The notebook meanwhile remained innocent of writing. She sketched one self-portrait after another in charcoal on the white pages, images of a woman with hollow cheeks and a long nose and curly black hair, hands clasped to her withered breast — a solitary woman on the threshold of winter.
That description is not actually of Hend, the protagonist of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights: it’s of Lilith, one of the women we meet as we follow Hend in her wanderings around Brooklyn, where she has emigrated to from Egypt with her young son. Later, though, when Hend rifles through the books and papers Lilith leaves behind after her death, “a feeling of déjà vu sweeps over her”:
‘Emilia, I know these papers. . . .’ And I know that I’ve written every word in them myself, she thinks. This is my handwriting, they belong to me. . . . ‘I feel like I’ve lived all this before, that these letters are mine, these words are mine.’
Her friend Emilia is unmoved: “When you get to be my age,” she tells Hend, “you’ll realize that everything starts to look and feel the same when you’re old.” It’s not, in other words, a clever meta-fictional moment in which we are sent back to the beginning of Hend’s story to reconsider it as Lilith’s: it’s an acknowledgment of kinship across stories and lives.
The whole novel, which is both beautiful and melancholy, both bitter and touching, is made up of moments like that: encounters that awaken memories or evoke connections. There’s little plot in Brooklyn Heights, but that’s not to say nothing happens as we follow Hend around; it’s just that the happenings are more often in her past than her present, and as likely to be in the Egypt she has left as in the America where she has settled. People she meets remind her of those she used to know; places she visits take her back, in her mind, to where she used to be. Her wanderings through Brooklyn come to seem metaphorical, not just for Hend’s own journey through life but for all of ours, as the various elements that make up our histories and identities come and go.
Hend’s loneliness is profound, individual to her unique experience but also familiar; she is haunted by “a feeling of emptiness and futility and a yearning to share her loneliness with another human being.” But the new friendships she makes are fraught and impermanent, while her old relationships have simply “vanished from her life without a trace,” like the unfaithful husband who “walked out the door and never came back.” She lives a strange, sad, fragmented life that is nonetheless full of intensity:
Here in Brooklyn, she waits for the phone to ring or for a strange women to smile at her on the street. She doesn’t see Fatima any more either. “Everybody in this city is running around after something. Everybody is busy,” she would say to make herself feel better. She walks alone towards Atlantic Avenue. The winter rain falls steadily and the homeless people hide in the subway station or make a quick dash for the Dunkin’ Donuts. They sit alone and glance longingly at strangers with whom they hope to exchange a smile or a few words. The rain falls on the glass windows of the coffee shop and she watches the solitary drops and thinks how closely she fits in with the wretchedness around her. As she walks down the long avenue she passes the halal butchers, the Islamic Center, and the stores that sell fragrant oils and religious books about the torments of hell, pilgrimage clothes and velvet Meccan prayer rugs and short white Pakistani jalabas and so many different kinds of headscarves. Sometimes she rides the bus from Atlantic Avenue in the north of Brooklyn to Coney Island or Brighton Beach in the south. She sits next to the window and remembers how she used to love watching the world go by from the window of the old Cadillac. She stays on the bus till the end of the line and then rides back again, without getting off.
Her experience is highly specific, from the stories of her childhood in a Bedouin village to the dance class she takes in Brooklyn at the urging of a neighbor whose friendship subsides once Hend refuses his sexual overtures:
He had tried to convince her of the truth that love and hate mean nothing in the dance as in life, and that all she had to do was relax the muscles of her mind and give her body a chance to express itself, but Hend wasn’t convinced. The fragile spell cast by the wine and the circle of dancers was broken and Charlie went back to being a clay frog of a man she didn’t love.
Somehow the meticulous details do not restrict the novel’s meaning to Hend, though: without ever overtly pushing us towards universality, al-Tahawy seems to me to reveal it, in Hend’s yearning for companionship, in her puzzlement over her own unstable identity, her difficulty recognizing her self in her thoughts, or in her mirror. The other stories in the novel — of Lilith, of Hend’s family, of the retired bakery owner Naguib al-Khalili and his nephew, Ziyad, who “come to America to study film-making, but the real world got the better of him and he began to work full time in the bakery with his uncle” — are all also highly individualized, and yet they also play variations on Hend’s themes of displacement, memory, and identity, so that the book as a whole feels unified despite its episodic structure.
Brooklyn Heights has an elegaic quality: Hend is not old, but she is aging and unwell, and there is no sense in the novel of a new life unfolding in the new land she has come to. She believes herself born under an unlucky star: “it happens,” she thinks,
that you’re born on a summer night and suddenly find that you’ve been taken hostage by a star: always moving in the wrong direction, always pretending to be strong when in reality you quake in mortal fear, always wanting things but never reaching out for them, never knowing the difference between truth and illusion.
“The patterns traced by the stars gave some measure of meaning to her life,” but not any hope or confidence: Hend is constantly in motion but she’s not on a quest, not going anywhere except to return. She dreamed of being an actress; she thought, too, that she would be a writer: “all she wanted to do was write, so much so that she felt she would die if the bitter mountain of words stayed trapped inside her.” But she finds “writing is intractable, like a wounded woman, and at some point she realized that, after all was said and done, she was incapable of healing those wounds.” It’s not hard to imagine a different version of Brooklyn Heights that takes the hint from that moment and turns the novel into her novel. I was glad, though, that al-Tahawy does not offer us that facile reassurance that sorrow transmutes into art. There’s something beautiful about the bleakness of Hend’s meandering, and it seems fitting to be left with her on that cold threshold.