The Philistine by Leila Marshy

Montrealer Leila Marshy is of Palestinian-Newfoundland heritage and The Philistine (2018, Linda Leith Publishing) is her first novel. The Philistine is the story of Nadia Eid, the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Scottish-Canadian woman. Her father, Bishara, lives mostly in Egypt where he works for British Petroleum, so Nadia has seen very little of him over the years. She lives with her boyfriend Daniel, in Montreal the city of her birth.

“It is fascinating to me how a sense of belonging and home can snake through generations and still remain real and urgent.”

Leila Marshy
One day, she sees a poster for a seat sale on flights to Egypt. She decides to go, but without Daniel. She wants to be with her father and other family members living there. In late 1987, she boards a plane and after a couple of flight changes, she disembarks in Cairo:

Cairo tackled her like an angry dog, knocked the wind out of her lungs. From the first step on the tarmac to the drive to the hotel to the collapse on her bed, she moved as if through an oven, no corner cooler than the next.

Escaping the confines of her of her hotel room after a brief illness, she encounters an English speaking man in front of an art gallery that is hosting a vernissage, or a private viewing. Wanting to get out of the oppressive heat, Nadia enters the gallery. There she meets Manal, a gallery employee and the woman who will change her life and in the process, help her discover not only the realities of Egypt (“In Egypt, you can be either two things. Either a vulture or a corpse.”) but find herself in a way she never expected.

A general view of a street in downtown Cairo, Egypt March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany – RTX30OAU

Initially only a three-week trip, Nadia extends her stay, not only because of Manal but her relationship with her father is growing as well.

“You should have come to Cairo much sooner. It suits you to be here, ya Nadia.”

Nadia’s gradual understanding of the Palestinian cause compels her to want to learn more about this heretofore unknown side of her father and his past, as well as the work he is now doing with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian organization founded by Yasser Arafat’s brother Fathi.

The Philistine educates the reader as to the conditions of life in Egypt (at least as they were in the late 80’s) and the difficulties of anyone making any kind of life for themselves, let alone a female artist. Nadia is Manal’s muse, encouraging her to see herself as an artist, even obtaining and filling out all the application papers for various art schools internationally.

“I can’t believe I am doing this,” Manal said as they walked back from the post office. “I always wanted to be an artist, now I am an artist. I always wanted to study abroad, now I am applying.” She took Nadia’s arm and tucked it under own. “It is because of you.”

In return, Manal reveals the real Egypt to Nadia and it’s few opportunities for women to advance. Nadia holds out hope for Manal, but Manal is realistic and cannot continue believing in Nadia’s dreams for her or them.

Watch the trailer for The Philistine

A sensitive, artistically wrought story on several levels, The Philistine had me eager to return to it time after time. It was one of those reads that turned out better than expected, although I certainly didn’t have low expectations for it. One never knows with a first novel. Will it be interesting and well-written enough that you want to read the author’s next book? Or do you hope (or even care if) the author never writes another word? I can definitely state that The Philistine and Ms. Marshy fall into the first category. A five-star debut and The Philistine goes on the 2019 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award in both the Fiction and First Book categories.

The Philistine by Leila Marshy
Linda Leith Publishing

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Q & A With the Author (text supplied by Linda Leith Publishing)

WHEN DID YOU START WRITING THE PHILISTINE?

I lived in Egypt for three years in my late 20s and was struck by the ache of being ambitious in a society where resources and social structures don’t support that. Not because it’s Muslim, but simply because it’s poor. There is only a small middle class and few institutions that can nurture talent. Stories like Manal’s touched me deeply.

And it’s not just women, but men too. Lives unrealized, talents never unfurled.

NADIA AND MANAL’S RELATIONSHIP IS AT THE CENTRE OF THE NOVEL. IS THAT REALISTIC FOR THE MIDDLE EAST?

You’d be surprised. There are a lot of subcultures in the Middle East that are more or less tolerated at any given time. Manal and Nadia are attracted to each other, and because of how intimacy between genders is normalized, they find a lot of space to be together. But there is more to their relationship. Manal is thrilled to befriend a foreigner who will make her dream feel more attainable. And Nadia is excited to make an Egyptian friend. It makes her feel more rooted and helps hurl her onto a path she didn’t quite expect or admit.

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE TITLE?

In transliterated Arabic, philistine (or filisteen) means Palestinian. Nadia struggles with finding her Palestinian father and coming to terms with her Palestinian identity.

The Philistines were an ancient people of Palestine. Using that word is a way of countering the narrative that Israel belongs only to the descendants of the ancient Hebrew tribe. It also belongs to the descendants of the Philistines, who folded into the people who became the Palestinians, and who never left until forced to.

I also wanted to make reference to the definition of philistine as uncultured and uncouth. Because of the paucity of her options, Manal’s life will become one of imposed philistinism. From a privileged Western perspective, it would be very easy to judge her from a distance and call her a philistine.

HOW HAS YOUR BACKGROUND INFORMED THIS STORY?

I grew up in Montreal with a Palestinian father and a mother from Newfoundland. They met in Newfoundland when he came to Canada as a refugee. He was a “radio repair man” so had this idea that if he repaired radios on the American Army base in Stephenville he could then go to New York City, his ultimate dream. Instead, roads diverged and he and my mother had five children in a Montreal suburb. We went to Lebanon as kids, where some of his family are, but he died without ever being able to return to his hometown in what is now Israel.

I think this story is one long return. It is fascinating to me how a sense of belonging and home can snake through generations and still remain real and urgent.

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2 thoughts on “The Philistine by Leila Marshy”

  1. I’ve read a few really impressive volumes from this publisher, so this one, too, is of considerable interest. Also, stories about belonging are so intense: what rich territory!

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