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Imagined audience and the reception of world literature: reading Brooklyn Heights and Chicago.

This article argues that transnational Arab authors' envisaging of their national and international audiences and awareness of the contexts surrounding the reception of their texts impact the thematic and technical choices they make. These choices deliberately induce postcolonialist readings of these texts, set in motion through animating dialectical encounters of the self and the other within contexts of uneven power relations. Following a brief discussion of problems of, and insights into, the production, translation, and reception of transnational texts, the author offers readings of al-Tahawy's Brooklyn Heights and al-Aswani's Chicago which illustrate the theoretical issues raised earlier.


After closely examining various problems of world literature, J. Hillis Miller concludes that "[i]t is better to read and teach The Dream of the Red Chamber in translation than not read it at all" (561). The production, circulation, and reception of transnational texts have been the target of numerous critical and theoretical investigations. These investigations have revealed a wide range of problems and concerns, all of which are applicable to transnational Arabic texts. In spite of the serious issues that have been raised, few critics have reached a different conclusion than Miller's. Instead, efforts have been made to guard against reductionist readings of transnational texts that ignore the contexts within which these texts are produced, translated, and consumed. This article argues that transnational Arab authors' envisaging of their national and international audiences and awareness of the contexts surrounding the reception of their texts impact the thematic and technical choices they make. These choices deliberately induce postcolonialist readings of these texts, set in motion through animating dialectical encounters of the self and the other within contexts of uneven power relations. Occidentalism, as defined by Hasan Hanafi, turns the self into a studying subject and the other into the object of study. As it interprets its own situation and position, the self resists the imposing structures and desires of colonial mimicry (uncritical mimicry of the other) and blind nostalgia for the pre-colonial.

Following a brief discussion of problems of, and insights into, the production, translation, and reception of transnational texts, I offer readings of two Egyptian novels by Miral al-Tahawy and Alaa alAswany. I chose these two novels because they were written after their respective authors had achieved international recognition through translation into the so-called major European languages. The two authors' reaction to a global and unknown international readership is apparent in shifting the setting of the two novels from Egypt to post-9/11 New York and Chicago. These new locales are symptoms of new configurations and the dialectic between the national and international literary scene. Transnational Arabic literature is predicated on a critique of the postcolonial Arab nation which has achieved independence, but not liberation, from its past, on the one hand; and on the other hand, it challenges persisting postcolonial conditions in the Arab nations. These changing arrangements and accommodations have inflected and refashioned the national and global imaginary in such a way as to resist internalizing Orientalist tropes.

Postcolonialism and World Literature: Beyond the Euphoria of Decentring the European Canon

The translation of the category of "Weltliteratur" has significantly shifted since Goethe first named the concept in 1827. The category no longer includes (Western) literary masterpieces, to which Goethe was referring; it now refers, at least in theory, to the national literatures of the entire globe. World literature's detachment from its Eurocentric presupposition has been a welcome development. However, its susceptibility to commodification has stirred numerous concerns about the production, circulation, and consumption of texts in the global literary marketplaces. World literature has emerged as a full-fledged discipline connected to, but distinct from, postcolonial studies and comparative literature. Ample critical attention has been directed to defining world literature; theorizing it as a distinct paradigm; exploring its intersections with globalization, translation studies, and area studies; and investigating its curricular uses and misuses. Reception is a problematic issue for world literature, which Stephen Owen tackles in "What Is World Poetry?" The article focuses on the international reception of Chinese poetry, but a number of important theoretical observations applicable to transcultural literature in general emerge from his investigation.

Owen's argument is premised on the claim that "no poet has made a poem for himself or herself alone" (28). Poets, indeed all authors, imagine who would read their work and how they would react to it. Owen contends that although the real audience is milder than its ruthless, intimidating imagined counterpart, it is the imaginary audience that has "the greater power to shape the direction that a poet's work will take" (28). Authors who do not write in English "must ... [envisage] audiences who will read their work in translation" (28). They must cater to their imagined audience's "desire for local color" and accessible, "universal images" (28). This often results in the deliberate production of texts that "translate themselves," "travel well," free themselves from local contexts, and even appear foreign to national audiences (31).

Owen has been repeatedly criticized for the opinions he articulates in this article. Perhaps his harshest critic is Rey Chow who accuses Owen of racism, Orientalism, and absence of theoretical rigor: "Owen's real complaint is that he is the victim of a monstrous world order in front of which a sulking impotence like his is the only claim to truth" (qtd. in Damrosch 20). Owen's account may sound gloomy, but the theoretical concerns he raises are far from trivial. Traveling well or "gaining] in translation," as David Damrosch puts it, are defining characteristics of world literature (281). Authors do write with audiences in mind. They may seek their approval or deliberately provoke or challenge them. They may try to educate them or settle with solely entertaining them. They may attempt to appeal to their intellects or simply stir their sentiments. Moreover, authors often envisage the critical reception of their work. Virginia Woolf's frightened prediction of the reception of A Room of One's Own by critics, journalists, and female readers is a case in point. In her diary, she predicts that she will "get no criticism, except the evasive jocular type," that "the press will be kind" to her, that she will "get a good many letters from young women," and that her work will not be "taken seriously" (vii). Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert also discuss the female author's "need of a female audience" and "fear of antagonism of male readers" (50). Samira Aghacy similarly explains the pressure on female Arab authors to please male critics and readers, and be incorporated into the nationalist discourse, which almost always results in the marginalization of women's writing and produces more obstacles to the feminist movement (12-13). Thus, it is not inconceivable for authors to make conscious thematic and technical choices based on the anticipated reception of critics, colleagues, and readers.

A productive investment on the issues Owen raises could be made by asking a different set of critical questions: How can investigating the anticipated reception of the work of literature shed light on its interpretation? Could authors' imagined reception of their texts help avoid potential reductionist readings of these texts? Do transnational authors simply liberate their texts from local contexts, or do they lend them global, often prefabricated, inflections that make them more relatable, readable, and valuable, both nationally and internationally? From a technical point of view, what impact do language, imagery, tone, and setting have on the conditions of the work's reception?

