question of language into the realm of speech and censorship. As part of my preparation for today, I watched and listened to interviews with various Palestinian Theater directors, either working in Palestine, the US, or in the UK. On the Kunafa & Shay Theatre Podcast, they interviewed the theater directors Hanna Eady, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who now lives in the US, and Ahmed Masoud from Gaza who now lives in the UK. Masoud said that simply expressing his situation and right to exist is, in itself, political, it’s political theater. Eady suggested that regardless of what a play is about, if the government shuts it down, it is political theater. Both mention plays getting canceled, the difficulty of getting plays with these topics staged, and Masoud says that in the UK, it seems like they would prefer a white playwright telling the story of going to Palestine over a Palestinian telling the story of being from Palestine. Eady mentions how, in his first theater company in Palestine, he was fired as director and replaced by a Druze from a nearby village because the Druze were, generally speaking, more loyal to Israel. He moved to Haifa, worked at the theater of the Arab-Israeli cultural center, which is supported by a large amount of international funding, but by the third year there, he realized it was really a showpiece meant to help Israel say, “See, we treat the Arabs equally,” and to secure funding this way, that the plays had to be submitted to the government for approval and go through a censor, and if you added a line back in that they had crossed out, you would get a warning. If you did it again, you’d get another warning. Then your salary would be reduced and then ultimately, you would be fired. So he resigned and moved to the United States before they could fire him. But it seems like the pressure to censor isn’t just coming from the Israeli government. I watched an interview with Marina Barham from the Medya News Podcast and she’s the co-founder and director of Al Harah, a theater close to Bethlehem. She talked about how international donors, which fund many of these theaters, donors who ostensibly are motivated by notions of free speech, equal rights, and democracy, nevertheless, when they see her use the word martyr in a play, for instance, they say, “You can’t do that.” It’s endlessly frustrating. Similarly, Gabriel Varghese, the author of Palestinian Theatre in the West Bank, which looks at the histories of five major theater companies in the West Bank, he goes into the power dynamics of privilege within collaborations between Western companies and Palestinian ones and the ways that this affects how things get performed and what gets performed. There are so many obstacles to Hamlet getting performed in Enter Ghost beyond checkpoints and registration identity papers, electricity, blackouts, surveillance. But also it’s mentioned near the beginning a theater that gets its funding yanked entirely because of things similar to what I’ve mentioned. I wondered if you could speak to censorship and Enter Ghost and maybe the blurry line between it and self-censorship for an artist.
IH: The question of money is the one that’s at play here, censorship through funding, the hold in funding. This is particularly a problem, well, not particularly a problem but it is certainly a problem and has been historically a problem for theaters in 48 who are relying on state funding. There was a case which I actually refer to in the book where the biggest theater in Haifa was shut down because they performed a play that included letters by a Palestinian political prisoner Walid Daqqa and basically, the state responded by saying this was treasonous and they withdrew funding from the theater. The theater shut down. This is not a single occurrence. There are lots of examples of this as well as more direct examples of soldiers walking onto the set or the stage, particularly in the 80s and 90s when the text has violated the census diktat. There is something particular about censoring theater as an art form that is live, I think, that has the possibility to be spontaneous, that has to do with the polis, that has to do with groups of people, I think that that’s threatening. There’s also the theater of protest. These things can and have bled into one another in a way, and then there is the particular thing in which funding is required to put on a play and that can compromise political or artistic integrity in a sense, either because you’re trying to stay on the good side of a state or you are subject to the conditions of international funding or NGO funding, which tends to have a de-politicized mandate that is working and is working solely on social issues so they’ll be like, “This is the Swedish fund for whatever and we want you to do a play about women,” or something, but it’s never going to be about the larger context or the larger political struggle that this is left off. This is classic of the way the NGO culture actually props up the occupation in a way and switch it through complicated means, which I won’t go into but the art world itself having been, not just theater world as well, you could also say this about visual arts to a certain degree, having been very much a part of a culture of resistance and a sense of collective identity, then is neutered or shackled by the question of funding and the NGO-ization of that sphere. And that, I really made part of the book because obviously, they’re actively trying to seek funding that is not from a European or an American donor and therefore not tied to particular conditions, but Mariam, the director’s brother, Salim Mansour has been involved and he is a member of the Knesset, so this has already drawn the attention of the government to the project and he’s been suspended for mysterious reasons so that that question allowed me also to draw on that to highlight both the interconnectedness of Palestinian society but also how threatening that interconnectedness is to the Israelis in a sense.
