When I first had this novel in my hands, I looked at the decidedly odd cover design (thinking “What’s this ...Catwoman?”) and read the blurb on the back about Egypt and Palestine, and this love affair, and saw all the Arabic phrases in the text, and said to myself: “Not this one.”
Why? Because to me, every aspect of the novel was unfamiliar and unappealing. I knew literally nothing about the setting of the novel. I knew nothing about the themes.
It is about a Canadian woman, “Nadia”, whose mother is Scottish-Canadian and whose father, “Bishara” is Palestinian. She goes to Cairo to find him, and while there, falls in love with an ambitious Egyptian artist, “Manal”, and moves in with her. For a long time, the book just lurked in my bookcase.
But eventually I did read it, and it was not what I had expected.
Where is Palestine?
What did I make of it, and why was it surprising?
I found that I could not ignore the socio-political themes, because they drive the plot and create a crisis for the protagonist, Nadia. I had to find out more to make sense of it. One theme is the existence of the “State of Palestine”. I had to look up where Palestine is, not only because I’m hopeless at Geography but also because I have literally no connection with it. I found out that the “State of Palestine” is recognized by some nations’ governments – 138 of the 193 UN members – but others, like Canada, do not. I had to do a proper search to find a map showing the borders of this country. Then I had to look up the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, since the novel is set during the period leading up to the event. And then I had to reluctantly read about the Intefada of the Israeli–Palestine conflict, another depressing bit of fact-finding.
The statelessness, or whatever you want to call it, of Palestinians living outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an ever-present grim reality in the novel that the reader cannot just skim over. An interaction with one of those itinerant Palestinians in Cairo is particularly well described – I read it a couple of times to savour the poignancy: Nadia takes a taxi home, and the driver is Palestinian, and she acknowledges that she is “Filistiniya”:
“‘I am Palestinian too,’ he said in Arabic. Nadia didn’t want to say much because he had obviously assumed she was like him: dispossessed, troubled, a refugee, a native speaker.
‘From where?’ she asked him, pronouncing it with a Palestinian accent instead of an Egyptian one.
‘Khalil,’ he answered, using the Palestinian name for Hebron. ‘And you?’
She hesitated for a moment, then told him, ‘Ramallah.'”
The Philistine, by Leila Marshy, p.195 (Photo by Masha Raymers on Pexels.com)
While he’s driving, he plays a cassette tape with the melancholy, forlorn-sounding music of the famous Arab singer, Fairuz (Nouhad Wadie’ Haddad). The taxi driver’s life is worlds apart from her own.
Then this man, who has so little, unexpectedly runs back to give her the cassette tape that they had been listening to:
“…Listen and remember us.” Honestly, that gesture of kissing his fingers and those words still really touch me. I can visualize it, but more than that, I understand the sentiment – music transcends politics and personal differences, it is a great unifying force.
Palestinians, “philistines”, and filistines
I got a sense of the simmering resentment between Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians, or those who call themselves “Philistines”. “Philistines”, on the one hand, is a derogatory term for a person who is not cultured, on the other hand, it also means residents of Palestine in southern Syria in the 18th and very early 19th century. On another hand, residents of what is the State of Palestine (however you define it) today. And on even another hand, a “filistine” – “filistiniya” – is a female Palestinian, which also means “a warrior”, someone not to be messed with.
There, on the cover – is that word, which, in the novel, comes to mean everything, and makes whatever went before, whatever is not Palestinian, redundant. The story is not only about becoming Palestinian, but about the implications of the name, the sheer, undeniable gravitas of it.
A story that asks to be heard
Here is the strangest thing, though: I have had the book since 2019. I would read a few pages and put it down. Read another few pages and stick it back in the To-Do Heap. Yet, it survived every culling of unreadable books through the years. And one day, I got past the second chapter, and discovered that it kept creeping into my mind. I took it up and kept reading a few pages at a time, and finished it one late night, or early morning. What was it about this novel that kept pulling me back inside its pages?
