Yasmin Zaher’s Debut Novel Explores Fashion And Fixation

Words by Hafsa Lodi

6 min read

MOJEH reviews The Coin — a newly-released novel about perfection, politics and psychopathy from debut Palestinian author Yasmin Zaher

While Paris-based Palestinian writer Yasmin Zaher was working on her debut fiction book The Coin, she bought herself a Burberry trench coat, much like the one her story’s main character wears. Almost as a form of ‘method’ writing — a term more commonly associated with acting — Yasmin immersed herself in her protagonist, who remains nameless in her book. Unlike Yasmin, though, her protagonist ends up abandoning her Burberry trench into a dustbin on the street, when she believes it has become infested with the germs of New York City — the home she has a love-hate relationship with.

Yasmin’s main character is “simultaneously rich and poor,” as she owns the rights to half of her late father’s estate, which is worth US$28 million — but controlled by monthly payments from her brother. Her on-and-off boyfriend is also wealthy, owning a building that he leases to Salvatore Ferragamo. Fashion plays a pivotal role in The Coin, which dedicates many pages to the main character’s wardrobe. It features a Cucinelli cashmere sweater, Dior hat with a pink ribbon, wide-leg jeans from Gucci and twill trousers from Miu Miu — “enough to look constantly chic and expensive,” writes Yasmin, who tells MOJEH that she referenced Christian Dior’s The Little Dictionary of Fashion when writing descriptions of her characters’ attire. The Coin’s cover image, procured from a luxury footwear campaign, embodies the story’s contemporary city life and, coincidentally, also features a trench coat.

Photographed by Elli Ioannou

“There was one scene where I described everything that was in her closet, and once I saw that inventory, I understood that fashion was going to be a big part of this character,” says Yasmin. “I imagined her walking down a Manhattan avenue — what she would look like, what she would smell like; there was a lot of fantasy.” This fixation on fashion culminates in an elaborate Birkin re-selling scheme, in which Yasmin’s protagonist, with a fake Armenian passport, travels to Europe to buy and re-sell the coveted Hermès bags, along with her friend ‘Trenchcoat’ — who she meets after he serendipitously finds her discarded Burberry coat in the trash and starts wearing it.

“I think I manifested a lot of my fashion fantasies, as a woman, through this character,” says Yasmin. “I tried to show the dark side of fashion, which is connected to the dark side of society, of classism, and how absurd that is when you’re coming from a place where a bag is just a bag, something to put your things in; it’s not a status symbol. And I think with the Birkin, it takes that aspect of fashion to the extreme. I wrote it with a lot of criticism mixed with admiration for these forms of art.”

Fashion effortlessly converges with politics in Yasmin’s prose. Her protagonist’s tone throughout is direct, blunt and even snobbish, laced with sarcasm. Case in point: “I wrapped my Loro Piana scarf around my head and ears, not like Grace Kelly in a convertible but like a hijabi in Islamophobic France.” Witty writing throughout The Coin is imbued with warped ethics, dark humour and social commentary. The protagonist is a teacher in a boys’ school, and makes up her own, unorthodox syllabus. She often lies to her students, such as the time she helps them organise a charity bake sale but then pockets the money because she doesn’t believe in organised charity. Perhaps this is because she is disillusioned by her own Palestinian background, seeing that regardless of charitable initiatives, her country — which she calls “a graveyard” — remains victimised by its oppressive occupiers. “I think at some point I realised that if I wanted to be honest in my exploration of this character’s suffering, then I couldn’t ignore her political background,” explains Yasmin, who interrogates stereotypes through her writing. At one point, her character starts manically throwing stones at her apartment window, and remarks: “I really was a Palestinian, I really was an animal.”

Through candid reflections such as these, Yasmin delves into the identity crisis of her character, whose country of origin perpetually clashes with the country she lives in. “In my family, America was both the key and the curse,” she says of her immigration to the US. Elsewhere she writes of the role America has played in harming Palestinians: “I mean, how could the devil be the dream?” Such ruminations are rarely expanded upon — she does not go into detail regarding trauma, for her heritage is a small fact, not a focal point of the story. “We’re not a homogenous group, there are lots of different kinds of Palestinian people,” explains Yasmin. “Intergenerational trauma expresses itself differently, and I think that’s a very humanising thing.”

The coin is Yasmin’s debut novel

In her main character, Yasmin discerningly crafts a turbulent and at times psychotic woman. She is obsessive about cleanliness, indulging in regular retreats in her bathtub where she scratches “miniature grey snakes” of dead skin from her body. For one bath, she fills the tub with soap, rosemary, cinnamon sticks and a cup of extra virgin olive oil. “I thought it was a bit like I was cooking myself in a soup, and I wondered if I should add more to it, maybe cardamom,” she reflects. She is just as neurotic when cleaning her house — though she can afford to hire help, she doesn’t trust other women to clean her home. She wears gloves on the subway to avoid getting dirty, and has even hemmed up all of her trousers so they do not touch the ground.

“I think seeking cleanliness and order is a way to seek control over one’s life,” says Yasmin. “A lot of people find relief when things are clean, when things are orderly, when things are aesthetically beautiful: when they are dressed well, when their hair is cut well, when they have makeup on. I think it relieves people of some kind of suffering that is connected to the fact that life is chaotic and unpredictable, and can turn very bad at any moment.” The protagonist’s obsessiveness partly stems from the supposed coin that she believes resides somewhere in her body. She narrates a childhood story in which she may have mistakenly swallowed a coin, and blames it for rusting and decomposing inside her. In a manner that resembles the story of The Princess and the Pea, she can’t shake the feeling that this shekel coin is responsible for her lingering discomfort and imaginary impurities.

As the protagonist grows further unhinged, deeper questions about identity come to the fore. “Maybe pretence was all there was,” she reflects. “Fashion is pretence, education is pretence, personality too is a form of internalised pretence. I wondered what my true essence would be, if I were solitary, in nature, untamed and unconditioned.” Ultimately, she embarks on this experiment, giving up her designer clothing and comforts of modernity for a more primitive way of living, testing the extremities she is able to reach. Yasmin daringly stretches the story to these extremes, making for a truly relishable read. For while she may not be conventionally likeable, readers become thoroughly invested in the main character, bearing witness to her unravelling from the first page to the very last. Shop now

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