Even as numerous writers and artists faced repression and backlash for their solidarity with Palestine throughout 2019, Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian—featuring a Palestinian protagonist and set in pre-Nakba Palestine—emerged as one of the most celebrated debut novels of the year. Hammad, a British writer with Palestinian roots, aims to emulate the classic coming-of-age novel in The Parisian, tracing the life of wealthy and directionless Midhat Kamal from his university years in France to adulthood in post-War British Mandate Palestine. Although Hammad chooses to situate the novel in one of the most dynamic epochs in Palestinian history, that of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-’39, she draws a protagonist who is detached from the struggles around him and mired in his own inner conflict. Hammad depicts Midhat as stuck between two worlds in an internal clash-of-civilizations that results in his unraveling. As she illustrates pre-Nakba Palestine through the lens of a detached Palestinian elite, who have little desire to see the Great Arab Revolt succeed, Hammad herself regurgitates colonial narratives and depictions of Palestinians that demean Palestinians and their resistance. Her novel has been praised as following in the footsteps of other Palestinian novelists and Palestinian women writers in particular—a claim that does a disservice to the genre and to writing that portrays histories of resistance, in Palestine and beyond, in ways that inspire solidarity.
The Parisian has received gushing praise in the press. Both the Guardian and the New York Times featured the book among their “Best of 2019.” In advance praise of the book, novelist Zadie Smith called The Parisian a “remarkable historical epic,” its realism following in “the tradition of Flaubert and Stendhal.” The New York Times added Tolstoy to this list of “precedents,” while arguing that Hammad’s style matches closest to Flaubert’s. The Parisian has been dubbed “Middlemarch with Minarets” and lauded as an “engaging east meets west culture clash;” a portrayal of the “collision between western modernity and oriental traditionalism.” This recognition has extended into Palestinian literary circles as well: in November 2019, Hammad was one of five authors recognized at the Palestine Book Awards in London.
The predominantly mainstream praise and recognition is striking in that it comes at the same time that artists and activists globally face heightened repression and backlash for their support for Palestine. In January 2019, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute revoked its prestigious human rights award from Angela Davis due to her outspoken support for Palestine and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. After massive public pressure due in large part to Davis’s renown, the institute was forced to reinstate her award. Public pressure and support, however, was not enough to overturn the decision of German literary prize Nelly Sachs after it revoked British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s book award in September 2019; like in the case of Davis, the revocation cited Shamsie’s support for BDS. Also in September, the US Women’s March kicked civil rights lawyer Zahra Billoo off its board within days of announcing her role, citing her unabashed criticism of Israel. These are only a few of the numerous examples of an intensifying backlash against support for Palestine globally. Of course, this is nothing to say of the much harsher reality for Palestinian writers living under Israeli apartheid and occupation. Dareen Tatour, for example, faced a three-year ordeal of imprisonment and house arrest beginning in 2015 for writing poetry about Palestinian resistance as a Palestinian resident of Israel.
Why, then, at a time in which outright support for Palestine is met with immediate distancing and clampdown, including in prominent literary circles, has Hammad’s The Parisian received such glowing reviews in the mainstream press? This approval can likely be explained by Hammad’s adherence to colonial narratives and depictions of Palestinians, and her flattening of Palestinian histories of struggle. The novel does little to challenge stereotypical depictions of Palestinians or to encourage solidarity with them—and stands out in its class-based approach that ridicules non-elite Palestinians and their resistance. In interviews about the novel, Hammad disclosed that her research entailed interviewing Palestinians, but also extensive archival research in the UK that included documents by British soldiers, British interpretations of events at the time, and British analyses of Palestinians and their relationships to newly-arrived Jewish settlers—and this colonial perspective clearly influences the novel.
