There was one other Arab onboard the ship to Marseille. His name was Faruq al-Azmeh, and the day after leaving port in Alexandria he approached Midhat at breakfast, with a plate of toast in one hand and a string of amber prayer beads in the other. He sat, tugged at the cuffs of his shirt, and started to describe without any introduction how he was returning from Damascus to resume his teaching post in the language department of the Sorbonne. He had left Paris at the outbreak of war but after the Miracle of the Marne was determined to return. He had grey eyes and a slightly rectangular head.
"Baris." He sighed. "It is where my life is."
To young Midhat, this statement was highly suggestive. In his mind a gallery of lamps directly illuminated a dance hall full of women.
So begins The Parisian’s journey between two cultural worlds. This is a richly woven tale that intimately explores Midhat’s turbulent and amusing story amidst the backdrop of more uncomfortable social histories. We had a chance to chat with The Parisian’s author, Isabella Hammad, about the broader themes of her story. Our discussion ranged from colonial and postcolonial histories to transcultural literature, to medicine as a social tool for oppression. We also touched on modern issues such as decolonizing curriculum initiatives and the value of long novels in an instantaneous media world.
This interview was conducted by Lunan Zhao and Malak Khalil. It has been transcribed verbatim, with some light edits to aid the reader.
Your debut novel, The Parisian, explores a pivotal, though often overlooked, period in Palestinian history: early twentieth-century Palestine under Ottoman and later British rule.
Do you view the writing of historical narratives as bearing any particular responsibilities or challenges? If so, what would these be, and how do you approach them?
IH: Yeah, I mean, I think that this is especially true of Palestine, which is not well known or written about enormously in English from the Palestinian perspective, so I was very conscious of that as a responsibility when writing. There’s a degree to which if you're writing about Germany in the second World War, for example, or even Britain, there's a dominant narrative you can subvert and play with, whereas anything written about Palestinian history is by definition kind of subversive because when the history has been written by the victors, we really only get at the other side.
So I was very conscious of that, and therefore I suppose, was sort of obsessive about accuracy to a degree. Even though I set out to write a protagonist who was not kind of a hero, was was not representative of his people in any way, at the same time, I was quite conscious that I was writing about the beginnings of twentieth century Palestinian national struggles.
Nostalgia has been conceived as a powerful tool of resistance in post-Nakba Palestinian literature in particular, but also one that arguably poses its own dangers. How do you view the relationship between memory and nostalgia, and in what ways does this inform your writing?
IH: Nostalgia as a mode of collective memory, I think, can have a subversive force. And it does, especially in anti-colonial struggles of different kinds. You have a sort of development at that same time of nostalgia that is to do with national revivals of any kind. You have it in all anti-colonial struggles. In Ireland, for example, in the 19th century this is through the development of a kind of recording of all Irish myths, the revival of the Gaelic language, and so forth. You have it in all anticolonial struggles and Palestinian national struggles as well. Nostalgia obviously gets a bad rep for being mystifying, and it does mystify; in all nationalisms nostalgia mystifies the origins of nationalism, and I think it becomes pernicious in a later stage of nationalism. When it's subversive, it's a tool that we use - and also particularly for Palestinians because, as the saying attributed to David Ben-Gurion [the first Prime Minister of Israel] famously goes, ‘the old will die and the young will forget’. Nostalgia consequently functions as a kind of commemorative mechanism against forgetting, so that you continue to keep alive the cause.
"Nostalgia consequently functions as a kind of commemorative mechanism against forgetting, so that you continue to keep alive the cause."
But at the same time, I didn’t want to make a nostalgic text about, you know, peasants in the fields with the olives and so forth. But it was something I was very much engaging with in the research process, and also it is something I encountered with readers particularly. My fan club seems to consist of elderly Palestinian men, broadly (*chuckles*), who often have emotional responses because it's like having an emotional relationship with their own memories.
My research process involved a lot of oral histories and I was having to navigate nostalgia. Because nostalgia blurs things and it can make things indistinct, it was often about trying to get through the nostalgia to the actual memories. A lot of refugees for example will say something like this: ‘oh, we were cast out and – you know, the kind of ‘garden of Eden type’ thing – like ‘it was heaven, Palestine was heaven,’ as though it was without any unpleasantness and was just the most beautiful place.
