The City and the Writer: In Yasuf with Hannah Khalil
By Nathalie Handal
Special Series: Literary Maps
FATHER: Traveling is a lonely business.
COUSIN: You don’t understand – everyone left the village. It’s like a ghost town.
MOTHER: What do you mean?
COUSIN: There were still clothes hanging on the lines – but no one there – everyone left.
FATHER: What about your Mother and Father, and your Sister?
COUSIN: They went to a safe place – in the North, to my Father’s people.
MOTHER: You didn’t go with them?
COUSIN: I promised them I’d warn you.
MOTHER: It’s a long way.
City of Origin: Yasuf, district of Nablus (part of the Salfit Governorate, located 6km north-east of Salfit City)
City of Birth: London
City/Cities you grew up in: Dubai and London
Current Residence: London
Your City/Cities: London
Language you write in: English
Home: Wherever I’m close to my husband, daughter and mother.
I’ve only been to my father’s hometown once—in the late eighties. And I suspect much of my memory of it comes from the photographs my mother diligently took of us all. Nevertheless, wherever they come from, they are certainly my memories.
First surprise—this soil that I’ve heard can give life to a million fruits and vegetables, is not green at all. Not like my mother’s Ireland. The land looks barren, dry. Why baba why? How can it sustain figs and okra, oranges and lemons? Because we farm it, ya binti. We know how to talk to it, to encourage it, to water it, when to plant and when to cut. We understand everything about it—the secrets, whispered from mother to child in stories and songs for generations. I wasn’t convinced by his answer. But as we drew up in the battered old Mercedes to the walls outside my Sitti’s house, I could see branches peeping over the top.
Inside the heavy, creaking metal door, the strangest house emerges: two levels, underneath, the kitchen and washing area; to the right, steps up to an open porch, pillars at the front; and behind, two rooms, one for the men and one for the women. In one of them, a large fridge whirring noisily. But I don’t really remember the rooms. We never went in them. Instead, we sat on the porch on a mat while the adults talked, ate and drank tea.
I looked over the low wall at the view—shrubs, undulating hills, the odd house, trees, rocks. It was beautiful. Magical. Even the outside loo, and the fact that the electricity was turned off at night (I didn’t understand why then), which meant we sat by candlelight, was all romantic, charming.
I never ventured far. My parents were nervous. My Arabic was bad. But I listened. And I understood. My Sitti’s stories and my father’s, which have crept with stealth into my writing, whether I’ve been aware of it or not. He told me that, on the day he should have started school he was afraid, so he and his friend went into the woods and played instead. The next day, however, he thought better about it, and went to school without worrying too much about the consequences. The other boy, afraid he’d get beaten for his truancy, went back to the woods, and the day after that and the next. According to the story, he never went to school and still cannot read or write as a result. I never saw those fabled woods but they appear in my play Plan D, and the brave grandmother in that play, inspired by my own Sitti, tells the children a story about them. I can’t be sure if I made it up, or if I heard Sitti tell me something similar but it conveys a sense of the danger and wildness I’ve always felt possible in Palestine. As a child, I didn’t know where that fear came from. As an adult, I understand all too well:
“There are horrid things that live in the forest—once when I was a little girl your great grandfather—he was a tyrant—sent me to this very wood to collect branches for the fire. It was the middle of winter and freezing and I could hardly see my hand in front of my face . . . I walked in through a path on the other side and began gathering different twigs. But I kept thinking, I heard things behind me. It was terrifying. Then, just as I had enough wood, I looked up to find myself nose to nose with a wolf. I’d been so busy looking over my shoulder I hadn’t seen him walk right up to me, bold and salivating. I saw in those big yellow eyes that he liked the look of me, so I threw the wood at him and jumped up the nearest tree. He was down below looking up at me, and I clung on up there . . . He was prepared to wait for dinner, so he sat himself down. Well, there I am getting colder and colder and I know if I stay up there too long, I’ll drift off and fall out and that’ll be the end of me, or I’ll freeze to death. It was him or me. So I very quietly manoeuvred myself so I was above him and jumped down hard so I landed on his back. I broke him. He just lay there, sprawled in the snow with blood coming out of his mouth, moaning . . . I ran back to the house. What did my father say? Nothing. He was too busy knocking me black and blue for forgetting the fire wood . . . ”
Hannah Khalil is a British-born Palestinian-Irish award-winning 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.
Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal