Sep 28, 2023

Staging Resistance

In Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost, art prepares the ground of the self for the demands of collectivity.

Discussed in this essay: Enter Ghost, by Isabella Hammad, Grove Press, 2023. 336 pages.

The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad, Grove Press, 2019. 576 pages.

In the summer of 1993, in the middle of the Bosnian War, Susan Sontag went to the besieged city of Sarajevo to stage a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. She had conceived the project in a flash of insight that the play seemed, as she later wrote in The New York Review of Books, “written for, and about” the city’s inhabitants—who, like the forlorn pair at the center of Beckett’s drama, were “bereft, hungry, dejected, waiting for an arbitrary, alien power to save them.” Directing the play occurred to Sontag as a way “to pitch in and do something”; certainly, she argued, it was a more meaningful contribution than she could have made by covering the war as a journalist, since the international community’s inaction had rendered news reporting an impotent genre. Where the endless broadcasts had been sapped of force by being made to seem “like re-runs,” the theater, with its fantasies born of physical immediacy, seemed to offer something of greater substance: a modest but direct intervention into the lives of local people, who might be “strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.”

By transfiguring our sense of reality, can a work of art act upon the world? In a humanitarian and political crisis, what kind of contribution is a play? These questions rise gradually to the surface in the British Palestinian writer Isabella Hammad’s Enter Ghost, the follow-up to her celebrated 2019 debut, The Parisian, which landed her on the National Book Foundation’s annual list of “5 Under 35.” Enter Ghost follows Sonia Nasir, a London-born actor who, while visiting her sister, Haneen, in their ancestral hometown of Haifa, agrees to play Gertrude in an Arabic production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed in the West Bank. Hammad refracts her philosophical inquiry through an elegant assem­blage of metatextual layers, filling her novel with plays within plays, works that comment directly on the uses of art. These mises en abyme include Chekhov’s The Seagull, the Syrian satirist Muhammad al-Maghut’s Al-Moharrij (The Jester), the Palestinian theater troupe Balalin’s Al-Atmeh (Darkness), and, of course, Hamlet itself. As rehearsals progress, the novel’s focus lingers on the famous “Hecuba” soliloquy, in which Hamlet resolves that a play will decide the fate of a nation, serving as a device to “catch the conscience of the king.” The ambitious young director, Mariam—who grew up in Haifa, down the street from the grandparents that Sonia and Haneen used to visit each summer—likewise sees her production as a strategic maneuver, a vehicle to “fight divide and conquer” by uniting Palestinian citizens of Israel like herself with castmates who live under occupation in the West Bank.

At first, Sonia rejects the idea of assigning art any political purpose. She argues with a fellow actor who interprets Gertrude as a metaphor for Palestine (“the land who gets manhoobi,” meaning “looted”), defending the play against the flattening force of the ideological reading. “Gertrude stands for Gertrude,” she insists. The Palestinian national narrative makes unwelcome intrusions not only into her work on Hamlet, but also into her sense of self. Evading an Arab cabdriver’s questions about her origins, she thinks scornfully, “In the final move before the jingle of change he would probably burst out with some story of loss and political alienation. I resisted the idea of being bonded to this person.” Later, embarrassed by Mariam’s curiosity about why she hasn’t set foot in Haifa in over a decade, she once again shrugs away the shared story. She and Haneen “were not born here, you know,” she tells Mariam. “It’s not really a question of return, for us.”

An ideological awakening, Hammad reminds us, is itself a profound personal experience, a transformation of subjectivity on par with the ones that preoccupy the Western literary tradition, like coming of age or falling in love. 

But as Sonia finally undergoes the radicalization that she has long resisted, she finds that far from impinging on her individuality and integrity as an artist, the experience of being politicized stirs the same part of her that nurtures the creative impulse. In the novel’s climactic scene, Sonia and Haneen attend one of the massive demonstrations against an Israeli security crackdown at the Al-Aqsa mosque that occurred in July 2017. There, Sonia is struck by the parallels between protest and performance, marveling, “The streets were a stage.” As an actor, she has aimed to use what is distinctive to her being—“my body and voice and my emotional history . . . everything that was part of my self”—to produce work that her audience can feel in their own bones. Among the throng of bodies, she realizes, she is engaged in the same effort to “make a straight line from emotion to movement.” The scene confirms Enter Ghost as what the critic Adam Shatz, following Jean-Paul Sartre, has called “a novel of commitment”—a work animated in part by political passions—even as the moment takes the shape of a private epiphany. An ideological awakening, Hammad reminds us, is itself a profound personal experience, a transformation of subjectivity on par with the ones that preoccupy the Western literary tradition, like coming of age or falling in love. Through its interest in this psychic terrain, the novel pushes against familiar lines of skepticism—sometimes evoked by the characters themselves—about the capacity of political artworks to accommo­date complexity and uncertainty.

This leaves the question of whether art can ever succeed politically, and of what asking it to do so might entail. In Enter Ghost, at least, a play helps Sonia see how an individual, in all their particularity, can step into a common role. As an artist, she has learned to inhabit a part that comes freighted with prior performances, to find her own way through an assigned script. The novel posits a similar task for the political actor, who likewise rehearses old scenes in search of new possibilities. In Hammad’s fiction, both art and protest can sometimes confer a form of double vision on their participants, revealing them to be simul­taneously out­side and inside the collective experience of history. Like the rest of us, her characters are both authors of their own lives and bit players in transnational, intergenerational dramas. While The Parisian adopts the omniscient form of the 19th-century social novel to map the elaborate breadth of its protagonist’s world amidst the geopolitical turmoil of the early 20th century, Enter Ghost uses the most individualistic of literary modes—the close-range, first-person realism of many contemporary chart-toppers—to consider the dizzying feeling of breaching one’s own boundaries, diving headlong into member­ship in a greater whole. For Sonia, art remains an end in itself even as she begins to glimpse its roundabout utility, a capacity to prepare the ground of the self for the demands of collectivity.

Like Sonia, the protagonist of The Parisian struggles to maintain his sense of individuality despite the roles being foisted upon him. Midhat Kamal is a young man from Nablus who arrives in France to study medicine in 1914, but soon learns that his French host, a social anthropologist, has been furtively documenting their interactions, hoping to write a monograph on “the Muslim as a deviation” from “the progress of civilizations.” This betrayal ends Midhat’s romance with the anthropologist’s daughter and sends his life spinning off course. Back in Palestine, he experiences even greater pressure to assume a preordained iden­­tity—as a “good Muslim,” in the words of his grandmother, and as a partisan of a new Palestinian nationalism amidst an influx of Jewish immigration and the postwar maneuvering of colonial powers. In 1920, attending a festival in Jerusalem that devolves into Jewish–Arab violence, he experiences a profound feeling of alienation. “He did not desire the part of himself that moved darkly . . . in the heat of the chanting crowd,” he thinks later. Even the memory of being gripped by this “fever of unity” ultimately “made him shudder.”

Instead, Midhat remains fixated on his own drama of self-discovery. Having been conscripted into the role of the Orientalized “other” in France, he plays a worldly Parisian for his friends in Nablus, sporting imported scarves and peppering his speech with foreign idioms. Through this cultivated illegibility, he attempts to guard some psychological privacy. But whereas, in his youth, he hungrily collected new systems of meaning—embracing a modish European rationalism exemplified by the burgeoning field of psychiatry—his isolation eventually leaves him in an interpretive void. As he enters middle age, he surrenders to a sense of fate:

He did not often pause to reflect on what might have been, but every now and then he . . . heard a sound like a strong wind whooshing past his ears, and with a vertiginous feeling, as though standing on the prow of a ship, his life slipped into view. Suspended there on the bright blade of the present moment, he turned his head and glimpsed from a distance how his fate had rolled out . . . Viewed from this angle, the question of choice seemed quite irrelevant.

In its delightful resemblance to a 19th-century doorstop, the novel plays with Midhat’s sense of predestination, spiraling outward from its central narrative into a maze of chance encounters, mistaken identities, missed connections, and other decisive contingencies. But Midhat is so preoccupied by his own fate that he hardly notices how his country’s is being decided around him; a man out of joint with his time and place, he is neither free to live the life he imagined nor able to take hold of the life he has. The novel gives him a foil in his cousin Jamil, who throws himself utterly into the Palestinian uprisings of the 1930s. But Hammad does not valorize Jamil’s commitment—or the way his militancy comes at the expense of his personal ties—over Midhat’s ruminative passivity. Rather, the contrast between the two men evokes the specter of a full life that neither achieves, raising the question of how the private search for meaning might be fed, not supplanted, by participation in history.

The Parisian raises the question of how the private search for meaning might be fed, not supplanted, by participation in history.

Like Midhat, Enter Ghost’s Sonia has a foil in her sister, Haneen, a sociologist with an activist past, who settled in Haifa to shoulder the burdens of family and community. “Haneen was doing it for all of us,” Sonia thinks from London. “I was committed to the cause by proxy, I didn’t need actually to visit.” When the novel opens, Sonia has come at last, not to fulfill an obligation, but to take a vacation—from the frustrations of a career perpetually on the brink of success, and the unhappy aftermath of a destructive love affair. It’s her first time in the country since her grandparents’ death spurred a falling-out among her father’s generation, guaranteeing that “one era of [her] life was almost entirely sealed off from the next.” The fragmentation of her identity and her family mirror that of the Palestinian polity—in which her relatives, as Israeli citizens, fit only uneasily. Sonia associates the West Bank with “the real” and the Nasirs’ status with a vague inauthenticity. She re­members realizing during the Second Intifada, with a characteristic uncertainty over her own subject position, that “it looked like the Palestinian state they were fighting for would not include us. Include them. Include our family, I mean.”

If for Hammad’s Midhat, freedom from imposed narratives was an existential necessity, for Sonia it is also an artistic imperative. Dogmatism is aesthetically deadening. When Mariam suggests that the actor playing Hamlet depict him as a Palestinian rev­olutionary, Sonia observes that his performance becomes “blank, sincere . . . without irony or ambiguity.” But her particular aversion to political feeling is later revealed to have roots in a moment intended to awaken her consciousness: As teenagers, she and Haneen were taken to the West Bank by their Uncle Jad, a physician called to visit a young hunger striker, Rashid, who was refusing food even after his release from an Israeli jail. There, Sonia felt drawn to the boy in the bed; when they made eye contact, they became “a pair of kids in a room of adults who didn’t understand [them].” This bolt of solidarity curdled into sickened alienation when Rashid’s mother asked Jad to force-feed her son, who looked at Sonia as if she might save him. Sonia withdrew into lonely disorientation, wondering, “Whose side was I meant to be on?” Political awakening missed her by a hair’s breadth, striking only Haneen and setting her on a course that led back to Haifa, effectively dividing the sisters’ fates. Years later, drawing on the memory during a Method acting exercise, Sonia realized it had stayed with her not as an encounter with a paradigmatic form of Palestinian resistance, or even with another person’s suffering, but as a revelation of her own emotional range. Her uncle had hoped to confront his nieces with the brutal fact of the occupation; instead, Sonia learned to push away the confusion of political reality, keeping only the raw material of her private reactions, a “colour palette” to inform future performances.

When Sonia begins to break free of her self-absorption, however, it’s her artistic practice that provides the opening. In a clever formal device, Hammad styles the Hamlet rehearsals as scripts, suspending Sonia’s first-person narration, suggesting that her work offers a release from blinkered subjectivity. Many of Enter Ghost’s most stunning passages are layered reflections on the radical self-effacement that has defined her best performances. “There was . . . a feeling that would come over me onstage, mid-scene, in silence, a something very pure and close to dying, to standing on a kind of precipice of life,” she recalls. “It involved being looked at, but it was not vanity. It was a sensation of being useful, and then used up, which freed me from myself.” Sonia’s familiarity with this feeling paves the way for her subtle transformation. As her summer progresses, she attempts to knit together her past and present selves, and to repair the torn fabric of her family. She agrees to help Mariam with a read-through in Ramallah as an excuse to visit her Uncle Jad and Aunt Rima, who have sold the Nasirs’ home in Haifa and relocated there. Conscripted into a diverse cast whose members come from the West Bank, the “inside,” and the diaspora—and faced with Israeli efforts to intimidate the play’s actors and cut off its funding—she eventually finds herself trying to hold together a fractured and beleaguered microcosm of the Palestinian polity.

All of this prepares her to discover a different “sensation of being useful” amid the heightened atmosphere of the Jerusalem protest. Unlike Midhat, who shrank from losing himself in the collective even for a moment, she embraces her role as “one of thousands,” feeling “a strange elation” while performing an unfamiliar prayer outside Al-Aqsa. “It did not matter who or what I was,” she thinks. “I was present.” The demonstration initially convinces Sonia that while the performances she has devoted herself to are imaginary, the ones Haneen lives for are “real.” But the novel soon complicates this binary, as Sonia learns it was not the protests that ultimately led to the reopening of the mosque, but rather a backroom Israeli–Jordanian deal. The impact of a show of resistance, in other words, can be as uncertain as the effects of the actions Sonia is used to staging. In this sense, both art and protest require an ability to commit to the motions without knowing the outcome—to put one’s whole self into a project whose success or failure is largely beyond one’s control.

