Isabella Hammad’s ‘Enter Ghost’ is a window into the tragic splintering of Palestinian society

Isabella Hammad’s impressive second novel examines political conflict and personal demons through the staging of a play under occupation

Updated - June 06, 2024 04:43 pm IST

Published - July 07, 2023 09:30 am IST

With a light touch, Isabella Hammad brings out the many complexities in the lives of Palestinian people.

With a light touch, Isabella Hammad brings out the many complexities in the lives of Palestinian people. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In Enter Ghost, Sonia Nasir, a stage actor who lives in the U.K., visits her Palestinian family’s homeland after a long hiatus. Emotionally bruised after the end of an affair with her married director, Sonia, 38, flies to Haifa to stay with her elder sister, Haneen, for a few weeks. Haneen, a sociologist, lives on the ‘inside’, the term Palestinians use for areas that became the State of Israel in 1948. She has Israeli citizenship, unlike those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, under Israeli occupation since 1967.

The sisters grew up in London, where their parents eventually settled after Zionist militias evicted hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs. But Haneen managed to move back to Haifa, her father’s native city, and through her academic work, became involved with the Palestinian cause. Sonia remained geographically and emotionally distant from it. The book charts their relationship as they try to pick up the threads amidst tensions created by their different choices.

Haneen’s friend, the never-say-die activist and theatre director Mariam, convinces Sonia to act in a production of an Arabic version of Hamlet. Mariam is from Haifa, but lives in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Her brother, Salim, is a member of Israel’s parliament.

Initially a reluctant participant, Sonia gradually becomes invested in the play as her buried desire to engage with the Palestinian condition surfaces. Through the rehearsals, she experiences life in the Occupied Territories. Thrown into close contact with a diverse cast of Palestinians, including a pop star whom Mariam ropes in to attract audiences, Sonia develops a stronger sense of belonging.

Author Isabella Hammad

Author Isabella Hammad | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Layered narrative

Author Isabella Hammad has forged an imaginative and compelling plot, fleshing it out to create a narrative with many dimensions. She keeps the story’s momentum going at a steady clip, describing the various obstacles that the play inevitably encounters, given that it is being produced and staged under a brutal occupation.

The cast and their associates must endure the daily indignities that Israel inflicts on Palestinians. Some don’t know whether they will get through Israeli checkpoints to reach the rehearsal venue, others constantly fear that Israeli security forces will raid or demolish their homes. One member of the cast gets interrogated while Salim faces arrest. Everyone worries about Israeli surveillance and informants in their midst.

Mariam will not be deterred. “My dear,” she tells Sonia, “If we let disaster stand in our way we will never do anything. Every day here is a disaster.” Mariam is less sure, however, of how to manage the ego clashes that erupt between members of the cast.

Hammad delicately weaves in the sisters’ back stories and family history, which in turn offer us a window into the tragic splintering of Palestinian society. With a light touch, she brings out many complexities, such as the tension among those in the diaspora, those on the ‘inside’, and those in the Occupied Territories. Sonia’s father, having once been a militant in Lebanon, tells her, “Forget about it, my love. Palestine is gone. We lost her a long time ago.”

Buzzing with life

But Sonia has become politicised. In some of the novel’s most moving passages, she and Haneen, whose family is Catholic, risk Israeli rubber bullets and tear gas to join a sea of Muslim worshippers praying outside Jerusalem’s Old City to protest against Israel preventing them from entering the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

To this intense mix, Hammad adds insights into the art of acting and directing as the cast discusses various options and Sonia looks back on her career. Hammad gives her characters, major and minor, distinctive voices; their dialogues buzz with life.

Revealing an impressive command over pacing, and using language with razor-sharp precision, Hammad pauses every now and then for just long enough to bring alive various settings, from Haifa’s cafés and Israeli checkpoints, to Mariam’s Ramallah home and a refugee camp in Bethlehem, and to explore the minutiae of people’s interactions — gazes locking and bodies grazing.

At a time when India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has cosied up to Israel’s apartheid regime, this rich and finely observed novel stirs our conscience.

Enter Ghost
Isabella Hammad
Jonathan Cape

The writer is a Mumbai-based independent journalist.

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