Retelling great-grandpa's stories

The Parisian is the debut novel of Isabella Hammad.
The Parisian is the debut novel of Isabella Hammad (above).PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS

Author Isabella Hammad turns these tales into The Parisian, set in France and Palestine in the 1910s to the 1930s

British-Palestinian writer Isabella Hammad grew up on stories of her great-grandfather, a Palestinian merchant who was obsessed with France, where he had studied. In Nablus, the city between two mountains north of Jerusalem, people called him "al-Barisi", the Parisian.

"These stories captured my imagination when I was a child," says Hammad, now 28. "When I was a teenager, I thought it would be quite a great novel."

Six years ago, she began turning the story of her great-grandfather into fiction.

Now, it forms the sweeping saga that is her debut novel The Parisian, which runs to more than 550 pages and covers events from the start of World War I in 1914 to the 1936 Arab uprising in Palestine.

It follows Midhat Kamal, a character based on her great-grandfather, who goes to Montpellier, France, to study medicine in order to avoid fighting in WWI.

He falls in love with the daughter of his French host, but leaves for Paris, upset, after discovering his host, an anthropologist, is studying him as a subject.

He returns to Nablus a disaffected young man, is pressed into his father's textile business and marries a daughter of the Nabulsi elite, even as conflict erupts in Palestine as it moves from Ottoman to British colonial rule.

The Parisian is the debut novel of Isabella Hammad.

There's a kind of dramatic irony that we, as readers and writers, know what will happen, when the characters don't. I feel it invests the narrative with a certain kind of pathos, a feeling of sadness and distance.

ISABELLA HAMMAD, on the historical and geographical aspects of her novel

The New York-based Hammad, who was born in London to a Palestinian father and British mother, says that much of the book is fictionalised as the stories she knew of her great-grandfather were mostly from his later years.

"But the bones of the book were taken from life," she says over the telephone from London, where she has returned for a book tour.

Though written in English, the narrative is interspersed with Arabic and French expressions that are deliberately not translated.

"I wanted to have some of the textures of spoken language and remind readers that the characters aren't speaking in English," says Hammad.

Midhat is an Arab while he is in France, Oriental and exotic; in Nablus, he is the Parisian, foreign in his own country.

Another character muses: "To be a Parisian in Nablus was to be out of step with the times, 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."

Accompanied by her grandmother, Hammad travelled in 2013 to Nablus - the beauty of which took her by surprise - to research the book.

She spoke to about 80 people, from scholars to elderly people who remembered Nablus between world wars.

She learnt family stories she had not known, such as how her ancestor Haj Hassan Hammad escaped the Ottomans after they took issue with his political beliefs, fled to Damascus and married four different women while in exile - an anecdote which made it into the book.

"There's something lovely about acquiring knowledge by talking to people and going on a journey, rather than being in the library and on the Internet," says Hammad, who declines to reveal her relationship status.

The Parisian is a rare portrait of Palestine in the years before the Nakba, in which more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

"There's a kind of dramatic irony that we, as readers and writers, know what will happen when the characters don't," says Hammad. "I feel it invests the narrative with a certain kind of pathos, a feeling of sadness and distance."

"The Nakba overshadows Palestinian history. It's thought of as the defining moment of Palestinian history. I feel Palestinians are always set up against Israel as a binary, whereas Palestinian society is very rich and complicated. I was interested in looking at all the dimensions of that in its own right," she adds.

•The Parisian ($27.95) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2019, with the headline 'Retelling great-grandpa's stories'. Print Edition | Subscribe