The Birthday Party
Fishere’s novel Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, shortlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, depicts a profound state of homelessness. Its characters live in a condition of constant migration between the past and the present, between fantasy and reality, between East and West. The plot device that connects the different characters is their destination: they are all heading to the same birthday party in New York. They each face loss: the loss of an idealized version of oneself, of one’s homeland, of one’s past. Flashes of Edward Said’s brilliance illuminate some dark corners of the novel, yet, it is Said’s death that is deeply mourned that is at its heart. In a post-modern, post-Orientalist, post-9/11 world, the novel describes the relationship between the “West” and its “East” not so much as a deadly grip but as an embrace. Suspended, stuck, and still the characters’ inner conflicts are intricately intertwined with the cultural and political dynamics of their time.
The identity crisis so keenly experienced by some of the characters in the novel is as personal as it is political. For example, “Darwish’s book” in the first chapter is Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples. Now dying of lung cancer, Professor Darwish begins to ponder the figurative cancer in all of his failed relationships. Hourani’s book opens a window into this dark world. It was first a gift from Darwish to his British girlfriend, Jane, to show her that flaws in Egyptian society (such as institutionalized nepotism, the disregard of law, and bribery) were historical rather than innate. He accuses her of acting like “a permanent tourist” in an enchanted land while she, in turn, tells him that her fascination with “the East’s mystique” mirrors his own naïve faith in the West’s rationalism. But do Arabs live with their own moral codes in a parallel universe, where rules of public conduct, integrity, and honesty should not apply? Darwish turns to Hourani’s book for the answer to this question and many others in his life.
Throughout the novel, translation is used as a trope to describe the characters’ marginality. In “Turning to Mark”, the complex web of Rami’s life begins to unravel when he trusts his elder daughter, Sasha, with his feelings. Loneliness, he tells her, is entering an endless process of translation, “not just of words but of concepts”, and “to be somewhere while everyone you love is somewhere else”. Loneliness is to have “to cross a bridge” every time you need to say something. This confirms Sasha’s suspicions that her quiet father “has never really loved them, but has simply been sharing his life with them”. When she confides these thoughts to her younger sister, Martha, they both agree that while a “normal” person responds to a mid-life crisis by taking a lover or cheating on his wife, “weird immigrants”, such as their father, start fantasizing about going “home”. Declaring their crazed father a threat to their way of life, they cut ties with him. Meanwhile, Rami discovers that there is no “home” to return to, that he is nostalgic for an imagined place that exists only in black and white movies and childhood memories. He is, therefore, condemned to a state of non-being, neither here nor there.
The novel focuses on intersections rather than contradictions between the old and the new world. In the chapter “Goliath’s Forehead”, Dawood (David in English) describes his anguish in a highly-formalized, archaic and pedantic Arabic. Dawood grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in West Beirut where he witnessed horrendous acts of cruelty inflicted on unarmed civilians. Completely at home in an Islamist, Jihadist discourse and disillusioned by the West’s systematic violation of human rights, he adopts David’s stance towards Goliath. Dawood sees that the moral of the story of David and Goliath is not the triumph of good over evil but their coexistence. Because “we are the sons of David” and “you are the sons of Goliath”, the more “you hate us, the more close-knit and strong-minded we become, which makes you even more vigilant, even more vindictive. And so on and so forth until we are locked into this deadly embrace.” Dawood sees this “embrace” as the manifestation of the will of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
As much as the novel warns against glorifying and romanticizing one’s homeland, it also dismantles one of the fundamental myths of the West: its pluralism. Several chapters expose the systemic discrimination that people of Arab descent experience in the United States. One such example is Adnaan Fikry in the chapter “Quincy Adams Elementary School”. On the day he plans to visit his old school in Washington DC, Adnaan finds out that Adams Morgan, the name of the school’s district, does not refer to any specific person, but to two elementary schools: Quincy Adams, for whites, and Thomas Morgan, for blacks. Adnaan’s admission into Quincy Adams in no way signalled his admission into white culture. Because he was bullied as a child due to his foreignness, he believes that there are countless forms of discrimination that cannot be outlawed. For Rabaab al-Imary, a hot-headed civil rights lawyer Adnaan is stuck with at the airport, this “nonsense is part of the problem”. Yet, when later she is unceremoniously ignored by incompetent airline staff, she realizes that their dislike and disdain would not constitute evidence in a court of law. Adnaan and Rabaab, so opposite in temperament, represent cracks in the American multicultural façade.
Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge is a remarkable novel for its style, its plot, and its reach into the experience of straddling two worlds and two states of being. The bridge is a symbol of the characters’ liminality and their inability to fully assimilate into one world. Translation, immigration, and homelessness are the tropes through which the novel combines both a fundamentally Arab aesthetic with a universal sense of loss. When one of the characters weeps uncontrollably at Edward Said’s funeral, he does not know if he is crying “for the living or for the dead or for the unattainable”. The living, the dead and the unattainable all haunt the pages of Fishere’s novel. More ominous than it is tragic, the novel accurately represents the milieu and the malaise of the twenty-first century.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN BANIPAL MAGAZINE, 2012