DN: Well, obviously, you know a lot about the history and circumstance of Palestinian Theater. In the spirit of learning about how you learned all of this, we have a question for you from Palestinian-American poet and performance artist George Abraham whose debut poetry collection Birthright won the Arab American Book Award.
George Abraham: Hi, Isabella. My name is George Abraham. I’m a Palestinian-American poet and I am a huge, huge fan of your work. I’m so excited to be here asking you a question virtually. I guess in reading Enter Ghost as a huge fan of The Parisian, I’m really interested in the ways that both of the projects use extremely detailed, like realist, etc., prose to build two very different worlds. In The Parisian, we have this like pre-Nakba insistent, pre-Nakba world of Palestine that these characters enliven through their presence, through their transit beyond Palestine even just a small detail of like, “Oh, these people can move fluidly in space,” is a haunting thing to read and as a contemporary Palestinian, and these seemingly tiny details come to really haunt the characters throughout their trajectories in imperial space and time thinking about, for instance, the pocket watch, which Midhat’s father gives to him as he goes off to France. It has this whole trajectory and he gives it to Laurent and then even later on towards the end of the book, it comes back in a very key moment. I don’t want to spoil it for people reading. But even just little tiny details, like little objects and object memories, really come back to play a significant haunting force as like Palestine coming to France and then France now coming back to Palestine through Midhat’s trajectory. There’s an interesting kind of return narrative almost there, very different pre-Nakba. But nevertheless, Midhat returns to Palestine haunted in that book. Whereas here I think in Enter Ghost, there’s, of course, a different kind of return in our contemporary era and all the post-Zionist catastrophe era Palestine, like all the limits that impose on us who are not able to return for both different reasons as via historical violence and circumstance but also very similar systems of like imperialist borders and I really appreciate the way both books really inhabit across subjective distances like different kinds of imperialist mentalities and the internalization they’re in. Anyways, I’m just like fangirling right now over how brilliant you are and how brilliant both of these books are. I guess as a background to the question, I would really love to hear you talk more about, process-wise, how Enter Ghost differed and maybe perhaps surprised you or gave you certain unexpected difficulties, process-wise, as you were writing and researching the world of Enter Ghost versus something like The Parisian, which is also just an exquisitely well-researched down to the last historical interfamilial detail book. Both of these books build an entire world of Palestinians and Palestinianess and potentialities thereof. I would be very, very curious to hear what carried over from The Parisian versus what forced you to think differently, process-wise, research-wise, however you want to take it. Thank you so much for having me, David, and thank you so much for your generous engagement and truly generous books, Isabella. I’m a huge fan. Thank you all.
