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Annie Gagiano on The Map of Love: The novel's basic premise about remarkably similar social and political parameters in the Egypt of ''then'' and ''now'' is persuasively and interestingly conveyed

Annie Gagiano - 2007-08-29

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love (1999)


As a map, Ahdaf Soueif's novel functions like a palimpsest – a document in layers of timeframes of which the most fully delineated "surface" is a period in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Access to that period is gradually and chronologically built up in the text through readings and interpretations of diaries, letters and newspaper clippings (as well as interpretations of a number of significant, treasured and saved objects) found in an old trunk. This, the most vivid and complete of the multiple narratives (read "through" other, more recent stories) in the novel, is a nineteenth-century romance – a genre both mimicked and complicated by the author to convey a harsh political indictment even as it narrates a lush tale of cross-cultural passion and adventure.

The romance requires the arduous achievement of mutual trust, respect and passionate commitment between a widowed Englishwoman, Lady Anna Winterbourne, and Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, a respected but unofficial Egyptian political leader. Both have been previously married – unsatisfactory relationships that were so largely because the respective spouses lacked the social awareness, integrity of conduct and politically open-eyed honesty that solidify the initial passionate attraction between Anna and Sharif into the strong alliance of a fulfilled marriage. What complicates its achievement is, of course, the brutal imperialism of Britain (seen as such by both Anna and Sharif) and its subjugation and exploitation of Egypt, over which it holds imperious sway at this time.         

Anna Winterbourne grew up with stories about Egypt from the man (one of her few trusted British friends) who would eventually become her father-in-law and most frequent correspondent, Sir Charles Winterbourne. These stories evolve (at the time of Anna's marriage to his son, Edward) into his indignant letters to The Times as well as dinner-table arguments in which Sir Charles denounces the practices of British imperialism of this later time, especially in Egypt. The British social and political context of the time is well summarised in a passage such as the following:         

The question of whether savage nations had a right to exist came up, George arguing – from Darwin and the survival of the fittest – that they had none, and the rest of the company being of much the same mind. Sir Charles was much incensed and ended the conversation by saying (somewhat strongly) that the British Empire had done so much harm to so many people that it deserved to perish and then it would be too late to say or do anything. Edward was, for the most part, silent, I fancy because he really agreed with the younger set but was careful of offending his father. Sir Charles's only ally was John Evelyn, who declared his intention of sending his son up the Nile to "learn Arabic, keep a diary and acquire habits of observation and self-reliance and not to imbibe Jingo principles". I wish – if that is not too wicked a wish – I wish I were that son. (13)

It was in the British-Egyptian campaign to subjugate the Sudan that Anna's husband (Sir Charles's son), despite setting out with a type of Jingoistic fervour, would receive the mortal wound – to his spirit, interestingly, rather than his body – that would slowly kill him after his return. Although Anna is portrayed as very much the loyal, nobly unselfish young English wife, it is clear that her marriage was never a fulfilled one, either emotionally (she and Edward are not and never become kindred spirits) or sexually (the latter point being discreetly but unmistakably conveyed in Anna's early diary entries).

As Anna attempts to nurse and heal the returned, war-damaged husband to whose obscure but eroding sense of guilt and shame she can offer no solace, her life enters a period of terrible bleakness. She speaks of Edward's “terrors” (31), while Soueif clearly wants to draw attention to the atrocities committed under British direction during the course of the Sudanese campaign. Edward dies in the last year of the century; one of Anna's few comforts at this time is to sit with her feisty old father-in-law and listen to his tirades against “the doings of Kitchener in South Africa, the King of the Belgians in the Congo, the Americans in the Filipines and all the nations of Europe in China” (39), for this is, of course, the heyday of the "club" of imperialists led by Britain.

Partly because the culture has always fascinated her and partly to attempt to recover from the depression into which her spirit has sunk, Anna undertakes a visit to Egypt in 1901. At a picnic lunch “at the foot of the Great Pyramid” (95), she hears the colonial British uttering familiar sentiments:         

… Mr S held that it would take generations before the Natives were fit to rule themselves as they had neither integrity nor moral fibre, being too long accustomed to foreign rule – and if foreign rule was their lot, then British rule was surely to be preferred to that of the French or Germans, who would surely have been here if we were not.       (99–100)

It is predictably Anna's discovery of the integrity and moral fibre of most of the Egyptians that she encounters, in particular her future second husband, that binds her irretrievably to the country. In the best romance tradition she is abducted by some daring young men while on a journey of exploration into the desert. But since she is at the time disguised as a young man (recognisable only as British), her captors have a political rather than an erotic aim in mind. They are, indeed, roundly rebuked for their rash act at a politically sensitive time by the man they had hoped to please and impress, Sharif Basha – who courteously insists on now accompanying Anna on the rest of her expedition, which she insists on continuing and completing (still in male disguise).         

