A Debut Novelist Explores Her Family’s History, and Palestine’s


Reaching Nablus, in the West Bank, from Jordan takes planning, and patience.

There is the circuitous drive to the closest border checkpoint. There are the notoriously long lines and waits to make the crossing. But if you’re fortunate, as was the British-Palestinian writer Isabella Hammad, you may have as your guide a “force of nature” grandmother, who comes prepared with a detailed itinerary and a game plan.

When Hammad, 27, first visited Palestine six years ago, it was, in some ways, the culmination of a childhood in which memories and family stories about the region — especially coming from her grandmother — were always present. During that trip, she spent months in the Middle East conducting research and collecting oral histories. Now she has channeled those stories into her debut novel, “The Parisian.”

The book, a sweeping historical novel that opens in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, comes out on Tuesday from Grove Press. It follows a Palestinian from Nablus, Midhat Kamal, from roughly 1914 to the mid-1930s, as the region is poised to change hands from Ottoman to British control. To avoid being forced to fight in World War I, Midhat goes to Montpellier to study medicine, moves to Paris and finally returns to Palestine after a few years. The character is based on Hammad’s great-grandfather, whose nickname in Nablus, “al-Barisi,” means “the Parisian” in Arabic.

“The Parisian” has attracted a good deal of advance praise. The novelist Zadie Smith, who taught Hammad in the M.F.A. program at New York University, called it “uncommonly poised and truly beautiful.” The writer Nathan Englander, in a blurb, called it a “beautifully written, expansive powerhouse.”



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