Book Review: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

Book Review: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

2002
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The Parisian

It has only happened to me once before that I had a strong desire, after reading the final words in a novel—a nearly irresistible desire—to return to the beginning of it immediately, and start reading it again.

This time, as I drew near the end of Isabelle Hammad’s The Parisian the feeling was even stronger than the other time, and it started earlier, because as I read the last few pages of the book (not just the last few words) I knew I was going too quickly to fully absorb all the wisdom and beauty there; but I was pulled forward hastily anyway, because I wanted so badly to know “what would happen next.” 

How to summarize this wonderful story? The plot in one way is rather simple—it is the story of a young man, a Palestinian, who is sent by his father to study medicine in France at the beginning of the First World War. He spends a few years in France, years that are liberating and transformative; then he returns to Palestine.

And then what? I refuse to tell the rest of his story, because I think everyone should find out for themselves how the rest of his life unfolds.

Midhat Kamal navigates his way through the city of Montpellier in the book. Credit: Public Domain

The prose is exquisite, and the author’s ability to paint a scene as if we are looking through a roving camera’s eye, whether in a tight focus on a close-up shot, or a panoramic sweep, is simply amazing. Here are just two examples.

Outside, the clouds turned the grass grey, and the tree at the far end was animated with wind. When he looked back, Jeannette was still red, staring at her lap. Neither of them said anything. Something in Midhat’s chest began leaping wildly about as a fly zoomed into the silence and browsed the coffee things. Together they watched the fly inspecting the corner of a sugar cube, and then sitting on the silver rim, rubbing its hands together. He made a decision to look at her again. He found, to his amazement, that he was unable. Staring at the sugar cube he marveled at his shyness. It occurred to him that so far his imperfect French had made most conversation obtuse—but what if, since by the same token one could not afford ambiguity, everything also became more direct?

One morning in March, everyone woke to find the cold had relented. The air was moving, birds singing, ice draining off the mountains into the valley, filling the streets with slush. The women of Nablus hiked out to Ras al-Ayn to sit by the waterfalls with their baskets of nuts, as their children washed lettuce in the icy water and cupped the leaves in their palms to stop them ripping in the flow. Newspapers were once more in circulation, telegraph lines were opened, and at last Nablus heard what was happening in Damascus and Jerusalem.

Nablus skyline in 1918 from about 1,000 feet above at the beginning of British rule. Credit: Public domain

In addition to this ability to provide a camera’s eye view of the various worlds in which Midhat’s story unfolds, there is a profound and acute psychological depth.

La France Intellectuelle, with her granite monuments engraved with birth dates and death dates and graduation dates, was a place of such unerring certainty that Midhat often felt that he was gazing up at her plinths in awe. Even in wartime the French argued from their lecterns, formulated between four walls, while in Nablus—in Nablus they reached for the supernatural when they were helpless, whether with prayers to God or the charms of a sheikh to protect them from the evil eye. 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.

A crowd of reservists being mobilized at the Gare de l’Est (2 August 1914). Credit: Public Domain

The book has been proclaimed by Zadie Smith to be “a wonder,” and I am not about to argue with her. It is a sweeping historical saga that covers the years 1914-1936, set mainly in Montpellier, Paris, and Nablus, with scenes in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus, among other places. It is exhaustively researched, with the compelling story of Midhat at the center of the turbulent world of those years.

The story of that larger world is of course quite complex in many ways. But in another, is not that complexity of the world of politics, the stories of grand national strife that we are told, that we learn, to some degree fictional also? Are there not some simple, fundamental truths underlying all that “complexity” in our world that we are simply ignoring, and sometimes denying—out of fear, or prejudice, or a confused belief that what we see, and even more what we are told, IS?

Well, anyway, this is one of the groping questions I had as I pondered this story after closing the book.

French soldiers in WW1, marching past the Petit Palais (1916). Credit: Public Domain

The Parisian is the story of one man’s life: it is a coming of age story, with maturity being gained only very gradually, across many years. Through it all Midhat struggles to come to terms with the complexity of life; not only his own, but the life of his family, his community, his nation. This story is about love and loss, about the terrible costs of human behavior, ranging from the devastating effects of petty jealousy and blind prejudice—whether found in isolated, backward villages, or in the drawing rooms of sophisticated, cosmopolitan Europe—to the dreadful suffering brought on by colonialism and war. It is about adjusting to the reality of dreams unfulfilled; and it is about both redemption and forgiveness.

Churchill and Abdullah (with Herbert Samuel) during their negotiations in Jerusalem, March 1921. Credit: Public domain

The Parisian is a very long book, and it not necessarily an easy book to read: but there is help for readers who are committed to learning from it. A list of characters in the beginning of the book, and a summary of the historical events on which the story is based, are provided. There is much interspersing of foreign words into the dialogue and even at times the narration. Some readers may find this off-putting, but they should not since it is a brilliant way to suggest the confusion that anyone who has ever tried to function in a place where they do not speak the language well has experienced. That alone is worth understanding.

I believe everyone should read this book, not only because it is a marvelous story told by a brilliant and very gifted young writer. There is much to be learned in the pages of this book about the history of Palestine, and about the background, and the continuing suffering, of her people. That is something I believe we should all both know, and care, more about.

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

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