The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Parisian
The Parisian
by Isabella Hammad

Paperback (17 Dec 2019), 576 pages.
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN-13: 9780802148803

A masterful debut novel by Plimpton Prize winner Isabella Hammad, The Parisian illuminates a pivotal period of Palestinian history through the journey and romances of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. A dreamer, a romantic, an aesthete, in 1914 he leaves to study medicine in France, and falls in love. When Midhat returns to Nablus to find it under British rule, and the entire region erupting with nationalist fervor, he must find a way to cope with his conflicting loyalties and the expectations of his community. The story of Midhat's life develops alongside the idea of a nation, as he and those close to him confront what it means to strive for independence in a world that seems on the verge of falling apart.

Against a landscape of political change that continues to define the Middle East, The Parisian explores questions of power and identity, enduring love, and the uncanny ability of the past to disrupt the present. Lush and immersive, and devastating in its power, The Parisian is an elegant, richly-imagined debut from a dazzling new voice in fiction.

There was one other Arab onboard the ship to Marseille. His name was Faruq al-Azmeh, 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.

"I am going to study medicine," said Midhat. "At the University of Montpellier."

"Bravo," said Faruq.

Midhat smiled as he reached for the coffeepot. Muscles he had not known were tense began to relax.

"This is your first visit to France," said Faruq.

Midhat said nothing, assenting.

Five days had passed since he said goodbye to his grandmother in Nablus and travelled by mule to Tulkarem, where he joined the Haifa line for Kantara East and changed trains for Cairo. After a few days at his father's house, he boarded the ship in Alexandria. He had become accustomed to the endless skin of the water, broken by white crests, flashing silver at noon. Lunch was at one, tea was at four, dinner was at seven thirty, and at first he sat alone watching the Europeans eat with their knives. He developed a habit of searching a crowded room for the red hair of the captain, a Frenchman named Gorin, and after dinner would watch him enter and exit the bridge where he supervised the helm.

Yesterday, he started feeling lonely. It happened suddenly. Sitting beside the stern, waiting for the captain, he became conscious of his back against the bench, a sensation that was bizarrely painful. He was aware of his legs extending from his pelvis. His nose, usually invisible, doubled and intruded on his vision. The outline of his body weighed on him as a hard, sore shape, and his heart beat very fast. He assumed the feeling would pass. But it did not, and that evening simple interactions with the quartermaster, dining attendants, other passengers, took on a strained and breathless quality. It must be obvious to them, he thought, how raw his skin felt. During the night he pressed the stem of his pocket watch compulsively in the dark, lifting the lid on its pale face. The ticking lulled him to sleep. Then he woke a second time and, continuing to check the hour as the night progressed, began to see in those twitching hands the spasms of something monstrous.

It was with a strong feeling of relief, therefore, and a sense that his sharp outline had softened slightly, that he smiled back at his new friend.

"What do you imagine it will be like?" said Faruq.

"Imagine what, France?"

"Before I came, the first time, I had many pictures of it in my mind.

Some turned out to be quite accurate, in the end. Some were—" He pinched his lips and smiled in self-mockery. "For some reason I had an idea about wigs. You know, the false hair. I'm not sure where I got it from, possibly I had seen an old drawing."

Midhat made a sound like he was thinking, and looked through the window at the sea.

His high school in Constantinople was modeled on the French lycée. The textbooks were all French imports, as were half the teachers, and even most of the furniture. Midhat and his classmates had sat on ladder-back chairs with woven rush seats reading "la poésie épique en Grèce," memorizing the names of elements in a mixture of French and Latin, and only when the bell rang did they slip into Turkish and Arabic and Armenian in the corridor. Once formulated in French, certain concepts belonged in French, so that, for instance, Midhat knew the names of his internal organs as "le poumon" and "le coeur" and "le cerveau" and "l'encéphale," and understood philosophical abstractions by their French names, "l'altruisme," "la condition humaine." And yet, despite being steeped for five years in all things French, he struggled to conjure a picture of France that was separate from the furnishings of his classrooms, whose windows had displayed a hot Turkish sky, and admitted shouts of Arabic from the water. Even now, from the vantage of this ship, Provence remained hidden by fog and the earth's unseeable curves. He looked back at Faruq.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. Copyright © 2019 by Isabella Hammad. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The journey of one young man, from his studies in France during World War I to his return to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence.

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Brilliantly vivid and luxuriously expansive, Isabelle Hammad's The Parisian is the perfect book to take along on a trip. Hammad's prose works better than a time machine. Transported to the onset of World War I, you can feel the tension and taste the fear that ripples all the way from Palestine to France.

The story follows Midhat Kamal, a young student whose wealthy father sends him to Montpellier to study medicine and escape military service. Sensitive and thoughtful, Midhat thrives in his studies and falls deeply in love, both with his romantic notions of France and his host's beautiful daughter. Yet even with his fluent French Midhat cannot escape his origins, nor the prejudices that accompany them. Returning home after the war, he struggles to assimilate into a new Palestine, one rampant with conflict and violence.

Hammad creates a rich tapestry of human experience. Although Midhat is the central character, his circle of family, friends, and acquaintances also get their time in the spotlight. We are given equal access to the minds of French students and those of Palestinian rebels. We hear from priests, soldiers, and merchants. The result is kaleidoscopic—it is impossible to observe one point of view without also considering all the others that came before. No single person, not even Midhat, is given more deference than any of the others. They are all equal in their flawed humanity.

