‘The Parisian’ is a slow-burning treat to be savored

Set in Paris and the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Isabella Hammad's debut novel ‘The Parisian’ contemplates issues of longing and belonging.

Grove Atlantic
‘The Parisian’ by Isabella Hammad, Grove Atlantic, 576 pp.

Let’s get this out of the way: The Parisian, the first novel by Isabella Hammad, is not a page-turner. That’s not an insult. If there’s a slow food movement, perhaps there should be a slow read movement: books meant to savor, not gulp.

With historical sweep and sentences of startling beauty, Hammad has written the story of a displaced dreamer, loosely based on the life of her great-grandfather.

“I had heard all these stories about him and I remember the exact moment – in the back of the car listening to my father talking about him – when I thought, ‘This would make a great novel,’” Hammad told the Guardian about the moment as a teen she felt a “real impulse” to be a writer. Now in her 20s, Ms. Hammad’s first novel has been called “‘Middlemarch’ with minarets” by the British newspaper.

Midhat Kamal is a lonely idealist whose merchant father sends him to France to study in 1914. Midhat spends a year learning medicine in Montpellier as World War I breaks out, and then spends the rest of it in Paris, studying history at the Sorbonne as it is made around him. When he returns to Nablus, he finds himself a stranger in his homeland – branded as “The Parisian” for his eccentricities of dress and manner and divided from his old self in a way he cannot bridge.

“I became myself here, in this country, and for that reason I cannot represent anything. I belong here as much as I belong in Palestine,” he writes of France.

Midhat isn’t a man of action, like his friend Laurent or his cousin Jamil, or a man of letters, like his friend Hani. Instead he’s an observer at heart, who tries to make sense of the swirl of events overtaking the world order he knew as a child.

“Really, you are so much like a character from a poem,” Hani tells him.

Like any good poetic hero, Midhat falls in love, with Jeannette Molineu, the daughter of his French host. Dr. Molineau meanwhile is studying his guest to learn “The Effect of a New Language Learned by a Primitive Brain.” When Midhat discovers what Dr. Molineu is writing, he is both horrified at the sheer ill manners of Western prejudice and crushed to realize he has been seen as less-than by someone whose family he wishes to join. “One did not study one’s sons-in-law,” Midhat thinks, realizing that Jeannette will not stand up to her father for him.

After World War I, he returns to Nablus – home to legends and Samaritans – and a whole new cast of characters, including Fatima Hammad, a teenage girl dreaming of kindness and wishing for a husband younger than the 30-something man that her parents had chosen for her. The transfer of power from the Ottoman Empire to the British (“I mean, they are empires. We know what empires do. They are hungry,” says Hani), and the Palestinian struggle for independence has less hold on Midhat than Fatima. “In May 1920, while everyone else was discussing the Mandate, Midhat was thinking about Fatima Hammad.”

“Time was a treacherous distance,” Hammad writes, “and it would not be crossed but through the dangerous substitutions of the imagination.”

Through dint of her own substitutions, Hammad has created in “The Parisian” a contemplative book of great beauty.

“When I look at my life,” Midhat tells another character, “I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes. I wouldn’t change them.”

Yvonne Zipp is the editor of the Daily Monitor.

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