Parisian review by Isabella Hammad – Middlemarch with minarets | Storytelling

T saidhere is a touching moment between The Parisian when a friend of the novel’s hero, Midhat, tries to bring him up to speed with events in their hometown, Nablus, in Palestine, in the interwar years. “But Midhat was only half-listening, because he was thinking about how his own work would be told after his death, since he no longer retained his memories. , and they run into the thoughts and imaginations of others.”

It was Midhat’s granddaughter, Isabella Hammad, who took the neck of her doormat for a start. The 27-year-old writer was inspired by the real life of Midhat Kamal, a charismatic Palestinian born at the end of the 19th century, called “the Parisian” for his European manners, whose memory kept inspired by the entertaining stories provided. generations.

The Parisian it is one of the earliest novels to have appeared in years. It received glowing reviews from Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith (Hammad’s writing professor at NYU), who called it “very intelligent”. Written in a spirited, detective style, it is a gripping story that sets one man’s life against the backdrop of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate over Palestine and the uprising. of Arabs for freedom. Hammad travels through more than 20 years of political upheaval to explore ideas about cultural identity, parental betrayal and the often accidental harm we do to others.

When the novel opens in 1914, Midhat leaves Nablus (now in the West Bank) for Montpellier to study medicine. Here, he lives with university professor Frédéric Molineu and his daughter, Jeannette, a philosophy graduate student haunted by her mother’s murder. In Molineu’s circle of friends (largely enlarged by the first world war), Midhat is the “famous oriental visitor”. But having been educated in cosmopolitan Constantinople, Midhat thought he was no different. “You see, the hills here are like our hills. They think I’m living in a desert,'” he told a French friend.

Before long, Midhat and Jeannette’s feelings for each other have progressed from incomprehensible hearts to unrequited love. Hammad’s portrayal of the flush of first love is irresistible, a white work of small scenes and subterfuges that echo throughout the story. “They enjoyed the agony of the will that was not resisted, that the resistance continued, and in this abandonment they joined together like thieves.”

However, when Midhat discovered that he was the subject of Professor Molineu’s anthropological research on the “primitive” Arab brain, he felt insulted and fled to Paris, where he changed his studies. in history and became something of a woman. After the war, when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and the British and French plundered the spoils, Midhat returned to his old homeland to find his merchant father caught wind of his non-existent. He forced his son to marry a local woman and devote himself to the family business.

Midhat closes, but still walks around dusty Nablus in a double-breasted pinstripe suit and a cane, earning the reputation of “a sybarite, a good-minded, successful with women, an unrepentant lover of the West “. He was still stuck in his life and all around him, friends and family were involved in the political turmoil. After the Balfour Declaration, which supported the creation of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, the Arabs began to fight with the British for their freedom. Nablus, “a city of those who think … besieged”, became a focal point for the protest.

As the panorama expands, Hammad gets under the skin of a large cast of real and imagined characters, including King Faisal of Iraq. Nor is he afraid to send the novel in part for the sake of a good anecdote; One of his ancestors had four new wives while fleeing from Turkish soldiers. The book has drawn comparisons with Stendhal and Flaubert for its 19th-century significance.

It reminded me again Middlemarch, with its marriage politics, horse-trading problems and young lovers who must learn to adapt. Hammad is a natural history writer with an ear for lively conversation and an ability to illuminate the soul of the heart. Although he portrays the divisions in the Middle East with the worst possible view, the revolutions and political maneuvers that dominate the second half of the novel are not considered the internal conflicts of his types. In France, Midhat is “awakened to his other self”, realizing that he is “somewhere but not”. But he is not at home in Palestine and while the country is engaged in a struggle for self-determination, he has stayed away from the chaos. After suffering an anxiety attack triggered by a letter from the past, she admits: “I slept through it all.”

The Parisian It can be a very sad book, a story of national and personal triumph. But it’s also a story about the power of the mind to keep the dream of freedom and love alive long after death. After years of silence from Jeannette, Midhat can still “make excuses and ignore facts to keep hope”. Hammad is a writer of astonishing talent – a The Parisian it has a way of life.

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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