Isabella Hammad’s “The Parisian”, is yet another debut novel this year of astonishing power and grace. Set partly in France and mostly in Palestine before the implementation of The Balfour Declaration, which created The State of Israel and presumably a Palestinian state, Hammad’s created, in her narrator Midhat Kamal, a truly memorable partly Baudelaireian Parisian dandy, and partly son of the small Palestinian town of Nablus. His father’s a rich merchant, selling textiles in both Nablus and in Cairo, and, like many rich Palestinians, sends his son Midhat to Paris to study medicine, also allowing Midhat to avoid being drafted to fight the Ottoman Turks, who had overridden what Westerners call “The Holy Land” in the period leading up to World War I. (The novel’s fascinating politico-historical overtones begin with these Ottomans as the main enemy of the Palestinians).
Midhat is boarded in the French provincial city of Montpellier with a prominent family, a doctor and his unmarried late teenaged daughter. He learns French manners and food and culture, and becomes much enamored with both French culture and with the daughter of the household, and a couple of men his age whom he meets and who befriend him. Midhat’s first and partly second year of medical school are successful enough, and he learns how to interact with the family’s friends and dinner companions, and his burgeoning love for Josephine, the daughter, is tender and fraught, until Midhat accidentally wanders into the father/doctor’s study and finds that he’s being studied, much like a primate/primitive/barbarian, by this very doctor. (These cultural interchanges are brilliantly rendered by Hammad). Horrified, Midhat runs away to Paris, where he becomes a dandy, nightclubbing and fashionably dressed, while also spending evenings with other Palestinian men in Paris who are fascinated by the politics of The Middle East. The rumblings of what’ll become the revolt of the Palestinians against the British in Palestine begin here in Paris.
Eventually forced to return to Nablus by his demanding and controlling father, who insists that he join the family business and find an appropriate local wife, Midhat is unable to cope with the return to small town, provincial life, and the novel manifests this complex problemmatic relationship between the Parisian Midhat and the Palestinian one to great effect. (The novel brings to mind all those American doughboys in World War I from the farms of The Midwest:” how are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree”, as the song went. And Midhat’s father has an entire second family in Cairo, where Midhat had a least hoped to live; his interest in the family business is minimal, and his struggle to find his identity the core of the novel; he never ceases missing Josephine and his days in Paris, in particular.
Most of Midhat’s colleagues, friends, and other men his age have gotten increasingly involved in the politics of the time: they want to rid themselves of The British, who’d replaced The Ottomans after World War I (the English may be rendered as too stupid and ignorant, but the reader needs to remember that we’re looking at them from the perspectives of the native Palestinians, who see them as fools). And the times began to bring in thousands of Zionist Jews; Hammad’s writing is exceptionally fine in helping the reader understand how alien these European Jews were to the native Palestinians (although Jews had lived in the Middle East since long before Christ, particularly in Syria—which was much larger then– and Iraq). Midhat finds a triumph of a wife (in provincial terms) and has four children but he’s never quite able to shed his Parisian identity (thus the title of the novel).
“The Parisian” is, first and foremost, a great story, and a psychologically very fraught and astute one as we are currently living in an age where more refugees than ever since World War II are seeking new homes, particularly in The West , from The Middle East and Africa. The fights against the British aren’t very successful, but reading the early history of the Palestinians trying to forge some autonomy of their own is alone well worth reading this novel (current politics aside; Hammad’s not taking sides in the current Middle Eastern messes). I don’t want to spoil what happens to Midhat, but the loss of his romantic identity, in the end, is sad and elegiac and lovingly and sensitively delineated by Isabella Hammad, a very young writer with a very huge talent. This novel seems partly grounded in the grand tradition of the l9th century novel while being very contemporary concurrently. It’s a beauty and truly worth reading.