‘Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge’ and Crafting 9/11 Supporters That Aren’t Caricatures

Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge is a novel that courts controversy, and Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is a novelist who isn’t afraid to engage unlikable — or even despicable — characters:

The novelist Ezzedine C. Fishere isn’t afraid to put a toe into taboo territory. Or a foot. Or, in the case of Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, Fishere throws an entire character—Daoud—into the taboo territories of 9/11.

Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, shortlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is now in muscular English translation by John Peate. The book unfolds in eight interlocking stories, voiced by eight people related by blood, love, chance, and hate. All are supposed to attend the twenty-first birthday party of a girl who won’t be there, hosted by a man many of them dread seeing.

As the novel opens, we’re with the eminent, overweening Professor Darwish, who is sure that he knows what’s best for his scholarly field, his children, his granddaughter’s future, and pretty much everyone and everything. Even having terminal cancer scarcely dents his iron-clad self-assurance.

While sorting through his books, Darwish drops a copy of Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. If Hourani and Edward Said (Orientalism) mark the book’s two intellectual poles, then Professor Darwish is firmly on #TeamHourani. In fact, he has previously given out copies of A History of the Arabs to wives and lovers in order to gauge their reactions. You can read a full-length review of the novel at Bookwitty or The National. 

Tomorrow, ArabLit will run a Q&A about the translation process with John Peate, who brought Embrace into English. Today, we have excerpts from an interview with Fishere that ran on Book Riot.

I see you as a master of unlikable characters. Not all of them were utterly exasperating, but in a contest between Darwish and his brother-in-law Daoud I couldn’t say who was more infuriating. (Okay, I lie, I found Darwish more infuriating.) What’s your interest in the unlikable/unpopular/taboo? Unless you don’t see them that way…

ECF: My novels are about the world we live in. Be honest: how many likeable characters do you have in your life compared to the unlikable ones? How many people do you meet and wish you could just punch in the face? Or, if you are not prone to physical violence, push a button and make them vanish? I tell stories about our lives. I tell the stories of these unlikables too. Unlikable people are more interesting: why are they so detestable – or annoying? Were they born that way or did something turn them into what they have become. In other words: what is their story? I want to hear their side of the story, and make it heard.

Although there is a good deal of 9/11 literature, there are very few (if any?) well-drawn Daoud-esque literary characters, either written in English or translated into English. Why do you suppose that is? Or perhaps you’ve seen others? 

ECF: It is a risky endeavor. Someone who is not fluently immersed in Arabic language and culture would find it difficult to grasp the Daoudesque logic without falling into an Orientalist cliché or another (did I?). Arab novelists, on the other hand, come from the other side of Daoud. And they probably don’t empathize enough with these types to produce a well-rounded, convincing, believable Daoud. You need a subversive writer, who likes to put unlikable characters on stage, in order to produce that. And I have done it before; you have a whole bunch of Daouds in Abu Omar El-Masry (2010). And when a bearded middle-aged man took me aside after a book discussion in Cairo University and told me he had been in Afghanistan and met some of the “brothers” I mentioned in the novel, I was elated. Obviously, I had no idea who he meant; but it was the best confirmation that my characters were real enough to point him in the direction of real-life Islamist fighters.

 At some of the blackest moments, there is also teeth-gritting, wincing humor. “Condemn or regret?” for instance. Are there moments you find funniest? Daoud seems to me, in a certain light, entirely funny, although finding him funny also seems taboo. Really, that whole chapter feels like you’re flaunting a giant red line.

ECF: I find irony in everything, including in tragedy – maybe because it is repetitive and predictable and people involved in it takes it and themselves too seriously. But irony and sarcasm are dangerous devices. And I have a fleeting sense that my fondness of irony will one day cause my demise.

Daoud and Goliath chapter does flaunt a giant red line, and I haven’t realized that until it was translated to English. In Arabic it sounded ordinary. You know, in the Arab World it is not only terrorists who have deep-seated grievances against the West and America. But when I saw the text emerge in English I could feel the red lines beaming beneath the words, and I am still unsure whether these lines are crossed. Can American readers transcend their position and understand the logic of their haters? Or will they be indignant and consider it an attempt to justify hate? We shall see.

Read the whole interview at Book Riot.

Tomorrow, ArabLit will have the Q&A with John Peate.