The Parisian, or, Al-Barisi : a novel

by Isabella Hammad

Paper Book, 2019

Call number




New York : Grove Press, 2019.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
When Midhat Kamal leaves his home town Nablus for France, he doesn’t know that the old continent is on the verge of World War I. The young Palestinian starts his studies in medicine close to the Mediterranean where he also gets his first insight in the French culture and society. He soon has to realise that not only the world is in a very fragile state but also that in private life coalitions change quickly and even though at the beginning of the new century, people are eager to explore the world and foreign cultures, this does not mean that people are open to consider someone from the Middle East their equal. From France, he returns only to learn that also is home country is not an easy place to live.

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.
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
Long, detailed and immersive but never really got to me emotionally. Filled with historical and day to day detail and texture, and certainly an impressive achievement, but the characters never really came to life. The author comes close with Fatima and it would have been interesting to see Fatima in greater depth alongside Midhat but maybe next time.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This novel started so promisingly, but seemed to collapse under the weight self-regard.

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.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
A sprawling novel that follows the life of Midhat Kamal a Palestinian man who is sent to Paris to go to school. There he meets a young lady and there seems to be joint feelings. He eventually returns home where he is supposed to have an arranged Muslim marriage. This is the central issue in Midhat's life. A second theme is the Muslim fight against European domination in their homeland in the early 1900's. I enjoyed the more personal aspects of the book - not so much the political parts.… (more)
LibraryThing member AAAO
Intellectually challenging, meaning veiled in meaning. Nonetheless, though readers may disagree, I found some scenes vulgar (the later intimate scene in Paris), contradictory and unlikely (the prayer scene in the cave, the resort to magic) and like many readers found the idiomatic Arabic dialogue superfluous…Yet, Hammad proffers a serious and respectable literary attempt, and successfully defies the harshest of political circumstances…I think she couldn’t even promote this book for fear of not being allowed back into her sieged city. Luckily, the novel is good enough to endure.

“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.”
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LibraryThing member CharlotteBurt
3.5 stars
This is a beautifully written historical novel but the cast of thousands detracted from what it could have been.
LibraryThing member janerawoof
Sprawling novel of the birth of modern Palestine, from the last years of the Ottoman empire to the end of the British Mandate. Told through the story of Midhat, a Palestinian who goes to France a a young man, returns to his home town, Nablus, through the years. Many other families are involved.
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.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
This is not an easy read, but worth the effort. There are so many characters with titles that are not familiar to me, similar sounding names, and lot and lots of untranslated Arabic and French. Saying that, I still enjoyed almost all of the book. Set in post WWI, Kamal is the son of a wealthy man in Palestine. He is sent to France to study medicine and stays in the home of Dr. Molineu who has a daughter, Jeannette. In spite of cultural differences Midhat and Jeannette become lovers, but once Midhat finds that the Dr. has been "studying" him to see how an Arab can learn and adjust, things fall apart very suddenly. Midhat moves to Paris where he gives up medicine but continues his education.

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.
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