Book review: A View from ‘Brooklyn Heights’

Ismail Fayed, Friday 10 Dec 2010

In the hands of Miral Al-Tahawy's 'A View from Brooklyn Heights,' winner of prestigious 2010 Naguib Mahfouz award, life as an emigrant is a struggle for harmony one might not win

Brooklyn Heights, Miral Al-Tahawy, Cairo: Dar Merit 2010, pp261

Miral Al-Tahawy’s latest novel is an autumnal narrative taking the form of a cartographic exploration of an Egyptian emigrant and her child in a neighbourhood of New York. 

The central character in the story is an almost middle-aged woman who escapes her native country and ends up in Brooklyn, amidst a plethora of displaced, outcast and diverse ethnic communities. 

Tahawy’s style combines several techniques of storytelling; there is a hint of magical realism, ethnographic writing and a deftly-weaved memoir. Like the narrative, the protagonist is heavy, weary and in a constant state of existentialist ennui. When not in danger of an emotional breakdown, she relishes her own sense of inadequacy and incompetence, in an almost self-exalting manner. 

The story is at its best when Tahawy employs parallelism in the narrative as she explores the neighbourhood of Brooklyn. The reader is at once taken to the bridge, the park, and the avenue, juxtaposed to the village where the character lived and the Cairo her parents used to know. For every cartographic ellipse there is one just the same for her homeland. 

Tahawy has a keen eye as she dissects the various immigrant communities in New York and it seems that she did a great deal of research, not only on the demographic distribution of various immigrants but also on their everyday lives. 

There are a lot of shapes, colours, sounds, languages and religions, and her language is deft enough to capture all these shades and nuances with elegant mastery and calm ease. Yet the high point of her writing comes when she complements her narrative with images of her homeland. 

The hint of magical realism that seeps through the narrative is not the apparent appeal of using fantastical elements, but rather the inherent conviction of the characters in the verity of how they perceive reality. 

As an accomplished writer, Tahawy does not judge what her character thinks or believes when it comes to describing her homeland. Her prose is filled with a certain musicality and vivid imagery, and the protagonist’s nostalgia adds to the entire narrative, reinforcing the idea of narrating through past regression. 

The village she used to know is filled with old women whose lives were shaped by social forces beyond their control. While not exactly a feminist critique of Egypt’s patriarchal society, she endows those women with enough capacity, ingenuity and uniqueness to remove the bitterness of oppression. 

There is the Christian grandmother back in Egypt, taken long ago as a slave girl, and who in spite of never being accepted by the other members of the Muslim family, is respected for her wisdom and “dexterous hands”. The recollection of her Christian grandmother is redolent of the scent of peppermint, camphor and musk. 

Yet the bitterness remains. All through the streets, the bars, and the men she meets and the men she met, the protagonist is at loss as to how to reconcile herself with the men in her life and others around her. She plays different types (the saint, the victim) and still remains at odds with which part she ought to play. She chastises herself for never being able to play the role of the mother or the seductress, and using a lot of cinematic references she describes her life as a stereotype of the good wife, ignorant of how her husband is cheating on her in a Zahrat Al-Ola (Egyptian actress famous for playing the victim) style of drama. 

At the heart of the story is the almost futile attempt of humans to relate to each other and the kind of connection they strive to achieve. In a final coup de grace, the heroine identifies with the life of another Egyptian emigrant who escaped from Egypt a long time ago. She is finally able to “find herself”, but abandons her child. 

The resolution of the story leaves a lot to be desired and one wonders why Tahawy chose that her character should identify with a “minorand dying” character, rather than finally succeeding in creating her own ending. 

Brooklyn Heightsis memorable, not only for giving voice to marginal, oppressed, sometimes silent female characters but for evoking a vanishing world of those forced to leave their homeland. It is filled with the “winds of longing” and distinctive scents. 

The author is a freelance writer 



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