Review: The Philistine
How amazing to find this recent review on Instagram, especially now as Gaza lies under the rubble of frenzied revenge. It's a real gift to be read by such an attentive reader. Thank you @openbookopen !
I’m holding this paperback up against a stand of brown trees in the golden evening light.
This is a beautiful queer coming-into-self book set in Cairo in the 1980s. Nadia is a Palestinian Canadian twenty-something living in Montreal with her white boyfriend, working a meh job. Her father left for Cairo almost ten years ago, and she hasn’t seen him since. Frustrated, she books a trip to Egypt to visit him.
She only intends to stay in Cairo for a week, but soon after she arrives she meets Manal, an Egyptian artist working at a small gallery. The two of them become friends and then fall into a kind of easy, nourishing love. Nadia cancels her return ticket and spends the next several months getting to know the city with Manal. At first her father avoids her entirely, but as Nadia gets more comfortable with herself and her new surroundings, she demands that he spend time with her. Their reconnection is poignant and messy. She arrives looking for the father she remembers from her childhood, and finds instead a complicated, flawed man with his own life—and family.
I loved almost everything about this book. It’s very quiet, and there isn’t a lot of plot. Manal guides Nadia around Cairo, and the city comes alive—another complicated, messy character. Their romance is built of conversations, small shared moments, and, most of all—space. For maybe the first time in her life, Nadia has the space to simply be who she is—Palestinian and queer.
Marshy writes brilliantly about context and setting and how much it matters. Cairo certainly isn’t perfect, and though Nadia falls in love with the city, too, she also sees and experiences its oppression, strife, and poverty. But she meets Palestinians everywhere, and they speak about Palestine openly, with passion and longing. All the secrets and whispers of her childhood in Canada become a pulsing, urgent reality in Cairo. She hears Arabic everywhere, and she’s able to find her way back to the language of her childhood. All of this helps her see her father differently. Seeing him as a whole person with memories and traumas and desires leads her to her own wholeness.
It’s a beautiful, understated novel about the power of so many different kinds of connection—familial, cultural, romantic. It’s about the tangled threads that connect Nadia to her ancestral homeland, a new city, a language. I can’t stop thinking about this one line from the beginning of the book, in which Nadia is describing her childhood with her white mom and Palestinian dad: “Palestine was a ghost and her father did not want to be haunted.” I’ve been thinking about what it means to shed a haunting, to refuse to become a ghost. Maybe this is what lies at the heart of this book: the work it takes to face the things that haunt you, even when they are out of your control, to follow the haunting wherever it takes you, to honor it instead of running from it—to choose to live vibrant and loud instead of living haunted, even when that choice is hard, and painful, and explodes your life.