In the particular case of the reception of Arabic literature in the West, a picture similar to Owen's emerges. Amal Amireh's seminal article "Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World" demonstrates this well. Amireh argues that the reception of El Saadawi's work in the West "has been overdetermined by the political-economic circumstances of first-world-third-world relations of production and consumption" (215). The discrepancies between the Arabic, English, and American editions of The Hidden Face of Eve attest to the difficulty of author's control over the fate of her text when its reception occurs within an environment that is preconceived to reproduce all the expectations it already has in advance. The Arabic text originally targeted Arab audiences. It focused on critiquing both Arabo-Islamic tradition and Western imperialism. When the text traveled West, it was read through an Orientalist lens: The critique of tradition solidified the negative stereotypes of Islam and Arab culture, and the critique of imperialism confirmed the belief in an inevitable "clash" of civilizations. The traveling text had to accommodate its new audiences: The title changed, sections were added or deleted, chapters were reorganized, and the anti-imperialist tone of the earlier editions disappeared. In spite of El Saadawi's relentless rejection of stereotypical representations of Islam, she "is almost always mentioned in the context of circumcision and fundamentalist Islam, as simultaneously a victim and authority on both" (Amireh 227).

The critical problems Amireh observes are as serious as the pattern Owen describes. Again, it would be easy to blame the critics' insecurity and helplessness vis-a-vis "a monstrous world order." But Owen and Amireh are highlighting real challenges that face the production and translation of transnational texts. Pessimism is not uncommon when such challenges are discussed. Yet it is precisely these challenges that create the awareness of the limits, frameworks, and methods that place new kinds of demands on the critic. In Death of a Discipline, for instance, Gayatri Spivak declares comparative literature dead. Its death, however, is not its end; its renewal is dependent on building "institutional bridges," making "curricular interventions" (11), and conquering "disciplinary fear" (19). J. Hillis Miller's critique generated observations that could bring about "the new global Comparative Literature" (561). Similarly, Amireh does lament the predicament of Arab feminism in its transnational contexts, but, unlike him, she offers solutions, suggesting that "[t]o avoid the pitfalls of such reductionist readings of texts and authors ... it is necessary always to historicize and contextualize El Saadawi's work" (215-16).

Historicizing and contextualizing may solve the problem in academia, among teachers, critics, and serious students of literature. Yet conditions of reception remain largely unaffected outside the academy, where the text is often approached ahistorically, with little awareness of the frameworks that define its context or the critical practices that inform its interpretation. Is there anything authors can do to avoid turning their texts into evidence that reinforces the reductionist readings they seek to dismantle? Is explaining the text's message through venues outside the text itself (interviews, articles, conference addresses, etc.) a blunder? These are some of the questions this article examines through close readings of Miral al-Tahawy's Brooklyn Heights (2010) and Alaa al-Aswany's Chicago (2007).

In "Postcolonial Studies and Beyond," Neil Lazarus identifies a number of problems that plague the field. One of these problems is the emergence of a body of literary works "produced precisely with an eye to their postcolonialist reception" (425). Authors' attempts to control the interpretation of their texts or target a predictable critical reception are understandably frowned upon by critics. However, transnational authors' awareness of the global contexts they operate within, the audiences they address, and the potential uses to which their work are put justifies the deliberate thematic and technical range of choices they make. I argue that a number of problems theorists and critics of world literature have been voicing can be counteracted by Arab authors' self-conscious prompting of a postcolonialist reception of their texts. AlTahawy and al-Aswany make conscious thematic and technical choices that induce a counter-hegemonic reading of their texts, a reading in which the disillusioned self returns the other's gaze and goes beyond rejection, uncritical acceptance, or simplistic reconciliation with the other. These choices challenge and educate, rather than accommodate, the expectations of national and international readers. There is a solid link between the emergence and development of postcolonial studies and colonial contexts in the Arab world, as Wail Hassan and Rebecca Saunders remind us. Separating Arabic texts from their postcolonial contexts is not only antithetical to Edward Said's anti-Orientalist scholarship, it is also impoverishing to the field of postcolonial studies:
   One of the striking ironies of postcolonial studies ... is
   that colonial discourse analysis began with several theorists
   who studied colonialism in the Arab world: Albert
   Memmi (in Tunisia), Fanon (in Algeria), and Said (in the
   Levant). However, the work of those critics led to the
   development ... of a sophisticated theoretical apparatus
   [postcolonial theory] that rarely takes Arabic literary and
   cultural production into account. Rather, the latter has
   remained largely the province of Middle East studies
   departments, rooted ... in the kind of scholarship critiqued
   in Said's Orientalism. (18)

Postcolonial studies deals with the cultural aftermath of the (neo)colonialism experienced by the dominated self vis-a-vis the dominating other. It concerns itself with issues of identity, hegemony, displacement, language, representation, nationalism, hybridity, among others. Nuanced formulations of postcolonial theory take into account such factors as race, gender, class, and ableism. Homi Bhabha describes postcolonial thinking as "dialectical," "revisionist," "transnational," "translational," and "counter-hegemonic." It resists the normalization of uneven power structures in the new world order:
   Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony
   of Third World countries and the discourses of 'minorities'
   within the geopolitical divisions of East and West,
   North and South. They intervene in those ideological discourses
   of modernity that attempt to give a hegemonic 'normality'
   to the uneven development and the differential, often
   disadvantaged, histories of nations, races, countries, peoples.
   They formulate their critical revisions around issues of cultural
   difference, social authority, and political discrimination
   in order to reveal the antagonistic and ambivalent moments
   within the 'rationalizations' of modernity. (245-46)

