Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Parisian

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This review first appeared at the Guardian.

parisian“The Parisian”, Isabella Hammad’s remarkably accomplished debut novel, very quickly binds the reader’s attention. Ranging from Nablus in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire via Istanbul and Cairo to Montpellier and Paris, and always connecting the personal and the political, our hero Midhat Kamal’s journey makes delightful reading.

The sensation of reality is intense, at various levels. Time and place are fully imagined, with constant attention to the details of dress, furniture, architecture, and attitude. With Midhat enrolled in medicine at Montpellier and the World War One dead stacking up, the ideas and prejudices of the French historical moment are rendered most successfully in extended party scenes – Midhat speaking “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”

Relationships between characters are very precisely noticed, and the characters themselves are brought to life by a fierce interiority. Midhat’s sense of himself, through his different ages and states of consciousness, is a sustained theme, from his discovery at Istanbul’s Lycée Impérial of “the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly.” The physical correlative is consciousness of “the hard outline of his body”, which transforms when he falls in love: “the awareness of his limbs was an agony, he wanted to get out of them, to be elsewhere.”

As confidence deepens between Midhat and his host Dr Molineu’s daughter Jeanette, Midhat attempts to learn more about Jeanette’s mother, a suicide. He studies her diagnosis of “hystero-neurasthenia”, and the influence upon her of the mysterious Sylvain Leclair. But the pleasures of investigation are superseded by a crisis when Midhat learns he himself has been an object of study for Doctor Molineu, part of a project “linking philology and development”, to analyse “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression”.

Midhat breaks with Jeanette, flees to tumultuous Paris, studies history at the Sorbonne and enjoys soirées with pan-Syrian nationalist intellectuals – including the law student Hani Murad, an associate of Emir (soon to be king) Faisal, who believes that “to unify a country is the supreme goal of mankind”.

After the war Midhat returns to a British-occupied Palestine at once parochial and cosmopolitan. There are set pieces here to rival the French parties – at the market, in the women’s hammam, at a popular festival turned riot. Despite familial and financial constraints, Midhat settles into Nablus “with its webs of subtle comfort, of knowing and being known”, and engages in indirect courtship with Fatima, who climbs on a cupboard to avoid him on their wedding night.

The passing years bring a transition from Syrian to Palestinian nationalism, amid accumulating political disasters, the Arabs squabbling while (in Hani Murad’s words) “the land is taken from under our feet.” Hani’s young wife Sahar organises demonstrations and women’s committees. There are signs, meanwhile, of incipient class conflict. Sahar and her bourgeois circle oppose the veil in the name of modernity, while the peasant fighters promote it through “forced rebel lore” for the sake of communal identity.

By the eruption of the 1936 uprising, “to be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times.” The boutique shop Midhat owns with a Samaritan partner burns in obscure circumstances. For this as well as more intimate reasons, he must undergo a painful ripening, a final reckoning with the past. This section is as beautifully told as it is surprising, and is in some way echoed by the development of the French scholar and priest Antoine (whose treatment contains a hint of Graham Greene), another (Jerusalem-based) student of Arab “essences” who, observing the unexpected social transformations brought about by anti-colonial resistance, marvels “how fast custom could degrade from its pure form”.

The dialogue flows easily throughout but is sometimes marred by an unnecessarily liberal scattering of unexplained French or Arabic phrases. This perhaps adds flavour, and reaches towards Midhat’s bilingualism, but such sentences as “Only a Parisian could be tellement fier du Languedoc”, in a supposedly French conversation, or “Lazim, kulluna, rise up,” in Arabic, will surely be disruptive for the reader not proficient in these languages.

Excepting that editorial quibble, Hammad sounds like a natural storyteller. She sustains tension and suspends revelation beautifully, and interweaves character and theme, the global and the local, with the assurance of a much more experienced writer. The writing is deeply humane, its wide vision matched by its poised restraint.

Zadie Smith’s glowing endorsement compares Hammad to Flaubert and Stendhal, and the social tapestry she creates certainly has a sense of those worlds, but we could also reference the realism of Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, or set her against a contemporary historical novelist like Jennifer Egan (in her inter-war “Manhattan Beach”). A story of cultures in simultaneous conflict and concord, “The Parisian” teems with riches – love, war, betrayal and madness – and marks the arrival of a bright new talent.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 22, 2019 at 7:50 am

Posted in book review

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One Response

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  1. Wonderful review! I like how you are able to express your opinion so effectively.
    I love your work so much that I have subscribed to your blog. 🙂

    Jenesh Lal Shrestha

    April 22, 2019 at 10:33 am

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