Maverick Life

REFLECTION

Echoes of Gaza — A review of Isabella Hammad’s ‘Enter Ghost’

Echoes of Gaza —  A review of Isabella Hammad’s ‘Enter Ghost’
'Enter Ghost' by Isabella Hammad.

It may seem improbable that one of the things shared by the anti-apartheid resistance in both South Africa and Israel/Palestine has been an enduring love of William Shakespeare. 

A 2023 novel by British-Palestinian writer Isabella Hammad brings one example of that love affair to the stage, literally.

Hammad’s novel, Enter Ghost, is the story of a Palestinian family, first fractured and dispossessed by the Nakba in 1948, and then blown over time to live in different parts of the world and Israel/Palestine. They start to come back together when Sonia Nasir, the novel’s narrator, an actress resident in London with her father, visits her sister in Haifa, Israel, on holiday in 2017.

Whilst there, she reluctantly agrees to play the part of Gertrude in an Arabic production of Hamlet, intended to be performed in the shadow of the ‘separation wall’ built by Israel in Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank.

The choice of Hamlet is not an accident.

It had never occurred to me before how the traditional focus on Hamlet as an individual eclipses the fact that Hamlet can also be read as a play about politics: about territorial conquest (in that case Denmark), national identity and resistance.

Indeed, a scene occurs early in Enter Ghost where the newly assembled cast debate the meanings of Hamlet and the play’s relevance to Palestine and the Palestinian struggle: “It’s not a very optimistic vision of national liberation, if everyone dies at the end.”

Says one player to another: “Are you sure the killing of Claudius liberates Denmark?”And soon follows a debate about how to interpret the marriage of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude to Claudius, her husband’s murderer:

GEORGE: Gertude is, you know, the land who gets manhoobi.

MARIAM: Looted.

GEORGE: Like Palestine does and, like Palestine, part of her accepts that, part of her betrays the old king, forgets what it used to be like, forgets her loyalty. Like those traitors on the inside, and those people who sold land to the Jews and, you know, those kinds of people, this betrayal is also the story of Palestine. It’s not just we have been oppressed; it’s also we have betrayed ourselves, our brothers.”

In this Arabic version, Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, rather than portraying the ramblings of a suicidal grieving son, can be read as a meditation on nationhood, and whether to take up arms against a sea of oppression.

Ah – akun am la akun? Thalek huwa as-su’al.

(Shall I be or not be, that is the question.)

Amin-alanbali lin-nafsi an yasbura-l-mar’u ‘ala maqaali’i ad-dahr al-la ‘eem wa sihaamihi

(Whether it is nobler of the soul that a man should suffer the slings of outrageous fortune and her arrows)

Am an yush-hira s-silaah ‘ala bahr min al-humum

(Or to draw weapons against a sea of troubles) …

Thus, Enter Ghost depicts the lives of a small cast of Palestinians of different experiences and histories; as they prepare for the show, it depicts their different relationships with the menace of the Israeli state. It is a time out of joint after the first Intifada and the Oslo Accords.

As the rehearsals stutter the 400-year-old text into life, the play opens a window, providing glimpses into the everyday lives and history of Palestinian people living in the West Bank as well as in ’48: members of the Nasir family agonise over their relationships to the blighted land; an Israeli spy insinuates himself amongst the cast; young Israeli soldiers loom large as the cast travels in and out of the West Bank, navigating checkpoints and border crossings; the ghost of Gaza lurks in the background.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Finally — after the performance is prevented by Israeli soldiers sealing off and taking over the intended site of the play in Bethlehem — it is relocated to a patch of land in Area B on the border of Area C (Read: What are areas A, B, and C of the occupied West Bank?). Despite this on the opening night a truckload of Israeli soldiers arrive during Hamlet’s Hecuba soliloquy, to try to intimidate the cast.

“The audience sat uncannily still. They were clearly aware that they now had an audience, too, and this was binding them to us. Together we were a team, determined to continue, spurred on by a blend of fear and defiance.”

But the show goes on.

Emboldened by their success, the novel ends abruptly during a final ambush performance hastily staged on the Palestinian side of the separation wall “behind the set is adorned with a huge mural of Marwan Barghouti waving his chains”, as Israeli soldiers close in on the players. The last line of Hamlet is an instruction by Fortinbras to “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” It seems this may be what happens next…

Ghosts

Enter Ghost, the novel’s title, is taken from a stage instruction in Act 1, Scene 1 marking the first entry of the ghost of King Hamlet. It is more than just a literary device to provide an interesting title: This is not a book about one ghost, but all the ghosts that shape our being, personal and political; the ghosts of broken relationships, the ghost of family, the ghosts of trauma and exile, the ghosts of martyrs, the ghosts of oppression.

This brings me back to our joint bond with the ghost(s) of William Shakespeare and our own ghosts.

Shakespeare first came to South Africa in the trunks of colonisers and missionaries. By the mid-19th century, the Bard held pride of place in the burgeoning libraries of English and Scottish mission schools, particularly at places like Lovedale College and Healdtown in the Eastern Cape.

“Let us sit down and tell sad stories of the death of Kings,” writes Shakespeare introducing AC Jordan’s Xhosa novel Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, published in 1940.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ingqumbo Yeminyanya – a tale as relevant today as it was 80 years ago

Paradoxically though, whilst for most colonists Shakespeare was a static object to be paraded as proof of the imagined superiority of their civilisation, young African intellectuals and later revolutionaries drew from Shakespeare a different kind of inspiration.

His influence was acknowledged by generations of African writers including DDT Jabavu, HIE Dhlomo, Sol Plaatje and AC Jordan. Such was Shakespeare’s radical influence that in 1987 a book titled Shakespeare Against Apartheid was published by the late Martin Orkin. Later, in 2012, Ashwin Desai published Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island, a book about how a single copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, disguised as the Bhagavad Gita, had circulated amongst prisoners on the Island.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sol Plaatje and Shakespeare: A Lovedale love story

In a 2016 essay, John Kani recalled playing Othello in Johannesburg in 1987, and how the security police visited him at home and accused him of being part of a communist plot to undermine the Immorality Act by kissing the white Desdemona on stage. He also explores black people’s relationship to Shakespeare in his own play Kunene and the King.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Kunene and the King: A meditation on power and the violence of racism 

Even SACP leader Chris Hani said that he was inspired by Shakespeare and was an avid reader.

“I was fascinated by Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet … I want to be decisive and it helps me to be decisive when I read Hamlet,” said Hani in 1988.

So, what is it that lodges a 400-year-old English playwright in the imagination of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century liberation struggles? There is no simple answer, but I leave it to John Kani to provide his opinion:

“When we look at Shakespeare, he affirms us in the equality of all human beings. Othello is one of the most important roles for an African. In Othello we take centre stage. We even get the title of the play. I carried the title. I knew Shakespeare wanted it to be presented with a black man…

“Othello and Desdemona, a tragedy with its roots in disadvantage and being different, and the way in which being different and disadvantaged can make you capable of terrible violence. It could be disability. It could be race.” DM

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