Review 1653: The Parisian

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus in Palestine. His father more or less deserted him with his second marriage after his mother’s death and lives in Cairo, visiting a few times a year. When Midhat is 19, in 1914, his father decides he should study medicine in France and arranges for him to stay with a French professor of anthropology, Frédéric Molineu, in Montpellier.

Unfortunately, Midhat falls in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeanette. Although his feelings seem to be returned, Midhat discovers a betrayal that makes him flee Montpellier for Paris. In Paris, he works on developing a reputation as a bon vivant and womanizer, only peripherally involved in his friends’ discussions about Arab nationalism.

Nonetheless, returning to Nablus, he almost immediately adopts the life his father demands, learning how to run the Nablus store in preparation for moving to Cairo and finding a wife. Events, however, will turn the course of his life again.

Although the novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism against the British and French, which sounds interesting, as well as the time period of World War I, Hammad is hampered by her choice of main character, for Midhat is so self-absorbed through most of this book that he hardly seems to know what’s going on around him. This detachment affects the readers’ relationship to the novel, making me feel detached from its actions. Further, although there is a weak link between the first part of the book and the rest, there seemed to be little connection except that Midhat’s self-absorption is related to this character he has created for himself, the Parisian. I found the love affair unconvincing in any case.

For a historical novel set in an interesting time and place, there is very little sense of that time or place. So, not a big recommendation from me for this novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project. It is well written, but although important things happen in the novel, the action is at such a remove that it feels as if nothing is happening, if that makes any sense.

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Day 788: The Secret Chord

Cover for The Secret ChordBest Book of the Week!
The characters in Biblical stories have always provided fodder for fiction but are particularly popular since Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. They can be interesting for me not because they’re telling something familiar but because they are not, since I have one of the spottiest Christian upbringings on the planet. This situation was caused by a combination of my parents’ lack of application and my own fundamental lack of interest from a very young age. I’ve always been fine with it except when I crashed and burned over Christian symbolism in graduate school. However, halfway through Brooks’ remarkable The Secret Chord, I was driven to Wikipedia and found I only knew two David stories, David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba.

The Secret Chord is about the life of David from the point of view of his prophet, Natan. When David asks Natan to write up his victories, Natan refuses, telling him that anyone can have their victories commemorated, but Natan wants to leave behind a true relation of David’s life, the good and the bad, so people in the future will understand him. David agrees and even gives Natan a list of people to interview.

Natan also remembers his own interactions with David, whom he met right after the rebel David murdered Natan’s entire family because his father refused aid to his men. It was then that Natan made his first prophetic utterance, the words of which he couldn’t even remember.

link to NetgalleyThis is truly a fascinating novel, beautifully written, that presents us with the complex man, including his glory and flaws. Brooks is wonderful at conveying his charisma and his faults, so that you feel for him in his sorrows even as he brings many of them on himself.

Brooks uses the names and place names of the time, lending authenticity to this colorful re-telling. The Secret Chord evokes a convincing time and place.

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Day 482: The Map of Love

Cover for The Map of LoveBest Book of the Week!
The Map of Love is an absorbing novel to read now, just after the Arab Spring and during the troubled times that have continued on. It is a love story certainly, its title tells you that, but it also explores the roots of the political turmoil in present-day Egypt and some of the other countries that used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire.

The novel follows the course of two cross-cultural love affairs 90 years apart. In 1900 Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt in an attempt to overcome her grief. She is the widow of a man who recently served in the Soudan, and even though their marriage was not a happy one, she is sorrowful that she could not help him overcome his despair at participating in an unjust war. Almost accidentally, she meets Sharif al-Barroudi, a Cairo lawyer and activist, and falls in love with him.

Anna’s diary and letters are discovered by her great-granddaughter, Isabel Cabot. Isabel herself has fallen in love with ‘Omar al-Ghamwari, a famous Egyptian-American orchestra conductor who is rumored to work with the Palestinians. ‘Omar feels that their age difference is too great for a relationship, but he suggests that Isabel take her find to his sister Aman in Cairo so that she might help Isabel translate some of the materials.

Aman becomes absorbed in reading Anna’s diaries and letters and realizes very soon that she and Isabel are related, for Anna’s beloved sister-in-law Layla is Aman’s own grandmother. With Layla’s diaries of the same time period, she begins to reconstruct Anna’s story and that of Egypt’s history during a turbulent period. Aman has returned from life abroad to live in Cairo in another turbulent time.

Anna’s courtship is fraught with difficulties, but once she and Sharif are married, she is caught up in his work for Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire and from British oversight. As the years go by, his efforts extend to attempts to keep Palestinian land, once owned by his family and by his neighbors and occupied by hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from being bought up by Zionists who would expel them.

The blurb for this novel stresses the similarities between the two love stories, and there are many points of similarity, but the focus of the story in the current time is more with Aman than with Isabel and ‘Omar. Aman is at first at loose ends in Cairo, but she becomes involved with trying to help the fellaheen who occupy her family’s land, as they are treated unjustly by a corrupt and paranoid government. I was frankly more interested in Aman and in Anna and Sharif than I was in Isabel and ‘Omar, who are much less present in the novel.

For me, not very politically aware in regard to problems in this part of the world, this was a fascinating and revealing reading experience. It points up the complex history of the area from a point of view we westerners seldom hear. It is affectingly told in the context of a great love affair between two lovingly created characters. The characters of the two sisters, Layla and Aman, are also vivid. This novel is beautifully written and evokes for us a vibrant culture.