I have to admit that I had a hard time reading the first few pages of Isabella Hammad’s debut novel The Parisian. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is absolutely beautiful. It made a delightful journey throughout this 600-page book set in Nablus during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, Cairo, Montpellier, and Paris, added with some background of the geopolitics of the diaspora interspersed all throughout without overwhelming you on the slightest bit. Hammad, who was a student of Zadie Smith’s in the MFA programme at New York University, wrote interesting imageries where things do things to you instead of the other way round e.g. “umbrellas sprouted in the rain” or “the table smacks his hand three times”. On top of that, there are quite a number of Arabic and French colloquialism e.g. “Only a Parisian could be tellement fier du Languedoc” or “Are there any good restaurants for lunch? Ishi baseet, ya’ani, not too heavy” that could break your momentum while reading and made you reach for Google Translate. But I love how unapologetic she is with this decision of hers, and I also have to thank her for making me learn new Arabic and French words. In her words of her description of her character Midhat, “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”
The story to me, more so than about the effect of a nation and society on the brink of being ravaged by war, is about the multitudinous of identity pre and post-colonial times, especially as we kept hearing colonialism apologists saying “colonialism is good for you” or “you wouldn’t get train tracks if not for colonialism” (trust me, that’s an actual line I have heard). The main character, Midhat, was sent to Montpellier by his father in 1914 to study medicine, also as a way to escape being enlisted in the Turkish conscription. In Montpellier, he fell in love with his host’s daughter, Jeanette. When he found out that his host, Dr Molineu, was conducting an anthropological study on him as “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression” without his informed consent, he confronted him. Jeanette sided with her father, and Midhat left for Paris heartbroken. He enrolled in Sorbonne to read history and returned to his British-occupied hometown Nablus five years later, strutting his stuff around the streets of the city clad extravagantly in a suit and tie which earned him the nickname ‘The Parisian’, or al-Barisi. Years later, after he married a local woman from a wealthy Nabulsi family, a single incident invoked his memories of Jeanette. As his childhood friends were fighting for independence for their country, Midhat found himself rendered inept of recognising the world around him as he drowned farther and farther into his past memories.
On the question of identity as one grapples with the flawed idea of ‘colonialism helps’ and Eurocentric idea of progress, even if he is oblivious, Midhat found that “his life had become multiple” after he left France. As he talked to his friends and family and waded the narrow alleys of the city that resides in between two mountains, he “was learning to dissemble and pass between spheres and to accommodate, morally, that dissemblance through an understanding of his own impermanence in each.” His cousin, Jamil — who was involved in the Palestinian armed resistance against the British and Zionist forces at the time — wasn’t quite happy with how Midhat presented himself, given France’s colonial record in Palestine.
Everyone knew France was a cancer of imperial force, leeching life from Arab households. 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?“
There was some definite truth when it was said that anthropology was complicit with colonialism at its core — the handmaiden of colonialism — as was demonstrated by how Doctor Molineu conducted his study on the ‘backwardness’ and ‘deviation’ of Midhat as “L’oriental”, and Father Antoine in writing a book about the people of Nablus as he sought for stories, gossips, and insiders from the trustful, friendly locals, whose information turned to be useful to the British. As the modern anthropology progresses and evolves, it is good that about time we do a critical re-examination of these practices. Also as researchers, we need to think of the consequences of our work and how it could be used to inflict harm despite us not intending for it, as illustrated in this paragraph where Father Antoine regretted what he had done.
He knew all about the families, who had feuded, who allied. He knew the kinds of crimes committed and how they were commonly avenged. It had not occurred to him that those acts of retribution he sometimes noted might be something the British should police; he simply observed them from an anthropological view. And yet there they were, listed in his book, ripe for such analysis. The bloody scene of Nebi Musa pulsed in his mind.
The relationship between the women of Kamal and Hammad family is also certainly worth talking about. Um Jamil, or teta (grandmother) of Midhat is the embodiment of Asian mothers that I knew and grew up with — persistent, highly superstitious, and always on a good lookout for new gossips. Mothers outlive their sons as they perished, sometimes just in the streets right outside their doors. How far you would go for familial love, as Midhat ruminates, “we love our fathers too much”. Fatima and Sahar’s friendship — built only entirely on pleasantries due to the friendship of their husbands’ — was tepid to say at least, but very interesting.
There were only six years between them, but it was enough for Fatima to feel some conflict about treating Sahar as an equal. Over the years she had become as obsessed with status as her mother once was, and at times appeared to lord it over Sahar, a tendency which Sahar, an expert at managing condescension, and preternaturally capable of appearing both deferential and at ease, politely ignored.
In any nation, whatever happens, whatever policies men enforce, women are affected the most. The true enemy of women is not confined to their state or their enemy, but perhaps combined together — sing with me — pat-riar-chy! “Men claim to have principles but really they care about keeping power” This is also evident in the most recent news on the tweet about Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge addressing how Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai — the freaking Malala! — could teach in Quebec, but “like in other open and tolerant countries, teachers can’t wear religious symbols while they exercise their functions.”
They would prefer we taught them to embroider and left it there, I think. And hygiene, which they are obsessed with. The inspector calls it maintaining the status quo, keeping Arab girls at home… or maintaining tradition, he said. What’s comical is that it has become rather fashionable to send them to school. Every father in Nablus seems to want his daughters to learn history, and do you know why? To make appealing wives. Nabulsi men like good conversationalists. So in the end, I suppose they all have the same purpose in view.
I have seen a number of lists for summer reads this year. What I can say is, The Parisian — in all its brilliance, intensity, and technicalities — is not fit for summer reading. Not because it’s awful or weak or slow — how could I say that about the book that has received some glowing comparisons to Flaubert and Stendhal — but The Parisian deserves all your focus as you navigate a story teeming with love, betrayal, war, and the antics of a stubborn, unbreakable familial bond. This is not the read to lounge under the parasol as you tan yourself with. Be ready for gasps — good kind of gasps — and at the end of your read, you might find yourself trying to explain things by inserting ya’ani in between your sentences.