Booker shortlisted: Embrace over Brooklyn Bridge

Mary Mourad, Tuesday 13 Sep 2011

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's latest novel, nominated by the publisher for the Arabic Booker, takes the conflict of Arabs abroad into a new dimension


Enak ala jisr Brooklyn (Embrace over Brooklyn Bridge) by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Cairo: Dar Al-Ain, 2011,pp 219.

While the world is getting ready to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's latest novel takes a deeper view at the world of Arabs abroad in a setting near New York's fallen towers: Brooklyn. "Embrace over Brooklyn Bridge” is Choukri's fifth work in a series of books tackling the issues of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

This time Choukri Fishere has left the topic to one side, except for a small section of the book. The central event of the novel is a party which a grandfather is planning in order to celebrate his granddaughter's birthday, inviting relatives and friends from all over the country. Each of the eight characters tell their own story while going to or planning their trip to the party.

Choukri Fishere travels between Egypt, Holland, Sudan and of course the US where the main event takes place, telling the story of people struggling to find understanding.

The theme of the clash of civilizations - or rather the conflict of cultures - recurs throughout, displayed in different ways, including two extremes: a sad ending of a love relationship over the Brooklyn bridge, and in another case, hatred and vengeance, in the form of a man who claims to be fully knowledgeable of the motivations and actors of the 9/11 attacks.

Another recurring theme is that of the failure to adapt, portrayed in the character of a family who migrated and while seeking to achieve a certain status in society, and failed to see that this would create conflict internally.

Another is a daughter who flees the US to return to Egypt, taking the veil and refusing to have anything to do with the West or the US. The struggle of Arabs Muslims abroad comes to life in a number of Choukri Fishere's chapters, portrayed through successful people who still have to face difficulties related to their backgrounds.

The usual Western dream portrayed in most of the immigration literature, the migration-to-the-north type, is not what Choukri Fishere is concerned with. According to Choukri Fishere, the West represents "an alternative lifestyle" that some would prefer while others don't, not so much the ultimate dream of new life, success and being saved from poverty. This point of view diverges from traditional literature which presents a world free of borders, where characters are free to come and go without deprivation or struggle for money or survival, but rather travel for the immaterial qualities present in one place and not the other.

Brooklyn here represents the symbol of the Arab immigrants without carrying their usual stereotypical qualities. As in other works by Choukri, each section of the novel is concerned with one character, sometimes speaking in first person. But quite unlike any of his previous novels, the setting and stories barely touch on the topic of Islamism and terrorism.

Only in one incident does Choukri Fishere touches on the Darfur crisis, presenting the inhuman side of struggle, but the chapter is quite remote from the rest of the book and the theme is used to explain one character's search for peace and ends in him finding only struggle, linking it back to the master theme of the novel.

Not all the stories and characters are equally developed. The grandfather is by far the most detailed character and his story could very well stand as a book by itself. The love story ending over the Brooklyn bridge, though one might expect it to be a central scene, doesn't quite get there, with the rough portrayals of the characters leaving more to be guessed than known, and leading to various possible conclusions. One that comes to mind is that the conflict of cultures and the deep roots one carries around are not so easily overcome, even by love.

Choukri Fishere offers no simple solutions to his characters and doesn't try to preach in one way or another, but rather to flash a light on a different dimension and let his heroes do the talking. The last story represents the ultimate outcome of this conflict of cultures, with a young Egyptian girl, the granddaughter, losing her way while returning to Brooklyn, chased by three men described as "black" and failing to get help from the police who find the word "black" offensive, leaving her to a dark destiny with a deep wound on an unknown platform in an alien country.

The dark ending isn't exactly the tradition of Choukri Fishere's writing, usually kept open-ended. It could well be a reflection of Choukri's overall perception at the time of writing, matching his articles written towards the end of 2010, holding little hope for the future. According to Choukri Fishere himself, "I didn't perceive anything with optimism; I was very pessimistic and didn't predict the revolution."

Short link: