I picked The Parisianby Isabella Hammad off the East Grand Rapids Library’s “New” shelf for a specific reason. The jacket made it clear this was a novel about “a pivotal period in Palestinian history.” I should have been intimidated by the six long lists of characters listed in the front especially since most of them were Arabic names I’m not used to. But I need to try because here was a chance to read a good love story set in a 20thCentury slice of the Palestinians’ history told from their point of view. This was a perspective I wanted to know more about. Besides this first novel by Hammad won the Plimpton Prize so what’s not to like?
As it turned out, the some 60 Arabic and French characters coming in and out over the 555 pages ultimately undid me. The book’s opening was all I’d hoped for as the central character Midhat Kamal, son of a wealthy Palestinian merchant, leaves him hometown of Nablus in Palestine to go to medical school in Paris in 1914 as WW I begins. Midhat is bright, likable, and the reader is enchanted when he and Jeannette Molineu, whose physician father is hosting Midhat, fall in love.
Then two plot twists that could have come out of Thomas Hardy ruin everything. Midhat stumbles across anthropological notes Dr. Molineu has been keeping on his house guest to study “the Islamic mind.” Stunned by discovering that this seemingly gracious French physician had offered him residence so he could be Dr. Molineu’s Muslim guinea pig, Midhat leaves Paris. Leaves medical school. Leaves the love of his life Jeannette and moves to Montpelier to study philosophy and the humanities.
When Jeannette regrets taking her father’s side and not going with Midhat, she writes a love letter to his home in Nablus as the only address she has. In Hardyesque fashion, however, Midhat’s father hides the letter because his son must marry a Palestinian Muslim, not a Christian French woman. While that is the central love story, there are other arranged marriages among the Muslim families.
As for the historical background, the Treaty of Paris that ended WW I gave Great Britain a mandate in the early 1920s to rule Palestine allowing the majority Arab and minority Jewish communities to run their own affairs. The Parisiancovers the following three-plus decades rife with fights and riots as the Arabs protest the increasing flow into Palestine of new Zionist immigrants fleeing the Nazis. As they say, the rest is history.
In 1947 the UN partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, ended the British mandate May 15, 1948, one day after the new state of Israel is declared. Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon immediately declare war on Israel. Seventy-one years and several wars later, the Palestinian Arabs have last land and they still refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist. None of the several outside attempts to broker peace between the Palestinians and the Jews have failed.
I did appreciate The Parisian’slook inside the culture of the Islamic world generally, and the Palestinian world specifically. I was also glad to have an excuse to google the exact geography of Palestine—between the Mediterranean and Jordan River—and its long history of rulers by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, and, from 1517 to 1917, by the Ottoman Empire.
I only wish I could say what one reviewer wrote on the jacket, “I was utterly gripped from the first page until the last.”