I am really enjoying the rather wonderful novel by Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights (Faber & Faber), so much so that I am reading it slowly, as is my wont when confronted with beautiful writing and an original tale. Such books deserve to be savoured, they are a surprise, you never know whether the next book you pick up will be one that elicits such a reaction from you.
Brooklyn Heights is the first novel of the critically acclaimed Egyptian author’s to be published in English (it is translated by Sameh Salin, who has done a good job – there is a hum, a trace, of the orginal Arabic cadence behind the English). It is the story of Hend, an Arabic teacher who wants to be a writer, who moves to Brooklyn from Cairo, just as Obama wins his first presidential election in 2008. Her marriage has broken up and her small son has come with her.
The writing is lovely, and I am only just getting to a part where Hend is slowly adapting to this new place and all these new people, she is starting to make friends and perhaps, feel happy, rather than hoping that she will. It is a powerful and realistic portrayal of emigration and the process of adapting to a new place, having physically left the old.
Hend, feeling purposeless, walks and walks, 70 blocks at a time, considering her past (the description of her childhood in a Bedouin compound is fantastic, you can smell the bread baking and hear the noises) and her present (her English is still new and a bit hit and miss, her clever, mischievous son has apparently mastered it and so maybe taken a step away from her). Perhaps her future lies with the various and fascinating ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn, and the women she is beginning to meet there, as she strides their streets. I don’t know, haven’t read that far yet and have no idea what might happen next, to Hend or the story. Which is, like discovering a writer you haven’t read before, actually, quite exciting….
Mortfaat Brooklyn/Brooklyn Heights was awarded the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and nominated for the 2011 Arabic Booker Prize. Her previous works The Tent (1998), Blue Aubergine (2002), Gazelle Tracks (2009) have collectively been translated into many languages including English – hooray!
Miral al-Tahawy was born in Sharqiya in the Egyptian Delta into a Bedouin family of the al-Hanadi tribe. The youngest of seven children, she was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, and Director of the Arabic program at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University.