In her Thomas Cook guidebook, typical of her time, Anna would find the following about “the people who live in the desert”: a description in print terming them “rude, ignorant, lazy and greedy”, a scornful account qualified only by the condescending generalisation equally typical of the time, likening them to “the American Negroes in their simplicity, thoughtlessness and good humour” (209). It is with such texts, too, that Soueif's forms a palimpsest – the crude prejudices of the travel guide confronted within the covers of her own work with the subtlety and humanity of the Arabic (and other local and related) languages and cultures depicted by her as seen by Anna. She (for instance) encounters (after her return) the sophistication and worldliness of a matinee in a Cairo Salon, held by a niece of Muhammed Ali himself – the "international" modernity of the gathering indeed overwhelming Anna. She is becoming convinced of the injustice of British power in Egypt, even as Sharif Basha is raising local funds for a museum, an art school and a university – the latter in particular opposed by Governor Cromer, the British ruler of the time. For “British brains and Arab hands is Cromer's recipe for Egypt” (262); a “recipe” strongly resembling Verwoerd's for South Africa (with the appropriate substitution of "ingredients").

But Anna and Sharif Basha have decided to get married, despite the opposition, enmity and criticism they know this will incur from many quarters. One person who understands these difficulties particularly well is Sharif Basha's mother, who conveys this in the following beautiful interlude:         

"If she feels for you as you feel for her, she will throw away the world and come to you. But if you take her" – Zeinab Hanim holds her son's hand firmly in both her own – "you will be everything to her. … It means if she angers you, you forgive her. If she crosses you, you make it up with her. And whatever the English do, you will never burden her with the guilt of her country."          (281–2)

Perhaps matching the above is a passage in one of Anna's letters to her former father-in-law, Sir Charles, in which she tells him that she has “begun to have some understanding of the complexity of things” in Egypt and of the “difficulty” of her husband's “situation – the difficulties for all those who think as he does and the delicate balance they must constantly be at pains to maintain” (383). For (as Anna sees) the British presence in Egypt has split up the national movement between those who believe it in their country's best interest to "cooperate" with the British or do not wish to be too hasty and those who (like her husband) believe that Egyptians must be allowed to solve their own problems. “And there are other divisions,” she notes. “People who would have tolerated the establishment of secular education, or the gradual disappearance of the veil,” she writes, “now fight these developments because they feel a need to hold on to their traditional values in the face of the Occupation” (384).

An ominous note is struck in the same letter when Anna notes the ever-present danger of being branded a traitor in so volatile a political climate.

Yet the marriage is strong and happy and the couple have a daughter to make them a family, even if (as Anna warns later) it seems to her at times that the baby is “being placed in the balance against all the ills of the world” (398). In 1906 she writes to a friend in Britain that in Egypt at this time things “can never be as bad as in South Africa, even though [Governor] Cromer chooses to represent the political unrest here as fanatical in nature” (412).

Although the “shadow” within which Anna and Sharif live is always there and Anna's hope of its lifting within their lifetime a vain one, they remain a productive couple: Sharif writing important political commentary and Anna translating his French version of the Arabic into English. One such statement (from 1911) is reproduced in full (481–4) – probably because Soueif intends the reader to recognise the telling parallels between the "Western" attitudes and actions of that time towards the Orient and those of today.

Sharif Basha al-Baroudi is assassinated not long after writing this piece, while on his way home to Anna, their daughter, his mother, and another of her grandchildren, the boy Ahmad (Sharif's nephew), who has lived with them. Soueif gives no indication which of a host of political enemies of so independent-minded a man might have done so. But it is through the boy Ahmad's son and daughter, Omar and Amal, that the author has orchestrated another, contemporary romance between a handsome Egyptian (also a political activist) and a blonde "English" woman (actually American) who (it transpires) is a direct descendant of Anna Winterbourne.

This secondary romance is both more perfunctorily described (in Soueif's text) and less successful as a union than the earlier one, although the late twentieth-century couple, related through the Egyptian man's grandmother and the younger American woman's great-grandfather (who were sister and brother – the latter being Sharif who had married Anna). The younger couple also has a child, but these two are not as closely kindred in spirit as were Sharif and Anna; nevertheless their child (a boy) is fittingly named Sharif. Soueif has carefully constructed the narratives of the two relationships to run parallel in the course of her text.

