A Free Man in Nablus

Portrait of Isabella Hammad
Isabella Hammad; drawing by Karl Stevens

In his meditation on the peculiar beauties and burdens of Palestinian life, After the Last Sky, Edward Said writes, “The striking thing about Palestinian prose and prose fiction is its formal instability.” While readers may be tempted to look for political messages, Said suggests that the real drama in this body of literature is the writers’ struggle to come up with a coherent form, “a narrative that might overcome the almost metaphysical impossibility of representing the present.” Representing the present is never easy—the lines begin streaking as soon as they’re laid down—but the Palestinian present is perhaps especially slippery, because its people live under such disparate conditions: occupation, exile, second-class citizenship, but also, in rare cases like Said’s, material comfort and privilege. Conventional forms seem unable to accommodate so many internal differences:

Our characteristic mode, then, is not a narrative, in which scenes take place seriatim, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, and its limitations.

This is a nice description of After the Last Sky itself, Said’s collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, which toggles between personal essay and political analysis, travelogue and historical reflection, word and image—in other words, a case study in that formal instability Said identifies as characteristic of Palestinian prose. There is good evidence for his claim: Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Emile Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessomptimist, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s In Search of Walid Masoud—three canonical Palestinian novels, all translated into English—are variously episodic, discontinuous, and elaborately unresolved. The sort of storytelling pleasure we might expect from, say, a classical novel of the nineteenth century seems pointedly absent here. Experimentalism is the rule rather than the exception.

Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian, a novel set in France and interwar Palestine—Hammad is half-Palestinian, half-British, and grew up in London—seems to be a refutation of Said’s argument. Her book has a defiantly old-fashioned scope and pace, unhurriedly telling the story of one man’s life against the backdrop of turbulent times. Hammad has made a splash (she was profiled in The New York Times), but not in the usual way for first-time novelists: her writing isn’t virtuosic but patient and hardworking; there’s nothing obviously autobiographical about The Parisian; and though the book is thoroughly researched—a fact Hammad doesn’t hide—it is free of the buzzy omniscience that pervades fiction in the age of Google. Hammad lets the action speak for itself.

Considered as a work of Palestinian literature, The Parisian is also remarkable for not being about exile. One reason for all the broken narratives noted by Said is that most Palestinian fiction takes place under conditions of displacement. The plots of Kanafani, Habibi, Jabra, and their many heirs often revolve around an empty center, a homeland that…

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