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Isabella Hammad: The Parisian

Midhat Kamal is from Nablus. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was two and he was brought up by his grandmother. His father, a clothier, spent much of his time in his shop in Cairo and had remarried. Layla, Midhat’s stepmother had three children and did not take kindly to her stepson. Midhat was sent off to a French school in Constantinople to study. On completion he was sent off to Montpellier to study medicine, despite the fact that is 1914 and it seems likely that Turkey and France will soon be at war.

Midhat stays with a family in Montpellier, Docteur Molineu, a lecturer in anthropology at the university and a widower and his adult daughter Jeannette, who had studied philosophy at the university. Since then she had drifted away from many of her university friends who had married. She has one friend, Laurent who is very good to Midhat and then joins the army as a medic. Gradually various people go off to help the war effort and some of them die.

Midhat studies medicine – he faints at his first dissection – but perseveres though the university which has fewer and fewer people, with only foreigners and women remaining, though he has a few friends and is clearly enamoured of Jeannette.

Two interesting things occur. Increasingly we learn of people’s physical symptoms being linked to their mental ones. Midhat mentions the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly. Ariane, Jeannette’s mother has a feeling of nasal nausea at the sight of certain men. We see this with war injuries when Jeannette’s cousin, who is a nurse at the front describes strange injuries in detail to Jeannette in a letter, clearly symbolic of the horrors of the war.

Midhat will later look at a medical dictionary and come across an article on neurasthenia which he discusses with a fellow student, Samuel Cogolati. The key issue is that neurasthenic patients have physical symptoms caused by mental issues.

The second issue concerns Dr Molineu. He has to produce a thesis if he is to advance in his career. He has a long discussion with a colleague about the idea that Muslims, specifically Arabs can be trained to think more along Western lines and, not surprisingly, relates it to Midhat. When Midhat finds out that he is being surreptitiously studied in this way, things go very wrong. Somewhat ironically, when Midhat is back in Nablus, he will show distinctive French traits (as the title of the book tells us).

Midhat heads off to Paris, where he will study history and become more French. However, he will associate with various Arabs who are in France, including Hani Murad who is based on the very real Awni Abd al-Hadi, who was very much involved in the Arab independence movement and was associated (as Hani Murad is in this book) with King Faisal I.

Midhat finishes his studies and the war is over so it is time to return home where he is in for a big shock. His father expects him to work and to marry. As he is still in love with Jeannette and enjoys the playboy lifestyle, he does not welcome either. However he goes to work in his father’s shop in Nablus and hangs out with various friend who are increasingly worried about the political situation, such as whether Palestine and Syria should be united and what the Zionists are up to, which includes buying up farms. His attempts at marriage, however, are not too successful. The woman his family would like him to marry and whom he, eventually, would want to marry is called Fatima Hammad, presumably some forebear of our author.

Inevitably we are now getting into regional and local politics. We have already seen the situation with Hani Murad and King Faisal. The Palestinians are optimistic when the Syrian National Congress proclaimed Faisal king, rejecting the French claim to a Mandate for Syria. Palestine would be part of this new country and the Palestinians are very happy with the proposal. The French are having none of it and stop it by force of arms. The West, primarily France and Britain with some help from the US do not feel that the Arabs are ready for independence and the League of Nations confirms the British and French mandates, France was to rule over Syria and Lebanon, and Britain over Palestine. No one was being given independence. The mandates were a temporary measure en route to self-government, a period of supervision until such time as they are able to stand alone. Not surprisingly the Arabs are not happy with this and we see various types of opposition.

Midhat remains in touch with Hani who is still very much active in this area. Hani marries a cousin, a daughter of a man hanged by Djemal Pasha, a ruthless Ottoman leader, in 1915. Midhat also finally marries. However things do not turn out well for for Midhat as his father dies and leaves most of his inheritance to pay off debts and to his second wife and her family.

However, as Hani points out there is a big problem: More than a thousand Jewish immigrants enter the country each month and it is clear they wish to create a Jewish state. We might be the majority but we are treated as a minority, and I see they intend to make us one. This alleged British policy of maintaining the Status Quo is totally false.

The book continues up to the end of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine and we follow events as they affect our main characters and, inevitably, many of the characters get caught up in the violence and some of them are imprisoned. Britain, not surprisingly does not come out well. One character comments on how adept the British always were at naming: they bombed Jaffa, and named it urban renewal. They arrested a nationalist, and named him a criminal, and naturally Palestinians were all known as Muslims and policemen flogging student protesters on their bare buttocks in a line outside the mayor’s office. Peasant women being searched for arms on the roadside and lewdly gestured at. A house demolished, the family holding their belongings beside the soldiers on the hillock, forced to watch as their home exploded.

Hammad tells an excellent story. While she certainly does mention the horrors the Palestinians suffer from the Ottomans, British and Jews, there is a whole lot more going on, particularly as regards Midhat, from his time in France to his return to Palestine as the Parisian to his marriage and then his discovery of a key event from his past which has a huge effect on him. There are many othe key characters whom I have barely mentioned such as Jamil, Midhat’s cousin, the strange French priest Father Antoine, Hani and his wife Sahar and Midhat’s wife Fatima and their children, whose stories enrich this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 Jonathan Cape