Review: ‘Arabic Booker’-shortlisted ‘Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge’

By Mohga Hassib

In his latest, International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel, Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere takes a different direction from his previous, politically driven writings. The text brings into focus the cultural struggle that Arab immigrants experience in Western societies from Arab points of view. The novel opens with the narrative of Darwish, a grandfather and retired professor who is throwing a dinner party for his soon-to-be-twenty-one-year-old granddaughter Salma, who will be arriving from Egypt.

The events unfold, and we come to read about the ironic life of each of the dinner party guests in every chapter. All the characters are linked to one another through their acquaintance with Darwish.

Each character is a victim of his own decisions. Darwish, with his overly critical personality and multiple marriages, becomes an estranged father to his children. Youssef and Leila, Darwish’s children, grow to be filled with anger and alienation from their own societies, as do several other friends on whose lives the professor left a mark. Fishere focuses on eight central characters, the most interesting of which is Rami. He struggles on the psychological and personal level, and his honesty makes his family turn against him so that he becomes an outsider in the United States and Egypt.

Fishere was himself a foreign student in Paris, Ottawa and Montreal during his education, and bringing his struggles to life could have been one source of inspiration. The author contrives to keep the readers engaged in every minute detail of the characters’ past, present, and thoughts while carefully shifting his style from omniscient to first person. The characters are frustrating in that they consistently fail to grasp the opportunities presented to them: We are only reading their life journey until they reach the dinner party. All we witness is their downfall and not how they rise again. But the author manages to allow the readers to commiserate with the characters despite their passivity.

The novel centers on the theme of alienation from home and family. The characters, who are brought up in Egypt and end up working abroad, struggle to fit into Western society and also struggle to fit back in their own culture. Fishere structures each chapter around the life of one of Darwish’s party guests. Their arrival at this party, in a way, means the arrival to end of their own fortune. The text has traces of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; the stories are independent life journeys that build on each other to fall under the main narrative of arriving at the party’s destination.

The novel speaks to a lot of people at the moment that have had to migrate to make a living, and readers are able to sympathize with the psychological and social struggle the characters undergo. Lokman puts in perspective how he survives the atrocities he witnesses on a daily basis in his home country when he says to Marique: “it is simple, there is nothing great in it at all. You grow up and find yourself under the wheels of a cruel system that crushes whoever it crosses over, and when it crushes you the first time you scream from the pain, but you have to get up and walk, even on one foot. Do you sometimes watch war movies? Do you see how a person copes with the worst circumstances? This is the general notion, and we are all this man or this woman: no matter how bad things get, you attempt to finish the day that started, what else can you do?” This explains how he accepts his passivity.

Fishere does not follow a linear order of events in his book. The plot shifts from past to present to reveal each character’s misfortune and how their insecurities and sense of loss brings about their destruction. As the characters reach the moment of self-realization, an incredible twist of fate brings complications on them until they lose almost everything they worked for their entire life. Ironically, none of the guests makes it to the dinner party.

Only in the final chapter does Salma, Darwish’s granddaughter, continuously ask for help and actively defend herself. Still, the other characters’ negligence results in her apparently tragic end.

The book leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. Readers will be captivated by the surge of conflicting emotions of forbidden love, struggle, lost dreams and solitude.

Mohga Hassib is an English and Comparative Literature graduate student at American University in Cairo. She has been president of the university’s literature club since fall 2011.