I read it during a vacation more than a decade ago. But, perhaps I was too young then to get all the subtleties or there were too many distractions around. Picking it up again now, given all the turmoil in Egypt, caused me to read it more carefully and attentively.
I should add that my only other fictional exposure to Egypt has been through the following: Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy (which I never finished but now intend to return to), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (which I will love forever and continue to dip into from time to time) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (which I really, really enjoyed around the time I first read The Map of Love). All of these other books feature one or the other World War, while Soueif’s book focuses on the times before and after, I think.
Let me start with the things I loved about the book even before I read it the first time – the story spans across multiple generations, covers a vast historical timeline, is told in part-epistolary, part-memoir style, narrated by various women as they observe/record events and help the men in their lives through both the personal, professional and government politics of their times. Throw in just a few touches of magic and myth and, of course, I’m hooked.
There are two intertwined stories here of meant-to-be and one-in-a-lifetime kinds of loves amidst all the political upheaval. And, there is a third story woven beautifully through and across the previous two – of a woman’s quiet and deep love for her country and her cultural heritage and identity.
The first story: between Lady Anna Winterbourne, an early-20th century Englishwoman and Sharif Basha, her Egyptian lawyer husband. Through Lady Anna’s letters and journals, read/transcribed by her present-day Egyptian relative, Amal, and great-grand-daughter, Isabel, we learn about the couple’s romance and marriage – a political event in itself, given that it was pretty much taboo for such relationships to exist at the time. We also learn a great deal of the politics of the time – from the British Occupation to the growing Egyptian political parties with varying ideologies to the influences of Turkey, Italy, France, Libya, Algeria and the Zionist movement taking root in Palestine. Egypt, in the middle of all these European and Arab / Oriental political clashes, was a hot, unbearable desert, with Anna and Sharif’s idyllic household being the little oasis that they were able to escape to – for a while anyway.
The second story: Isabel and Omar in the late-90s. Distant cousins now, they were destined to meet somehow – despite their age and cultural differences and yet another murky past connection that I will not spoil for you. The present-day common thread that held them together formed the third story.
And, the third story: Amal, the chief narrator and translator/transcriber of Anna’s store of letters and journals. Having tried a life and family away from Egypt, she was back in Cairo when the novel began. And, her love for her country and her heritage (both cultural and familial) shimmered through her imaginative and musical telling – whether she was envisioning parts of the lives of the two couples to fill the gaps in between letters and journal entries, or musing about her own past, or trying to convey the frustrating struggles between progress and tradition across Egypt’s ongoing socio-cultural divides.
For all of the above, this was a complex book. With the parallel narratives from either end of the 20th century, the many points of view (even a fifth omniscient narrator at the beginning, the middle and towards the end), and the extensive historical details, it was hard to keep up. What I found, however, was that the need for actively engaging with the text only enabled my submersion into the story, time, space to be more complete and satisfying somehow – and, isn’t that one of the deepest pleasures of reading? Yes, I needed to look up some Egyptian history so I could follow along. And, yes, there are a LOT of names of characters mentioned so that I was never sure which ones were real and which ones invented. But, as with other such books with a lot of detail and a lot of characters, a skillful author acts as the unseen navigator and guides you gently through – as Ahdaf Soueif has done for us here.
In the end, demanding reader that I am, there are things I might have liked a bit different in the book. For example, Anna adjusted to an entirely different way of life as an Egyptian man’s English wife so easily and without any misgivings / misunderstandings that it did seem rather questionable (even though there was an entry in Anna’s journals about how things were so different and strange that she could not compare her new life to anything else, so went along with it all). And, while we read a lot of Anna’s letters to friends and family back in England, we did not get a single letter from any of them to her, which struck me as odd – if she had saved copies of all her own letters, would she not have saved theirs – particularly as, for a long period of time, that was all she had of her England connections? Also, at times, I felt as if Soueif romanticized the Orientalism and Eastern ways, although I think she tried hard to counter-balance that with hard and harsh politics as well. Finally, I found the love scenes between the 2 main couples to be very tame, restrained and, compared to the rest of the terrific writing, rather pedestrian – my hunch is that Soueif did this in deference to the sensibilities of her Eastern readers. There were a couple more such jarring moments, but, not so bad that they disturbed the plot-lines or, indeed, my reading trance.
I was lucky enough to join a recent recording of the BBC World Service Book Club discussion with the author – to be aired on August 3rd, 2013 – to ask her a question about the book. You can also catch it on the BBC World Service Book Club podcast after that date. My question to her was about how/why she decided to tell the story with parallel narratives and multiple points of view and whether that was a difficult undertaking. Would you like to know her answer? Ah….. you’ll have to listen to the show or catch the podcast after August 3, 2013 (my question is within the first 12 minutes). The rest of the show is pretty interesting too, as she answers other reader questions like – why were most of her Egyptian characters drawn more sympathetically as “good guys” vs the British colonialists as the “bad guys”?
Oh, did I mention that this book was also a Booker Finalist, losing out to J M Coetzee’s Disgrace (a fine novel, of course – another one that stayed with me for days and days)?
Let’s end with a couple of quotes from the book (there are many quotable bits, so this was a difficult choice):
Egypt, mother of civilization, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.
If we could shrink the Earth’s population to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios staying the same, it would look like this: There would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Americas and 8 Africans. 80 would live in substandard housing. 70 would be unable to read. 50 would suffer from malnutrition. 50 per cent of the entire world’s wealth would be in the hands of only 6 people. And all 6 would be citizens of the United States.