Perhaps in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Hammad creates a protagonist who is fixated on love interests and absorbed in his own personal monologues to the extent that he is disengaged from political struggles around him. This detached existence is made possible by Midhat’s privileged class status: his father is a wealthy merchant from Nablus, able to send him to France to escape the War; unlike the majority of Palestinians at the time, he is not directly impacted by the growing dispossession of poor and peasant Palestinians from their lands. In Midhat’s university years in France, he becomes infatuated with the daughter of his host, an anthropologist scrambling for new material. But before he can propose to her, he finds that the anthropologist has been “studying” him in order to write about the possibilities for civilizing the so-called oriental. Disgusted and mortified, Midhat leaves and relocates to a different city. This begins Midhat’s endless internal torment: he is separated permanently from the woman he loves, and feels irreconcilably caught between two worlds. In Europe, he faces intense racism, and upon his return to Palestine, he is seen as an outsider, mockingly referred to as “the Parisian.” Thus while Hammad ridicules the racism and orientalism of the 20th-century anthropologist, she reifies the idea of a civilizational clash throughout the novel. The east-west divide is central to Midhat’s inner conflict and subsequent nervous breakdown, to the relationships between western and Arab characters in the novel, and to her essentializing portrayal of non-elite Palestinians.
Midhat returns to Nablus in 1920, amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty in post-War British Mandate Palestine, and “while everyone else was discussing the Mandate, Midhat was thinking about Fatima Hammad.” This latest love interest—loosely based on the author’s grandmother—cannot eclipse his obsession over his lost French love, but pursuing her provides another distraction from the growing unrest in Palestine. Hammad seals Midhat and Fatima’s fates when they collide in the midst of the tumultuous turning point of the novel: the Nabi Musa riots of 1920. The procession-turned-riot aims to serve as a central scene both as an emotional turning point and as political context for the changing atmosphere in Palestine. But Hammad’s choice of the riots as a turning point manages to create a narrative of pre-Nakba Palestine that shifts focus away from British and Zionist actions and onto supposedly violent, anti-Jewish Palestinians. It is the first of several scenes in which Hammad depicts Palestinians as moved by indescribable rage and anti-Jewish sentiment:
“The chant caught, strengthened by other voices: ‘Falastin arad-na, al-Yahud aklab-na! . . .’ The words rushed through the crowd, mouth to mouth. Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs. They bored into Midhat’s ears and pervaded his brain, and soon he lost his sense of discomfort, of dirt and sweat, of his thirst . . . His body was their body. And again in his chest, that weird swelling joy. The chant beat there without words, and this time the feeling spread to his limbs, which moved as if acted upon by reflex hammers. He clapped, his feet stamped.
Turning his head, Midhat saw a fist meet someone’s face by the gate, and dark spatters on the wall, and in that instant, he came unglued. A metallic taste arose in his mouth. His chest and ears hurt, and the percussion kindled a spurt of panic. Someone staggered and other faces changed, grooved like masks. Saliva flew, eyeballs flashed, limbs hardened into batons. The words were real now, in all their violence . . .”
Hammad’s illustration conceals historical realities, and provides misleading context. The focus on the Nabi Musa riots obscures the fact that during the 1920s and ‘30s, Palestinians rightly identified the British as their primary obstacle to freedom and self-determination, and they organized much of their activism—including highly coordinated multiple mass strikes even before the 1936 Arab Revolt began—accordingly. But instead of focusing on episodes of strategic organization and fightback, Hammad chooses the Nabi Musa riots as the principal political event. And while she vaguely references Arabs selling land to Jews, she does not pinpoint the systematic Zionist campaign to appropriate Palestinian land, primarily through deals with the Palestinian elite, that led to mass dispossession of Palestinians—the real motivating factor behind these riots, not the animalistic anti-Jewish fervor she describes. Hammad’s account contributes to a flattening of history, portraying Palestinians as unreasonable and unnecessarily anti-Jewish. She, therefore, shifts blame onto Palestinians themselves for their subsequent fate.
In fact, Hammad depicts all of her Palestinian characters—except for Midhat, who has spent time in Europe—as fixated on the presence of Jews to the point of paranoia. Palestinian characters, especially the peasants involved in the 1936 uprising, suspiciously ask about the presence of Jews throughout the novel. When Midhat’s cousin Jamil—the only Palestinian in Midhat’s elite circle who joins the 1936 uprising—asks the family, “[D]id you see all the Jews in the hospital?”, Midhat is the only one to respond sensibly, saying, “Everyone gets sick.” Midhat, in the middle of a nervous breakdown and stuck in his own past to the point of being completely disconnected from the on-the-ground developments in Palestine, is portrayed as the sole “rational” Palestinian when it comes to interacting with Jews in Palestine. Worse still, the shop that Midhat co-owns with two Palestinian Jews is burnt to the ground in what is clearly meant to suggest an anti-Semitic attack.