It is like the title of the film by Khairy Beshara which is playing in cinemas when Nadia arrives in Cairo: Sweet Day, Bitter Day (1988) (يوم حلو..يوم مر ): it’s serious, with heartbreaking moments, but in-between those the story is happy, because whatever Nadia needs to find, she finds. The secondary narrative about Palestine and Palestinians, which I think deserves to be told, and to be read, is also bitter-sweet.
On the bitter side, the love affair between Nadia and Manal is “haram” (meaning “forbidden”), and so are the Muslim Brotherhood activities of their charming art gallery colleague “Tewfiq”. Nadia’s work with her father at a local hospital reveals hair-raising abuses of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Her Canadian boyfriend, “Daniel”, who she simply left behind without an explanation, pitches up and demands a decision. And she confirms that her father simply abandoned his wife in Canada, and never got divorced. The plot, as they say, thickens.
But then, on the upside, there are the museums, the Nile, the antiquities, the parks, the sea, a cute new baby sister…and a gorgeous new lover who is a storm of passion and creativity, and who does not take no for an answer. Nadia becomes her muse and model – and who would not be flattered by that?
Marshy wove risky themes into the story – politics, sex, outsider art, civil unrest, etc. I can imagine that not many authors or readers would engage with those without careful consideration. I kept reading, not knowing what to expect from one page to the next, and somewhat wary.
You might ask, Nadia’s relationship with Manal – a lesbian love affair – how does Marshy depict it? I am happy to say that I did not have to flinch or flip past pages of bad or embarrassing descriptions of lovemaking. Marshy simply describes two people who meet, fall in love, and think each other wonderful, regardless of the circumstances. Their attraction is depicted in a thoroughly convincing way and I ended up rooting for these lovers, hoping it will work out. But since their families expect them to make conventional marriages, it may not end well, but I’ll leave that for you to find out.
The novel can be called a Bildungsroman. The crisis in Nadia’s life, which she has to overcome, is a crisis of identity, of coming of age. Who am I? she asks herself. What do I want? Where do I belong? Where is home? She starts off as a disoriented foreigner in Cairo, but when she falls in love with Manal, and discovers her father’s new identity, she also figures out who she is, where she wants to be, and what she wants to do.
One thing that helps her self-discovery is that her point of view changes. For instance, at the start of the story she is put off by the heat and ugliness around her, like a typical tourist:
“She hated walking around, the men hissed and stared, the women looked away; the animals were filthy. And the children, barefoot, brown-toothed beggar children, they lived under flyovers, between buildings, on the grassy medians on the highways.”
The Philistine, by Leila Marshy, p. 54 (Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Pexels.com)
Her immersion into a new lifestyle with Manal changes her mind. She begins to look at the Middle East in a different way, through Egyptian eyes. She begins to look beyond the stereotypes and the clichés. The famous Great Sphinx of Giza, for instance – tourists flock to see it, along with the pyramids, but who looks at the ancient monument and thinks of the lover of this deity? Who sees, behind the ruin, a Nubian king? Someone who is no longer just a visitor.
“They approached the Sphinx from behind, like cautious dogs. Smooth and hard like a dead body, he seemed to be inhaling through hidden pores, scanning the distance for his lover to return. But she no longer cared for him or his mausoleums of dust and filth. Maybe her family had forbidden their union. Maybe she had fled the soft banks of the Nile and, following the river, swum to cities of chrome and steel that lay far beyond, leaving him behind to watch his own skin crumble to dust, limbs pillaged stone by stone, face smashed by marauding armies speaking the language of other rulers. The flat African nose, the utter beauty of him – why do people not talk about him incessantly, this Nubian king?”
The Philistine, by Leila Marshy, p. 252 (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
The “she” that Marshy refers to in this quote, is the lover of the Sphinx. But it might as well be Nadia herself, referring to her relationship with Manal. The longer she stays, the more Nadia becomes committed to Manal. But Manal is ambitious, and desperate, and eventually she makes a decision which is heart-breaking for them both. Manal wants everything, including Nadia, but at what cost?
