“Baris.” He sighed. “It is where my life is.”
So Faruq Al-Azmeh, the “one other Arab on board the ship to Marseille”, told an impressionable Midhat Kamal as he embarked on his journey in 1914. En route from Nablus, Palestine, to study medicine at the University of Montpellier – a popular endeavour for sons of an Ottoman elite less-than-keen on conscription in the Turkish army – little did Midhat know that he, too, would soon come to consider Paris the epicentre of his existence.
In Montpellier, Midhat’s motivation to study dissipates quickly, replaced by a fascination with Jeanette Molineu, the daughter of his host Frederic. Jeannette’s “delicate” features and the “tiny creases beneath her eyes” quickly prove all-consuming, as formal afternoons spent taking coffee on the terrace give way to lingering looks and conspiratorial meetings.
Disaster strikes when, one summer’s morning, Midhat enters Dr Molineu’s study to find his name scrawled on the front of a notebook: “Notes Preliminaires – Midhat Kamal”. This sudden realisation that his seemingly-amiable host has been studying him as an example of the “primitive Arab brain” sets in motion a flurry of fraught accusations. Recognising that his relationship with Jeanette is “broken”, he flees his life in Montpellier without saying goodbye.
Settling in Paris, Midhat enrols on a history course at the prestigious Sorbonne University, spending his days in cafes “with books on ancient Greece and seventeenth-century Spain”. By night he revels in the “pure thrill of Being”, a thrill replete with alcohol and women aplenty.
Yet even as Midhat embraces his life as a “bon vivant”, he repeatedly finds himself surrounded by politics, attending late-night gatherings with Syrian Arab nationalists who will soon go on to attend the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles with Emir Faisal, briefly the King of Syria and, later, Iraq.
This blending of fact and fiction, weaving colourful characters into an ever-changing political landscape, runs throughout The Parisian. Readers familiar with Palestinian history will recognise crucial dates as the novel progresses — the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the imposition of the British Mandate in Palestine in the early 1920s – leaving Nablus virtually unrecognisable upon Midhat’s return after years abroad.
Yet dressed in a pinstriped suit and sporting a steel-topped cane, Midhat’s distinctly European style quickly marks him out as “Al-Barisi”, a carefree lover of the West in an era of increasingly ardent anti-colonialism. This multiplicity of identity, juxtaposing a sense of belonging with what it means to be an outsider, follows Midhat throughout his life as he attempts to traverse the societal obligations of marriage, masculinity and resistance.
In its later stages, the novel quickens pace to mirror the eruption of tensions across Palestine. The stillness of the mountains, which have watched over Nablus for centuries, is given over to hilltop battles between the Fedayeen, Jewish insurgents and the increasingly-inept British. Superstitions and rumours, a mainstay of Nabulsi society, suddenly breed fear, resentment and revenge.
Through all this, Midhat remains an unconventional Palestinian hero, a protagonist to whom history happens. As he laments that, by his family’s expectations, “I am always a compromise, I always fail”, his perception that “without them, I would be nothing at all” perhaps captures the tragedy embedded in his identity loss.
Over a hundred years after Midhat embarked on his journey from Nablus, Hammad tells her great-grandfather’s story with patience and affection. Her novel is a beautiful homage to “Palestine Lost”, drawing the reader into an intricately-reconstructed world since ravaged by war, displacement and nationalism.