Enter Ghost: Palestinian exodus turned Shakespearean tragedy

Enter Ghost: Palestinian exodus turned Shakespearean tragedy
Book Club: A story of diaspora, drama and displacement, Enter Ghost is a thought-provoking and utterly captivating novel about the tragedy of the Palestinian experience. It is also about how those affected can resist in unique and effective ways.
6 min read
29 March, 2023
Timely, thoughtful, and passionate, Isabella Hammad's highly anticipated second novel is an exquisite story of the connection to be found in family and shared resistance [Vintage Digital]

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hamad is an evocative Palestinian tale that explores human experience and raw sentiment in the face of bestiality, political upheaval, and exile.

It is the story of disillusioned Sonia Nassir, a rising actress in Britain, who returns to her homeland of Palestine to visit her older sister Haneen and escape the tragedies of her love life. Yet, rather than the quiet sojourn she longed for, Sonia confronts the long-obscured matters of her identity, family, and heritage.

Once there, fateful circumstances propel her to join a West Bank production of Hamlet. This ostensibly innocuous activity becomes pivotal in Sonia’s political and personal reawakening.

It is a fastidiously crafted novel that urges the reader to move languidly and thoughtfully with the tempo of Hammad’s prose, similar to the cadence of the slow rise of waves. But the crash of the tide will prove revelatory as Sonia reconnects with her family and forms new bonds of companionship through shared trauma and artistic zeal.

"Enter Ghost is a masterpiece of acuity, erudition, and reflection. It dissolves the occupied and occupier dichotomy to reveal the humanity that escapes us too often"

Beginning with the 1948 Nakba, the Nasir family has grieved decades of fractured familial ties. Sonia’s own relationship with her older and more politically active sister is tumultuous. Haneen returned to live in Haifa early on to work as a teacher in Tel Aviv despite her scruples against Israel, believing she could work from within to incite change. 

On the other hand, Sonia left Palestine after the second intifada and has kept herself at a literal and symbolic distance ever since. She lived a prosaic life in Britain, performing in theatre, enduring divorce, miscarriage, and falling in and out of love. Her thread to Palestine, the violence it weathered, and the political manoeuvring that enables this reality remained nebulous at best.

Their father, who was deeply involved in the Palestinian resistance, brought them to Palestine annually as young girls so they would stay painfully cognizant of their roots and the events that deracinated them. Yet, Sonia has attempted to obscure this part of her for decades while Haneen has become embedded in the community.

Hansen introduces Sonia to the candid Mariam, who persuades her to join their West Bank Production of a classical Arabic translation and interpretation of Hamlet.

The cast members become intimately acquainted and bring their fragmented relationships with Palestine to production. There is Majed, a Jerusalemite, 25-year-old ambitious and orphaned Amin from Balata refugee camp, Ramallah born George, divorced Ibrahim from Haifa, elderly Faris, head of a community theatre in Bethlehem, and Wael, the star singer.

They are an eccentric gathering of individuals who inadvertently compel Sonia to bare her soul and contemplate her family's generational trauma and the dismal state of world politics. The relationship between the two sisters is made bare since, despite their love for each other, it is rife with tacit wounds of those who live under the shadow of diaspora and displacement.

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No interaction is to minute for Hammad to elucidate upon. The intricate soliloquies and conversations in everyday life are written to magnify the gradations that make them magnificent and salient. She captures the reality of a world in which family drama, art, affairs, motherhood, and mundane daily life prevails alongside interminable plunder.

Yet she does so in a way that is authentic and not histrionic. To Sonia, Palestine reveals something of the whole world. In a commonplace but solemn scene, she contemplates its hypocrisy, duplicity, subterfuge, and loveliness as she observes the banal act of bread-making in a West Bank bakery. The novel is permeated with earnest and meditative moments such as these.

But the crux of the book focuses on rehearsals of the production of Hamlet in the middle of a country that is the caricature of Hamlet’s infamous query, “To be or not to be?” Acting on a stage and reality becomes blurred as the tragedy of Hamlet infuses the lives of the young actors.     

"In suffusing the book with Shakespeare’s classic and vivid scenes of theatre, Hammad has created a deftly written novel that is a homage to art"

While Sonia fumbles over the nuances of the classical Arabic translation of her lines, the precarious nature of living under apartheid resounds throughout the production. Mariam's politician brother, Salim, a member of the Israeli parliament, helps fund the play and, consequently, is placed under Israeli surveillance.

The cast members, though burgeoning friends, also remain suspect of one another due to Israeli interference. Against the backdrop, a frenzied takeover of Masjid Al Aqsa seethes, inflaming global rage. As such, her disconnect becomes inconceivable to ignore, and her old life liquefies. Hammad expounds on how we react to the disorder wrought by oppression and apartheid. We see how human life prevails and wanes through artistic expression, disassociation, activism, protest, and existence.

In suffusing the book with Shakespeare’s classic and vivid scenes of theatre, Hammad has created a deftly written novel that is a homage to art. There is a point in which Sonia ruminates, “There was a feeling among the cast that we were, in fact, preparing ourselves on a training base for an operation with a transcendental goal, that in combing our translated line for a subtext we were fighting the odds in the name of Palestinian freedom.” Art, whether a book or film, momentarily dresses the wounds of rage, allowing people to move forward.

Yet, at the same time, they are not naive and constantly engage in discourse about the true impact of theatre, wondering if this transitory respite will forestall meaningful action or inspire it. Nonetheless, they choose to create beauty out of the rubble using Hamlet to give a renewed voice to the Palestinian cause.

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Enter Ghost is a masterpiece of acuity, erudition, and reflection. It dissolves the occupied and occupier dichotomy to reveal the humanity that escapes us too often.

So while Palestine continues to hold ample space in the global mind, the day-to-day struggles of oppressed peoples only briefly ignite public interest until the turnover of the next news cycle.

That is why we need the stories of the few, of the individuals, so that resistance remains magnified and unified evermore. This novel has an illuminating clarity as Hammad chronicles the complex emotions of confusion, sadness, and displacement that emerge from the tenuous point between being and not being in your own country.

While there is a profound commentary on identity, violence, global complicity, and trauma, it is not an exhilarating experience. Instead, reading Enter Ghost is like melting into a spectral state to be given the privilege to intimately know these characters and their realities and to know humanity anew.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including covering the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matters Movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe.

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin