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The Parisian is a challenging debut novel about identity

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Issue 2650
Isabella Hammad’s debut is a bold novel about identity

Where do you belong? How do you view those you have lived and worked with, particularly those of different faiths? Did even your sense of time change?

Just how complex—and conflicted—these questions of identity are is shown in Isabella Hammad’s debut novel.

Its central character, Midhat Kamal, the “Parisian” of the title, is the son of a textile merchant from Nablus (northern Palestine). Educated in a French school in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey) he is sent by his father to study medicine in Montpellier, southern France, during the First World War.

This opening of horizons—and faith in the promise of modernity—comes up against the reality of imperialism. What is particularly shocking and vivid is its refusal to treat him as an equal.

His treatment raises big questions. What was it like to be a Palestinian in the period between the two world wars?

This was a crucial moment in the formation of the modern Middle East.

The decaying Ottoman Empire had been defeated largely by the British, who, with their French allies, had carved the region up into states aligned with their respective empires.

But the Ottomans would not have been defeated without the Arab revolt. The attempt to modernise the Empire had already awakened national aspirations.


The British played on these aspirations, promising freedom and independence in exchange for help to defeat the Ottomans.

Allied victory led to these promises being betrayed. Instead of a single Arab state, the French and British imposed borders that made no economic, political or cultural sense.

A Palestine under British control came into existence—one that had also been promised to the Zionists as a Jewish national home.

All this affected people’s lives enormously, particularly their sense of identity. Midhat is shocked to discover that, for all the welcome afforded him, his host in France regards him as an “object” of scientific scrutiny.

He is pigeonholed as an Oriental, a Muslim—a “deviation from the onward progression” of humanity.

This reflects the supposedly civilising mission of imperialism to shape the destiny of the peoples it subordinates.

The novel reverses western assumptions—for example, about marriage in Arab society.

Midhat’s reaction to this is one of flight and evasion.

He abandons medicine and moves to Paris, where he mixes in Arab nationalist circles, without real commitment, and has casual love affairs.

On his return to Nablus, he is forced to take up the family business because he cannot own up to not being qualified to practice medicine. And he consents to an arranged marriage.

He is caught between a West that doesn’t recognise him and a “dis-orientation” from those he lives among.

He plays up his identity as a “Parisian” but knows that others suspect that he is a fraud—at great psychological cost to himself.

Central though Midhat is, the novel doesn’t simply focus on him.

Isabelle Hammad deftly weaves the broader narrative of the real historical struggle against the British occupation into Midhat’s life and that of his extended family and his neighbours. She often does so indirectly but the insistent presence of this struggle allows her to give real depth to the characters she portrays.

The novel reverses western assumptions—for example, about marriage in Arab society.


Women are not reduced to being archetypes of backwardness because they wear the veil or hold what are seen as superstitious beliefs.

They negotiate their social position in complex, subtle and challenging ways.

And the French women portrayed in the novel—particularly, the great love of Midhat’s life—may enjoy greater formal freedom but are subject to acute mental oppression.

Don’t be deterred by the length of novel.

It’s excellent—with a powerful ending that is moving in the way it knits together the themes of self-betrayal and social and political treachery.

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad is published by Vintage at £14.99

Monsieur Bonheur

Monsieur Bonheur has documented the lives of the people who live in

Seine-Saint-Denis—department 93—one of the areas on the outskirts of Paris.

It is the poorest area of “mainland” France. Bonheur seeks to tell the truth about life away from the glitz of central Paris.

Wild Rose

Jessie Buckley plays Rose Lynn, recently released from prison and with dreams of becoming a country music star.

This film tells her complex story as she balances being a mother and pursuing her dream.

On general release

Edward Munch—Love and Angst

Munch’s paintings depict horrific scenes of loss and grief at the turn of the 20th century.

His work never feels gratuitous. This is partly because he dealt with deep personal trauma in his own life.

Munch said, “We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want an art that arrests and engages.”

At The British Museum, London. Until 21 July

Don’t Forget the Driver

Toby Jones stars as Peter Green in this new dark comedy set in Bognor Regis, a seaside town in West Sussex. He has also co-written the show alongside innovative playwright Tim Crouch.

It focuses on people’s feelings of identity in a town that voted to leave the European Union.

Yet the writers didn’t want it to be a parable, or to preach. They said it is “a love song to Bognor”.

BBC2, Tuesdays at 10pm

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