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

‘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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to ‘The Parisian’ is a slow-burning treat to be savored
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today