The novel ends on the recorded conclusion of the principal (older) narrative in the elder Sharif's 1911 death; the account of the earlier tragedy almost coinciding with the suggestion that the late twentieth-century father of the baby Sharif, Omar, has been killed (in a visit to Palestine) in a way similar to the way his great-uncle Sharif died - because of political faction fighting and international political conspiracy. Omar had been an internationally famous conductor who fascinated and was wooed by the young American reporter Isabel. Of course neither initially had an inkling that they are related.

The least successful aspect of Soueif's novel, to my mind, is the fact that she adds a strange twist to an already convoluted plot to suggest that Isabel might be Omar's own daughter! For after many mysterious hints we learn that Omar as a young Palestinian political demonstrator was rescued by a beautiful, older American woman, Isabel's mother, who is dying of Alzheimer's when we encounter her in the novel. After her death, Isabel finds the trunk with her great-grandmother Anna Winterbourne's story recorded in the letters, documents and artefacts contained in the trunk. When she shows Omar some of its contents (letters in Arabic script) he directs her to his sister, who has returned to Cairo to live.

This sister of Omar's is named Amal and it is she who becomes the novel's principal narrator of the circumstances in contemporary Egypt and (by proxy) of the story of Sharif and Anna as found in the documents. Amal is a more successfully delineated character than either Isabel or Omar and it is mainly through her that these two (her beloved, famous brother and the attractive young American obsessed with him) gain what credibility they have in the reader's eyes. Well into the novel, when Isabel has arrived on her first visit to Egypt, Amal's thoughts are reported as follows:

Wonder "do we – by the same words – mean the same things?" I think of Isabel and her confident cry: "If he cared for me as I care for him, I should not be hurt." And Isabel is determined to share my brother's world. She shared the American one already – and now she wants this one. She wants to surprise him when she goes back by her grasp of things Egyptian. And I have arranged to take her to the Atelier. I have told people – yet again – that she is engaged to my brother, and also that she is doing a graduate project on how people here view the millennium. I've lied a bit and said that she has been on a march to end the suffering of the women and children of Iraq. (219)

The Atelier referred to above is the scene of a wonderfully vividly conveyed coffee shop discussion among leading older and younger Egyptian intellectuals and activists about the state (and prospects) of their nation and the whole Middle East region at the beginning of the twenty-first century (219–31). Soueif's touch is confident and sure – hence, convincing and interesting – in her evocation of the arguments and attitudes of this loose group. We learn about political repression in modern Egypt (“one of the artists has just been placed under Administrative Detention for signing a statement against the land laws” – 220); one activist remarks that things will “get worse” in the area (“We're headed for an age of Israeli supremacy in the whole area. An Israeli empire,” she claims, “and they have America behind them” – 222); another warns that “what's happening to the Iraqis or the Palestinians today will happen to us tomorrow” (230), to which the first commentator adds: “It's either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamist radicals. Take your pick” (230). Of the “pax Americana” one of the activists remarks, “They're already talking of Israeli brains and Arab hands” (222), a remark that (in a clever touch of the author's) distinctly recalls the nineteenth-century British governor Cromer's purported “recipe for Egypt” of “British brains and Arab hands” (262).

Soueif's novel is hugely ambitious in the several canvases (or scripts, or maps) with which she presents us and the scope of these superimposed outlines of (mainly) Egypt of a hundred, and of a few, years ago. Although some parts or aspects of her text are melodramatic or less than subtle in the political comment that they communicate, the novel's basic premise about remarkably similar social and political parameters in the Egypt of “then” and “now” is persuasively and interestingly conveyed.

The most moving characters are Anna (in the past) and Omar's sister Amal (in the present). Amal resumes a familial responsibility for agricultural land owned by, and a night school started by, her forebears.

I end my account of Soueif's text with a passage indicating Amal's recognition of some of the painful complexities of life in her society:

The television in the hall speaks of yesterday's atrocity [a bomb that killed a number of tourists at Luxor] and as I leave I pause to watch the image of tens of wooden coffins laid out on the sand. … I walk through a village humming with normal life. The small store spills its bluish light on the dust road, two men sit with their nargiles in front of the counter, children play at the edge of the light. But somewhere out there I know there are men, young men, unresigned, who boil with anger and swear to avenge their villages and their people. When I think of them my blood runs cold and I clench my fists in the pockets of my coat, bow my head and hurry quickly home.   (450)