Review: The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

“To be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times, locked in an old colonial formula where subjects imitated masters as if in the seams of their old garments they hoped to find some dust of power left trapped. This was not precisely the case with Midhat, who seemed rather blind to the deep meaning of his costumes, and was certainly not striving for power or superiority when he meticulously crimped a mouchoir in his pocket and said, ‘Voulez vous?’ Blinking when they talked of politics, agreeing mildly and continuing on his way, so literally in love with the pattern on a scarf that he would spend great fortunes behind his wife’s back in order to import it from France.”

When Edward Said authored his ground-breaking postcolonial work Orientalism in 1978, the shockwaves resulting from his unapologetic analysis of cultural imperialism and the creation of the ‘Other’ were immediate and uncompromising. Decades on, Said’s analysis of Western colonialism (practiced in the form of systemic violence – through the way that we disseminate knowledge, assign value to cultures, and the language that we use) continues to attract criticism for peddling a type of anti-Western sentiment that flies in the face of centuries spent cementing ideas about cultural and academic superiority. Said’s work – and that of those who followed in his footsteps – points to the uncomfortable ruptures that exist between representations of the Other (non-Western, non-White, or otherwise non-conforming groups) and the reality of difference. The term subsequently assigned to the theoretical field that developed around his work – postcolonialism – points most particularly to the character of these fractures, where there is nothing post about the ongoing presence of the colonial mentality.

Where Said sparked a need to revisit academic and political understandings of cultural difference, Orientalism also inspired a need to critically examine artistic representations of the Other. Said himself pointed to the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as proponents of the Oriental stereotype. In recent years, however, literary fiction has turned its eye increasingly toward the issues of identity, representation, and the process of Othering that have for centuries been ignored. It is no surprise, therefore, that the promise of Isabella Hammad’s debut novel The Parisian has been met with ready anticipation across the literary world. Born to a British mother and Palestinian father, raised in London, and educated in part under Zadie Smith at New York University, Hammad represents an internationalism that speaks perfectly to the reductionism of the kinds of representation with which we have contented ourselves for so long. Her decision to put a personal narrative to the history of Palestinian self-determination (or lack thereof) in the first half of the 20th century, places the ruptures of identity and prejudice at the heart of The Parisian. While Hammad confesses to falling asleep during a childhood visit to one of Edward Said’s lectures, her novel resounds with the unflinching but subtle violence of life as a cultural outsider.

“But here at the Molineus’ house things seemed to be different, and Midhat was not equipped. He had not read the right books. Even French words felt thicker lately in his mouth, and like a heavy screen they separated him from what he wanted to say. Each day he was more the fool, the foreigner unable to control his own meanings, lost in the wild multiple of language.”

The Parisian follows Midhat Kamal, a native of the ancient Palestinian town Nablus and the young son of a wealthy textile merchant. As World War I begins, Midhat’s father dispatches him to Montpellier, France as a student of medicine, a manoeuvre designed to help Midhat avoid participating in the fight. Midhat takes to life in France with relative ease. Despite a general distaste for the study of medicine, his determination to find his place in the romanticism of French life proves a driving factor in his efforts to make the most of his voluntary exile from Palestine. While in Montpellier, Midhat stays with the Molineu family, an academic father and his daughter Jeannette. His time in Montpellier ends suddenly, however, and he moves on to Paris, before returning to Palestine following the end of the war. Despite the book’s title, the bulk of the novel’s narrative occurs after Midhat’s return to Nablus, as he discovers a country in turmoil. Palestine has fallen under British rule and, as nationalist fervour increases in the cities around him, Midhat is forced to confront the fault-lines in his own identity.

The Parisian is a breathtakingly expansive novel. For a work of historical fiction that premises its action around a period and place with which few have detailed familiarity, Hammad’s debut work provides everything one might look for in a study of human history. Spanning both decades and continents, Hammad demonstrates remarkable skill in constructing a plot that flows with apparent zest for the momentum of the time, whilst unafraid to luxuriate in moments of acute beauty. In Midhat Kamal, The Parisian finds a narrator perfectly poised to navigate this careful balance. Caught up in the chaos and turmoil of World War I and its consequences for the Ottoman Empire, Kamal’s commitment to life as an aesthete – preoccupied with the curls and sighs of language, as well as the beauty of a well-chosen mouchoir – positions him as both intimately involved with and determinedly removed from the political and social unrest surrounding him. Of all the skills that Hammad so resoundingly demonstrates in The Parisian – the debut novel of an author in her mid-20s – it is this maturity of perspective that most astounds. The Parisian is a novel that appreciates the delicate coexistence of history’s breathless momentum with the static resistance that builds in opposition to this movement. Identity, culture, and society – whilst eternally poised for change – come with a complex dependence on foundations established over the course of centuries.