You can understand why, of course, because when you’re asking someone to talk about specific people or things they lost, it's much more painful to share beyond this romantic gaze. So that was something I was encountering, and is to a degree in the text and its characters; Midhat, for instance, is nostalgic for France even though it is a place where he suffered, and the priest is in a way nostalgic for Nablus, so there it was something I was engaging with definitely.
Your novel’s history is quite closely tied to your own personal and family history - the protagonist Midhat Kamal, of course, being inspired by the life of your great grandfather. How was it navigating the relationship between personal and collective histories? Do you think that it is possible to distinguish between the two in any way?
IH: In a way, having an enormous cast of characters allowed me to have that kind of polyphony and breadth of experience within the same sort of class bracket - there aren’t many peasant characters in the novel, and most of the perspectives we engage with are from Midhat’s milieu - so there's a degree of or at least an attempt to reach different kinds of perspectives or experiences while being focused on the cast.
"Midhat himself declares ‘I'm not a symbol’ at one point in the novel, and he’s kind of already struggling with that and with the certain sense of wanting to be free of his national and social context."
I didn't want to write something that was like the definitive narrative of pre-Nakba Palestine - that’s why the novel is titled The Parisian, after all, it’s its own thing. I was negotiating an advanced demand that I think is often put on books from the Global South to be representative of their nations or to be allegorical. Midhat himself declares ‘I'm not a symbol’ at one point in the novel, and he’s kind of already struggling with that and with the certain sense of wanting to be free of his national and social context. So I guess I was trying to incorporate both the personal and the collective in these ways, by having this protagonist and then the cast of others which interact in the backdrop of their particular historical moment.
There’s a scene in the novel where Hani and Midhat are conversing about narratives: “but Midhat was only half listening, because he was thinking about the way his own charade might be told after he was dead, when he no longer held the reins on his memories, and they galloped off into the motley thoughts and imaginations of others” (p.387)
This metaphor of memories suggests that, once narrativized, personal memories gain agency. In your view, how does the retelling of personal memories shape collective memories?
IH: Well I think they’re blurred, and that this happens in all stories when you’re giving shape to them. I was being self-conscious there with that line, which is working reflexively and is obviously kind of about me. In my mind, my Midhat is now inseparable from the real Midhat, even though my father reading the book could see that this was ‘her Midhat’, rather than the man who raised him. The source material also varied a lot. I was working predominantly from oral histories, rather than from documents about Midhat specifically, for example, so people gave very different accounts.
That's a certain kind of telling history. There's also an archival record but that only tells you something partial; particularly when the archival record is written by a colonizer, then you have gaps in the archive.
There’s a great book that came out relatively recently by Saidyia Hartman called Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which looks at the lives of African-American women in the 1920s and conjectures at the edges of the archives what might have been in these gaps, by examining photographs, for example, and speculating from them. I found that very beautiful and subversive in an encouraging way, to think that we can do this with the historical records to re-establish forgotten histories and stories.
Of course, there are Arabic-language historical records, they're just not on the same level and they're usually memoirs; there are a couple of history books in the period, but we don't really have existing, accessible material comparable to that of the colonial record.
Phrases in French and Arabic guide the story, a common feature in multilingual or translated literature. Readers bring different cultural preconceptions and linguistic ability to a novel. To what extent do you think a reader’s cultural and linguistic background defines the texture of the fictional world they conjure?
IH: Obviously Arabic language speakers are going to encounter the text very differently and likely feel more at home in it. I think there is an alienation effect of people that don't have access to the Arabic, or to the French - though I suppose this is the sort of alienation effect that Midhat feels, and so is fitting in a way.
I was conscious of a Western, Anglophone audience, of course, and that I wanted the novel to be read by English people internationally as well as in translation. It was never trying to be exclusionary. But I didn't want to hand-hold or exoticize the Arabic elements in the narrative - I don’t like when you have foreign-language words italicised in a text, for instance, in a way that is consciously othering. I wanted to be organic in a way that Arabs in the diaspora, or even Lebanese-dialect speakers, for example, have a way of shifting between languages. I didn't want to be too alienating, but also it’s not too easy.
I know that rubs some people up the wrong way because they want everything to be completely laid out for them. but I didn’t put anything crucial in a foreign language - you can always more or less get from context what is meant. It was important to me because the experiences of these characters are themselves experienced in different languages; the multilingual texture is as necessary to the characters portrayed within the novel as it is to the experience of its readers.
Continued in Part Two...
Interview by Lunan Zhao and Malak Khalil