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The City and the Writer: In Nablus with Isabella Hammad

By Nathalie Handal

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 Nablus as you feel/see it?

Nablus feels ancient. It is—it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, founded by a Roman emperor in 72 CE and constructed on top of an older Samaritan village. The buildings and their inhabitants have suffered, fought, survived—through earthquakes, wars, and uprisings—and still the city thrums with its continuous history. Ever since Nablus fought off Napoleon’s army two hundred years ago, the city has been known as “the mountain of fire.” And she is still fiery, although she might look like she is dozing, lounging in the valley, thinking of the past and humming old songs.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Maybe the story of Lina al-Nabulsi. I first heard it from a relative of mine who was at school with her in the seventies. Lina was only sixteen in 1976 when an Israeli sniper shot her dead at her friend’s house. At the time, the schoolchildren in Nablus were demonstrating, first against an Israeli settlement that was being built nearby and then in reaction to an incursion into the boys’ school in which several kids were injured. Lina was organizing the girls at her school, my relative was organizing the boys, and the pair met in the mornings to coordinate. Lina was assassinated; my relative was sent to jail.


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

Jacob’s Well. It’s in a Greek Orthodox Church in the eastern part of the city. You can still drink from it: the priest will lower a little bucket and pour some water into a cup for you.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Fadwa Tuqan, Ibrahim Tuqan, Sahar Khalifeh, Adel Zuaiter. Zuaiter was actually a translator, especially of French philosophy. I think translators are generally unsung heroes and Zuaiter was a particularly prolific one.


Is there a place here you return to often?

The old Hammad house. Even just to stand outside. It’s where my grandmother grew up, and it was built by my great-great-grandfather, Haj Nimr Hammad, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The top floor is now the home of a circus school—under these beautiful domed ceilings you’ll find children doing backflips on mattresses. The downstairs part has been locked up for ages; the last time I went inside, several years ago, a little boy was sent to accompany me. I opened some cupboards and found them stuffed chaotically with framed pictures and photo albums and schoolbooks and mildewed copies of Shakespeare plays in English annotated in Arabic, presumably from British Mandate-era classrooms. There were also some photographs of my grandmother from the 1940s. She was gorgeous. Her hair is crimped and her lapels are pointed. I would probably have tried to steal those pictures if it hadn’t been for the little boy.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Nablus Municipality Library. It’s the oldest and largest public library in the West Bank, housed in an old Ottoman building that used to be a café. I’ve been told Umm Kulthum once sang in the garden there.


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

The old city is like a city within the city. It’s the original Nablus and it used to have gates that were locked at night. The Hammad house was one of the first houses built outside the old city walls, but Nablus has long since spread throughout the valley. When you go into the old souq, though, you feel the beating heart of the place. It’s easy to get lost and find yourself in the courtyard of an ancient palace, uncertain if you are trespassing.  


Where does passion live here?

It’s Palestine. You find passion everywhere.


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

The Parisian, set mostly in Nablus at the end of the Ottoman Empire and during the British Mandate period. It was inspired by the life of my great-grandfather and the title is taken from his local nickname. Occasionally I’ve met an old man on the street there who still remembers him.


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

Outside Nablus I dream of Nablus. I mean that literally: I often spend my nights there. But I am always outside Nablus, even when I am physically there—even in the Nablus of my mind I remain outside, peering in at windows, opening stale cupboards, looking for abandoned objects from the past.


Isabella Hammad is the author of The Parisian, or Al Barisi. She was the 2018 winner of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction. She currently lives in New York.

Published May 20, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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