IH: What a lovely question. That’s so nice. Well, I think I would start with what he said about detail. There was a non-political way in which I, well, [inaudible] actually everything’s political, I don’t think it’s non-political, but it was more about my own imaginative process with the first novel which was I just really wanted to know what it was like and to imagine it. So the whole project in a way was down to the intimate details, not only to get things right but I just really wanted to see it and feel it and so the sensory material aspects of life in Palestine before the Nakba was how I wanted to spend those five years. Obviously, that was motivated by something explicitly political, which was that I wanted to write a book about Palestinian society before 1948 to show that the design of slogan “A people without a land for a land without a people” was a lie and that the old one Golda Meir said, “There is no such thing as Palestinians” that at the grand age of 21, I said, “I’m going to write a novel about Palestinians before 1948,” and then I put that aside. I didn’t want it to be a book that that slogan is or anything. I just wanted it to be a rich, engaging novel that deals with these ideas but not in a didactic way. My way of manifesting that was through this thing about detail, which I do also think in retrospect, I thought about it afterwards in terms of Roland Barthes’s the reality effect, the way in which the incidental detail in classical realism, that which is not central to the plot, that which is incidental, is what helps the reader to suspend their disbelief and to believe the veracity, it’s a contributor to various similitude in a sense, and that this, in a Palestinian context, has a specific political resonance, the reality effect, to recuperate the reality of life before the Nakba. Not only as to give the lie to this pernicious slogan but also, as you mentioned earlier, the way in which Palestinians themselves will allow, or not allow, but the history of Palestine is, in many ways, structured around the Nakba, whenever I would talk about writing this book, my grandmother would tell people that I was writing about the Nakba and I would say to her, “No, I’m writing about before the Nakba.” She just couldn’t get it. She would give me books about the Nakba, she would send me to Nakba specialists, and I say, “Oh, no. I have to say again, I was writing about them before the Nakba.” She said, “We call it all Nakba,” which isn’t true but it was to me a sign that it was so dominant in her mind that she couldn’t even incorporate or absorb this sense of a before time. With Enter Ghost, of course, the experience was different because I didn’t really need to do the same kind of research. I mean I did a bit as all novelists do research, I spoke to theater practitioners and I went to a couple of rehearsals. The most valuable interviews that I did were with those who had been involved in theater back in the 70s and 80s. That was really interesting to hear their experiences. But it was mostly stuff I already knew actually. I didn’t need to dig. It didn’t need to be a scholarly endeavor to the extent that the first novel was. That switch was refreshing as well because, obviously, all the historical legwork for the first novel was very tiring, quite burdensome, as well as being very enriching and joyful in certain ways and very sociable as well. The first book was very populated by other people’s voices. I made a book, a solitary activity very sociable, and this one was less so. There was also I think maybe I could say something else about the writing of it that I switched to the first person in this book. I wrote almost two-thirds I think in third person and it wasn’t quite working because I couldn’t quite sympathize with the protagonist enough or I hadn’t quite cracked her in a sense. Then I experimented with it in first person and something became clear. I don’t know if it was just the text itself that became strange to me and therefore, I could see it more clearly. But I knew what to trim, I knew what to expand, and it gave me certain fluidity to learn how to work with the first person, it has certain limitations and certain virtues and gives you certain ease with the prose and a vocal quality. Whereas maybe in the first book, I was very focused on the sentence as a unit, in the second book, I was working with larger units I think if that makes sense.
DN: Well, I was really captivated by Marina Barham telling her own story about the children’s leaders that she ran called in English “stubborn” theater before the Second Intifada, how she strongly believed that theater can help both children and adults not only deal with the traumas of occupation but also to resist it, and how she felt early on that kids throwing rocks at checkpoints should be spending their time being kids, laughing, being joyful, and playing but that it was hard to create those spaces and she wanted to create those spaces. But then during the Second Intifada, the theater was bombed. She said that it wasn’t targeted for being a theater but that the children were inside and, of course, entirely traumatized. It was then she realized that the theater had to change. They started keeping their stage sets somewhere else holding their rehearsals elsewhere, which reminds me a little of how the rehearsals in Enter Ghost are often in the director’s backyard. She decided they needed to bring the theater to the children, especially because there was now an imposed curfew during the Second Intifada. They had a mobile theater in a truck and they would radio and alert local TV so that they could say, “Okay, at 1:00 PM, we’ll be outside this refugee camp, and at 2:00 PM, we’ll be here.” But she said the children were also traumatized because of the targeted killings of men and boys, so much so that some of the boys were wearing their mother’s dresses and accessories and coming to the dinner table that way, and their parents would say, “What are you doing?” and they would say, “We’re doing this because we don’t want to be shot.” Or another boy who, on a very hot day, shows up at a performance wearing six t-shirts thinking if he were to be shot, it would slow down the bullets. The theater started working with social workers and trauma counselors to create interactive plays where the audience would engage with the actors and where the adult performers talked about how they also were traumatized. I’m imagining you came across lots of stories like this when you were researching. This is a long preface to a question to you from a Palestinian-American poet and novelist and also a clinical psychologist and winner of the Arab American Book Award Hala Alyan.
Hala Alyan: Hi, Isabella. Hello from Hala Alyan and little Leila in the background. I hope you’re doing wonderfully. I wanted to ask about how you take care of yourself when you’re writing. You tackle I think such a range of topics and you go so deep into different character psyche, especially with this recent book, well, with both, are talking about history and displacement and the after-effects of occupation and whatnot. I’m just curious about what your method is in terms of making sure that you’re also caring for yourself as a storyteller, a writer, and a person. Love you.
IH: Thanks, Hala. I don’t know that I have a method. I think community is very important to me and my network of friends. I think we all share it together in a way and that is a great help when things are difficult, especially when you’re not here. Obviously, it’s difficult when you’re here but there’s something very weird and alienating about being outside of Palestine when stuff is kicking off. I remember in May of 21 that there was a weird dissonance that everybody here felt very engaged and alive even though, obviously, it was incredibly violent but there was a way in which people felt the joy of the unity of the working together that made them feel a sense of purpose. I think that all of us who were outside felt like we couldn’t do anything and that was very difficult. To keep knitting that net of community is very important for me psychologically, personally. In the writing, I don’t know. I think that’s part of the job of being a novelist, of being an artist is to try and engage with the things that are difficult and the engagement in itself is a way of processing them. But I don’t know that I have anything beyond that. Maybe I should. [laughs] I think it’s important to point out and to acknowledge my freedom as somebody who has a British passport and lives outside of Palestine, outside of historic Palestine that I’m not subject to violence on a daily basis and therefore, a lot of my feeling comes from a feeling of responsibility and duty to engage with this.
DN: You mentioned early on that you were talking about cultural intifada and theater that wasn’t therapeutic but was a form of resistance. Did you also come across this other form of explicitly therapeutic theater like I just described, this interactive theater between audience and performers?
IH: Yeah. There’s a model of Playback Theater. I think that’s from, Boal the Playback Theater model, which they do use in freedom theater and elsewhere. It does have a therapeutic function in a sense. It works through audience members telling a story to the actors who then perform the scene and the audience gets to participate to decide what will happen next. It does an ameliorative community function in a way but I don’t know that it’s cathartic in the sense of dumpling down their feeling of needing to resist their context. I think there is maybe a distinction to be made there between a theater that is escapist and makes you accept the conditions in which you live and a theater that makes it possible to live at all and to feel part of a community. Those things are distinct. Well, I’m interested, obviously, there’s this history, particularly with Brecht of an anti-cathartic theater, of theater that functions kind of [inaudible] prop by pointing out the conditions in which the audience is living and therefore, inciting them to action. I don’t think that a Palestinian audience really needs that exactly to be alerted to the conditions in which they live, the conditions in which they live are very obvious. But I think that the history of that debate was something that I did want to play on and I was curious about the ancient Greek tradition, the way in which catharsis and Aristotle’s formulation about tragedy have been difficult to translate, people have found it difficult to translate. That is some combination of pity and terror that somehow releases excess emotions. But there’s still a lot of debate among critics and historians about what it really means. I have a feeling that it has a ritualistic function to make the population docile in a way, that there’s a way in which the tragic hero is like a scapegoat, that there’s some kind of function in the community that allows them to keep on going, and that’s the function there. But as you will see in the book that I end up not allowing catharsis, that was also something that I wanted to draw on.
