Read an extract from Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

The first chapter of an astonishingly moving novel from the prize-winning author of The Parisian.


I expected them to interrogate me at the airport and they did. What surprised me was that they didn’t take very long. A young blonde female officer and then an older, dark-haired one took turns in a private room to ask me about my life. They particularly wanted to know about my family links to the place, and I repeated four times that my sister lived here but that I personally hadn’t returned in eleven years. Why? they kept asking. I had no explanation. At points the exchange seemed to come bizarrely close to them insisting on my civic rights. Of course they were only trying to unnerve me. Why does your sister have citizenship and you don’t? Right place right time, I shrugged. I didn’t want to bring up my mother. They unzipped my bags, investigated my belongings, opened every play, flipped through my appointment diary with its blank summer months, and the two novels, one of which I’d finished on the plane, then led me into a different room for a strip search.

Surely this isn’t necessary, I said in a haughty voice while a third woman officer ran her detector over my bare flesh, as though I might have hidden something under my skin, and dawdled over the straps of my bra and knickers, which I had matched in preparation, blue lace, and as she knelt before my crotch the laughter began to quiver in my stomach. I put my clothes back on, surprised by how hard I was shaking, and ten minutes later they called me to a booth, where a tall man I hadn’t seen before gave me my passport and told me I was free to enter, Welcome to Israel.

I passed a seating area and recognised two glum-looking Arab men and a young Western woman in red lipstick from my flight, still waiting to be questioned. Their eyes followed me to the automatic doors, and as the doors sighed apart I checked the time on my phone and saw only an hour had passed. This left me two more to kill, since my sister Haneen wouldn’t be back in Haifa until half past six. I made a snap decision and asked a taxi driver to take me to Akka. I had an idea I should see something beautiful first.

My adrenalin faded slowly in the car. As it did, the shadow of my bad winter returned, and I watched the passing farmland, the hills of the Galilee, through its darkness. My whole life I’d been aware of Haneen’s stronger moral compass; it made me afraid to confide in her until the very last moment, until I absolutely needed to. I also wanted to resist her, the way a child resists a parent and at the same time absorbs their wisdom; I wanted to sulk in her second bedroom and feel better with the secret muffled gladness that someone was holding me to account.

I may not have locked eyes with this fact yet, but I wasn’t only here for Haneen. After an hour and a half signs appeared for Akka, and my blood thumped a little harder, and then we turned off the motorway and drew up by the arches of the old city. I paid the driver and wheeled my suitcase down an alley, and when I saw the blue sky burning above the sea wall I stopped. I stared at the ancient stonework, at the dazzling water. I hadn’t prepared myself for this bodily impact, the memory of my senses. A few red chairs and tables were arranged beside the pier. I approached the wall, leaned my bag against it, and stayed there a moment. The sun heated my face, my hands. My armpits began to sweat. I reached for the top of the wall and pulled myself up onto it.

Some forty feet below me, the water crashed against the parapet, foaming and jolting back. Where the wall curved on my right, a group of boys stood in a line. All elbows, hands on hips, shifting their weight from leg to leg, watching each other, waiting. Two were small and skinny, barefoot, with brown sunlit shoulder blades. Most of the older ones wore sneakers that left dark marks on the stone, and necklaces of drops fell from the seams of their shorts. The first in line took a running start and leapt, knees up. He seemed to fall for a long time, his body unfolding. Then he cracked the water and disappeared. When his head bobbed up again, the other boys didn’t react. I guess I was expecting them to applaud, or something. The diver flicked his hair and swam for the rocks.

I had a vision of my own body flipping down from the boundary. My thin cotton trousers ballooning, stiffening on the air like sails, receding as my figure plunged to the water. I both saw and could feel the wall scraping my forearms through my shirt. Legs parting, one hand reaching out, smashed in an instant and bloody on the rock.

The boys gathered closer together and were talking, eyeing me where I sat. Down below, the water drank the stones, leaving black circles dilating on their surfaces. In the distance, tank boats cut through the waves. The sea noise calmed me. After a while I jumped back onto the ground and dragged my bag away to hail another taxi. Could you take me to Haifa please? I asked in English for some reason. Maybe because I couldn’t be sure he was Palestinian, not even in old Akka, or maybe because only two hours ago I’d been emphasising my Englishness in the hopes of smoothing my passage between the border police. The car was stuffy with the old day’s heat. The radio was playing an Arabic song. A string of cowrie shells hung from the rear-view mirror.

‘Wael Hejazi. You know him?’ said the driver.
‘No. Is he famous?’
The driver laughed. He sang along for a bit. ‘Holidays?’
‘I’m visiting my sister.’

I pretended I hadn’t heard. I think he had guessed I was Arab or I doubt he would have asked. I didn’t like these dances between drivers and their passengers, testing origin, allegiance, degrees of ignorance. 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. I put a hand up to where the window permitted a hiss of air, the words on my lips to ask him to open it wider, but then if I spoke the language one thing would lead to another and I didn’t feel like getting into it with – Layth, said the licence in Latin letters beside the Hebrew, under its cracked lamination, suspended on the taxi wall. A young photograph, a little smile, the moustache black, grey in the mirror, where his eyes flicked again to me and back to the road.

‘Would you mind opening the window?’ I said in English.

The breeze sliced through the taxi. Palm trees spiked the roadsides. Pine forests. Pylons.

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