Isabella Hammad is the author of The Parisian and Enter Ghost. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Palestine Book Award and a Betty Trask Award. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. Invested in the rhythms of history and politics, her writing is erudite, searching and full of feeling.
Hear an audio extract of ‘A Note in the Margin’ here
‘A Note in the Margin’
Michel shakes the last of the peanuts into his mouth before dusting his hands off over the grass. He grunts, swallows, clears his throat.
‘As I remember, they called it the Freedom Walk. It was only a walk in the morning from the hotel to the conference centre, because the organisers were worried about causing a traffic jam. But they had renamed the conference centre – which by the way was originally a dance hall for the Dutch colonials, no Indonesians allowed. They called it the Freedom Centre, and they turned the walk there into a sort of parade.’
‘And he was part of it?’ I ask.
‘Indeed, my brother, he was. One of the main attractions. Army fatigues, big smile.’
I register that phrase with pleasure, my brother. What would have sounded natural in Arabic is touchingly stiff in Michel’s English. He holds his drink up to the light. I wonder whether he means to illustrate something: this is how dazzling the Leader was, or that moment was, twenty-odd years ago, when the heads of liberated or soon-to-be liberated states, the great and the near-great, walked together between one building and another along a flimsily barricaded path in a small, humid Javan city, autographing children’s notebooks and saluting the crowd – how like the setting sun on a New England evening pushing its rays through a gin and tonic. Or perhaps he will segue into a new subject – and at even the thought that Michel might stop sharing his memories with me, my desire to hear them intensifies. I become shy. I try not to look at him. The clock strikes the hour.
In Arabic, he says: ‘We’re going to miss you, you know.’
‘Oh.’ I tug my jacket so it sits better over my stomach. ‘Thanks.’
Our bench is directly across from the university’s Science Building, where denim-clad undergraduates trail along the path. The end of semester is nigh: in a few days they will be free. For our goodbye meeting this afternoon, I’ve supplied the cocktail flask and glasses, while Michel has brought snacks and a farewell gift: another book, wrapped in brown paper. On Saturday, Kaitlin and I will be leaving for California.
Suddenly, Michel shouts: ‘Read the sign, Bruno!’
Ahead of us, a shaggy young man with a long blond ponytail has wheeled onto the lawn.
‘No bicycles on the grass.’
Standing on the pedals, Bruno directs the bike back onto the path without acknowledging his professor’s rebuke. Slowed by the throng of other students, he zigzags to keep balance.
‘And did you see him up close?’ I ask. ‘The Leader.’
‘Of course.’ Michel, flushed from yelling, settles back against the bench. He considers me. Then, having apparently decided, he takes me with him into the past.
Continue reading ‘A Note in the Margin’ here.
Explore more of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
Image © Alice Zoo