When the Great Arab Revolt and its simultaneous general strike does break out, Hammad describes it through the lens of a Palestinian elite who frequently express frustration at the strike and exasperation with the rebellion as a whole. Instead of referencing the high level of organization, the ingenuity and socio-political transformation behind the three-year revolt that spread across Palestine—the strongest and broadest movement in Palestine until the 1987 Intifada—Hammad frequently mentions peasants stealing, threatening or using violence against the wealthy, emphasizing that the Palestinian elites feared that “the rebels will actually kill us” if they moved to stop the strike. With the exception of Midhat’s cousin Jamil, the elite Palestinians surrounding Midhat do not approve of the revolt. This disapproval, at least, reflects a reality of the time—the Palestinian elite, in their maneuvers to negotiate with the British, played an undeniable role in forcing the movement to an end.
Hammad could have shed light upon the strategic organizing that made up the general strike, which included Palestinian port workers from Jaffa, workers from the Vehicle Owners and Drivers’ Association, and from numerous other sectors. This could have provided insight into the depth of struggle at the time, and afforded dignity to Palestinian peasants and workers, building a case for empathy and genuine solidarity with today’s struggle. She could have also explored the class differences in relation to the uprising from the perspective of the peasant movement, revealing the complicity of much of the Palestinian elite, and thus informing the need to pay attention to class interests today. But her writing instead depicts the Palestinian popular classes as animalistic and fueled by rage.
Hammad depicts the Palestinian “rebels”—a term that today recalls simplistic and Islamophobic notions of Syria’s counterrevolution, and I believe adds to the dehumanization of the Palestinians in the novel—as rageful and animalistic in countless segments that veer into downright Islamophobia. Beyond her descriptions of their putrid smell, their animalistic manner of eating and walking, Hammad writes that the rebels are “united with their fellows by the doctrine of self-sacrifice.” In one scene, a fighter “passed by wearing a sword and ran down the slope towards his death, brandishing the blade over his head like a believer on the Prophet’s birthday.” These images reify the Islamophobic depiction of Palestinians as fanatics whose only desire is martyrdom.
Oddly, there are no attacks by Zionists featured in the novel. This is despite the fact that Zionist paramilitary organizations like the Irgun and Haganah—predecessors to today’s IDF—were already active by the 1930s, and collaborated directly with the British to assist in crushing the revolt. Zionist paramilitaries killed at least 250 Palestinians during the Great Arab Revolt. The Irgun, in particular, ramped up its bombing campaign in 1938, killing nearly 200 Palestinians in 1938 and 1939 alone.
Hammad mentions that the Great Arab Revolt ends in late 1936, and concludes her novel around this time. In reality, a second stage of the revolt began soon after this in 1937, lasting two more years. This second stage was even more transformative than the first. The revolt had a stronger class character in its second stage as well as the seeds of a social and political revolution. Peasants canceled debts and rents on apartments and seized the property of wealthy Palestinians who had fled. But Hammad, perhaps collapsing these two stages of revolt, only writes that peasants were “starting to threaten landowners and merchants with defamation and damage to property unless they handed over funds that only a month ago they had been donating with pride.” It is through assertions like these that Hammad explicitly adopts the position of the Palestinian elite, and denies solidarity with the popular movement.
In 1938, the leaders of the revolt declared that Palestinian women should wear headscarves, and men don the kufiyya, the peasant headdress. This was to allow peasants fighting in the revolt to travel from various towns without detection and arrest, as well as to humble the wealthy Palestinians who had to abandon the fez and thus the symbol of their elite status. This again reveals misleading context within Hammad’s novel: she claims that the rebels forced Palestinian women to wear headscarves in order to distinguish them from Jewish women. In reality, the Palestinian popular classes had a far more emancipatory reasoning behind these decisions.
