The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
Award-winning writer Isabella Hammad’s debut novel, The Parisian, is a bold and brilliant work. The story takes place in the early twentieth century during the First World War and the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. The young Palestinian Midhat Kamal leaves his home in Nablus for the University of Montpellier in France. While studying medicine there, he grows increasingly aware of sociopolitical differences and tensions in his homeland and in France. Living as a guest in the home of the anthropologist Dr. Frédéric Molineu, Midhat falls in love with Dr. Molineu’s daughter, Jeannette, a young philosophy graduate. They grow closer, sharing stories about their lives and their deceased mothers. When Midhat discovers that Dr. Molineu has been studying his “primitive” Oriental mind, he leaves for Paris, where he lives a completely different life than the one he led before in Palestine.
The Parisian is without doubt a product of genuine curiosity, meticulous research, and reflection. The novel’s verisimilitude lies in its natural dialogue, integration of French and Arabic phrases, and smooth incorporation of factual event such as the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the Paris Peace Conference. Hammad’s rich storytelling blends national movements and familial histories, applying a human touch to the machines of modernity, warfare, and politics. The entire story acknowledges and examines cultural differences between the Western World and the Middle East. The characterisation of Midhat sheds light on the notions of tradition and progress. The brains of Paris contrast with the wandering hearts of Nablus. Moreover, the novel pays homage to modern knowledge in its portrayal of historical developments in medicine, anthropology, and philosophy.
In shedding light on differences in belief, time, and space, Hammad points towards what equalises every human being: death, family, and belonging. Inextricably linked, these are the main timeless things to consider. I would recommend The Parisian to anyone who enjoys a good historical fiction novel, as well as to young adults and mature readers. The story is highly emotional, with strong characters and events described with much clarity. The Parisian conveys the truth that all is flux, but nothing is really forgotten.
Reviewed by Azariah Alfante
Penguin Random House, $37.00