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 exists only in memory or aspiration. By contrast, Hammad’s novel, set in the city of Nablus, just north of Jerusalem, evokes a Palestine that is grounded and self-sufficient: not a lost paradise or an isolated backwater, but a place with all the social jousting and familial intrigues that realist novels thrive on.

In interviews, Hammad has said that the decision to set her story before the loss of historical Palestine in 1948 was a matter of reclaiming the “dignity” of that era, prior to the onset of occupation and diaspora. She has also said that she wasn’t trying to write a book that would speak specifically to the politics of the present. Part of restoring dignity to the past means acknowledging that it is past, that it has its own logic and coherence. But The Parisian is no costume drama; it is a novel about Palestinian and Arab nationalism, class divisions, and Orientalist scholarship. Hammad’s narrative builds inexorably toward the outbreak of the Arab revolt of 1936—also known as the Great Revolt—the prototype for any number of later uprisings and intifadas. Its relevance to the present may be oblique, but it is real and urgent.

In telling her story of national emergence and popular revolt, Hammad chooses an unlikely hero. Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy Nablus textile merchant, Haj Taher, an absentee patriarch with a second home in Cairo and business partners across southern Syria. We meet Midhat in the fall of 1914, on a boat departing from Egypt. After his graduation from secondary school in Istanbul, capital of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Haj Taher has arranged for Midhat to escape conscription by sending him to study medicine in Montpellier, France. A consistent pleasure of Hammad’s novel is its detailed evocation of this late-Ottoman world, a world in many ways more fluid than our own, in which Syria and Palestine do not represent entirely distinct places or identities, and one might comfortably travel by rail from Haifa to Alexandria.


The opening pages of The Parisian are a sly homage to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which also begins on a boat and features a young dreamer—Frédéric Moreau—with comically inflated ambitions. While Moreau fantasizes about becoming a poet, a painter, and a famous lover, Midhat dreams of rescuing French women in distress and being admired for his melancholy airs. And in both novels, the historical narrative that builds to a dramatic finale—the uprising of 1848 in Sentimental Education, the Great Revolt in The Parisian—brings into high relief the life of a young man who never measures up to his moment, whose dandified existence bears only an indirect relation to the transformative events that surround him.

In Montpellier, Midhat falls in love with Jeannette Molineu, the daughter of his host, a professor of anthropology at the local university. Midhat’s unconsummated affair with Jeannette will haunt him (somewhat unpersuasively) for the rest of the novel. He abandons his studies after discovering that Docteur Molineu, whom he took for a friend, viewed him as a kind of case study for his theories of Muslim backwardness. Midhat flees to Paris, where he enjoys the brothels and falls in with a group of Levantine intellectuals who debate the finer points of Arab nationalism. Among these is Hani Murad, based on the real-life Awni Abdel Hadi, founder of the Istiqlal (Independence) party and counselor to Amir Faisal during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Faisal’s arguments for an Arab state were ignored by European statesmen—who drew up instead the patchwork map of the region that still exists—and the dream of independence, personal and political, is at the core of The Parisian. Appropriately for a novel about Palestinian life, those dreams are thwarted more often than fulfilled.

Hammad’s salons and smoke-filled apartments are full of animated talk, and her handling of dialogue is unusual: answers are often separated from questions, and arguments get cut short just as they are sharpening to a point. The conversations are marked by ellipses, dashes, and abrupt endings, as if the speakers didn’t quite know their own minds. Even more strikingly, her characters are notionally talking in Arabic (or French) while we read in English, but quite often we get actual Arabic (or French) words inserted into their conversation. “We have suffered enough,” one nationalist tells his friends. “Lazim, kuluna, rise up” (the Arabic words mean “we all must”).

This sprinkling of foreign idioms—ya‘ni, ba‘dayn, mish ma‘ool, and many others—has a curious effect on the reader. The untranslated words break the realist illusion that we are, as if magically, situated in a foreign place where we nevertheless understand everything being said. They poke small holes in this experience, as though to remind us that the illusion is an illusion, that realism is just another convention. But Hammad may have larger aims than exposing literary artifice. The Arabic words also force readers to wonder whether they have full access to the thoughts and feelings of these particular, Palestinian characters—a more pointed and even disquieting idea.

This skepticism about the degree to which one might know a foreign culture or language, and about the uses to which that knowledge might be put, turns out to be central to Hammad’s novel. The crisis of its opening section is Midhat’s discovery that Docteur Molineu, who speaks no Arabic, regards his guest as the possessor of a “primitive brain,” which might yet be civilized by learning French. In the novel’s longer second section, set in Nablus, one of the main characters is a scholarly French priest, Père Antoine, who studies the city’s customs and social life—he speaks literary Arabic, though not the vernacular language—convinced that “Nablus was a perfect specimen of the Islamic city,” a place preserved in amber. Because of his contacts with the townspeople, British authorities recruit Antoine as a spy. “On the Jewish side we all know who’s who,” the police explain to him. “The Arabs are a bit different.”