The novel walks a fine line between genres—it is a touching love story, but it is also a tale of a nation in the throes of being born. And though falling in the realm of historical fiction, The Parisian does not dally with extensive historical detail; it is much more concerned with concepts and viewpoints. In fact, there is little dialogue and the majority of our time is spent following the thoughts of one character or another. However, it is impossible not to learn something about the current crisis in the Middle East and its origins.

Thought-provoking, beautifully rendered, and rife with emotion, The Parisian is a gorgeous, lengthy read. Hammad has achieved something quite impressive with this glowing debut.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

Washington Post
The Parisian is worthy, sincere, generous — and grievously dull, a tale whose flares of energy are buried beneath a gnarled, inexpert also has a close grasp of history, and the high quality of its writing never fades...Hammad has yet to develop any skill for character.

New York Times
The Parisian has an up-close immediacy and stylistic panache (a laugh is “the drawbridge to weeping,” a garden is “berserk with weeds”) that are all the more impressive coming from a London-born writer still in her 20s...Isabella Hammad has crafted an exquisite novel that, like Midhat himself, delves back into the confusing past while remaining wholly anchored in the precarious present.

Guardian (UK)
A hugely accomplished historical sweep of a book… a novel of immense skill and confidence.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An assured debut novel… closely observed and elegantly written.

Publishers Weekly
In her exceptional debut, Hammad taps into the satisfying slow-burn style of classic literature with a storyline that captures both the heart and the mind…This is an immensely rewarding novel that readers will sink into and savor.

Author Blurb Bradford Morrow
With masterful lyricism and unflinching insight, The Parisian captures the personal passion and political violence of a nascent nation's struggle for independence. Hammad has written a profound and intoxicating epic, brimming with unexpected, vivid imagery and unforgettable characters. Hers is a fresh voice of the first order.

Author Blurb Jonathan Safran Foer
The Parisian is a gripping historical novel, a poignant romance, and a revelatory family epoch. Above all, it is a generous gift. There is a kind of joy that can hold not only pleasure, but struggle, and even sadness. This novel tells that kind of joyful story, and evokes that kind of joy in the reader.

Author Blurb Zadie Smith
The Parisian is a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful. It is realism in the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal – everything that happens feels not so much imagined as ordained. That this remarkable historical epic should be the debut of a writer in her mid-twenties seems impossible, yet it's true. Isabella Hammad is an enormous talent and her book is a wonder.

Author Blurb Bret Anthony Johnston
The Parisian is extraordinary - wise, ambitious, and lavishly rewarding. With luminous prose and rare compassion, Isabella Hammad offers her readers an absorbing story of war and identity, of love and independence, of hope and history. It's an astonishing novel, heralding the arrival of a major talent.

Author Blurb Nathan Englander
The Parisian is a lushly imagined, beautifully written, expansive powerhouse of a debut. Isabella Hammad is a great new voice.

Author Blurb Irenosen Okojie
An exquisite, intricate and wise novel. I was utterly gripped from the first page until the last. This sweeping, historical epic marks the arrival of a wonderfully gifted author. Isabella Hammad is a marvel and The Parisian is an unforgettable read.

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The Story of the Samaritans

GerizimMany people are familiar with the phrase "good Samaritan" from the parable in the Bible from which the phrase is derived, but who are the Samaritans? What was their place in history?

In her sprawling historical novel, The Parisian, Isabella Hammad draws attention to this ancient religion. She teases their story, but leaves you wanting more, so here it is.

The story of the Samaritans reaches back to the early days of the kingdom of Israel. Under King Solomon, all of Israel was united, but after his death the nation broke apart into two distinct groups—a new, smaller kingdom of Israel in the north with its capital in Samaria, and the kingdom of Judah in the south.

SynagogueWhen the Assyrians invaded the region in 721 B.C., the Jews in the south fled or were exiled, while those in the north stayed and sometimes even intermingled with the Assyrian invaders. As a result, the Samaritan beliefs became quite different from those of the people of Judah.

It is no wonder then, that in the Bible, interactions with Samaritans are limited. They are considered "unclean" by the Jews. It is described as unbelievable that Jesus, a Jew, chooses to speak to a Samaritan woman and preach to the Samaritans in the New Testament. It is also highly shocking that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a Samaritan willingly helps an injured Jewish man.

SynagogueDespite their long history of separation, today the Samaritans are fully embraced by the Jewish tradition. They remain somewhat separate, and in fact, their beliefs are now considered to be even more strict than those of orthodox Jews. Over the years, persecution and intermarriage with Muslims in the region dwindled the Samaritan numbers to near extinction. As of today, they number about 800 souls, spread out among two regions in the Middle East—Nablus in Palestine and Holon in Israel. They still worship on Mount Gerizim. Because they have spent many centuries among both Muslims and Jews, the Samaritans are a peaceful bridge between Israel and Palestine.

Though their numbers are few, the Samaritans are incredibly resilient. Enduring persecution, witnessing numerous conflicts in the region, yet still preserving their history and traditions, they offer a rare glimpse into the past.

Samaritan worship centre on Mount Gerizim.
Interior of the Synagogue of the Samaritans in Nablus, c. 1920.
Entrance to a modern Samaritan synagogue in the city of Holon, Israel.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Natalie Vaynberg

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