A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad,The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence. Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. When Midhat returns to Nablus to find it under British rule, and the entire region erupting with nationalist fervor, he must find a way to cope with his conflicting loyalties and the expectations of his community. The story of Midhat's life develops alongside the idea of a nation, as he and those close to him confront what it means to strive for independence in a world that seems on the verge of falling apart. Against a landscape of political change that continues to define the Middle East,The Parisian explores questions of power and identity, enduring love, and the uncanny ability of the past to disrupt the present. Lush and immersive, and devastating in its power,The Parisian is an elegant, richly-imagined debut from a dazzling new voice in fiction.
When opening the book I was already astonished by the sheer number of characters listed. Yet, this turned out to be only one of the factors that made the novel quite hard to read for me. I also could hardly relate to the protagonist who, in my opinion, was stubborn and narrow minded. Third, Isabella Hammad simply wanted too much for my liking. Setting a love story against world politics is one thing, but it rarely works to write a convincing story on several levels – the personal, the societal and the political – without losing focus. I found the story quite lengthy and thus boring. Additionally, the intercultural conflicts and misunderstanding between the characters could have provided a lot of food for thought, yet, in my view, much of them were drawn too stereotypically and reduced to one or two features to actually provide grounds for discussion.
In the summer of 1914, Midhat Kamal sails from Egypt to France, where he will study medicine in Montpellier. We have already learned a fair bit about Midhat. Born in Palestine, he comes from a wealthy family, with his father being a wealthy merchant dealing in high quality fabrics. Midhat’s mother had died while he was still a toddler, and his father had left him in the care of his paternal grandmother, while he had relocated to Cairo to establish his burgeoning business on a more substantial plane.
As his father becomes more prosperous, Midhat follows his elder brothers to be educated in Istanbul, at the celebrated French Lycée. Having emerged among the top portion of his class, it seems to Midhat’s father that the natural next step is for him to go to university in France, then seen as the pinnacle of Western sophistication, to study medicine. Neither Midhat’s own views, nor his aptitude for such a course, are given much consideration, and Midhat allows himself to be swept along with this plan.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the summer of 1914 was not a propitious time to be coming to France, although it takes a long time for the ravages of the First World War to become evident in Montpellier. Midhat’s father has arranged for him to lodge with Dr Molineu, a moderately successful academic who lectures at the university. The household also includes Molineu’s beautiful daughter Jeanette, with whom Midhat falls predictably, and obsessively, in love.
Midhat initially struggles with his studies, but continues to apply himself. As the war progresses, and the hitherto sheltered circle of the Molineu family becomes more directly exposed to its consequences, Midhat finds his classes becoming smaller and smaller as more of his fellow students are conscripted. As the war intensifies, he finds himself increasingly uncomfortable in the small town.
The sweep of the novel extends to follow Midhat as he moves to Paris, and becomes involved in the Palestinian struggle for independence, while simultaneously Europe moves inexorably towards another major war.
I found the historical and political context fascinating, but as the book progressed, I found myself increasing alienated from Midhat as a character. Indeed, character is not the right term. He is wholly lacking in any shred of personality, so perhaps vector might be a better term.
I really fell that Ms Hammad missed a bit of an open goal here. She has found a very interesting new twist on the historical novel covering the period between the two World Wars, but unfortunately, she never quite managed to capitalise on that opportunity.
“Nabulsis spent their lives close to their graves, at nature’s mercy, and sought antidotes to the world’s pain in the vapours of ritual. Here in Europe the trains always ran on time, the streets were paved perpendicular, one did not feel the earth—and yet it seemed now to Midhat that these structures were also illusory. They gave only the appearance of rightness. For at times and in certain lights you could see it was a baseless fabric, which could be lifted. And one could reach a hand beneath, and beyond it feel the thin air.”
This is a beautifully written historical novel but the cast of thousands detracted from what it could have been.
I wondered if the novel used partly family memories--the author's last name being the same as one of the families in the book. One of Midhat's daughters figures in the story and the author gives credit to someone with the same name in her Acknowledgement. Well written. One of the themes: carrying a torch for for a French girl through his whole life finally driving Midhat to an insane asylum seemed a bit contrived.
As a whole, recommended.
On his return to Palestine, he finds he has trouble adjusting to the ancient culture of his home town. His father has remarried and Midhat is not sure of where he fits into his father's plans. Eventually, he takes over the business (selling clothing), and relents to a Muslim arranged marriage to an attractive woman, Fatima.
At this point in the story, the political situation in Palestine becomes more prominent than Midhat's personal life. The Ottoman Empire has fallen; France has taken over Syria, and the British are controlling Palestine. But soon thousands of Zionists are immigrating to Palestine. Midhat's friends and cousins are among those that are resisting the control of the British and the increasing number of Jews arriving. Having very little knowledge of the political situation in that part of the world at that time, the novel provided some interesting insight. However, names, places, causes, phrases almost become overwhelming.
I felt the ending was particularly weak. I had been somewhat invested in the character of Midhat, but after he has a sort of mental breakdown, it just did not keep my interest. The very ending especially missed me ??
Still for the insight into the Palestine/Jewish history, it was interesting.