The Philistine by Leila Marshy was one of those review books that I received with anticipation, but just never got around to reading. Now I have to say, curse you past Casey, because I am sad it sat on my shelf for over a year before I finally read it! I loved The Philistine. I wish I had advocated for how awesome it is when it was first published in 2018. But at least I am reviewing it now!
While The Philistine didn’t draw me in right away, it eventually won me over, hard. It’s an #OwnVoices story about Nadia, a queer Palestinian-Canadian woman who travels to Egypt in the late 1980s to track down her father whom she has not seen in years. She finds and gets to know him anew, but she also meets and falls in love with an Egyptian woman artist, Manal. As the weeks pass, Nadia finds herself staying in Cairo much longer than she had originally planned.
One of the wonderful journeys of the novel is Nadia reconnecting with her Palestinian heritage. She meets many other Palestinians in Cairo, such as taxi drivers, booksellers, and doctors. These people do not hesitate to accept her as Palestinian, even though she feels removed from her Palestinian identity. They reach out to connect. Nadia is humbled and rejuvenated.
There is also her father, whom she slowly begins to see as a flawed adult human being, instead of only the father who has disappointed her. Getting to know your parents again as real people instead of the idealized parental figures from your childhood is something a lot of people do. But Nadia’s journey with her father is mixed up in his legacy of leaving his daughter in Montreal to return closer to home and to fight for the Palestinian cause.
There is also, of course, the love story between Nadia and Manal. When the two women first kiss, and Manal has to leave to go home, Marshy describes Nadia’s experience:
Her [Manal’s] departure left the room chilled and lifeless. Nadia could barely move. She contented herself with the traffic lights streaking along the walls and ceiling. Though it intruded, the city was far away, unreal, unfathomable. Her breath came in tiny bursts. Letters, not words. The phone in her room rang late in the night, jolting her awake.
‘Nadia is it true?’ Manal’s voice was soft, tentative.
‘Is what true?’
‘Did I kidnap you and make you mine?’
I loved Manal. She’s an friendly, extroverted artist who speaks her mind. She laughs openly but not cruelly when Nadia bumps up against the cultural differences in Cairo. She doesn’t hesitate to correct her when Nadia spouts beliefs that stem from her Western, North American way of thinking. At one point, when Nadia questions the increasing fascism of the Egyptian government, Manal tells her: “One day you will see that the most simple things in the world are sometimes the most dangerous. One day.” Like their love, for example. Like regular Egyptians living a life with a roof over their head, food, and a school for their children.
Manal wavers between idealism and following her artistic impulses to cynical pragmatism, knowing deep down that her career options as a queer brown Egyptian woman in 1987 are limited. Manal is Nadia’s guide to the city of Cairo as well as for the reader. She is a passionate, opinionated, and lively one. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her and the city through her eyes, as does Nadia.
The way Manal is treated by her French woman boss Brigitte, who owns the art gallery which Manal basically runs on her own, is maddening. As Manal attempts to apply for scholarships in art schools outside of Egypt, Brigitte refuses to use her privilege and power to help Manal, instead putting her support behind an Egyptian man. It’s a biting critique of white women refusing to align themselves with women of colour.
Daniel, Nadia’s Quebecois Francophone boyfriend, eventually shows up unexpectedly after Nadia has been away in Cairo for months without communicating with him much. I found myself immediately dismissive and annoyed with him, even if intellectually I could sort of sympathize with him. Nadia has just been so swept up in her new life that she’s forgotten him and her Canadian life entirely. Marshy beautifully describes the experience of growing out of a partner:
She wanted someone who could beat a drum even harder than she was able. Someone who would dance with her, embrace the chaos and the anger, heat an entire furnace with it, then help her forge something new and much less brittle. Much, much, much less brittle.
Daniel is, unfortunately for him, a brittle person by nature.
The story is set mostly in Cairo, which is a complicated, contradictory character unto itself. I have never been there, but the city really came alive in my mind as I read The Philistine. The beauty of the art, the rich food, generosity of people, poverty, stink of animals and defecation in the street, chaotic traffic, all the details of everyday life in Cairo bloom. As Nadia walks through Cairo, she absorbs the culture,
a lifting of the burden of individuality and aloneness. In its place was an almost maternal warmth and sharing… Increasingly, as she walked the busy streets she could feel a connectedness, a common humanity, the veins and branches of the tree of life. Everybody was located somewhere on a stretched fabric, inches from the next.
In addition to the wonderful human and non-human characters, I also loved how Marshy inserted French and Arabic into the base of the English text. She often does so without direct translation, sometimes even without indirect help to decipher the meaning. This strategy makes for a delightfully multilingual text, that even those its language of majority is English, doesn’t take for granted that language’s primacy.
All in all, The Philistine is a novel I would highly recommend! It has beautiful writing; thoughtful, nuanced content about art, family, connecting with your heritage, Palestinian and Egyptian cultures and politics, Arabic, and queer love in the 80s. I really loved this book.