Book review: Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge asks what does it mean to be an Arab-American

The Egyptian writer's characters struggle to escape stereotypes and expectations, in Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge.

Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is published by Hoopoe Fiction, American University in Cairo Press.
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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