Sunday, January 20, 2013

Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge .. The Mess that is Egyptian Immigrant Identity!

Review of Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge by Ezzedine Choukri Fishere

As I started reading Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge by EzzedineChoukri Fishere, I found myself thinking of David Guterson’s East of the Mountains. Beautifully written prose of great men coming to terms, with their imminent death, tiding up their worldly affairs and moving on, into the wilderness to face their ends, away from the distractions of their busy successful lives. The book starts with recently diagnosed Professor Darweesh, an accomplished Egyptian American academic, who is planning his departure from New York City after hosting a big birthday dinner for his granddaughter, who is visiting him from Egypt. I had read Fishere’s latest book The Exit’s Gate first and was somewhat surprised at the different pace of Brooklyn, exactly as I had been ten years ago, reading Guterson’s transition from Snow Falling on Cedar to East of the Mountains; from fast moving, taut dramas to a slow reflective, contemplative end of life meanderings.

The first chapter of Brooklyn introduced us to Darweesh’s life and his difficult family relationships. Fishere managed to weave several complex characters with nuances and peculiarities around his central figure. When I finished the first chapter, I was still fully expecting a continuation similar to Guterson’s East of the Mountain, but no! I was in for a surprise, a real treat, other characters came to the fore ... I started to think Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, with multiple family members recounting similar events and also recalled another Egyptian writer Youssif Al Qaid, whose work was my first exposure to a this new class of Egyptian writers employing innovative literary instruments in their work.

Fishere kept on, with each new chapter introducing us to fascinating new people, all connected to Darweesh, mostly through family. So the masterful character development displayed at the first chapter continued, with yet more nuance, more color around extended family and associates, seamlessly connecting to yet, mostly, additional well-rounded characters.

The people we meet in Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge reveal so much to us about the immigrant experience, from the fully assimilated to those distant and estranged, struggling with identity issues. Fishere’s creations are amazingly real; I feel that I have met people like them. After few chapters, I discovered that Brooklyn is not really centered on Darweesh or his illness but rather a collection of sub plots, each focused on its own heroes and only some remotely related to Darweesh. Virtually each of the people we meet is worthy of their own full-length novel, to deal with their lives and their identity struggles. Novelists rarely display the blatantly obvious truth that all human’s life is ultimately, mostly self-centered; Fishere gets it!

Many Egyptian readers would probably learn more, about the tragedy of neighboring Darfur from Fishere’s book as we get to know Darweesh’s son. To American readers, when this wonderful work is ultimately published in English, Darweesh’s son would probably come across, as a typical American worldly type, the sort that is enlists with Peace Corps, a genuinely conscientious college type struggling with the evils in the world, so not the struggles of an immigrant, but those resembling the native born Americans.  The Islamist Dawood, playing at moderation is a character that would shock western readers, but his beliefs would not shock Egyptians so much. Fishere’s creativity and restraint are amazing; restraint comes in, as he feeds us enough about a character, but leaves us hanging, wanting more; it is seductive restraint! With Dawood, we are left unsure of who the man really is, does he suffer from delusions of grandeur or was he really a master terrorist.

With the large number of primary and secondary characters such as those created by Fishere, it is inevitable that some would wind up being carton like, single dimensional, and we do have a small minority of those here, the most obvious for me ,were the overly cruel and overly loving Washington DC immigrants, where the son eventually ceases contact with the father. Perhaps, the single dimensional aspect here, is a mere reflection of the son own development and struggles as the lone brown boy in his school. While Fishere avoided the trap of flowery Arabic with overly repetitive and redundant adjective, some of his words came across, overly distant, almost of the type one would find in a book translated into the Arabic Language rather than actually written in it.

It is hard to review this work without actually “spoiling it”. The literary quality of the writing and the character roundedness are real treats, but we are actually offered a feast, not just a couple of treats; there is immense suspense too, at multiple levels!  Virtually every single chapter, leaves in suspense as to what will happen next to the particular person, not just in the immediate future, but, we are brought into empathizing with the person in total, their relationships, their future, we want them to overcome, to be happy, to manage … to find solace. The suspense is at different levels, will this person make it to the party on time? What will happen to his or her work, life or love affairs? Even Darweesh’s daughter, who we don’t directly meet, we want to know what really influenced her … what it is next for her.

Ezzedine Fishere created a true masterpiece, beautifully crafted and developed. The style is highly unusual, especially for Arabic Literature, but utterly contemporary.  The detail of the places and customs reflect keen observation and pleasure in the subtle details. As I finished the book, I couldn’t help thinking that, published in the English Language, this book would surely be Pulitzer Prize material. And looking back at it, in total, my Guterson and Kingsolver comparisons apply, only to parts, but not to the whole. Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge leaves me with that sense of loss and emptiness that I had reading works of Annie Proulx; The Shipping News, but more so  Accordion Crimes and Close Range. Embrace by Brooklyn Bridge is a very special work, by an amazing writer who has, truly, mastered his craft.

January 20, 2013   

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