DN: Well, I wanted to take questions of censorship or distorting language to make it fit within a pre-existing narrative into questions of being a novelist. I know, for instance, you’ve been irritated that some reviewers of your latest book don’t mention the word Palestine and I also think of how the two French characters in The Parisian who see themselves as well-meaning have these very essentializing views of Palestine and Arabs. Dr. Molineu even sees Midhat as a specimen of a type, and these two characters and their almost anthropologic interests in Arab culture as if it were a unified thing, in some ways I think, prefigure the Israeli surveillance state that now treats Palestinians as such at best as interlopers who would be best to go to way to another Arab country as if each were the same as the next, or at worst, all anti-semites and potential terrorists. Creswell in his review of The Parisian talks about how your first book is an argument against essentialism. I think you could say that is true about Enter Ghost where we get a wide range of Palestinian experiences from the refugee camps to Israeli-Palestinians to the diaspora in Europe. Even the debates within the book feel like they keep adding more and more nuance with Mariam, the director, saying for instance that Ramallah isn’t a good representative of the West Bank as most of the theater-going audience there is bourgeois and Christian. Or Sonia and Haneen’s family, how even though they refused to leave Haifa and became Israeli citizens, they had more allegiance to the resistance than most other Israeli Arabs. But thinking about audience and readership, I think about the conversation with Hanna Eady and Ahmed Masoud from the US and the UK respectively, both saying how immense the naivete and ignorance is where they live regarding the Middle East generally speaking but Palestine in particular. When you say in World Literature Today that Enter Ghost is about image making in and of Palestine, I imagine, given the scarcity of representation from a Palestinian point of view, that how you portray something might seem particularly freighted and pressurized. On the one hand, I think of a scene in the book where the actors are walking through what the play might mean in their context. Is Gertrude Palestine? Is Denmark Israel? And Sonia resisting this one-to-one meaning making and Mariam, the director, saying, “Enough with symbols, the symbols that have become tropes and sometimes cliches, the keys, the olive trees, the keffiyehs.” I think you go to great lengths to avoid any of your characters being symbols, of your books being pedagogical tools rather than novels, that even if the Palestinian cause is virtuous, that doesn’t mean that your Palestinian characters would all be virtuous or only virtuous. But I wondered when say, in The Parisian, you portray Palestinian politicians undercutting the uprising against the British or in the most significant violent clash between Jews and Arabs before the Nakba, quoting some of the pilgrims, the shouting, “Palestine is our land. The Jews are our dogs,” even if these things are true and add texture and nuance to your novels, I guess I wondered if you ever struggled against a desire to self-censor out of a fear of giving ammunition to those who want to essentialize, who want to say, “See? They all think this way,” even as your book is obviously a demonstration of the opposite of them.
IH: That is something I’m very conscious of. As you point out, it becomes part of the fabric of the books that they preempt an orientalist view or a pejorative view. Even the title of the first book, it’s called The Parisian, not The Palestinian. I’m already trying to engage with not being symbolic, not being allegorical, not being representative or exemplary, which I’m conscious that as a writer in English, as opposed to in Arabic, I think that you’re dealing with a different kind of audience. Even if an Arabic novel were then to be translated into English, you have more access to an English language market and we have certain kinds of responsibilities and dangers that you confront your stepping gingerly into your imagination haunted by the possibilities that something could be misconstrued or extrapolated from which is often what happens. For example, Elena Ferrante, you could never set the Neapolitan Quartet in Baghdad, then this would be seen as a representative of how violent the Arabs are. There’s a way in which you’re always a little bit on the back foot and you have to prove the virtuousness, the okayness, or the civility of Arab peoples because there are these preset stereotypes, preset racism, islamophobia, etc. It was funny with this book because I started writing in the fall of 2017 which is when I ended up setting it as well, set it that summer, and I knew I wanted at some point for the book to center around a spectacular protest or some kind of spectacular demonstration. That summer, there had been these demonstrations around Al-Aqsa Mosque because the Israelis had, in violation of us, of a so-called status quo, placed security gates around the entrance to the mosque compound, and in protest, Palestinians were refusing to go through the gates, and were praying in the streets instead. This was a stunning, pretty extraordinary sight. I thought, “Well, I’ll put that back in. That will be the spectacular demonstration that I put in the novel,” and then I hesitated because I am very conscious that a Western audience will see that and will say, “Oh, it’s a religious conflict.” This will fuel this false narrative that it’s a story of Muslims against Jews rather than a settler colonial project that is practicing apartheid and that it has to do with land above all. That kind of consciousness made me anxious about using that. Then I thought, “Well, whatever, I’m just going to do it anyway, and then I’ll figure out afterwards.” The fact that the main characters are Christian and that they also participate in that demonstration allowed me to feel that I was complicating that vision or the optics of it for a Western audience.