Arab modernity does not only question the hegemonic in Western culture, it also questions the hegemonic within Arabo-Islamic cultures and attempts to restore balance to the relationship of the self and the other. Occidentalism, a term Hasan Hanafi uses to reference a framework that reverses and transcends Orientalism, deconstructs the hierarchy of the other and the self by turning the former into an object of study and the latter into a studying subject. Occidentalism regulates the self's relationship with both the West and its own tradition. It reverses, Hanafi argues, the inferiority complex afflicting the self visa-vis the other's megalomania and eliminates its own delusional megalomania vis-a-vis an imagined glorious past. Occidentalism (alistighrab) helps confront both westernization (taghrib) and alienation (rightirab) from one's own tradition:
   Occidentalism can liberate [the self] ontologically rather than
   epistemologically, by unshackling it from the hegemony of the
   other. It is a cultural liberation whereby the self would affirm
   itself as subject: "I am not westernized, therefore I am" or "I
   am not the other, therefore I am." The [Cartesian] cogito of our
   era, and according to our generation, is negating and negated
   [in that] negation precedes affirmation in its formulation; it is
   the negative affirmative, as in the Muslim shahada [declaration]:
   "There is no god but Allah." (43; my translation)

Hanafi's framework recognizes the shortcomings and limitations of isolating or hierarchizing the self and the other. It also recognizes that a simplistic or feigned reconciliation could lead to undesired conclusions. Hanafi's Occidentalism is central to the readings of al-Tahawy's and al-Aswany's novels in the following sections. It also illuminates discussions of postcolonial writing, bilingual writing, and postcolonial translation.

World literature is accessible to international audiences through the medium of translation. Translation facilitates connecting with, and fathoming, the world in which we live. It, however, "rarely, if ever, involves a relationship of equality between texts, authors, or systems" (Bassnett and Trivedi 2). This statement is particularly true of postcolonial translation, a cultural transaction mired in hegemony-dependency. Several issues have been raised about postcolonial translation: from privileging Western audiences and entanglement with the colonial project to reinforcing cultural hegemony and the pitfalls of assimilative translation. Many important critical insights have resulted from the investigation of translated Arabic texts and bilingual and postcolonial Arabic writing, and many of these insights are directly related to texts' reception. Mohja Kahf's "Packaging 'Huda'" problematizes the deliberate and systematic shifts Margot Badran's translation of Huda Sha'rawi's memoirs makes to accommodate the environment in which the English text is received. The reception environment in the US is dominated by stereotypes of Muslim women as victims, escapees, or pawns. Kahf argues that Badran left out sections of the original text and mistranslated others to package Sha'rawi as a victim and escapee and "shield" her from the "negative category of pawn" (30). To do so, Badran deemphasized or eliminated positive representations of Arab men in Sha'rawi's text, exaggerated Europe's influence on her, and silenced the class prejudices she harbored.

More subtle practices that do not involve direct alteration of the original text (as in the cases of Sha'rawi and El Saadawi) are more widespread. In "Translation and Cultural Hegemony," Richard Jacquemond articulates observations derived from surveys of Arabic to French and French to Arabic translation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contexts of hegemony-dependency inform and structure postcolonial translation and ultimately lead to selective translations of texts by both hegemonic-culture and dominated-culture translators. In the case of French and Arabic, Jacquemond concludes that Arab translators are likely to select certain French texts for the sake of "re-affirmation, re-appropriation, and re-examination of national cultural identity, and as a means of differentiating one's self from the other" (146). French translators, on the other hand, are likely to select Arabic texts "asserting both pre-existing Western representations of Arab alterity and Western values" (153). Cultural dependency and cultural domination generate similar patterns; the popularity of Roger Garaudy in the Muslim world and the appeal of Fouad Zakariya in France are thus produced by the same structures. Jacquemond argues that there are remedies for such problems: The non-West should counteract acculturation by decolonization, and the West should question claims of universality. Decolonization can be achieved through situating postcolonial translation within the framework of "an apparatus of knowledge in the hegemonic language-culture elaborated from [the dominated language-culture's] own point of view" (Jacquemond 156), or within what Hanafi calls "Occidentalism." Occidentalism selects what is useful and relevant (or what has been coercively and irrevocably imposed, like the colonizer's language) from the other's culture and adapts it to its own situation. Francophone Arab writers, for instance, turn their coerced use of French into "an opportunity for experimentation and ultimately subversion" (Mehrez 129), whereby the colonizer's language is "decentered and deterritorialized by the Arabic sign" (128).

Invoking the problems of postcolonial translation here is not a prelude to critiquing Farouk Abdel Wahab and Samah Selim, the translators of the two novels analyzed in this article. Both produced excellent translations, free of all the problems discussed above. Problems of postcolonial translation are invoked here because of the light they can shed on postcolonial writing, an intercultural activity which, like translation, carries elements of one culture to another across a cultural gap and within contexts of uneven power relationships. Translation, Maria Tymoczko persuasively argues, provides a suitable analogue for postcolonial writing. The former transposes a text and the latter transposes a culture. The two activities profoundly involve selection and interpretation. Postcolonial authors "can choose a fairly aggressive presentation of unfamiliar cultural elements in which differences ... are highlighted, or they can choose an assimilative presentation in which likeness or 'universality' is stressed" (21). Or, as al-Tahawy and al-Aswany do in Brooklyn Heights and Chicago, respectively, they can choose counter-hegemonic, Occidentalist representations that make both the self and the other culturally dependent on one another in fathoming their realities and their problematic encounters with one another and with their other "others" (Copts, women, blacks, immigrants, and so forth). The following sections examine thematic and technical choices made by al-Tahawy and alAswany to invite readers to situate their texts within postcolonial contexts. The two novels offer neither a universalist representation of the self that stresses similarity nor a hostile representation of the other that reinforces alterity. Instead, both facilitate cultural translations between the self and the other that enlighten their knowledge of each other and of themselves. Egyptian characters are placed in post-9/11 New York and Chicago, where they interact with Americans, immigrants, and minorities. Arab readers are thus encouraged to reexamine issues of modernity, democracy, gender, and fundamentalism in the mirror of the West, and Western readers are equally encouraged to reexamine imperialism, militarism, discrimination, and gender in the mirror of their others.

