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[whitespace] Beyond the Screen

Ahdaf Soueif's new novel highlights changing cultural climate in Egypt

By Andrea Perkins

The Map of Love
By Ahdaf Soueif
Anchor; 529 pages; $14 paper

A CAPTIVATING READ on many levels, Ahdaf Soueif's novel The Map of Love (now available in paperback) is perhaps most valuable for its exposure of that permeable membrane between characters' actions and the politics that surround them. Using her character's private lives to highlight the changing cultural climate in Egypt over a 100-year period, Soueif splices journal entries and letters with deeply researched historical events. Sometimes it's hard to tell if the book's politics are the backdrop to its personal stories or vice versa. "The personal is the political," Amal, one of the book's two heroines, says at one point.

Soueif deftly reveals the inner workings of Egyptian high society from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, shattering Western misconceptions of Islamic culture, which still abound today. (When I told my grandmother I was moving to Egypt to work for a magazine, she was convinced that the minute I stepped off the plane I'd be taken hostage by terrorists and thrown into a harem full of scantily clad women.)

Having grown up both in England and Egypt, Soueif maintains an ideal balance between East and West, displaying a deep understanding of both without pretending to be neutral or dispassionate about the plight of Egypt. She toys with (and eventually transcends) familiar literary genres like the "19th-century romance" and "the memoir of an Englishwoman traveling abroad." There is no precedent for this kind of book. Not only is it rare for an Arab writer to write in English, but it is rarer still for an Arab woman to write at all, especially about sex and politics.

The book starts in midsentence, as if the reader has casually stepped into the stream of time. It is 1997, and Isabel Parkman, a New York journalist, is struggling with her mother's Alzheimer's disease. While her mother, Jasmine, is losing her grasp on the past, Isabel's obsession with her own history is triggered when she finds an old trunk in Jasmine's house. The trunk belonged to Isabel's great-grandmother, an Englishwoman named Anna Winterbourne. Though the journals and papers inside the trunk are written in Arabic, French and English, Isabel pieces together what her mother has kept hidden: their Middle Eastern ancestry.

Isabel meets Omar al-Ghamrawi, a famous conductor and frustrated Arab nationalist. Enamored, she tells him about her assignment to go to his homeland to interview the Egyptians about the millennium. She also tells him about the trunk. He suggests she take it with her to Cairo where his sister, Amal, might help her translate the Arabic journals.

And it is through Amal that we arrive at Anna Winterbourne's saga. Amal has just returned to Cairo after a dysfunctional marriage in England. She dives into the trunk's story, and learns that she and her brother are in fact Isabel's cousins.

THE READER ESCAPES with Amal into Anna's ultraromantic story, which by the pen of less capable authors could easily turn into the kind of story found in supersappy Egyptian soap operas. Anna's journals help Amal regain a foothold in her own world. She goes to her ancestral estate where she takes an active interest in the lives of the fellaheen (farmers) who work the land as they have for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, Palestinian suicide bombers wreak havoc in West Jerusalem and terrorists in Luxor bomb a busload of German tourists.

Anna's journals start at the beginning of the 20th century. After the death of her first husband, she travels to Egypt, hoping to find the light-filled world of John Frederick Lewis' Orientalist paintings. Once there, however, she realizes that because she is English, the "real Egypt" is beyond her reach.

Tired of supping with other Brits at the British Agency, Anna tosses aside her Thomas Cook guidebook, which describes the "ordinary Arabs" as "destitute alike of grace and strength" and "ignorant and careless of the advantages of civilized life." Disguising herself as a man, she heads for the deserts of Sinai. But before she gets far Egyptian nationalists abduct her, leading to her eventual meeting with Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, the quintessential tall, dark and handsome hero.

Five weeks later, Anna marries him, igniting the disdain of her fellow ex-patriots. She soon finds that the restrictions placed on Arab women are not so different from those placed on women back home. Some aspects of Egyptian life actually afford her more liberty than she has known before. Conventions like the veil and mashribiyya screen (behind which women once sat and listened to the men's conversations) provide her with the unusual power of invisibility and being able to observe. Subtly, Soueif suggests that "the veil" may be no more a vehicle of oppression than the caked-on makeup some women wear.

Soueif (with her doctorate in linguistics) makes language a major theme in The Map of Love, dwelling over its layers of embedded meaning. She also shows how language can be a used as tool of colonization and, at times, an obstacle to communication rather than the means of it. Especially intriguing are her explanations of the subtleties of the Arabic language. In her journal Anna writes: "'ishq' is love that entwines two people together, 'hayam' is love that wanders the earth, 'teeh' is love in which you lose yourself, 'walah' is love that carries sorrow within it, 'sababah' is love that exudes from your pores, 'gharam' is love that is willing to pay the price." By the end of the book, Anna has experienced them all.

Soueif's careful chronicling of the turmoil that surrounds Anna, Amal and Isabel becomes a "map" to the current situation in the Middle East, offering an angle not generally found in mainstream media representations of the region.

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From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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