The ruptures created by these conflicting commitments are at the heart of The Parisian and its exploration of Palestinian politics in the first half of the 20th century. Through Midhat’s struggle with his own cultural identity – the Palestinian outsider, both in France and upon his return to Nablus – Hammad equips herself to explore a broader narrative of social change and its consequences. One of the most troubling parts of the novel is Midhat’s discovery that Frédéric Molineu – his host in Montpellier – has been studying him as evidence on the linguistic capabilities of the “primitive brain.” Finding direct inspiration from Said’s exploration of the ‘Other’, Hammad positions this discovery as the end to any illusion that Midhat can be perceived as an equal in France. This sense of Otherness is something that Midhat carries with him back to Nablus, seemingly an eternal outsider, condemned by his experiences. In one of my favourite passages from the novel, Hammad perfectly encapsulates the painful fractures created by this encounter with life as a cultural pariah:

“Midhat the Levantine, with his mouchoir and new suit, now thoroughly estranged: the figure of the Parisian Oriental as he appeared on certain cigarette packets in corner stores. Cogolati surely only saw him as a colleague and an equal – and yet, that innocent, hard-working man would be forever linked in Midhat’s mind with the moment he was awakened to his own otherness, when on the day he completed his examinations and said goodbye to his classmate he returned to the house to discover the other way in which he had been examined – by his host, and without his knowledge. Harrowed by the glimpse of a strange outside view of himself. And in just a year he had undergone such an alteration, from that stranger who had once desired to become European both inside and out, closer already in appearance to the pale Italian or Greek – when he was not blithely offering his genealogy to anyone who asked – than to the inhabitants of those apostasized subaltern continents that had so defected from civilisation as they occurred in picture books and nursery rhymes and the imaginations of French children.”

It is an incredibly powerful moment, the lessons of which are further cemented by the parallel narrative of Father Antoine – the French priest, writing an account of Nablus and its citizens for publication. Where Midhat embodies the outsider, Father Antoine utilises this position to further consolidate the Otherness of the Palestinian people. Although an outsider himself, his position is clearly one of implied cultural superiority. The reader watches as Antoine pays Nablusi natives for local gossip, recording the trends in social behaviour, with a view to disseminating his expertise on ‘the Arab’. While individuals like Antoine undoubtedly hold culpability for the derogatory stereotypes that plague Western perception of non-Western cultures, the reductionism with which Antoine perceives Nablus is not so far from Midhat’s own imagining of France. There will always be danger in attempts to reduce a culture or society to a singular narrative – whether that narrative be one of barbaric primitiveness or pre-ordained cultural and intellectual superiority. Both Midhat and Antoine play their parts in the positioning of culture against culture, propelling the notion that there is some universal ideal toward which all societies should be working (embodied by the West).

The Parisian not only explores these themes as part of Midhat’s personal narrative, Hammad positions them against the backdrop of Palestinian self-determination and nationalism to great effect. As Midhat’s contemporaries become embroiled in the violent politics of national identity – in large part, the ability to self-determine the character and boundaries of what it means to be Palestinian – Midhat and Antoine are simultaneously exploring their own visions of Palenstinian identity. It is a complex picture but one that Hammad centralises effortlessly, assisted by the author’s sublime prose. Her abilities to render a scene in a way that unconsciously invokes almost all of the reader’s senses is truly a marvel and makes The Parisian a worthy read on stylistic merits alone. This novel is an experience.

“The path through the garden channelled the wind. Midhat dawdled in the shade of the beefwoods and gum trees, inhaled the breath of flowers beside the banyan trunks trailing hair with hollows like open mouths; he passed the spindly rubber trees and the royal palms, and reaching out across the pathway, the weird dangling fruits of an African sausage tree beside their big, crude red petals. The thicket opened onto a lawn where a band was assembling. The musicians wore galabiyas but their stringed instruments looked imported, and the sound they produced was definitely not Egyptian; nonetheless on the grass before them a trio of bare-bellied ghawazi women in billowing trousers began to swing their pelvises and beckon passerby as if to a native melody.”

It will be a true surprise if The Parisian does not find itself sweeping literary prizes in the coming year. For a debut, one would be hard pressed to imagine an author creating a novel better poised to examine the complex themes of identity and political change, whilst also placing historical confines on the boundaries of the exploration. Hammad has done something truly remarkable here. Although the novel could certainly do with fewer unexplained French and Palestinian phrases – the internet will be your best friend for certain sections of the novel – it is a work ripe with the zeal of a young author, determined to explore the knife-edge of xenophobia without subtlety. Yet The Parisian never strays far from the mature worldliness of an author well versed in the stylistic and thematic turns of effective literary fiction. It is a stunning novel and one that firmly positions Isabella Hammad as a voice of significant literary and humanistic value.

The Parisian2


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