The Parisian

Isabella Hammad

April 11, 2019 
The following is from Isabella Hammad's novel The Parisian, which follows Midhat, the son of a wealthy textile merchant, as he returns from his studies in Paris during World War I to Palestine at the dawn of its battle for independence. Isabella Hammad won the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction for her story “Mr. Can’aan.” Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions and the Paris Review.

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 Kamal, this statement was highly suggestive. In his mind a gallery of lamps directly illuminated a dance hall full of women. He looked closely at Faruq’s clothes. He wore a pale blue three-piece suit, and an indigo tie with a silver tiepin in the shape of a bird. A cane of some dark unpainted wood leaned against the table.

“I am going to study medicine,” said Midhat. “At the University of Montpellier.”

“Bravo,” said Faruq.

Midhat smiled as he reached for the coffeepot. Muscles he had not known were tense began to relax.

“This is your first visit to France,” said Faruq.

Midhat said nothing, assenting.

Five days had passed since he said goodbye to his grandmother in Nablus and travelled by mule to Tulkarem, where he joined the Haifa line for Kantara East and changed trains for Cairo. After a few days at his father’s house, he boarded the ship in Alexandria. He had become accustomed to the endless skin of the water, broken by white crests, flashing silver at noon. Lunch was at one, tea was at four, dinner was at seven thirty, and at first he sat alone watching the Europeans eat with their knives. He developed a habit of searching a crowded room for the red hair of the captain, a Frenchman named Gorin, and after dinner would watch him enter and exit the bridge where he supervised the helm.

Yesterday, he started feeling lonely. It happened suddenly. Sitting beside the stern, waiting for the captain, he became conscious of his back against the bench, a sensation that was bizarrely painful. He was aware of his legs extending from his pelvis. His nose, usually invisible, doubled and intruded on his vision. The outline of his body weighed on him as a hard, sore shape, and his heart beat very fast. He assumed the feeling would pass. But it did not, and that evening simple interactions with the quartermaster, dining attendants, other passengers, took on a strained and breathless quality. It must be obvious to them, he thought, how raw his skin felt. During the night he pressed the stem of his pocket watch compulsively in the dark, lifting the lid on its pale face. The ticking lulled him to sleep. Then he woke a second time and, continuing to check the hour as the night progressed, began to see in those twitching hands the spasms of something monstrous.

It was with a strong feeling of relief, therefore, and a sense that his sharp outline had softened slightly, that he smiled back at his new friend.

“What do you imagine it will be like?” said Faruq.

“Imagine what, France?”

“Before I came, the first time, I had many pictures of it in my mind.

Some turned out to be quite accurate, in the end. Some were—” He pinched his lips and smiled in self-mockery. “For some reason I had an idea about wigs. You know, the false hair. I’m not sure where I got it from, possibly I had seen an old drawing.”

Midhat made a sound like he was thinking, and looked through the window at the sea.

His high school in Constantinople was modeled on the French lycée. The textbooks were all French imports, as were half the teachers, and even most of the furniture. Midhat and his classmates had sat on ladder-back chairs with woven rush seats reading “la poésie épique en Grèce,” memorizing the names of elements in a mixture of French and Latin, and only when the bell rang did they slip into Turkish and Arabic and Armenian in the corridor. Once formulated in French, certain concepts belonged in French, so that, for instance, Midhat knew the names of his internal organs as “le poumon” and “le coeur” and “le cerveau” and “l’encéphale,” and understood philosophical abstractions by their French names, “l’altruisme,” “la condition humaine.” And yet, despite being steeped for five years in all things French, he struggled to conjure a picture of France that was separate from the furnishings of his classrooms, whose windows had displayed a hot Turkish sky, and admitted shouts of Arabic from the water. Even now, from the vantage of this ship, Provence remained hidden by fog and the earth’s unseeable curves. He looked back at Faruq.

“I cannot imagine it.”

He waited for Faruq’s scorn. But Faruq only shrugged, and dropped his eyes to the table.

“Were you ever in Montpellier?” said Midhat.

“No, only Paris. Of course, the university is famous for medicine. Didn’t Rabelais study there?”

“Ah, you know about Rabelais!”

Faruq chuckled. “Have some marmalade before I eat it all.”

Faruq returned to his cabin a er breakfast, and Midhat climbed the staircase to the deck and sat beside the stern. He stared at the sea and listened with partial comprehension to a group of European officials—Dutch, French, English—shouting from the next bench, first about the technology of the vessel and then about the German advance on Paris.

Boards quaked beneath Midhat’s feet: a child was scampering along the deck. Beyond, a pair of young women compared cartes postales, and the wind harassed the tassels on their parasols. Those were the same girls who last night at dinner had displayed their lovely hair like hats, crimped and waved and decorated with jewels that sparkled under the chandeliers. At last, the door to the bridge opened and a red-haired man, Captain Gorin, stepped out and cracked his knuckles. A uniformed official leapt from the bench to address him, and as Gorin’s lips moved—soundless to Midhat in the wind—the grooves in his face deepened. He cupped his hands over a cigarette, shook a match free of its flame, and held the lit end in his palm against the wind. The other man departed, and Gorin smoked over the rail for a while. His curls flung about; they seemed barely attached to his head. He flicked the butt overboard and retreated below deck.

Midhat decided to follow. He crossed before the shouting Europeans just as Gorin disappeared under the hatch, and swung after him down the metal stairs. The first door on the passage gave onto a saloon, which was full of people. In the corner a gramophone sang. He scanned for Gorin, and met the eyes of Faruq, who was sitting at a table with a pile of books.

“I’m glad you’re here,” said Faruq. He had changed his clothes and was now wearing a dark suit and a yellow tie with green hexagons. “I found these for you. They are the only ones I have with me. Some poems . . . poems again, this one is quite good actually . . . and Les Trois Mousquetaires. Essential reading for any young man on his first trip to France.”

“I am very grateful.”

“I will buy us something to drink, and then we shall practice French. Whisky?”

Midhat nodded. He sat, and to hide his nerves, reached for The Three Musketeers. The page fell open at the authorial preface.

While doing research at the Royal Library for my History of Louis XIV, I accidentally fell upon the Memoirs of M. d’Artagnan, printed—as were most works of that period in which the authors

Two glasses half full of trembling liquid slid across the polished table.

“Santé. Now, I’m going to tell you some things. Are you ready?” Faruq leaned back against the bench, and pulled the prayer beads from his pocket as he reached for his drink. “First of all, women in France. Now, this is strange, but they are treated like queens. Always they will enter a room first. Remember that. Expect a few things that might make you uncomfortable. Try to have an open mind. Remain true to your origins, in French we’d say rester dèle à vos racines, fhimet alay? You know I have many French friends. And Spanish. The Spanish are more like the Arabs—the French are something different. They are mostly Christians, so consider them like your Christian friends in Nablus. I presume you have met or at least seen French pilgrims in Palestine. Are there missionaries in Nablus?”

“Yes. But I also went to school in Konstantiniyye. I know many Christians.”

Faruq was not listening. “Well you should know that missionaries are always different from the natives. The religion is less strong in France, first of all. So try not to be shocked by their kissing, and their alcohol, and so on.”

Midhat laughed, and Faruq gave him a look of surprise. Desiring at once to prove that he would not be shocked, Midhat took a sip from the other glass. It was like drinking perfume; he tasted it in his nose. He had tried whisky once when he was sixteen from an illicit bottle in his school dormitory. He had only wet his tongue, however, whereas the owner and his accomplice finished the bottle between them, and when in the morning the schoolmaster smelled it on their breath they were whipped and banned from class for three days.

“There are many things you will like. The way of thinking, the way of life, it’s very refined. In this I feel there is some affinity between Damascus and Paris.”

“And Nablus,” said Midhat.

“Yes, Nablus is very nice.” Faruq sipped and exhaled. “Where will you live in Montpellier?”

“At the house of Docteur Molineu. An academic.”

“An academic! Ah, yes. You will like that.”

Midhat did not mind being told what it was that he would like. He took it as a sign of kinship. He wanted to agree with everything Faruq said. He spent the remaining four days of the journey reading Faruq’s books on the upper deck. Or, at least, holding the books open in his lap and looking out to sea, and occasionally pronouncing some sentence in French from one of the pages he had pressed down against the wind. His mind, newly relaxed, wheeled off into daydreams. He indulged three scenarios in particular. The first featured a thin-necked Parisian woman lost in Jerusalem, whom he directed in perfect French to Haram ash-Sharif. An onlooker, often a notable from Nablus, reported on the incident, rendering Midhat famous as a man of great kindness and linguistic skill. In the second fantasy, he sang a dal’ona—“ya tayrin taayir s-sama’ al-aali; sallim al-hilu al-aziz al-ghali”—inspiring awe to the point of weeping in those who passed under his window and heard him mourn the distance between himself and his imagined lover. In the third fantasy he saved another passenger from falling overboard by catching him around the middle with the grace of a dancer. The onlookers applauded.

These daydreams were fortifying. They increased his sense of fluidity with his surroundings and gave him confidence when entering rooms. He took a dose at regular intervals like a draught of medicine and emerged from the dream after a few minutes’ elapse renewed and refreshed. Thus he managed, more or less, to soothe the hard outline of his body—which still at times oppressed him with its stinging clasp.


Excerpted from The Parisian. Copyright © 2019 by Isabella Hammad. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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