Hannah Khalil

The City and the Writer: In London with Hannah Khalil

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/The Palestinians 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of (city) as you feel/see it?

London’s got no fixed mood—it’s too alive, too changing, there are too many different parts with their own personalities. The city itself (where the financial center is, the oldest part of London) is frenetic, cross, impatient, and moody on weekdays, but saunters carefree on the weekend. The South Bank (the cultural center, for me) is earnest and thoughtful.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The excitement of going to our family flat in Pimlico: We hadn’t lived there before and my brother and I were taken out of our boarding school for the weekend to go and see my Mum who, we had been told, was furnishing the place. But when we got there she had the hideous job of breaking the news that she and my father were getting a divorce. It was an earth-shattering moment for my teenage self.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

If you find a quiet spot and stop, very still, in most parts of central London, and focus really, really hard, past the traffic and the daily noise, you’ll feel a shaking, a quivering…it’s the Tube passing under your feet. At night in my tiny bedroom in Pimlico, the tubes passing under me were a great comfort, a ballast.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

If you want to know about London, its history, Peter Ackroyd is your man. I love perceptions of London through the eyes of non-natives, so Hanan Al Shaykh’s Only in London does it for me, and the London sections of Selma Dabbagh’s Out of It.

I’m also a fan of personal stories that just happen to be set in London and so we become as familiar with the places in the story as the protagonists are. I’m thinking of a beautiful novel by Olivia Liberty called Falling that made me feel like I knew Kentish Town very well. Finally, Maggie O’Farrell—probably my favorite novelist—wrote a beautiful book called The Hand That First Held Mine, which I adore for many reasons, not least that it took me to streets I know so well in London but in the Fifties, giving me a whole new eye on the place.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Tate Britain in Pimlico has always been a good place to breath and think. Walking along the river from the South Bank to Bermondsey is also a tonic. The view from the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill over all of London is a weekly staple for me, too.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Of course, there’s the British Library, and I’d say the National Theatre, too—the presence of so many artists in one building over the years is there in the bricks. Likewise, the bar at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, where you’ll see many a writer—established or up-and-comin—reading scripts with coffee or gin depending on the time of day.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Too many to recount. I lived for a few years in Upton Park in East London, an unusual place. It’s inhabited mainly by immigrants, and so the buzzing Queen’s Market was the place to find food from the four corners of the world, things you’d never heard of or seen. And then during the football season, most weekends there’s an influx of football fans for matches at West Ham stadium, and suddenly the place looks and feels totally different. Full of burger vans, team shirts, and police on horses. A strange place for this bizarre juxtaposition, but one that became very important to me.

Where does passion live here?

At SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). I didn’t attend this university but have had the privilege of attending many inspiring seminars and conferences organized by their incredibly dedicated Palestinian Society. There I’ve heard people like Ilan Pappe, Eyal Sivan, Laleh Khalili, and Omar Barghouti talk about Palestine, there I was fired and inspired to write about it.

 What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?

Leaving Home was my first full-length play, and it looked at the stories of two London immigrants—an Iraqi man trying to find the money for pioneering eye surgery for his daughter and a Filipino maid who has run away from her employers in the UAE because she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be forced to have an abortion. Both characters think London is the place where their dreams can come true, but the reality is quite different.

The play was inspired by stories I heard while I was working in a pizza delivery place in Pimlico as a teenager. While there, I was surrounded by people from all over the world—Poland, Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Ireland—who had come to London thinking things would be better and easier, but who were slowly becoming disillusioned. 

Both my parents came to London in the Sixties for the same reason—to make a better life for themselves and their families. It’s where they met. So I’m fascinated by this idea of what makes “home” and also the old Dick Whittington “streets paved with gold” analogy. It’s like the American dream—a falsehood, and many people have been lured to London’s bright lights only to have their hopes and dreams dashed. It’s desperately sad.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”

I feel confident calling myself a Londoner and my relationship with the city is like that of old friend, or even a family member, who I love in spite of its foibles, its annoyances, even though it leaves the cupboard doors open and never ever stacks the dishwasher. I spend a lot of time longing for some space, to get away from London—we’ve seen too much of each other this year, we need a break. But invariably when I leave—go to look at the sea or back to my family in Ireland or the Middle East—within a week, I miss it. I do. So I guess I’ll always come back to you eventually, London. In the end, it seems I need you. 


Hannah Khalil is an award-winning British-born Palestinian-Irish playwright. Her first short play, Ring, was selected for Soho Theatre London's Westminster Prize, and her first full-length piece, Leaving Home, was staged at The King's Head. A commission for Rose Bruford at Battersea Arts Centre followed. Hannah subsequently received support from The Peggy Ramsay Foundation to write Stolen Or Strayed, which received a Special Commendation in the Verity Bargate Award. Her play Plan D was produced at Tristan Bates Theatre and nominated for the Meyer Whitworth Award. Most recently, Bitterenders, a black comedy about a Palestinian family in Jerusalem who are forced to share their house with Israeli settlers, won Sandpit Arts’ Bulbul 2013 competition and was staged at The Nightingale in Brighton. Her monologue The Worst Cook in the West Bank was performed as part of an evening of short plays about Arab women in the Arab Spring at the Old Red Lion in London, and at the Unity Theatre, as part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival. She has also worked with the National Theatre Studio, Royal Court (Young Writers' Programme) and Tinderbox Theatre in Belfast; and wrote for radio The Deportation Room (Autumn 2012), about the treatment of Gazans in Cairo airport, and Last of the Pearl Fishers (2015), both broadcasted on BBC Radio. She has just finished writing her first short film, The Record, and is currently developing an idea with BBC Drama for BBC One.


Khalil's Plan D is published in Inside/Outside: Six plays from Palestine and the Diaspora edited by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi, with an introduction by Nathalie Handal.

Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal