Skip to main content

For Egyptian scholar, new life grew in Brooklyn

January 31, 2012

When Miral al-Tahawy moved from Egypt to Brooklyn as a post-doctoral fellow in 2008, she never dreamed that her new neighborhood would bring her literary inspiration – and international notice.

Al-Tahawy, now an assistant professor of Arabic literature and Middle East/Islamic Studies at ASU, wrote “Brooklyn Heights” to help her make sense of being a stranger in a foreign land and an impersonal city.

The book was shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the “Arab Booker Prize” – and it won the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. “Brooklyn Heights” recently was translated into English and was named “best novel” for 2011 by the website Arabic Literature (in English).

Al-Tahawy chose to live in a very old part of Brooklyn while she was a post-doctoral fellow at New York University because she “didn’t want to be in a ghetto,” she said. “I wanted to live in a mixed culture.”

Al Tahawy, who grew up in a Bedouin society in Egypt, had traveled to Egypt and to other Arab countries, but coming to America with her young son, Ahmed, was much different, she said. “To move as a person, a mom, a scholar, a writer, to New York was hard.”

Her first teaching job was at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, a much different place than New York. “During my first week, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying,” she said. “The mountain culture is very isolated. I was the only foreigner. But I really liked the people there.”

Then she came to Arizona for a job interview at ASU. Sitting in an outdoor café, with the lushness of orange trees and the scent of chicken barbecue permeating her senses, she was reminded of home.

Al-Tahawy, who now is on the faculty of the School of International Letters and Cultures at ASU, said she has found the United States to be like a mosaic. “America really changes from place to place. Every place gives me something new. America is magic.”

She also has found a new freedom in the United States – to live in a mix of various cultures and to be free of taboos. “I lived all my life with taboos. This is a culture without taboos,” she said. “People here can live their lives as they want.”

Al-Tahawy chose a scholar from New York University, Samah Selim, to translate “Brooklyn Heights” from Arabic to English. “She’s a professor at NYU and she lives in Brooklyn,” al-Tahawy said. “She’s Egyptian also. I wanted to have a female translator who could feel the sadness, loneliness of a mother in a mixed culture.”

About three months after Egypt’s revolution last year al-Tahawy returned to see what was going on at home. She found a new sense of responsibility among the people and a sense of change sweeping the country.

“Before, people didn’t seem connected to their country,” she said. “Now there is a big sense of belonging among both young and old. In every house now everyone talks about a constitution. I was always optimistic, and now the younger generation is optimistic. Nothing can stop them. But it takes more time than we expect for revolution. It takes time and it takes growing.”

Al-Tahawy has written a collection of short stories and three other novels, all of which have won acclaim. Her first novel, “The Tent” (Al-Khibaa), published in 1996, was selected as the best literary work in a critics’ questionnaire and has been translated into English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Hindi, Urdu and Dutch, among other languages. She has been invited to Sweden this spring to promote “The Tent.”

For her second novel, “The Blue Aubergine” (Al-Badhingana al-zarqa), she won a prize for the youngest female novelist in Egypt. Her third, “Gazelle Tracks” (Naquarat al-Zibae), was awarded the Best Novel of the Year prize at the Cairo Book Fair.

Al-Tahawy hopes that her books will give readers “a new image of the Middle East,” and that they will make her culture more understandable and accepted. “Literature is a window on culture, language and politics,” she said. “Literature is a bridge.”

At ASU, al-Tahawy teaches classical literature and modern Arab literature in translation. She said she was surprised when she arrived in Tempe to find such a large Arab language and literature program. “People are interested in learning Arabic. Our language is very difficult. But ASU has high-quality students who want to learn.”

And al-Tahawy is busy thinking about her next book. “The story I want to write badly is about a ship that carried refugees to Australia illegally from Iraq,” she says. “They put the children in shallow water and left them. A church took the children to Virginia. I felt this story deeply.”