While the Other Watches: Self and Other in Brooklyn Heights

Self-criticism is an integral component of the project of Arab modernity, in which modernist literature plays a significant role. Modernist Arabic literature interrogates tradition, be it religious, social, or literary, and destabilizes the legitimacy of postcolonial states. The other component of the project is dismantling the hegemony of the former colonizer, who is also the current cultural benefactor. This dual function of modernist Arabic literature creates anxieties for transnational Arab authors who have to criticize the self, knowing that the other is watching, judging, and possibly misreading the message. John Pizer argues that homogeneity is an inevitable side-effect of cultural globalization: "When American students consider the contemporary world outside their borders ... it is only a slight exaggeration to say that what the inattentive among them see, hear, and experience is: America" (5). This view of the outside world as a homogeneous entity that has much in common with America (or differs from America in benign and interesting ways) is sharply interrupted when the other is the enemy. After the 9/11 attacks, "the Other emerges as a figure indeed marked by radical alterity, ... as evocative of violence and malevolence, somebody to be dreaded, despised, and feared" (Pizer 5). This describes a much more problematic situation than the one Amireh complains about. Al-Tahawy and al-Aswany are transnational, bicultural Egyptian novelists. The works of transnational authors circulate beyond their national borders, and the issues they address are of interest to national and international audiences. Bicultural authors have firsthand, intimate knowledge of two cultures. Their identities are not hybrid; they are firmly grounded in their national culture, but they are significantly informed and impacted by Western culture. Consequently, their plight is not an identity crisis; it is the burden of deeply understanding and trying to illuminate or mend the post-9/11 fractured relationship between the West and the Muslim world. Their works transcend the familiar-exotic formula that inattentive readers of world literature seek. Their dual perspective pushes their readers to take an ethical stand toward the self and the other: The American readers do not just encounter a foreign culture but are confronted with a nuanced view of their own culture as seen by the other. Egyptian (or Arab) readers, on the other hand, are pushed to evaluate problem areas in their culture in a globally inflected context.

Unlike her earlier novels, al-Tahawy's Brooklyn Heights is set in New York, a setting that may appear to many Arab readers as exotic as the Bedouin setting of Al-khiba, Al-badhinjana al-zarqa', or Naqarat alziba'. In spite of the change in the setting, Brooklyn Heights is still remarkably similar to the earlier novels. The new setting augments the presence of the other in a way a mere Western character (like Anne of Al-khiba') is less likely to achieve. Some characters, like Hend and Fatma al-Qarumiya, the parents, the brother, and the grandparents appear in more than one novel. The change in the setting must have been inspired by the author's own experience in the US. The distance from the homeland has offered alTahawy a fresh perspective on old questions that have haunted her since Al-khiba' (the marginal status of Arab women in a patriarchal, religiocentric world, for instance) and provoked new questions arising from her encounter with the other and with other marginalized groups of minorities and immigrants. Place is central in Brooklyn Heights: Most of the chapter titles refer to different places in New York, and spatial relationships define entities and people. Brooklyn is "a place where the four winds mightily converge" (11), and Egypt is "somewhere between Israel and Mecca" (12). Brooklyn Heights is built around the dialectic of sameness and difference. The juxtaposition of two worlds and their inhabitants highlights the sharp distinctions between them. Closely examined, these distinctions reveal similar power structures, gender tensions, and racial and class frictions. The title of Hend's collection of poems,/ Am Like No Other, proves to be ironic. In the first chapter Hend notes that the women around her "look exactly like herself' (11). In subsequent chapters, she detects similarities between herself, her mother, her grandmother, and Said. She is often mistaken as Latina, Indian, or Jewish. The final chapter closes with Hend panicking at the realization that she is Lilith: Their words are the same, their stories are the same, their sons look alike, and their fates are probably similar. She reaches the conclusion that "[w]e all become sorry copies of each other in the end" (182).

The centrality of the sameness-difference dialectic in Brooklyn Heights reflects al-Tahawy's heightened awareness of both her national and international audiences. She is equally critical of both Western and Arabo-Islamic cultures, refusing to romanticize or idealize either of them, and rejecting any hierarchical ordering of them. Each culture creates its own margins, and that is what makes them the same in spite of their differences. Hend dwells in the margin of Egyptian society, and her new location relegates her to the margin as well. A fortune cookie tells Hend "that which awaits you is no better than that which you have left behind" (4). The prophesy negates the promise of "hope" and "change" by Obama, whose election suggestively coincides with Hend's arrival in New York.

The creation of a constellation of characters mirroring different sides of Hend's character is suggestive, and it extends to thematic, linguistic, and technical aspects of the novel in relation to earlier novels. In Brooklyn Heights, al-Tahawy again draws on several linguistic registers. In the earlier novels, she mixes Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Bedouin dialects; in Brooklyn Heights she adds English to the mix. English words are either transcribed in Arabic (e.g., avenue, environment, bagel, girlfriend) or preserved in Roman script (e.g., hope, change). Arabic and English represent homeland and exile, respectively. To Hend, Arabic, like the homeland, is "an endangered language, a language that is slowly dying out, but she clings to it because unfortunately, she tends to get insanely attached to things" (13). English, on the other hand, reinforces the cultural barrier she feels in New York and reminds her of her poor ability to communicate in any language: "I feel really shy whenever I have to speak in English. Even the words Eve learned properly I seem to pronounce in a way that no one can understand" (11).

The representation of Arab culture from the point of view of the divorced female protagonist is blunt and unflattering. Nostalgia makes Hend visit the Arab neighborhood in Bay Ridge. The Arabian Nights Cafe is dirty and humid, in spite of its name, and is full of curious, vulgar men who keep asking Hend about her personal life. Abdul Karim, the Iraqi, represents the schizophrenic Arab male who is simultaneously a devout Muslim and an alcoholic. Al-Tahawy also frankly discusses sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims through the stories of a number of Christian characters whose paths cross Hend's: Hend's grandmother, the Guest who is married off by her own poor father and is locked up in her room from her wedding day to her death; Angele, whom Hend vehemently tries to save from hell by pressuring her to convert to Islam; Said, the Coptic limousine driver who tries to save Hend from hell by pressuring her to convert to Christianity; and several other Christian educators at schools Hend attended. Hend recounts the story of the Mother of Light Church that was built next to the Nur Mosque, suggestively funded by Kuwaiti petrodollars. The "small hill had trouble accommodating two buildings consecrated to God in such a tight space" (60). Radical Islamists repeatedly vandalize the under-construction church (reminiscent of the Joplin, Missouri Mosque). Hend suggestively "began to avoid this area altogether" (60). To this day, Hend is not sure "if the Mother of Light Church was ever finished" (60). Al-Tahawy describes the evolution Hend's religious views undergo: "she had been the first girl to put on that long black curtain [khimar; head and partial body cover], she had been the first one to discard it" (58). When she gets a taste of her own medicine, she is insulted and angered. She finds Said's religious rhetoric and the attempts to convert her intolerable: "There was no need for Christ or any other prophet to prove this truth [that man is a pitiful creature]" (61). Hend's brother, who is radicalized, never evolves like his sister. Hend's father represents a unique approach to religion; he celebrates sin as an integral part of religion and as indicative of trust in God's mercy. He cites the Quran and tells prophets' stories while drinking beer. He reminds his son that Ibn Hanbal, a notoriously strict jurist, said that "a little of it [wine] strengthens the heart and does away with sorrow" (65).

