Book review: An Arab in Paris

Hani William, Friday 21 Jan 2011

Sam chases his dream to join the world of Hollywood cinema, only to become homeless in Paris, far away from home and his destination

"I am not homeless. It's just that I refuse to have a home". This is the response from the protagonist in the bestseller, Eraqi fi Paris (Iraqi in Paris), still on the bestseller lists one year after its Egyptian re-publication.

After living for years in the Gare d'Austerlitz subway station in Paris, the city of light, Sam assures his interviewer that he could get a home anytime he wishes and chooses to! This is one of the moments in the novel where it becomes apparent that the character is in denial of what is happening around him.  He benefits from an extraordinary talent in that his mood is rarely affected by his surroundings and he lives in a parallel reality inside his own mind.

Iraqi in Paris, brilliantly written by Samuel Shimon, offers a panoramic view of the Arab world with an unusual neutrality. It stands on the border between autobiography and fiction as Shimon skillfully and subtly crosses the line between the two - on the one hand the protagonist is named after the author, yet his experiences do not match the life of the author as he himself outlines at the end of the book.

The novel tracks the life of an Iraqi Christian, with a very Jewish name, who is impressed by motion pictures on television, and leads a very volatile life on his way to their capital, Hollywood - a destination that we never see him reach.

The first part of the novel begins with Sam’s departure from his home in a small village in Iraq, to emigrate to the States to pursue his dreams of the cinema. In a scene possibly rendered as one of the strangest departure scenes, the emigration is depicted nearly as an afterthought; an idea which forced itself abruptly in the night, yet one that was widely expected by everyone, including the emigrant himself, the next morning.

The story then details the ‘warm’ welcome he received in the ‘neighbouring’ Arab countries where he was suspected of being a spy  wherever he stepped, eventually landing in a refugee camp in Paris inhabited by a spectrum of people from all the refugee producing-and-exporting countries imaginable.  The rest of  his stay is mostly spent homeless in Paris, which was only supposed to be his jumping board to the final destination - Hollywood.  

"The homeless should be as smart as Shaherazad (a character from 'A Thousand and One Arabian Nights', who tells a different story every night for the king to spare her life) and postpones his pain and narrates his dreams and illusions to seduce the asphalt of the streets, the benches of the park ….and even his own (empty) stomach".

Like Shaherazad, the hero survived life one night at a time, not looking backward but hardly looking forward to anything, making do with survival, not only turning down but rather running away diligently from any opportunity that remotely presented itself to get his life out of the rut and into a steady secure life. At moments we are not sure if he really lived in the streets or if the streets lived in him.  And like Shaherazad, Shimon is a natural-born narrator who leaves the reader disappointed when he finishes his skilful story-telling.

The second part of the novel outlines a draft of the script that Sam (we are not sure if this is the author or the protagonist) always dreamed of writing in the hope of turning it into a movie, starring Robert De Niro. The script reveals the early part of his life in Iraq, his adolescence and his passion for motion pictures, especially American ones, a fever that he spread to his friends and eventually his own deaf-mute father. His father lives in a parallel reality where he is in love with the Queen of England, and dreams of meeting her one day. His mother is much younger and struggles with the dark realities of their daily life and the hard task of shaking everyone awake from their perpetual dreams and illusions. Again so carefully painted, it depicts Arab society at large and the family with all its peculiarities, myths and superstitions.

In his beautiful prose and seamless writing, Shimon managed to summon many of the characters we see around us in the Arab world and produce them on a canvas that is so realistic that it hurts. Between the lines and within these characters we also see ourselves and wonder where we are headed. Shimon makes fun of the whole exercise, starting from the illusion of emigration to reality, and at times we are grateful for the sarcasm!

What also stands out is Shimon’s ability to narrate without any discernible judgment but rather with compassion for every character depicted that leaves us doubting whether he is really non-judgmental or consumed with the narration, like Sheherazad, for the sake of survival! 

Eraqi fi Paris is definitely recommended and will keep you enthralled until the last page.


Eraqi fi Paris (Iraqi in Paris), Samuel Shimon, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk , 2009. pp.330

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