Antoine and Molineu are men of enlightened sensibilities. They are genuinely curious about Arab culture and both are sympathetic characters (the racism of the British police is more cartoonish). But in their eagerness to know “the other,” to make them proper objects of scientific study, they exclude Arabs and Muslims from actual history. For Antoine, Nablus is a city separate from “the great movement of the world” and “practically impenetrable to outsiders.” Immune from change, it presents to the observer “a picture of essences.” (Midhat’s own fetishizing of Parisian fashion—its mouchoirs and cravats—seems to be a comical inversion of the same mistake.)


Hammad’s novel is an argument against such essentialism, against the idea that, as Said puts it in Orientalism, “history, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islamizing, the Orient is the Orient.” While The Parisian is studded with the gewgaws of modernity—timepieces, telephones, and trains—what Hammad’s story suggests is not that Arabs entered into history with the dawning of the twentieth century, but rather that they were always historical, like everybody else. “I have been, was attempting…to humanize you!” Molineu tells Midhat in embarrassed self-defense, once his theories of Oriental primitivism are exposed. To which Midhat can only respond, in humiliated bafflement, “Monsieur, I am a person.”

With the shift of scene from France to Palestine, we enter fully into the slipstream of historical events. After World War I, Britain assumed mandatory powers over Palestine while France did the same for Syria (including Lebanon), suppressing Faisal’s bid to establish an independent state. Across the region, Arab nationalist groups debated how far to cooperate with European powers. Palestinian politicians were especially concerned about Jewish immigration and the purchase of agricultural land by Zionist groups. Riots and demonstrations were common throughout the interwar period, beginning with the Nabi Musa riots in Jerusalem in 1920, and culminating with the general strike of 1936 (which included an economic boycott of British authorities and the Yishuv).

Hammad threads these events in and out of her story while foregrounding the fortunes of Midhat: his marriage to the daughter of Nablus’s mayor, the ups and downs of the business he takes over from Haj Taher, the births and deaths and family feuds that punctuate provincial existence (at least in novels). But while Nablus may be provincial with respect to Paris, or even Jerusalem—it had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants until roughly World War II—Hammad gives the city a teeming life of its own. She has a keen sense of the relations between merchants, landowners, and religious scholars (ulema), and she traces the intricate economic webs that bind the city to its hinterland—Nablus was and is famous for its olive oil and soap—as well as to nearby cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem, and Damascus.

Edward Said
Edward Said; drawing by David Levine

In her fictional reconstruction of a midsized Palestinian city, Hammad makes good use of recent work by scholars (along with her own research in the West Bank). For example, the research of Beshara Doumani, whom she acknowledges as a source, on land registries, private archives, and court papers, has shown how pre-1948 Nablus served as a crucible of Palestinian identity and political economy.1 Jealous of their local prerogatives, the urban elites managed to establish a degree of economic and political autonomy within the Ottoman system, which helps explain why the region became a seedbed of nationalist uprisings. By looking at patterns of property ownership, gender dynamics, and the emergence of a new class based on wealth—just the sort of material a historical novelist needs—Doumani and other scholars have debunked the myth of a feudal Palestine dragged into modernity by the arrival of European capitalism. (He has described his project, in words Hammad would surely endorse, as an attempt “to write the inhabitants of Palestine into history…to make their society and its inner workings come alive by listening to their voices and by gazing at the world through their eyes.”)

The pivotal historical event in The Parisian is the Nabi Musa riots, one of the earliest large-scale conflicts between Arab Palestinians and Jews. The clash between Muslim pilgrims on their way to the tomb of Moses in Jericho and Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem left several dead and many injured. The confrontation forms one of the novel’s few set pieces, in which the characters’ private lives intersect with public history. Midhat’s encounter with the crowds of pilgrims—some of whom shout, “Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs”—begins as a “fever of unity,” but turns to fear and repulsion at the sight of physical violence. For the rest of the novel, Midhat retreats into domesticity and self-absorption. Meanwhile, a cousin and old school friend of his, Jamil, becomes radicalized by the same experience. When the revolt of 1936 erupts, each cousin will go his own way.

It’s in these later portions of the novel, with political temperatures rising, that Hammad’s decision to make her protagonist a kind of amiable fop becomes so risky. In the midst of an unfolding national trauma, we are asked to care about a character who plays no part in it. “To be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times,” thinks Midhat’s cousin Jamil, “locked in an old colonial formula where subjects imitated masters as if in the seams of their old garments they hoped to find some dust of power left trapped.” But Midhat isn’t actually a mimic man, or an imperialist lackey. The problem is that we never quite know what Midhat is, what he wants, what his motivations are, and how seriously we are meant to take them. Hammad rarely gets inside his head in a way that sounds like him, rather than her. Thinking back on his days in France, Midhat recognizes that as the period when “he was awakened to his own otherness”—an academic (and anachronistic) idiom that makes it hard to credit his reality.