Women's issues are at the center of Brooklyn Heights. Besides the female protagonist who flees an unfavorable environment to be trapped in another, al-Tahawy introduces a large number of female characters representing numerous issues pertaining to women in the West and the Middle East. Three generations of women of different backgrounds (Bedouin, peasant, Turkish, and urban) and social classes are represented in the novel. Through the Scheherazade-style telling and retelling of these women's stories, the readers get a glimpse of what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated world: the lack of a voice, the entrapment in reproductive roles, abuse by men against women and by women against children and other women, rape, harassment, the burden of honor, marriage, motherhood, infidelity, polygamy, the plight of the working-class woman, commercialized marriages, and the female body's suffering during puberty, childbearing, child rearing, and old age.

Although Arab women's issues are discussed frankly and in detail, Brooklyn Heights does not reinforce the stereotypical view of an Arab culture's hostility to women, as Western readers are frequently reminded of similar problems Western women face. Charlie, the dance instructor who lives in Hend's apartment building, uses women as objects of sexual gratification and eventually discards them. Charlie offers Hend free dance lessons and patiently listens to her stories, hoping that this will land her in his bed. When he is sure that Hend is not interested in his advances, he insults her senselessly ("Big fat ass") and swiftly replaces her with Fatima, a Somali girl who needs a place to live in (83). Interestingly, another despicable character, the Afghan Abdul, also brings up Hend's rear end, which is "as big as Mount Sinai" (112) when Hend rejects his advances. Charlie's preying upon American single mothers and poor female immigrants represents an unflattering image of the supposedly civilized Western gentlemen who have waged several wars in recent history to liberate (Muslim) women from (Muslim) men. The fact that Charlie's offensive words to Hend echo verbatim the words of an Afghan man flies in the face of the stereotype constructed in the West about the outlandish otherness of Muslim men. Charlie's actions are as despicable as Mahmoud's (who is in the market for the younger, healthier wife), the Gulf Arabs' (who seek younger Egyptian wives with the help of Umm Hanan), or Hend's grandfather's (who seeks a fertile bride to bear him an heir). In fact, one of the few male characters who are represented in a positive light in Brooklyn Heights is Omar Azzam, a devout Muslim man. Omar is Lilith's dedicated son, a successful, charitable businessman whose exemplary Islamic demeanor convinces Erica to embrace Islam and wear the hijab (head cover). Erica's donning of the hijab seemingly contradicts Hend's taking it off. However, the two acts reflect the same spiritual search by the two women. One woman's search leads her to embrace Islam, and the other woman's search leads her to temporarily put it on hold: "I don't have anything to do with the God you people are always talking about. Or at least I'm trying to forget Him for now" (105). Many Arab men are represented in positive light by alTahawy: her friend "Capricorn," Naguib al-Kalili, Narak, and Ziyad. American men are epitomized by one character, Charlie, whose representation is unflattering and is not balanced out by any sympathetic representation of other American men.

Al-Tahawy, on the other hand, balances out her critique of women's position in Arabo-Islamic cultures by presenting a similar critique of their position in Western culture, a strategy repeatedly used in Brooklyn Heights. This allows her to be self-critical while reminding Western readers of similarly problematic areas in their own culture, such as slavery, racism, sexism, imperialism, and prejudice. In the opening pages of Brooklyn Heights, al-Tahawy alludes to the "dark-skinned nannies push[ing] baby strollers" (2). She reminds the readers of slavery and Fort Greene, "home of the largest community of African-Americans in Brooklyn" (5). She creates a metaphorical unity between Hend and the African-American community whose members come from "the hot, brown continent that is also hers" (5). When she describes the Mexican neighborhood in the second chapter, the connection with home is again emphasized. The unemployed day laborers "waiting for work with tool kits in hand" remind Hend of "the day laborers she used to see scattered in squares and in the narrow sidewalks of her own country" (18). Hend's Russian friend, Emilia, teaches an unenthusiastic American crowd a lesson in "critical thinking," explaining to them that their "free" media is just as tainted with propaganda as the official state media of Soviet Russia (41). Al-Tahawy repeatedly reminds Western readers of America's meddling in the Middle East and the Muslim world through a number of characters from Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. Chapter 8 ("Fulton Street") is set at the Refugee Assistance Agency, where Hend sees women from "Burma and Bosnia," "Iraqi women in cheerless black robes, fair-skinned Kurdish women, and Afghans with bright, flushed faces" (103). She feels a strong affinity with the abused women seeking asylum and poor women collecting food stamps. She meets Abdul, an Afghan who works for the American army, at the Agency. Abdul is represented unsympathetically by al-Tahawy: He is a translator, spy, drug dealer, and pimp who makes statements such as "I translated for them [the Americans], I brought them information and hashish and other stuff' (107-08). Hend despises him for being so proud of the role he played in the invasion of his own country, for his moral bankruptcy, and for taunting her: "She pictured him as a mountain wolf cub raised at the teat of an American commando unit, an expert on vodka and hashish and blasphemy, with nothing better to do than taunt a solitary and wretched woman like herself' (112). Al-Tahawy's depiction of Abdul signals a strong disapproval of the so-called "war on terror" which equally victimizes American soldiers and tax-payers and numberless civilian Muslims. Al-Tahawy's depiction of the melancholic Palestinian exile, Naguib al-Khalili, and his nephew, Ziyad, is a reminder of the Palestinian Diaspora and the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis, which the US has not done enough to resolve.

