CHICAGO: From Isabella Hammad, winner of the Plimpton Prize for emerging writers, comes an exceptional debut novel, “The Parisian.” It is a look into Palestinian history, from the onset of the First World War to Palestine’s independence through the eyes of a young man named Midhat Kamal from Nablus. His life is one long journey that will force him to endure aspects of himself and the landscape around him with an analytical eye, and one that will help shape him, his future, and the ever-evolving political future of the Arab world and Palestine in the 20th century.
The novel begins in 1914 when Midhat is traveling to France to attend medical school at the University of Montpellier. The son of a wealthy merchant named Haj Taher Kamal, Midhat loses his mother at a young age, is raised by his grandmother and attends the Mekteb-i Sultani boarding school in Constantinople. Although he has experienced a lot before he leaves Nablus, France forces him to look at himself as a possible doctor and as an Arab in Europe. Things may be different in France, but there are similarities between the Nablus countryside, with its hills and dry greenery, and Montpellier’s mountains and small streets.
With the world at war, Midhat’s life takes unpredictable turns along with the lives of those around him. He falls in love, faces betrayal, leaves France and comes back to Nablus only to find that the British have now taken the place of the Turks. The backdrop to this story is one that is pivotal to both Arab and Palestinian history. And while France serves as a prestigious opportunity for a young man, Midhat realizes that not everything is always better in Europe, especially during wartime.
Hammad’s novel is brimming with exquisite details, from France to Nablus, from the politics to the people. She has captured an entire era, one of the most crucial moments in history through the eyes of Midhat, his Teta and his friends. Through him, there is a sense of ever-evolving change where lives are taken and given, villages and cities transformed, and governments made and broken.
There are layers of stories in Hammad’s debut novel, which pays homage to an ancient land where multiple faiths and hopes have turned the soil. The land in Nablus is riddled with structures built and half-built, indicating it is a place that has endured time and its people.
Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within” published by Harper Collins India.