In a famously bad-tempered review of Sentimental Education, Henry James called Frédéric Moreau an “abject human specimen” and cried out, “Why, why him?” Why should we care about a young man who spends most of the 1848 revolt picnicking with his mistress in Fontainebleau or, in the parallel case of The Parisian, a character who misses the 1936 general strike because he can’t get over a schoolboy crush? Flaubert has at least a clear answer: Moreau is an object of satire; the plot of Sentimental Education is the slow and expert deflation of his youthful romanticism. Nor does Flaubert take the events of 1848 any more seriously (for all his scrupulousness in getting the details right): political passions, whether they arise on the left or the right, are symptoms of human stupidity, which it is the novelist’s job to unmask.

Hammad has none of Flaubert’s cool irony; she is fond of Midhat (and even more fond, alas, of his tough but tenderhearted grandmother). Nor does she regard political activity as inherently farcical and doomed. She makes Hani Murad, counselor to Faisal, something like the novel’s historical conscience: a pragmatic yet principled politician whose wife Sahar (based on the real-life Tarab Abdel Hadi) becomes a pioneer of Arab feminism. Hammad treats the events of 1936 with an earnest, even tragic seriousness. All of which allows one to pose the question—the kind one would hesitate to pose to Flaubert: What is the political significance of this historical novel, and what relevance, if any, does it hold for us today?

For all Hammad’s fondness toward her middle-class Nabulsi characters—judges, intellectuals, landowners, merchants—she is clear-eyed about their faults. Her novel is effectively an indictment of the local (male) elite, who are riven by rivalries, willing to sell land to the Zionists, and, most damningly, unwilling to make common cause with peasants. As Hammad shows, the Great Revolt wasn’t led by middle-class Palestinians but was in large part a rural insurgency.2 In one of the novel’s cruelest reversals, it is Hani Murad who reluctantly agrees, behind the backs of the rebels, to help quell the initial, largely nonviolent stage of the uprising. Rather than an epic of national liberation, The Parisian shows how patriarchy and elitist politics snuffed out its possibility. (Here Hammad is very close to the views of the Nablus-born Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh; indeed, Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins from 2009, another historical novel about the Great Revolt, makes a political argument similar to The Parisian’s.)

Another significant feature of Hammad’s novel is the near absence of Jewish characters. There is good historical reason for this: Nablus had a very small native Jewish population (and very few Christians too), and hardly any Jewish settlements were built nearby until the late twentieth century. This makes it an ideal setting for Hammad’s project of depicting a Palestinian milieu not defined by its relation to the Israeli state or its predecessors. Interestingly, however, this absence of Jewish characters distinguishes The Parisian from a great deal of Arabic-language Palestinian literature. In the novels of Kanafani and Habibi, and particularly in the verse of Mahmoud Darwish, widely recognized as the national poet of Palestine, Jewish figures are often crucial, allowing the writers to explore possibilities of coexistence and cohabitation. In Darwish’s early lyrics, famous for their angry rhetoric and combative stances, the beloved is often a Jewish woman named Rita.

In its suspicion of a fossilized patriarchy and its hope for popular and feminist agitation, in its lack of interest in the ideal of coexistence and its focus on nonviolent resistance (The Parisian ends in the fall of 1936, just as the general strike gave way to the more heavily armed phase of the Great Revolt), Hammad’s novel doubles as a diagnosis of the present. Not since 1948 has Israel’s political class been so dismissive of the views and desires of Palestinians, including Israel’s own Arab citizens. During the most recent elections, the question of Palestine was only raised to ask how better to manage the occupation—or whether, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now proposes, to simply annex the West Bank tout court. On the Palestinian side, the aging chieftains of the Palestinian Authority offer no persuasive counter-vision; neither does Hamas. All political energy now lies with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which responds to Israeli rejectionism with its own version of the cold shoulder. Sometimes the best way to represent the present is to write historical fiction.

Toward the end of The Parisian, many of Hammad’s characters come to some private act of resolve or resignation. After Hani Murad helps to scotch the general strike, he tells Midhat, “Everything will be better from now on…. The worst is over.” The reassurance has a bitter ring. The Nakba of 1948 was still to come, and who today would dare tell Palestinians that the worst is over? Hani is wrong, but he isn’t being deceptive. He’s merely trying to bring the story to a dignified close. If history mocks his efforts, that just makes him like the rest of us—Palestinian and non-Palestinian alike—clutching at the fragments of a story whose final form is impossible to know.