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.