Arab ex­pa­tri­ates in the US re­assess their lives

Egyp­tian writer Ezze­dine Fishere’s char­ac­ters strug­gle to es­cape stereo­types of iden­tity, writes M Lynx Qua­ley

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Pro­fes­sor Dar­wish’s party for his grand­daugh­ter is Godot-es­que: all wait­ing and no ar­rival

Ezze­dine Choukri Fishere is a nov­el­ist fond of the un­like­able. His Em­brace on Brook­lyn Bridge, short­listed for the In­ter­na­tional Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion in 2012, opens from the point of view of a prickly, know-it-all pa­tri­arch. Af­ter that, it moves into the skin of a hap­less quasi-home­less man, and then to that of the pa­tri­arch’s brother-in-law, who sits in New York City’s 9/11 mu­seum in sym­pa­thy with the at­tack­ers.

“Un­like­able peo­ple are more in­ter­est­ing,” Fishere said, over email. “Why are they so de­testable – or an­noy­ing? I want to hear their side of the story, and make it heard.” Fishere, a for­mer diplo­mat and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, is a mas­ter of ex­plor­ing charged po­lit­i­cal ter­ri­to­ries. In this novel, now in vivid trans­la­tion by John Peate, he mines the con­tro­ver­sies and dis­ap­point­ments that unite and di­vide Arab-Amer­i­cans.

The novel is told in eight linked sto­ries, held to­gether by a shared in­vi­ta­tion: all are headed to a party at Pro­fes­sor Dar­wish’s well-ap­pointed New York home. Pro­fes­sor Dar­wish, whose chap­ter opens the novel, doesn’t much care for his fel­low Arabs. He scorns the schol­ars he knew back in Egypt and doesn’t much re­spect his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his for­mer wives, sis­ter and his son. He does have a grudg­ing re­spect for his daugh­ter Leila, but scoffs at what she’s made of her life.

Dar­wish has a cold ad­mi­ra­tion for the Le­banese-Bri­tish his­to­rian Albert Hourani (1915-1993), who was a key op­po­nent of Pales­tinian-Amer­i­can the­o­rist Ed­ward Said (1935-2003). Although our fic­tional Dar­wish doesn’t men­tion Said, it’s clear he would have shook his head in rue­ful dis­may at his book Ori­en­tal­ism and Said’s the­o­ries of west­ern prej­u­dice against the Arab world. Dar­wish’s ex-son-in-law Luq­man, a Said su­per­fan, is among the group headed to­ward the party. Luq­man is a charm­ing, like­able and suc­cess­ful man, which makes him an out­lier in this novel. He’s also in love with a woman who fully re­turns his af­fec­tion. Yet in a book full of missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, even Luq­man can’t catch a happy end­ing. One of the most pow­er­ful chap­ters is the third, voiced by Dar­wish’s brother-in-law, a for­mer Le­banese mili­tia­man and 9/11 sym­pa­thiser. Fishere has a nee­dle to thread and does a strong job of get­ting be­hind Daoud’s eyes with­out mak­ing his views more palat­able.

Fishere said he didn’t re­alise to what ex­tent the Daoud chap­ter would chal­lenge red lines “un­til it was trans­lated to English. In Ara­bic it sounded or­di­nary.”

He added: “Can Amer­i­can read­ers tran­scend their po­si­tion and un­der­stand the logic of their haters? Or will they be in­dig­nant and con­sider it an at­tempt to jus­tify hate? We shall see.”

Not all the novel’s Arabs are in­ter­ested in schol­ar­ship or ide­ol­ogy. Dar­wish’s son Youssef is a for­mer UN aid worker who quit his job to write a novel. He doesn’t make it on time to his fa­ther’s party be­cause he is wait­ing for a for­mer co-worker at a café, She, in turn, is wait­ing on a de­ci­sion as to whether a UN press re­lease should “regret” or “con­demn” a killing. Youssef re­mem­bers his own frus­trat­ing time in Dar­fur, Su­dan, when the atroc­i­ties he wit­nessed could not be pre­vented, nor even “con­demned”, for all the po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

An­other pow­er­ful pil­lar of the book is Rabab, a sharp at­tor­ney whose chap­ter ar­rives late in the novel. Rabab was slighted in her ca­reer be­cause of her Arab iden­tity, and, by this point in her life, has lit­tle pa­tience for non­sense. In the air­port, she leaps fiercely to the de­fence of Ad­nan, who is ap­par­ently pro­filed by a se­cu­rity agent. They are both, by co­in­ci­dence, head­ing to Dar­wish’s un­lucky party. Both miss the flight, an out­come that the reader has come to ex­pect.

Dar­wish’s grand­daugh­ter Salma, vis­it­ing from Egypt, helms the fi­nal chap­ter. She is the fo­cus of this dis­as­trous gath­er­ing – it is a party for her 21st birth­day – but we know from the open­ing pages that she won’t make it on time. We also know that Dar­wish, Daoud, Leila, and Luq­man are all in­ter­ested in shap­ing her fu­ture. Sweet and mud­dled Salma, on her first big trip alone, isn’t sure whose ideas she will adopt.

A great deal is put on Salma’s young shoul­ders – as though she rep­re­sents, for the book, the fu­ture of all Arabs. Nat­u­rally, Salma has a se­ries of cat­a­strophic dif­fi­cul­ties on her way to her grand­fa­ther Dar­wish’s home.

The party is Godot-es­que: all wait­ing and no ar­rival. Yet as they wait, the char­ac­ters also strug­gle to re­de­fine them­selves, to es­cape the nar­row sto­ries of good and bad Arabs. The re­sult is left open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, yet the au­thor says he hopes the char­ac­ters, “at least some of them, man­age to re­de­fine them­selves in a freer way”.

M Lynx Qua­ley is an edi­tor and book critic. She ed­its the web­site arablit.org.

Em­brace on Brook­lyn Bridge Ezze­dine Choukri Fishere Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo Press, Dh47

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