Throughout Enter Ghost, Hammad’s characters debate the very terms on which theater could be said to “succeed.” Should it directly inspire resistance, as Mariam suggests at one point? Or should it rather provide some form of relief? One actor claims that “when the Arabs translated Aristotle they skipped [the part] about catharsis. They said the purpose of tragedy was happiness.” Another, who runs after-school programs for children from refugee camps, calls theater “good therapy,” to the others’ annoyance. (Challenged, he responds sarcastically, “What do you believe in, then? Theatre as freedom fighting?”—a refer­ence to a famous quote from Juliano Mer-Khamis, the murdered founder of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.) The frequent interpolation of scripts implies that these debates apply not only to theater but also to the novel itself. Occasionally, the book seems slightly burdened by yet another way of interpreting the artistic mandate: a sense of responsibility to testify to conditions that most readers will never see for themselves. (“A big side effect of the occupation is traffic jams,” Mariam tells Sonia, with a hint of didacticism.)

If theater is not therapy, it may all the same offer a route into the psychically repressed. In his “Hecuba” soliloquy, Hamlet, having watched a play about murder and vengeance, berates himself for failing to express the grief and rage that an actor so easily conjured from thin air. In Sonia’s case, too, art seems to offer not the release of catharsis, but a more precarious opportunity to confront the ways in which one has gotten stuck. With the play as her mirror, she begins to perceive how, much as Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, she herself is haunted by a past whose demands upon the present are hard to parse. Like so many Palestinian families, the Nasirs have a foundational trauma, an inherited Nakba story. But while most are tragic narratives of expulsion, theirs is the anomalous tale of resisting dispossession; miraculously, the family managed to remain in their home throughout the Haganah’s 1948 invasion of Haifa. Sonia’s grandmother’s defining memory was of watching from behind her own window as a woman in a green dress—whom she saw as “another version of herself, a version that [had] decided to flee”—fought against a tide of refugees in a futile attempt to reach an infant left behind. Sonia withholds this story from her castmates, struggling to see how she can place herself in the tale, or the tale in the context of communal memory. She is likewise unable to make sense of the news that her aunts, after a lifetime of fighting to hold onto the house, have sold it to Israeli Jews. The information leaves her feeling as if she is “standing in a gallery of [her] mind, gazing down at the stage, wait[ing] for [her] emotion to begin.” It also binds her closer to Gertrude as crudely interpreted by one of her castmates, a figure who “betrays the old king . . . forgets her loyalty. Like those traitors on the inside, and those people who sold land to the Jews.” Later, she returns to the house bent on experiencing something that is “true to [herself], and to [her] shapeless inner turmoil,” believing that a “genuine” response will necessarily occur “independently of our national drama.”

Sonia only takes hold of her sense of loss, however, when she allows her emotion to be mediated by both art and history. Before her second visit to the house, she reflects that her grandmother’s nightmarish parable recalls the Palestinian writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa, about a couple who come to the city two decades after the Nakba, in search of the son they were forced to leave behind. (To their horror, the child they mourned has become an Israeli soldier after being raised by Jews.) When the Nasir home’s Israeli owner opens the door, Sonia sees a new version of herself reflected in his expression: an unwelcome visitor from his property’s past life, an apparition as frightening as the one that haunts Hamlet. “You’re like a ghost to him,” Sonia’s father tells her with satisfaction when she recounts the interaction. “We haunt them.” Standing before the door, she imagines herself into the place of that phantom figure, the woman in green, finally claiming some part in the collective narrative. She had feared that by visiting the house, she would be “enacting a Palestinian cliché”—but she finds that it’s precisely the gathering of associations that gives shape to her experience and lends her presence its force. The same could be said of her troupe’s Hamlet, which they ultimately stage in the shadow of the occupation wall, addressing the ghost’s lines to the Israeli soldiers who arrive to break up their performance.

In Kanafani’s work as in Shakespeare’s, as indeed in Hammad’s, characters contend with a sense of predestination. Not unlike Midhat braced against the vertiginous rush of fate, or Sonia standing outside her family’s door, Said S., the dispossessed father of Returning to Haifa, feels “the strange sensation” as he waits to meet his son “that he was watching a play prepared ahead of time in detail.” Fiction is a natural conduit for this illusion, with its scenarios arranged by an authorial hand. But Kanafani’s novella firmly rejects such fatalism. “Man is a cause,” the stranger who should have been Said’s son tells him, and on this at least the two agree—the course of history is not fixed, but rather waits to be fought out. And perhaps by bringing us into contact with our sense of predestination, literature might even help us escape it. In Enter Ghost, in the final analysis, theater is no more freedom fighting than it is therapy, and tragedy does not occur for the sake of happiness. But a novel or play might, just possibly, produce a moment in which fate seems unsettled, and leave us there with the doors open and the wind blowing through.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is the executive editor of Jewish Currents.