The Parisian

Isabella Hammad

The Parisian
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The Parisian

Isabella Hammad

As the First World War shatters families, destroys friendships and kills lovers, a young Palestinian dreamer sets out to find himself.

Midhat Kamal picks his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become enemies and everyone is looking for a place to belong.

Isabella Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era - the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War. An intensely human story amidst a global conflict, The Parisian is historical fiction with a remarkable contemporary voice.

‘The Parisian is a sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful. Isabella Hammad is an enormous talent and her book is a wonder.’ - Zadie Smith


It is 1914, and Midhat Kamal has travelled from Palestine to France to study medicine at the University of Montpellier. He is billeted with the Molineu family (Frédéric, father and academic; and Jeannette, daughter and erstwhile student of philosophy), from whom he learns about a French way of life, and all that comes with it. Midhat discovers love, befriends another medical student who is eventually conscripted to serve in the war, and experiences the pain of racial discrimination. He relocates to Paris where he is united with a group of compatriots, and finds himself ‘alongside other foreigners, young women, and elderly men’. French men of his own age have been lifted from the streets and sent to fight for their country. At the conclusion of the war, Midhat seeks return passage to Palestine. Once home, he must close the door on his Parisian life, and follow his father’s footsteps in the family business. He settles into life in Nablus, and faces challenges both familial and national.

Although it took me some time to fully immerse myself in Isabella Hammad’s epic debut novel, by the final page I was so invested in the story that I grieved the loss of finishing. Not only did I enjoy the book itself, I enjoyed learning about the mid-twentieth-century history of Palestine and the Middle East – a part of history about which I had relatively little knowledge prior to reading The Parisian. Hammad is an excellent writer, and her character portrayals are complex and beautiful. Midhat Kamal is a wonderful and intricately drawn man – he is smart, flawed, progressive, conservative, frustrating and sympathetic. He is human. And the tale that Hammad tells is both human and worldly: she incorporates tremendous historical events alongside personal dramas without inflating the former or minimising the latter. A stunning debut.

Alexandra Mathew is a classical music specialist at Readings Carlton.

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