In his book Al-rihla ila al-gharb, 'Isam Bahi reads a number of Arabic novels (all written by male authors) whose protagonists (all of them are men) travel to Western countries. He argues that one of two major themes dominates all these novels: rejection of the West or reconciliation between East and West (7). Al-Tahawy's novel, like Radwa Ashour's Al-rihla, escapes this dichotomy. In the two novels Western culture is internalized by the self, which eliminates the need to reject or idolize the other. In Al-rihla, Ashour recounts her graduate-school years in America in the 1970s. We encounter the self standing on equal footing with the other and acutely aware of the dark side of the empire. Ashour declares in the second paragraph of Al-rihla:
   Like Rifa'a, I was on my way to "a very faraway" country
   to get an education. Unlike him, I did not have the
   neutrality of those uninformed about what awaits them.
   I was not like the subsequent generations of scholars
   who traveled and came back harboring an infatuation
   for the radiance of the empire. (4; my translation)

Disillusionment replaces blissful neutrality or infatuation, and the uncertainty about how to deal with the other disappears. Although the other is not rejected wholesale, Ashour constantly refers to blemishes in the much-celebrated Western democracy. She, like al-Tahawy, repeatedly invokes the extermination of the natives, slavery, discrimination, militarism, and social injustice in American society. When reminded of the blemishes in their own history, Western readers are likely to reconsider their criticism of their others. They are pushed to realize that they are not immune to committing the very violent practices for which they demonize their others. In Brooklyn Heights, an aspiring female author's place is the same in both Arabo-Islamic and Western cultures. She neither rejects nor idolizes these cultures. She is neither overly defensive of her own culture nor excessively hostile to Western culture. She is critical of the self but intensely aware that the other is watching. Al-Tahawy's text is structured in a way that necessitates a postcolonialist reading, which is likely to remedy some of the side-effects of the consumption of an Arabic text in contexts imbued with stereotypes and hostilities.

Chicago: Before and After International Canonization

After the national and international acclaim The Yacoubian Building achieved, al-Aswany shifts the setting of his second novel from downtown Cairo to Chicago. The Yacoubian Building, an actual Cairo landmark built in the 1930s, is reminiscent of the Mahfouzian alley: Both are imbued with a strong local color, emblematic of Egyptian history and class struggle, and offer a stage where interesting characters are unleashed and important sociopolitical and existential issues conjured up. The shift of setting in Chicago is not a simple change of the place where events take place, but a change of the perspective from which local and global issues are discussed. In Chicago, al-Aswany addresses both Arab and Western audiences. He offers the former taboo-breaking, globally inflected reflections on modernity and Islam and the latter a stereotype-breaking account of Muslims' struggle for democracy, a value that many Western readers do not know Muslims also seek. I am not in any way suggesting that after international recognition, transcultural authors abruptly embrace new agendas. Al-Aswany has always been preoccupied with the same issues: democracy, human rights, class struggle, and modernist interpretations of religion. This has not changed in Chicago. However, his awareness of the global contexts in which his text is produced and consumed impacts the perspective from which these issues are discussed and some of the thematic and technical choices he makes.

The remainder of this section is dedicated to discussing some thematic and technical choices that al-Aswany makes in Chicago and contrasting them to choices he made in The Yacoubian Building (before international canonization). On the one hand, the discussion illuminates (conscious or unconscious) attempts by the author to guard against an Orientalist reception of his novel by his Western readers. On the other hand, it illuminates his deployment of the global context Chicago offers to propose a modernist interpretation of Islam to his non-Arab readers. I limit the discussion to comparing the characters of Taha and Nagi and investigating the characters of Shaymaa and Marwa. Other characters and literary devices are referred to in the course of the discussion when relevant.

Taha is a central character in The Yacoubian Building. He is the son of the doorman of the building who is afflicted by the poverty and indignity attached to his father's profession. He embraces the naive dream that academic excellence is the key to escaping his social class. The social mobility he dreams of materializes in determination to join the Police Academy. He passes all tests but fails the so-called "character interview" on account of his father's lowly profession. His sweetheart, Buthayna, loses hope and interest in him, and the two lovers separate. At the university, Taha avoids socializing with other students "because getting to know people meant exchanging personal details and he may be standing in the midst of a group of colleagues (including girls, maybe) and one of them would ask him what his father did" (90). He is lured by a jihadist group which recruits him at the university mosque. He gradually becomes radicalized, which leads to his arrest, torture, and rape at the hands of the barbaric police officers he once wished to join. His abuse turns him into a vengeful terrorist whose only goal is to assassinate the colonel who oversaw his torture. He briefly enjoys the bliss of an arranged marriage to Radwa before he successfully carries out the assassination during which he is killed.

Addressing the Egyptian readers, who share an age-old resentment of police brutality, al-Aswany paints a sympathetic picture of the terrorist who kills the sadistic colonel. Not only is Taha's radicalization justified by the social stigma attached to his class, his act of violence is warranted by the torture he suffers at the hands of the police. Joining the jihadist group, which offers Taha a sense of belonging and fraternity denied by the rest of the society, seems to be an inevitable and understandable outcome. So does his violent retaliation. His death is portrayed by al-Aswany as liberating, a gateway to a peaceful afterlife:
   He fell to the ground next to the near wheel of the truck
   and screamed. Then it seemed to him as though the agony
   was diminishing little by little and he felt a strange restfulness
   engulfing him and taking him up into itself. A
   babble of distant sounds came into his ears-bells and
   sounds of recitation and melodious murmurs-repeating
   themselves and drawing close to him, as though welcoming
   him into a new world. (243)

Colonel Salih Rashwan, whom Taha assassinates in The Yacoubian Building, is metaphorically resurrected in Chicago. The Colonel's counterpart, General Safwat Shakir, is an undercover intelligence officer whose duties include spying on Egyptian students and Copts living in America. His career as a police officer rapidly takes off as a result of developing new, innovative torture techniques. He is depicted as a sadistic, megalomaniac pervert who preys on the wives of detainees and subordinates. His informant, Ahmad Danana (Marwa's husband), is represented by al-Aswany as a manipulative individual who twists religious rulings to justify his unethical, cowardly behavior. Shakir cooperates with the CIA by doing the agency's dirty work on their behalf. He oversees the security measures in preparation for Mubarak's visit to Chicago, which Nagi is plotting to disrupt on live television by demanding that the president give up power.

