Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, by Egyptian author Ezzedine C. Fishere Steps into Taboo Territory
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The novelist Ezzedine C. Fishere isn’t afraid to put a toe into taboo territory. Or a foot. Or, in the case of Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, Fishere throws an entire character—Daoud—into the taboo territories of 9/11.
Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, shortlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is now in muscular English translation by John Peate. The book unfolds in eight interlocking stories, voiced by eight people related by blood, love, chance, and hate. All are supposed to attend the twenty-first birthday party of a girl who won’t be there, hosted by a man many of them dread seeing.
As the novel opens, we’re with the eminent, overweening Professor Darwish, who is sure that he knows what’s best for his scholarly field, his children, his granddaughter’s future, and pretty much everyone and everything. Even having terminal cancer scarcely dents his iron-clad self-assurance.
While sorting through his books, Darwish drops a copy of Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. If Hourani and Edward Said (Orientalism) mark the book’s two intellectual poles, then Professor Darwish is firmly on #TeamHourani. In fact, he has previously given out copies of A History of the Arabs to wives and lovers in order to gauge their reactions. Boredom was not acceptable.
After Darwish, we meet his broken, middle-aged son, Youssef, who knows he’s a failure in his father’s eyes. Youssef was a long-time aid worker who, Darwish supposed, probably don’t read much history. “After all,” Darwish muses, “handing out sacks of flour to the needy didn’t require much background research.”
Youssef was supposed to arrive early for Darwish’s party, to help the housekeeper organized. But a former UN colleague who is late meeting him for coffee delays him. She’s in the middle of a sensitive press release, as her bosses remain unsure whether they will “condemn” or “regret” an act of violence. This leads Youssef to remember a night he spent at a refugee camp in Darfur. That evening, militiamen invaded the camp and killed a girl who’d just been telling Youssef about her rape. Both the girl and her sister were brutally burned to death, and their murders recorded on cell-phone video.
Still, Youssef recalls, the UN would not “condemn” these killings. The government of Sudan claimed the killings had stemmed from a family disagreement, and the UN Security Council was torn between those who want to condemn and those who want to “express regret at the incident.”
This bleak, angry humor reappears in the fourth chapter, narrated by Darwish’s brother-in-law Daoud. In his chapter, Daoud goes to the 9/11 museum, where he sits and remembers the satisfaction he felt after the 9/11 attacks. He looks around and thinks the museum is incomplete: “I am the exhibit missing from the memorial of our endless battles here. If whoever runs this place wants to complete the list of exhibits, I can send you one of us to sit here on this wooden bench every day, to complete the picture, in the museum memorializing our shared fate.”
Daoud was not on a New Jersey rooftop celebrating after September 11. But, as a survivor of Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila massacres, he is filled with a sharp anger, which he directs at Americans. Yet while the certainty of Daoud’s beliefs makes him slightly ridiculous, his portrait isn’t a caricature. Indeed, Daoud is perhaps the most fully rounded 9/11 supporter to appear in fiction in English.
Between the Youssef and Daoud chapters, there falls the quiet Rami: newly divorced, newly jobless, quasi-homeless. He clutches his last fourteen dollars as he attempts to make his way to the ill-fated birthday party. Rami is a former student and distant relation of Darwish’s, and his American life is unraveling without him understanding quite how it happened.
After Daoud comes the sweetest chapter, of the titular “embrace.” Here, we are with Salma’s father Luqman and his estranged Dutch soulmate, Marieke. These are the book’s two most appealing characters, and they are firmly on #TeamEdwardSaid, even attending the scholar’s funeral. In this chapter, we finally have two engaging characters who could, it seems, make a relationship work! And yet Embrace isn’t the sort of book to hand out happily-ever-afters.
The next two chapters are in the voice of accountant Adnan and lawyer Rabab, the book’s first point of view from a female character. Rabab, too, is of a prickly nature. Yet this doesn’t make her unlikeable, as her sharp opinions—she hates airports, airport security, bureaucracy, bigotry, annoying conversations, hotel rooms, hotel food—are sympathetic.
The book’s weakness is its final chapter, where we meet Salma. She is believable enough: a half-formed, almost-twenty-one-year-old Egyptian girl on her first solo trip to America, traveling alone between D.C. and New York City. She keeps mixing up the trains, and is terrified by the men around her. But her personality isn’t powerful enough to hold up very end of the book, or to stand as the conclusion to all these missed connections, lost opportunities, dropped calls, and impossible relationships.
If things are this bad—and the book makes them look fairly bleak—what will make life better for Arabs and Arab-Americans?
Fishere is a former diplomat and a political scientist, so one might expect some flourish of bridge-building or answer-giving at the very end of the book. But this is not a novel of solutions. It’s a novel of insistent questions, loud problems, big personalities, and hard opinions. Fishere has gone on to write two more powerful books about Egypt’s challenges: Exit Door (2012) and All That Rubbish (2017). Anglophone readers can hope that these, too, will make it into an English translation in as varied and enjoyable as John Peate’s.