Arabic as a language of poetry
Marshy skillfully describes these intense, changing emotions that echo the transformations that are happening in Egypt. Often her descriptions are so detailed that it seems to the reader as if she must have seen them with her own eyes, walked there with her own feet, smelled the air as if she were standing at a street stall and listened to the clamour of Arabic from all around.
I got used to the many phrases and exclamations in the book in Arabic (written in Roman, not Arabic/Abjad script, so reverse translation was tricky). I did wish the book had a glossary, but perhaps Marshy is of the same opinion as the author of The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng, who does not use glossaries because he wants to convey a sense of disorientation to the reader:
“But I refused to have a glossary of Malaysian words. If you go to a foreign country and you listen to people talking around you, you won’t understand most of it anyway, and that’s the feeling I wanted people to have.” (Idar, Nicole, An interview with Tan Twan Eng, in Asymptote Journal, July 2013 issue)
Do I recommend that you read this dandelion of a book? Once you open its pages, it releases its strange, foreign expressions and ideas into the air like a cloud of twirling, drifting dandelion seeds – playful and pretty, yet resilient, clinging and unavoidable.
The answer is yes!, particularly if the story and themes do not appeal to you, because then it will certainly surprise you and make you think.
I got plenty to think about. While I read it, I was transported far away from Canada and my usual routine, immersed in Cairo and Alexandria, in the music of Fairuz, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the complexity of artistic expression, and the vexed question and the tragedy that is Palestine.
I believe that one’s world becomes richer and fuller if, once in a while, you take a deep breath and put aside your usual preferences and try reading something completely different, or listening to music that is completely alien, or watching a film that was made somewhere “foreign”. Reading a novel with an unfamiliar theme, setting, plot or genre is a bit like learning a new language and discovering new worlds through that language.
This is one of the themes in the novel: Nadia knows that to understand her Palestinian heritage, and come to grips with her past, she has to learn to read and speak Arabic, moreover, Arabic with a Palestinian accent. While driving from Cairo to Ramallah, she can hear her father’s accent change, sounding more rhythmic and higher pitched:
“The language was shifting all around them. Bishara, after spending a lifetime speaking the matter-of-fact Egyptian dialect, was reverting to the singsong musicality of his childhood. His voice even seemed to pitch higher. He was almost beside himself, talking louder and louder, laughing and gesturing in broader and broader strokes the closer they got to their destination. Strangely, it reminded Nadia of herself. We are always travelling towards something, she thought, and it was more often than not the past.”
The Philistine, by Leila Marshy, p. 318 (Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com)
“The language was shifting all around them. Bishara, after spending a lifetime speaking the matter-of-fact Egyptian dialect, was reverting to the singsong musicality of his childhood. His voice even seemed to pitch higher. He was almost beside himself, talking louder and louder, laughing and gesturing in broader and broader strokes the closer they got to their destination. Strangely, it reminded Nadia of herself. We are always travelling towards something, she thought, and it was more often than not the past.” (p. 318)
Awards – The Philistine
Shortlisted for the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 Miramichi Reader Very Best Book Award
Shortlisted for the 2019 Expozine Literary Awards
About Leila Marshy
Author profile from the Linda Leith Publishing website:
“Montrealer Leila Marshy is of Palestinian-Newfoundland heritage—she can tell a good joke, but it bombs. She has been a filmmaker, a baker, an app designer, a marketer, a farmer, and editor of online culture journal Rover Arts. She founded the Friends of Hutchison Street, a groundbreaking community group bringing Hasidic and non-Hasidic neighbours together in dialogue. She has published stories and poetry in Canadian and American journals and anthologies. The Philistine is her first novel.” Since July 2018, she has been an Associate Publisher with LLP Publishing – LLÉ Éditions.