It is clear that al-Aswany is still deeply disturbed by police brutality in Chicago, a recurrent theme in his previous novels, short stories, and articles. However, in Chicago, resistance is undertaken by a secular activist rather than a terrorist. Nagi is the only character in Chicago who speaks in the first-person and addresses the reader directly on several occasions. Nagi's story is communicated to the reader through entries of his diary printed in italics. It ends with his arrest by the American anti-terrorism police based on false information provided by Safwat Shakir. Like the Egyptian police, the American officer who arrests Nagi vows to "whip you, give you electric shocks, and rape you" (329). Third-person narration is used in recounting the stories of the rest of the characters, which indicates the centrality of Nagi's story. Nagi, like al-Aswany, is a doctor who is passionate about literature, human rights, and democracy. He represents the secular intellectual who simultaneously admires and is disenchanted with the cultures of the self and the other. Many of the characters and scenes alAswany creates have a didactic function. Nagi understands the distinction between the American people and the American government, and, through him, al-Aswany deliberately educates his readers about it. Arab readers are informed about the admirable side of the other, with which they may be unfamiliar. Western readers are informed about the historical justifications of the grudges against their government's policies. Nagi writes:
   I am now in America, which I've often attacked, shouted
   for it to fall and burned its flag in demonstrations;
   America, which is responsible for the poverty and misery
   of millions of humans in the world; America, which has
   supported and armed Israel, enabling it to kill the
   Palestinians and steal their land; America, which has supported
   all the corrupt, despotic rulers in the Arab world for
   its own interests; the evil America I am now seeing from
   the inside.... A question persists in my mind: those kind
   Americans who treat strangers nicely, who smile in your
   face and like you the moment you meet them, who help you
   and let you go ahead of them and thank you profusely for
   the slightest reason? Do they realize the horrendous
   crimes their governments commit against humanity? (36)

Nagi's change of heart about America is consistent with his relationship with other characters in the novel, such as Donna and Karam. He initially clashes with them but eventually accepts and sympathizes with them when he gets to know them better. He repeatedly discovers affinities with the other. Through the characters of Graham and Baker, al-Aswany introduces Arab readers to American values they may not be familiar with due to the distortions of their own media. Graham is a liberal who denounces war, racism, colonialism, and corporate capitalism, and Baker is a conservative Christian who celebrates diversity and is particularly kind to Arab students. George Michael's discrimination against Arab students is balanced out by Abdel Fattah Baiba's discrimination against Coptic students, revealing that no one culture has a monopoly on racism and prejudice.

Nagi's romantic relationship with Wendy, a Jewish girl he meets at a bar, is deployed by al-Aswany to inform (Western) readers about the political origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is often wrongly characterized in the West as anti-Semitic. Wendy is depicted unusually sympathetically for a Jewish character in an Arabic novel. When Wendy tells Nagi that he is "the only Arab who does not dream of exterminating the Jews," he responds with an elaborate speech on the history of Muslim-Jewish relations: "The Arabs hate Israel not because it is a state for the Jews but because it stole Palestine and committed dozens of massacres against the Palestinians. If Israelis were Hindus or Buddhists, it wouldn't have changed anything for us. Our conflict with Israel is political not religious" (208-09). He goes on to invoke the persecution of both Jews and Muslims after the fall of Andalusia, a likely explanation for the lovers' strong attraction: "It is quite possible that you and I are the descendants of a Muslim man and a Jewish women who fell in love with each other in Andalusia" (209). Their relationship survives political and religious differences and harassment by Wendy's Jewish ex-boyfriend. It is finally shattered when Nagi suspects that Wendy has been cooperating with the Egyptian intelligence agent Safwat Shakir. By the time he realizes he is wrong, it is too late to salvage the relationship. Al-Aswany idealizes Wendy in the same manner he idealizes Karam, the Coptic doctor who turns the other cheek and forgives his oppressor: Abdel Fattah Baiba. Nagi takes full responsibility for the failure of the relationship. AlAswany seizes this opportunity to educate his (Arab) readers on the necessity of religious tolerance. He uses the pronoun "we" to refer to all Arabs, telling them that their intolerance is "fascist" and reminding them of their own victimization by the prejudices of the other:
   There I was, losing one of the most beautiful experiences
   in my life. I recalled our last meeting. Was she right? Do
   we really belong to two different worlds? Our hostility, as
   Arabs, should be directed at the Zionist movement, not
   Judaism. We should not be hostile to adherents of a certain
   religion. Such a fascist attitude is alien to Islam's tolerance;
   besides, it gives others the right to treat us in a
   similarly racist manner. (306)

Al-Aswany is well aware of the post-9/11 stereotype-saturated contexts within which Westerners judge people and read texts. He chooses a nonviolent democracy activist to be his protagonist, he makes him fall in love with a Jewish girl, and, through him, he voices his respect and admiration for many aspects of Western culture and the American people. On the other hand, like al-Tahawy in Brooklyn Heights, he deliberately reminds the American readers of their treatment of their "others." The opening paragraphs of Chicago describe the extermination of Native Americans at the hands of the colonists: "During the hundred ensuing years the white colonists waged horrific genocidal wars, in the course of which they killed anywhere from five to twelve million natives" (1). The extremely religious Christians who exterminated the natives and stole their land used a similar justification to the one that takfiri (calling another Muslim an apostate) jihadists have used against their enemies: "Many white colonists believed that 'American Indians,' even though they were, somehow, God's creatures, were not created in the spirit of Christ but rather in another imperfect and evil spirit" (1). Al-Aswany describes racism against African-Americans through the characters of Donna and Carol:
   Since Chicago was settled, black migration to it has not
   stopped. Hundreds of thousands escaped slavery in the
   southern states and came to Chicago driven by the dream
   of becoming free citizens with dignity.... They soon discovered
   that they had replaced slaves' iron chains with
   other invisible but no less cruel shackles. (160)

Al-Aswany also refers, on several occasions, to the indiscriminate assaults on innocent Muslims in the US since the 9/11 attacks. He is certain to inform (Western) readers about the connection between the violent attacks and decades of Western meddling in the affairs of the Muslim world, as George Michael says: "What led to September 11 is that most decision makers in the White House thought like you. They supported despotic regimes in the Middle East to multiply the profits of oil and arms companies, and armed violence escalated and reached our shores" (17).

