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   

Friday, January 18, 2013

Zionism .... Nuances and .... Mr. Morsi

Zionism means different things to different people. To most Egyptians, Arabs, Muslims and certainly Palestinians. Zionism is all about dispossession of the Palestinians, about the expulsions of the natives, about occupation, about the settlements and the cruel  eradication of Palestinian villages and history. For the vast majority of Jews, Zionism is about a national identity, of pride in their Jewishness. Jews can't understand how others can view Zionism as racist, when Zionism welcomes Jews of all colors, origins and converts too. The pro Palestinian camps see Zionism as the ultimate form of racism and bigotry, an ideology that usurps the rights the Palestinians to their homes, to their land, to their history based on a superior claim of the Jews, just by virtue of their Jewishness, their "race".

My attempt at making sense of this huge gulf, between the interpretations, leads me to see Zionism as a nationalist movement, with some religious wrappings. Zionism allows an atheist "Jew" to  belong to the Jewish people; so clearly an alternate non-religious identity. This, very point, causes stress in Israel itself, the secularists see Judaism and Jewishishness  more of an overarching identity that accept people of Jewish origins regardless of their religious beliefs or adherence. Whereas, many religious Jews clearly see it differently, for them, faith and the Jewish Law are at the center of their lives.  Other religious Jews accept religion in a fashion that accomodate secular Zionism.

It may be helpful to look at Zionism in three parts, first being the rise of the Jewish people and their identification as a nation, second is the desire for a homeland, third is the choice of Palestine for a homeland. 

With the oppression, the Jews suffered throughout their history, at the hands of whichever majority they lived under, it is hard to stand against their desire to be considered as a nation. The way I see it, what right do I have telling the majority of Kurds or South Sudanese people, they are not a distinct nation? If the majority of Corsican or Basques people wanted to be a separate nation, then that is ultimately, their right. The Jews have plenty of reason to want to proclaim their own identity even before the Holocaust.

Second is the claim to a homeland, where never again Jews can become a minority living under the whims of another majority, at times accommodating and friendly, and at times oppressive but almost always suspicious and watchful. That too is understandable and again if the majority of Jews want it, I am all for it. Even if a minority wants it and don't wish to impose it on others then power to them.

The third, and most troubling aspect is really in what I term "applied Zionism" rather than in Zionism itself, is the choice of Palestine for the homeland. Zionism, a secular nationalist movement, needed to capture the imagination of the non secular, religious Jews and hence the introduction of Palestine rather than East Africa, Tasmania or other relatively unpopulated piece of real estate. In doing so, applied Zionism undermined some of the basic foundations of Zionism, itself.

So today’s' applied Zionism has to wrestle with a sad contradiction, of being a liberation movement and a colonial movement; of being a movement that is race blind towards Jews yet racist towards non Jews!

The Secular advocates of Zionism betrayed their liberal principles to attract more Jews, to protect more Jews, and to liberate more Jews; they mixed their secular vision with biblical history and focused on Palestine and thus gained a great deal of success, that would probably never been possible, had they opted for any other piece of real estate apart from Palestine. The price of this success has to be either giving up the vision of never again facing the possibility of becoming minority, or giving up Zionism as a moral liberation movement and turning it, into a colonial supremacist movement that aims to subjugate the natives forever. This is a moral battle, the Israelis, the Jews, the Zionists must fight, an internal struggle that will forever remain a weight on their conscience. The history of the suffering of the Jews does not actually waive that moral responsibility as some have suggested.

Naturally, the evolution of the meaning of Zionism, both, to Jews and non Jews, does not occur in a vacum, was and continues to be, influenced by events. It is instructive to see, what Zionism mean to a critical player such as Egypt's new democratically elected president  Mr. Mohammad Morsi. Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have a long history of both animosity to Israel and support for Palestine, but has vowed to respect and protect Egypt's peace agreement with Israel.

Mr. Morsi appears to make little distinction between Israelis, Jews or Zionists when he talked of the need to instill "hate of Jews and Zionists" into "our" children. Reflecting on the choice of words "Jews and Zionists", does this come from the tendency to use multiple repetitive words to describe the same thing in Arabic or did Mr. Morsi view Jews as a distinct category from Zionists? My guess is that Mr. Morsi agrees with the first aspect of Zionism, that the Jews are an indeed a nation, regardless of of their beliefs and practices, in a way, he is re-affirming a central aspects of Zionism by projecting his feelings against Jews, all Jews, as distinct identity and as a nation! Mr. Morsi's call for hatred did not leave room for the exclusions of pro Palestine Jewish advocates or even the small fringe of religious Jews who are passionately anti Zionism and anti Israel, so the call clearly shows an all encompassing hate for Jews beyond just support for Palestine.

It may surprise Mr. Morsi to learn that, his own country had several Zionist associations from late in the 19th century and Zionist newspapers operated freely, whereas the lone anti Zionist publication was shut down by the Egyptian Government in the early 1930's as anti Jewish Palestinian propaganda. The president of Egypt may also wish to re-examine how his rhetoric and that of his Muslim Brothers organization and its Palestinian counterparts may have played a role in strengthening the hands of the "RevisionistZionists who worked for an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine. A study of the roots, of topics never discussed in Egypt, such as the massacres of Hebron or Safed may help him understand how hate begets hate. The massacres of Jews and anti Jewish hate may explain how the course of history may have changed but offer no excuse of brutality by of Jewish gangs and Israel, since its founding.

Finally, I wish more Egyptians, Palestinians,  Muslims,  Jews, Israelis, Americans etc. stop using this highly confusing and emotive word "Zionism" as it is shorthand for many contradictory meanings that leads to more confusion and misunderstandings, not clarity. Show, if you must, your hate for Jews directly, like Mr. Morsi did, without having to hide behind the word Zionist, it certainly said more about him than it did about the Jews. Perhaps better still if you are pro Palestinians, express your support and convictions, without falling into racist hate that fuels, yet more hate and fire. For Jews, perhaps, time to re-examine the use of the word Zionism and come to terms with how, what may have started as a nobel vision, operates as violent, oppressive, racist and bigoted reality on the ground.

January 18, 2013
(updated from earlier work)