While Hammad denies the uprising any recognition of its emancipatory potential, suggesting it to have been both anti-Semitic and sexist, her own portrayal of Palestinian women falls into orientalist stereotypes. Hammad infantilizes Midhat’s wife, especially in her illustration of their wedding night. Terrified of Midhat, of men and of sex, Fatima screams and climbs onto the cabinet to prevent him from coming near her. Midhat, who has slept with many women in Europe, patronizingly laughs at her before falling asleep on the bed, his new wife still crouched atop the furniture. Here, Hammad regurgitates yet another Islamophobic trope, that of the backwards, uncivilized Muslim woman.
What, then, does Hammad offer the reader, besides outworn colonial narratives that can only undermine today’s solidarity efforts? Hammad’s writing suggests that the Palestinians in revolt are sexist and oppressive, animalistic instead of rational, and anti-Semitic. The illustration of Palestinians as decidedly anti-Semitic is particularly dangerous and counterproductive. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have seen a resurgence in the past half-decade due to the rise of the far-right. And yet right-wing discourse and legislation has ramped up its efforts to smear Palestine solidarity movements as anti-Semitic, shifting the blame from its actual culprits—the growing far-right, which is both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic—as an excuse to crack down on BDS, Palestine solidarity work, and the left more broadly. This allows the actual culprits of anti-Semitism to go unopposed, and the reasons behind its resurgence blurred and confused. And it further marginalizes Palestine solidarity activists—as seen in the US, in Germany, and in the UK in 2019 alone.
Hammad’s The Parisian offers little to support our movements for justice today, which are both facing increasing repression, and new windows for growth in a context of renewed struggle. In 2019, we saw our liberation movements facing an intensified crackdown on the one hand, and an outbreak in protest movements and revolts on the other. At a time in which struggle is returning across the Middle East and North Africa and the world—with protests stretching from Algeria to Lebanon, Sudan to Chile—we would do well to revisit and learn the lessons from revolts of the past, including Palestine’s Great Arab Revolt. The general strike, high level of organization and strong class character, as well as recalling the weaknesses of the movement like the betrayals of the elites, could shed light on tactics that could be utilized again today, inspire solidarity with the ongoing Palestinian resistance, and connect it to today’s revolts more broadly. A fair representation of that struggle—which would differ greatly from the one Hammad offers—would enrich our understanding of Palestinian history and could provide a set of lessons for today.
A host of Palestinian writers have managed to capture history through fiction in ways that inform the present and support today’s struggles for justice. Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin (2006), for example, follows four generations of displacement and struggle since the Nakba, vividly illustrating the ongoing nature of the Israeli ethnic cleansing project as well as the spirit of resistance. Emile Habiby’s The Pessoptimist (1974, translated to English 1989) uses humor, irony, and some magical realism in its depiction of a Palestinian who manages to remain in Israel after the Nakba to relay the dilemma of the Palestinian experience under Zionism and undermine both Zionist and Orientalist narratives. It hones in on the paradox of securitization and invisibility of Palestinians within Israel, and highlights contradictory forms of Palestinian resistance that refuses to romanticize Palestinians or their struggle. Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of the Disappearance (2014, translated to English 2019) uses speculative fiction and magical realism, examining the future as a mirror to better understand the Nakba, the Zionist project in the past and in the present. Unlike Hammad’s The Parisian, Azem’s novel functions as a commentary that lays bare the colonial, silencing effects of the Zionist narrative, while revealing the shallowness of liberal Zionism.
Outside the realm of Palestinian history, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments (2019) engages in speculative history in ways that deepen the reader’s understanding of race and class to inform our understanding of struggles today. Hartman uses archival records to create a social history of young poor and working-class Black women in New York City and Philadelphia. She reveals how their individual resistance often developed into collective revolt and social struggles that erupted in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Hartman fills in the silences of the historical record to create fully-imagined narratives of Black women and their attempts to defy the vestiges of slavery, including through redefining their sexualities and refusing to adhere to social norms. Hartman cuts through all “respectability politics,” demanding dignity for the underclass and forgotten Black women of the time, and illustrating a perspective that is unabashedly Black and working-class.
Today, in the face of both immense possibility, and severe repression, we are in need of writing that refuses to play into oppressive narratives, and instead affords our movements dignity, and recognizes the struggles for liberation that have come from the bottom up.