The frequent invocation of genocide, colonization, racism, and war enforces a postcolonialist reading of Chicago, both by instructors who teach it at universities and readers who read it on their own. Unlike postcolonial texts that focus exclusively on the critique of the self, Chicago exposes Western readers to a credible critique of themselves by seeing their culture through the lens of the other. This allows al-Aswany to critique the self without activating the Orientalist assumption that violence, gender inequality, religious fanaticism, and prejudice are unique to non-Western cultures. Similarly, Arab readers are made to view important issues, such as women's rights and modernist interpretations of Islam, from a global perspective. The critique of the self's culture does not belittle or disown it. This is evidenced by the harsh punishment alAswany reserves for Rafat, who resents Arab culture and loses his daughter to addiction at the end of the novel, and Salah, who quits the struggle for democracy and takes his own life when he fails to read the activists' manifesto in front of Mubarak during his visit to Chicago.

Through the characters of Shaymaa and Marwa, al-Aswany invites his (Arab) readers to consider alternative interpretations of Islam that liberate it from oppressive aspects. Al-Aswany goes to great lengths to depict Shaymaa as a realistic character. She wears the hijab, prays five times a day, and fully respects traditions. She, like Tariq, receives a government scholarship to do her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Tariq and Shaymaa are tormented by their sexual needs, which can only be satisfied within the marriage institution. Tariq is addicted to pornographic movies, and Shaymaa guiltily pleasures herself. The thirty-five-year-old Tariq fails to find a suitable bride because of his shyness and crude behavior. No suitable suitors propose to Shaymaa because of her modest beauty and the threat of her academic achievement. Shaymaa and Tariq are immediately attracted to one another, but they cannot get married until they finish their studies and get their families involved. The two lovers develop techniques whereby they can attain sexual gratification without intercourse. In spite of the precautions they take, Shaymaa gets pregnant, and Tariq's initial reaction is to abandon her. In the closing chapter, the two reunite shortly after Shaymaa gets an abortion.

The sympathetic depiction of Shaymaa and the rare happy ending of her story (compared to the rest of the characters who die, commit suicide, get arrested, divorce, or break up) signals al-Aswany's approval of her conduct. Her conduct, however, breaks several social taboos cherished by conservative Egyptian society. Shaymaa engages in premarital sex and terminates an "illegitimate" pregnancy. She remains a devout Muslim who tries to find religious justifications for her actions and constantly seeks God's forgiveness for her sins. She researches the legal definition of zina (adultery) in authenticated collections of the Prophet's hadith (tradition) and concludes that she and Tariq are not adulterers. She passionately defends woman's right to own her body, which must have intrigued many Western readers:
   Is it fair for a woman to be deprived of the right to
   respond to her feelings with the one she loves? Is it fair
   for the woman, alone, to bear the responsibility of an
   unwanted pregnancy? Is it fair to bring to this world a
   baby that nobody wants? To doom it to a miserable life
   before it even begins? (340)

Al-Aswany deploys Marwa's character, like Shaymaa's character, to discuss divorce. Islamic Law permits divorce, and the Quran urges husbands to "retain them [their wives] honourably or set them free honourably; do not retain them by force, to transgress; whoever does that has wronged himself' (2:231), the exact opposite of what Danana does. Danana marries Marwa for her money, neglects her physical needs, and refuses to let her go in peace, which blatantly contradicts the Quran and hadith. Marwa's mother sympathizes with her daughter's suffering but completely rejects divorce and urges her daughter to "patiently put up with the shortcomings of her husband and strive to rectify them so life can go on" (189). In Arab societies, traditionally, divorce stigmatizes the woman alone, the success of a marriage is her burden alone, her happiness and sexual satisfaction are not significant, and marriage must go on at any cost. Marwa tries to follow the conventional wisdom of her mother by acting like an obedient, selfless wife, but discovers more shocking facts about her husband. When Danana asks her to offer Safwat Shakir sexual favors in return for career benefits, Marwa returns to Egypt to initiate divorce. The function of the characters of Marwa and Shaymaa is didactic. Al-Aswany deploys the global context Chicago represents to revisit religious and gender issues. Chicago offers the two Egyptian women fresh perspectives on central issues. They are able to muster the courage to attend to legitimate needs denied to them by their traditional society. On the other hand, Shaymaa and Marwa challenge Western readers' stereotypes of Muslim women. They are not victims, escapees, or pawns. They liberate themselves, not through embracing Western feminism but by reclaiming the rights granted to them by Islam and robbed from them by male-dominated societies.


In Brooklyn Heights and Chicago, Miral al-Tahawy and Alaa alAswany show diverse national audiences problematic areas in their culture and remind them of their strikingly similar encounters with their other others (blacks, females, immigrants, foreigners, and proletariat). Western readers see themselves and their history through the lens of the other, just as Arab readers become aware of the other within their own culture. Imagined audiences influence thematic and technical choices the authors make. Al-Tahawy builds Brooklyn Heights around the sameness-difference dialectic, which allows her to make the self face itself in the mirror of the other. In Chicago, al-Aswany introduces an activist, rather than a terrorist, to represent the Egyptians' struggle for democracy. He also introduces several characters who serve a didactic function: to educate both national and international readers on subjects about which they are misinformed or uninformed. In the two novels, the other watches the self critique itself. In the process, the other is forced to reexamine its preconceptions about itself and its many others.

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Author:Ghoneim, Hala
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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