Monday 20 July 2020

The Parisian | Isabella Hammad

My journey with The Parisian has been a labour of love. I started reading it the week before Australia went pear-shaped with Covid-19 back in March. I was really enjoying it, but it's a thoughtful read and I struggled to give this book the attention it deserved during those early, weird weeks of Covid confusion. 

For a month or so, I needed books for comfort instead. Then when I started back at work, new releases got in the way as I struggled to manage my time efficiently. 

Last week I decided it was time to finish it. 

During the reading break, I'd forgotten just how lovely is the writing and how absorbing is Midhat's story. It's hard to believe this historically rich, self-assured novel is a debut.

I learnt so much about the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Levant area circa WWI - WWII. The reference to Paris is slight, in that the story begins with a young Midhat moving to France in October 1914, at the beginning of WWI, to train to be a doctor. His time in Paris is not very long in the scheme of his whole life, but it was an informative few years for him. On his return to his home town, Nablus, he affects a Parisian air, wearing the latest Parisian fashion and discussing the latest Parisian books, art and philosophy. 

Midhat is loosely based on Hammad's own great-grandfather, Midhat. A man whose family teased him and joked about his Parisian ways for the remainder of his life. These are the stories that Hammad grew up listening to. Her grandmother, Ghada (who features briefly as a young girl towards the end of the book) was the main source of these stories about this gentle, sensitive man who happened to live his life during extremely turbulent and 'interesting times'.

From the first page, Hammad shows us Midhat's fascination with all things French. Meeting another Arab (who has been to France before) on board the ship taking him to Marseille, he observes,
He wore a pale blue three-piece suit, and an indigo tie with a silver tiepin in the shape of a bird. A cane of some dark unpainted wood leaned against the table.

He then went on to warn/shock/entice Midhat about the women of France 'they are treated like queens', the alcohol and religion, 'you should know that missionaries are always different from the natives. The religion is less strong in France.'

Part One is about Midhat's time in Montpellier, training to be doctor from the home of Docteur Molineu. He has a daughter, Jeanette who fascinates and confounds Midhat from the start. He feels his outsider status and constantly struggles with how different life is in France, to his home. Confusion and faux pas' abound. From this distance he remembers the significant events from his childhood.

Midhat is a daydreamer, a romantic soul, so naturally he falls in love with Jeanette. A major misunderstanding leads him to run away to Paris. Regret sets in.

Part Two begins with Midhat living in Paris.
He took his first look at Paris - the cluttered pavements, the zinc roofs, the faceless rush....The people seemed less to walk down the street than hurtle; he heard the cry of a seagull and the earth muttered beneath his feet as though somewhere below water was churning.
Politics, philosophy and wartime gaiety take up his time, as he completes his training. 
Sometimes after dinner Midhat would go out with Faruq to bars and cabarets. As the city moved from her mood of wartime grief to one of revelry, Parisian nightlife began to thrive on the electric atmosphere of the home front. Ration-dimmed streetlights greyed the boulevards but cinemas and theatres still packed out nightly and even stayed open during the zeppelin attacks. Under the sustained pressure of war, the people of Paris behaved as though they had approached the end of the world.
Paris in half-mourning | Ralph Burton |1915

Hammad only gives us a few chapters about this significant, informative time in his life, before returning Midhat to Nablus.

The memories of regret and nostalgia around Jeannette, Montpellier and Paris inform every decision he makes there after. A hidden letter changes everything.

Political events and family expectations inform his career choice, his eventual marriage and friendships. 

Part Three shows the growing unrest in Palestine at this time, which seems to pass Midhat by as he lives on his Parisian memories. Yet his inner turmoil often reflects the outer madness taking hold of his homeland.

Back in Nablus, Midhat finds that he is once again an outsider, struggling to belong in his home town as he constantly longs for another place, another love.

Hammad has created an incredibly immersive story about a fascinating period in history, told from a Palestinian point of view. Hammad has chosen to use a fairly traditional, classic style of storytelling which suits this time period perfectly. She claims Virginia Woolf and Henry James as influences on her writing, especially James' ability with dialogue and how he reveals the things unsaid. 

The Parisian is a book worthy of your time. It rewards, delights and informs the reader, in much the same way that a careful read of Dickens or Zola does. I'm very curious to see what Hammad might do next.
  • Winner of the Creative Award at Palestine Book Awards 2019.
  • Shortlisted for the 2020 Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Book 5 of 20 Books of Summer Winter


  1. Thank you for reminding me of this book. I saw it some time ago at the library, but had not time to read it. Forgot the title and author, and voila! Here it is. It sounds very interesting. Thank you for such a thorough review.

    1. So glad I could help Lisbeth!
      The Parisian was a wonderful book to read and research. A number of interviews with the author are worth seeking out.

  2. Very interesting review! Paris is a legend in so many places, as reflected in Paris in July (where you shared this). Your illustration from 1915 is great.

    be well... mae at

    1. The myth and legend of Paris is not just something enjoyed by us participating in Paris in July. People from all around the world, during all ages have been drawn to the allure of sophistication and style that Paris seems to offer. Midhat is just one of many :-)

  3. This sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for posting about it.

  4. I read the title of your post and before I read it I went to Amazon France to see if the book was in its native French. Then I realized it was written by an author from London. The Independent newspaper gave it a great review.
    It does sound like an great story. I would be interested in it because you mention that it talks about the Ottoman Empire of the 1914 and on. That is about when my father, an Armenian, had to leave Istanbul for Paris (by way of Marseille) to avoid the Armenian genocide. He met my mother in Paris (a parisienne.) Another point would be Montpellier – this is where my mother worked during the war and was able to hide and transfer some Jewish girls to safety.

    You say: “People from all around the world, during all ages have been drawn to the allure of sophistication and style that Paris seems to offer.” That is what my mother used to tell me. She would say “you don’t realize that you have been living in an enchanted city where many would love to be and you want to move to America…” but I did not listen and moved to San Francisco. Years later I do regret it, with the way the US has become, and sure miss my home town.

    1. It sounds like you could write a story about your own family that might rival The Parisian!

  5. I'm so pleased you finished it, even in this weird world.... learning more about the role Paris played in the history of the region is a great way to spend lock down.

  6. This sounds fascinating and very in depth. I loved the illustration you shared. And the book sounds quite intriguing!


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