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The City and the Writer: In Nazareth with Sousan Hammad

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 Nazareth as you feel/see it?

Nazareth is a marriage between a Mexican soap opera and a Turkish drama: someone’s always getting married and families never stop fighting. It’s where every day is the same as yesterday. It’s almost as if the actors are trapped on set, imagining what life would be like if they weren’t forced into the roles they had to play. Nazareth is one of the most absurd places I have lived. If it weren’t for its dependence on biblical tourism (an industry that rarely cycles back into the bank accounts of Palestinians), I think the city would be more lawless than it already is. Still, I can’t help but have great affection for Nazareth’s community.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Last autumn I went back to the street where I lived and stood underneath my apartment gazing at my old bedroom window. Suddenly, my former neighbor Yusuf came outside. A year earlier I received news that his sister Layla died. Layla was a very unstable and violent person who was forced to take care of her brother at a young age. Yusuf was a simple-minded person. And here’s the thing: they were both hunchbacks. Nobody really knew what happened to them as kids, yet everyone, myself included, radically accepted who they were, however frustrating it sometimes was. So when I asked Yusuf how he was doing, he said: “Layla died. I think she’s happier now.” And then he shuffled off in his slow, sad walk. Ever since I left Nazareth, I dreaded the moment I would hear about Layla’s death because I knew it meant Yusuf would be placed into “the institution,” where Layla had been trying to send him to for years.  Nobody knew if he could take care of himself. But there he was. As Yusuf walked off, I noticed his shoes were mismatched and his belt halfway buckled.

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

The cemetery at the souk. I lived just next door to the biggest Muslim graveyard and it had the most exquisite garden. It had these towering pine trees that were older than my grandparents. Nazareth is a vertical city of shacks on top of shacks with no green space, so for me it was a relaxing place to sit on the bench and think… until one day I was chased out by the new caretaker who had just come out of prison. He ran after me with a brick in his hand yelling, cursing, and calling me kafra (and more vulgar names I won’t repeat). I never went back.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are so many writers from Nazareth, such as Taha Muhammad Ali and Tawfiq Zayyad, but I would say that everyone should pay attention to Jowan Safadi, who writes (and performs) musical prose. He has a wonderful gift for language and has done so much more than write—he gets people involved and aware, and self-awareness is the one thing that’s missing from Naz.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Rida’s Bar (which we call Daher’s).

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Some people tried to make Tawfiq Zayyad’s old house into a writing center but it didn’t work out. Not enough people appreciate Nazareth for what it is…

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

Each apartment inside the souk is its own city.

Where does passion live here?

People’s nightmares. There’s less and less hope, and there are those who are afraid to become what their parents were forced to become, so they do everything they can to rewrite their future. (Desperation made many turn to drugs and melancholy. Or flee to Haifa.) A carpenter’s son becomes a carpenter, a baker’s son a baker. It’s like any working class city in any part of the world, only it’s heightened by the reality that Israel refuses to recognize Palestinians as anything but third-class citizens. They are wrapped in so many emotional nightmares. I don’t know if that’s a cynical interpretation of passion or not.

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

I’ve done some translation, focusing always on the city as a theme. I translated several poets whose work reimagines the Mediterranean city in an issue of Shahadat, which I entitled “The City of Translation.” The working title of my debut book (if I ever finish) is “When the Sea Comes to Haifa.” I was inspired by this title because I would always tell my friends: “If only Nazareth had a sea—then I wouldn’t need to escape to Haifa!” And one day a friend responded, “What sea?”

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

I should ask my grandmother.


Sousan Hammad has lived in the United States, Palestine, and France. Her essays and poetry translations have appeared in numerous magazines, including Guernica, Electronic Intifadah, and al-Araby al-Jadeed. She is a contributing writer at Al Jazeera America. 

Published Apr 21, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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