DN: Well, for me, thinking back to Yara’s question, your decision to center an Israeli Arab family, I also think of Hanna Eady, the Israeli Arab director who said he was raised to believe that they, the Arabs of Israeli citizenship, would be the bridge to peace. That is until he realizes he grew older that that wasn’t true at all but that was the narrative he was raised under growing up as a kid. The part of Enter Ghost that I love the most is the nuance around the sisters and the mystery of how our sense of self-conception is constructed and changes. They both, when they are young, are taken to the West Bank by their doctor uncle who wants them to meet a hunger striker there, and meeting the hunger striker is pivotal for them both. Haneen moves from the UK to Haifa, the city of her family, commits herself to being more politically committed through this move, and the hunger striker for Sonia is more of a ghost. She compartmentalizes her heritage as a Palestinian in London a lot more than her sister. So much so that doing Hamlet is the first time she’s been in the West Bank since the encounter with the hunger striker decades ago. But as the book unfolds, the mysteries of identity and memory I think become more mysterious. Their father was very politically active when he was young, first, as a communist, and then in the Al-Ard Movement of Palestinian Israelis who worked to dismantle Jewish supremacy within Israel, a party that was later outlawed by the government. But when interrogated by Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence, an experience the father won’t talk about to his daughters and seeing his friend killed in Lebanon, much of his life before moving to England is shrouded in silence for his children. But Haneen knows more about her dad and about the hunger striker and other things, and some of this is surely because of differences in age, but some of it is also likely temperament. Haneen is seeking the information and Sonia, not so much. But one of the beautiful ways this uneasy reunion between the sisters becomes very beautiful I think is related to the way Haneen, who works at an Israeli university, speaks and teaches in Hebrew the way her sister’s presence, a semi-unwelcome presence at the beginning, starts to unmoor her from her own self-conception of having chosen the politically committed path that her life as an Israeli citizen is starting to feel too accommodated to the state and the status quo, and then the way Sonia is changing through working under Mariam through the conditions of simply trying to move, breathe, and to be in order to make a play. As you mentioned, the sisters ultimately go to this demonstration together which is one of the great set pieces of the book and one where Haneen makes this connection or recognizes that the performative qualities of political protests, what they’re doing together in protest has commonalities with what Sonia does professionally on the stage. I wanted to stay with that scene a little more if you could talk more about the considerations of placing us there, of writing it, of giving it the space that you give. It feels really important to the book, to the individual arcs of the characters, to the connection that you make between political protest and theatricality or theater as political protests, I guess back to Namwali Serpell talking about the two meanings of political theater in her blurb of Enter Ghost.
IH: It’s a sublime moment or a transcendent moment when Sonia prays. I mean, they’re praying so it has the kind of religious spiritual feeling even though she’s not a Muslim, obviously, and she’s copying her sister to work out how to pray. But it’s also a feeling of that thing of being something larger than yourself, being absorbed into a hole, and having that kind of difficult self-consciousness that Sonia is struggling with melt away and she does something that is actually very meaningful for the first time perhaps. She’s participating in something that feels really meaningful that really doesn’t have anything to do with her. I think that as an actor, she has been using herself and there’s this way in which the novel is also investigating the ways in which Sonia as an actor negotiates her selfness as a material for her art but then also something that is oppressive actually, her selfness, and she wants to let go of it. Theater offers that at certain points and this demonstration gives her that. It’s humbling, I think, as well as putting her in touch with what actually unites her with her sister rather than what separates them, which is what they tend to focus on.
DN: Well, like Jean Genet, when he characterized Palestinian life as like the Obon feast in Japan, the commemoration of the spirits of one’s ancestors, and as the book suggests that there are not just ghosts in the play Hamlet, which obviously, there are, but everyone in the book has ghosts, I’m curious about the original title you wanted for Enter Ghost, the last line of Hamlet, which is “Go, bid the soldiers shoot,” which has a great mouth feel to say that phrase of “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” Tell us about how that line appeals to you as a title, I mean, we’ve gone from the last line to this sense of entering with Enter Ghost.
IH: It appeals to me kind of intellectually. I realize that it’s not such a salable title. I think it’s almost like the trick last line of Hamlet, most people remember the rest of silence or they remember Hamlet dying. But actually, in the end, there’s this invasion, this imminent invasion scene where Fortinbras is about to come and take Elsinore, and so that drawing on returning to actually the military context of the play was something that I wanted to point out. But also, it’s provocative as well, which I liked. I like the idea that the play itself was a provocation to the soldiers to shoot in a very direct way. But it was a placeholder title and I knew it would be rejected. [laughter] I really like the title Enter Ghost even though I’m obviously haunted by Philip Roth unfortunately. [laughs]
DN: Is that coming up a lot? The Exit Ghost into this?
IH: No, no. Occasionally, someone will misname it Exit Ghost instead, but it doesn’t. Obviously, it doesn’t really have anything to do with Exit Ghost. But yeah, the ghost of the previous generation I think is one of the most important things. When you have a political struggle that spans a period of time that’s longer than a single life, you’re always haunted by the ghosts of those who went before you and what they experienced. I think there’s something scary now that when you’re losing your grandparents and you’re losing that generation that actually saw the Nakba, there’s something a bit frightening about that loss of that generation that witnessed it, that feels very striking as we come on to, is it 75 years since ‘48? I think it’s very important to hold on to those stories from the grandparent’s generation as well as haunting the future.
DN: Well, I know you’re working on a third novel that is a departure from Palestine as a setting and I wondered if you could talk to us about the desire to depart to a new setting, if that’s even the motivating factor behind it. But also talk to us about how the new book extends your interest to date or diverges from them.
IH: The impulse came from wanting to think about the mid-20th century moment including 48 in an international context to understand anti-colonial movements in general in that time and where Palestine fits into them at the internationalized Palestine, again, rather than exceptionalized. It also became a way of thinking about dismantling the intimacy of the novel in the nation, that it always has to be in a single nation. I’ve ended up working on a conference that happened in Indonesia in 1955 called the Bandung Conference, which was basically a regional conference, but it largely staged a meeting of recently decolonized nations and some still colonized in Africa to essentially work on their relations with one another and to discuss what to do after the age of empire, what to do after colonialism to protect us against something like this happening again put very simply, as well as an opportunity to actually air grievances, to say publicly, “What we endured by the colonial powers was horrific and we look forward to working together against in the future.” From this meeting emerged The Non-Aligned Movement and subsequently tricontinentalism. It’s a very pivotal moment in the creation of the third world as a project or an idea as a third way as well in the Cold War, but in Western historiography, it’s forgotten or sidelined, I guess because the West wasn’t invited probably. This meeting attracted me in the process of thinking about internationalizing Palestine in that period as also as a way of thinking about the novel as an opportunity to think about otherness and communication across different, and that obviously is a very specific example of people trying to communicate across difference with one another.
DN: Well, it’s a pleasure being with you today, Isabella.
IH: Fabulous. Thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure and your questions were so great.
DN: Thank you.
IH: Thank you. That’s wonderful. It’s such an honor to be on your podcast as I’m a big fan.
DN: We are talking today to Isabella Hammad, the author of Enter Ghost. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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