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[whitespace] Beyond the Screen

Ahdaf Soueif highlights changing cultural climate in Egypt

By Andrea Perkins

A CAPTIVATING read on many levels, Ahdaf Soueif's novel The Map of Love (Anchor; $14 paper) 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 in 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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