The book opens in 1914 at the onset of the First World War and ends with a British-occupied Palestine in the 1930s. Preserving the memories and history of a people whose memories, history and entire existence have ruthlessly been forced into oblivion is possibly the main driving force of this dazzlingly successful epic novel. The Parisian is one of the few works of fiction set in an era before the tragedy of the Nakba and the subsequent founding of the State of Israel; that is, before Palestinian identity became regrettably defined by the Israeli occupation and the so-called Palestinian-Israeli “conflict.”
The Parisian is a beautiful novel and Hammad’s gifted use of language almost poetic.
The strong focus Hammad places on Midhat Kamal’s inner life and his introspective nature enrich the novel, helping the reader understand him deeply and empathize with his fragmented sense of self and pervasive feeling of alienation, with his never fully belonging to a place, especially not to his “home.” The Parisian is a beautiful novel and Hammad’s gifted use of language almost poetic.
Besides its literary and historical accomplishments, this ambitious novel, accurately described by Zadie Smith as “sublime,” discusses larger structural issues that have much present-day relevance, such as racism, orientalism, colonialism and immigration. Hammad’s knowledge, talent, and research skills are impressive. So is her ability to present painful issues in their full complexity while avoiding moralizing judgments or taking overly simplistic stances.
The story begins with Midhat’s journey to France, aboard a ship where he befriends another Arab man. Midhat is going to Montpellier to study medicine, having been sent abroad by his father to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army. Upon arrival in Montpellier, he is hosted by a French family that Midhat believes to be kindly and well-intentioned. A professor of anthropology, Dr. Molineau, and his lively daughter Jeanette warmly welcome him, taking him in as part of the family. However, as the plot unfolds, Midhat’s heart is broken in manifold ways when he discovers Dr. Molineau has been secretly studying him as a sort of human guinea pig from the moment he arrived. Scrutinizing the “primitive” Arab Muslim mind rather than kindness, is Dr. Molineau’s true motive for receiving Midhat in his home. In the meantime, however, Midhat and Molineau’s daughter have fallen madly in love. But while Midhat had hoped to marry Jeanette, his dreams are crushed when he realizes he could never simultaneously be Dr. Molineau’s object of study and son-in-law.
Upon discovering such betrayal and violation, Midhat leaves the Molineau home without as much as a goodbye. He goes to Paris to study history at the Sorbonne and lives with Faruq, the young Arab he met on the ship to France. His Paris years are rich and adventurous, filled with interesting books and interesting women, new philosophies, and soirees at his Arab friends’ homes where discussions about the Pan-Syrian movement drove and inspired the young men. In Paris, Midhat leads an exceptionally active nightlife and learns to compartmentalize his existence in different moral “states of being.” He is nostalgic for Palestine and often finds the landscapes of the French countryside reminiscent of nature back home. He particularly misses his Teta, his grandmother, to whom, having been an orphan, he is extremely close.
“I belong [in Paris] as much as I belong in Palestine,” he writes in a letter to Jeanette years after he had left her home in Montpellier.
Bound by duty and apprehensive about his stern father, he returns to Nablus to work in the family’s booming textile business. However, he is dismayed to discover he feels as foreign in Palestine as he did in Paris. “I belong [in Paris] as much as I belong in Palestine,” he writes in a letter to Jeanette years after he had left her home in Montpellier. But Midhat being a Parisian (or “al Barisi”) in Nablus, given the political climate and events, is taken by the people of Nablus as an act of self-colonization, the slave siding with the master, and does not go well for him.
Thus, he learns to hide his feelings and retreat to his dreams. He learns to live in a detached way, as an observer of his own life, even as he eagerly marries the well-off and attractive Fatima Hammad (who interestingly shares the last name of the book’s author). Fatima Hammad the character comes from one of the most prominent families in Nablus and although the Midhat’s family is rich, attaining such a good marriage is seen as a huge achievement by Midhat, his friends, and most of society. Still, he never forgets Jeanette and longs for her often.
Excerpt from the Book
There was one other Arab onboard the ship to Marseille. His name was Faruq al- Azma, and the day after leaving port in Alexandria he approached Midhat at breakfast, with a plate of toast in one hand and a string of amber prayer beads in the other. He sat, tugged at the cuffs of his shirt, and started to describe without any introduction how he was returning from Damascus to resume his teaching post in the language department of the Sorbonne. He had left Paris at the outbreak of war but after the Miracle of the Marne was determined to return. He had grey eyes and a slightly rectangular head.
“Baris.” He sighed. “It is where my life is.”
To young Midhat Kamal, this statement was highly suggestive. In his mind a gallery of lamps directly illuminated a dance hall full of women. He looked closely at Faruq’s clothes. He wore a pale blue three-piece suit, and an indigo tie with a silver tiepin in the shape of a bird. A cane of some dark unpainted wood leaned against the table.