Of Romance and History

Egypt has always been a land of rich history. One of the cradles of civilization, Egypt possesses a story that stretches for millennia. It is widely renowned for its grandeur and the power that it has wielded over the years. The sphinx, the pyramids, and the obelisks are vestiges of a great and thriving empire that, at its peak, stretched well beyond the Nile delta. Ancient Egypt was also the birthplace of popular and influential historical figures such as Cleopatra, Tutankhamun, Moses, and Ramses II. For its glory and grandeur, Egypt was long the subject of envy and sieges that has laid waste to what used to be a powerful and influential civilization. For centuries following its peak, Egypt has been conquered and passed on by other powerful empires which culminated with the power standoff between the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom in the early 20th century.

A portion of Egypt’s contemporary history was the fabric upon which Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif (أهداف سويف) wove her second novel, The Map of Love. In what has become a popular literary device among works of historical fiction, the novel follows two timelines: the past and the present. The contemporary follows the story of Isabel Parkman, a young American divorcée, who was drawn into Omar-al-Ghamrawi, a renowned but perplexing musician. Isabel, in the hopes of gaining an understanding of his nature, traveled from New York to Omar’s homeland of Egypt. Isabel found herself in the possession of a trunkful of journals and letters she found among the belongings of her mother, Jasmine; she was in the terminal stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These journals and letters, she learned, were from her British great-grandmother, Anna.

However, like Omar, the journals and letters were puzzles that barely made sense to her; they were written in Arabic, a language unfamiliar to her. To help translate the letters, she enlisted the help of Amal, Omar’s sister who recently returned to Egypt after her separation from her husband. In deciphering Anna’s letters and journals, the friendship between Amal and Isabel started to flourish but neither had any iota of the depth of their connection. Lady Anna Winterbourne’s story transported Isabel and Amal to the turn of the 20th century. When Anna was mourning the death of her husband, paintings helped her grieve. Inspired by these paintings, she left England for Egypt, arriving in British-occupied Cairo. Beyond Cairo, the rest of the country was riddled with skirmishes, with the locals adamant in their resistance to British occupation and the advent of a new colonial era. As she immersed herself in Egyptian flair, Anna started getting fascinated by the colorful culture.

“Old people are starved of touch: no husband, no lover, no child to slip a hand into a hand, to plant sticky kisses on nose and cheek and mouth, to snuggle and fit into the curves of the body. I watched my grandmother – my mother’s mother – in her last years: her hand, the skin drawn parchmentlike over the bones, stroking, stroking, the chairs, the table, the bedspread.”

~ Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

In a foreign land, Anna’s natural sense of adventure made her curious about what lies beyond the safe zones. Anna was cognizant of the dangers lurking, especially for women, in the ominous landscape but the desert possesses a magnetic appeal that slowly reeled her into this exotic landscape. In clandestine, she would occasionally step into territories none of her peers or her fellow Europeans dared venture into. Things turned particularly dangerous in one of her excursions. Anna, reeled in by the enigma and beauty of the Sinai Desert, dressed as a man and ventured out. However, she crossed paths with a group of young Arab nationalists who were appalled when they learn she was a woman. They turned her over to their leader, Sharif Basha-al-Baroudi, who took Anna into his harem. It was in the harem that Anna met Sharif’s sister, Layla, and their mother. Finding some common grounds, Anna and Layla instantaneously forged a friendship.

The Map of Love captured a century of Egypt’s history, spanning from the turn of the century until its twilight. At the start of the 20th century, Egypt was slowly finding its feet after the Ottoman Empire lost its grip on power and control over most of the Middle East, including Egypt. After two millennia of being oppressed and subjugated by other powers, Egypt finally has the chance to seize control of its own destiny. Sensing the Ottoman’s vulnerability, the British made their presence felt but their presence was an ominous sign. Their ever-growing presence threatens to derail the nationalists’ dreams of independence. Other outside forces also started pouring in, hiding behind the guise of allies, of crusaders of peace carrying promises of stability.

These bastions of liberty questioned Egypt’s maturity and ability to govern itself even though, as an Egyptian elite has repeatedly mentioned, Egypt has already achieved this maturity several millennia ago, way before most of these so-called free states have earned their right to sovereignty. The looming presence of yet another imperialist that will stall Egypt’s dreams created an atmosphere that was heavily charged with resentment towards the British’s intervention in internal Egyptian affairs. Undaunted, the Arab nationalists imposed their claims and continuously engaged these outside influences, challenging their presence in their land, sometimes in armed struggles.

It was through Sharif and Layla that Anna started to learn more about the struggle for Egypt’s liberation and the importance of the realization of this dream on the nationalists and on the locals. The more that Anna learns about these dreams, the more that her sympathy shifted towards the plight of the locals. She achieved an epiphany of some sort as she started to realize how her country is a divisive presence rather than a uniting force. As the story weaves into the contemporary, the novel depicted the impact of the British occupation that still resonates in the present. Nearly a century has passed but Western powers still continue to meddle in the affairs of the Middle East. Their interference slowly gave rise to the emergence of Islamist groups and secular extremism. The novel doubled as a study of the precarious relationship between Western powers and the Middle East. The clash between Western and Oriental cultures was a recurring and seminal subject grappled in the novel.

“The encompassing silence and the ease (or difference) of my companions have left my soul free to contemplate, to drink in the wonder of this place. How fitting it is that it should have been here that Moses heard the word of God! For here, where Man – if he is to live – lives perforce so close to Nature and by her Grace, I feel so much closer to the entire mystery of Creation that it would not surprise me at all were I to be vouchsafed a vision or a revelation; indeed it would seem in the very order of things that such an epiphany would happen.”

~ Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

Egypt’s rich but tumultuous contemporary history was the mantle upon which Soueif juxtaposed the story of Anna and her kin. As their discourses and interactions started growing, Anna and Sharif slowly found themselves drawn towards each other. It was the growing fondness between Anna and Sharif that formed the nucleus of the novel, the titular Love. However, there existed a sea of dichotomies between the two primary characters. While Sharif was older by 16 years, their differences extend beyond the palpable. They also grew up in contrasting backgrounds, with different sets of values and cultural heritages. These were on top of the growing struggle between their nations. They also had to overcome the fear of being ostracized by their own people. These differences and challenges, however, were slowly overcome by the strength of feelings they harbored for each other. The more they fall in love, the more they mean nothing. Love, after all, transcends barriers. It was this boundless love that was one of the main themes of the story.

Love was a prominent leitmotif. For Soeuif, however, love encompasses a far grander map well beyond romance. The Map of Love charted love in its different forms. In Sharif and the nationalists, the love of one’s nation was depicted. In Sharif and Layla, Omar and Amal, the love for one’s kin was captured. Other forms of love, such as the love for nature, love for language, and love for culture, were vividly portrayed by Soueif. The novel also grappled with speech and language. It was one of the barriers that the main characters must overcome; Anna cannot speak Arabic while Layla and Sharif cannot speak English. They found a common ground in French, a language they can all comprehend. A portion of the novel explored how thought is conveyed in different languages. Arabic terms were occasionally interjected into the discourses, with some assisted by discussions on their definitions and derivations. Soueif provided a glossary of terms at the end of the novel to provide a better understanding of the Arabic expressions, idioms, and historical references made in the story.

Soueif, in intricate details, vividly painted Egypt, its customs, both past, and present. Her evocative writing painted the enchanting beauty of the desert and the bustle of the cities. On a subtler level, the novel managed to depict the contrasts between men and women in an Orientalist setting. Gender roles and stereotypes were vividly portrayed in the novel. An offshoot of the patriarchal structure that remains prevalent in many societies, most of the political discourses, and affairs were handled by men. While the female voices were heard, men still make the final call. On the other hand, women, bound by traditions, were relegated to the harem and were meant to provide warmth to the hearth. Their role was to look after the home and the children. They provide a sanctuary from the turmoil that surrounds them. Men also seek their counsel for guidance.

The novel’s structure was one of its more striking facets. Ditching literary norms, Soeuif constructed the story through fragmented texts. A derivative of the epistolary novel, Anna’s journal entries and letters formed a heft of the story. This did, however, make up for a slow-paced story. The narration also involved multiple narrators, but most of the story was narrated through the point-of-view of the female characters. The female voices were more prominent and the camaraderie between the women – Amal and Isabel, Layla and Anna, Anna and the other members of the harem – was one of the novel’s finer facets. On the other hand, it was contentious that Anna did not have any conflicts with the other members of the harem, especially with the sea of differences that existed between her and the rest. This lack of cultural clashes did weigh in on the overall appreciation of the story.

“It is that happy stretch of time when the lovers set to chronicling their passion. When no glance, no tone of voice is so fleeting but it shines with significance. When each moment, each perception is brought out with care, unfolded like a precious gem from its layers of the softest tissue paper and laid in front of the beloved — turned this way and that, examined, considered.”

~ Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

Anna and Sharif’s love story was too good to be true. Both came from unsuccessful marriages and had to overcome several challenges of varying scales but it was still glaring how their relationship lacked conflict. It was too perfect. The cultural aspects of relationships, considering their different backgrounds, were also not fully explored. While it was not the primary concern of the novel, the elements of romance were underdeveloped.

Despite some of its weaker elements, The Map of Love still had its bright spots. Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, The Map of Love was both a romance story and a lesson in history. Anchored on the love story between Anna and Sharif, Soueif provided a riveting panorama of a century of her homeland’s lush but turbulent modern history, from the interference of Western powers to the struggles for independence and how these still resonate in the contemporary. It was a novel of grand and ambitious scale that intersected rich details of epistolary, post-colonial, and modern storytelling. Egypt, its history, and enchanting landscape came alive in all its glory through Soueif’s descriptive and evocative prose. It was a compelling mix of history and fiction. Beyond Egypt and its history, The Map of Love charted how love transcends time, forms, and different barriers.

“And Egypt? What is Egypt’s strength? Her resilience? Her ability to absorb people and events into the pores of her being? Is that true or is it just a consolation? A shifting of responsibility? And if it is true, how much can she absorb and still remain Egypt?”

~ Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love
Ratings

77%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Prior to 2019, I have never heard of Egyptian writer-activist Ahdaf Soueif. While randomly browsing through the books on sale, I came across her novel, The Map of Love. The title sounds ordinary enough, unimpressive even, but what struck me immediately was the line “Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize” prominently displayed on the book’s cover. Whatever reservations I had about the book were put to rest by this line. However, the book was left to gather dust on my bookshelf, like most of my books. It was in early 2021 that I finally decided to read it, making it part of my February 2021 Booker Prize Reading Month. The premise sounds simple enough. In what has now become a popular structure in works of historical fiction, the novel follows two timelines, the past, and the present. The part of the novel dealing with the past was more evocatively portrayed, with the developing story between recently widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne and Sharif as its nucleus. What made the story flourish cannot be found in its romantic overtones but in its rich background which captures Egypt’s vibrant history, especially at the turn of the 20th century. Overall, The Map of Love was a good read.

Book Specs

Author: Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 516
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

In 1900 Lady Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif, an Egyptian Nationalist utterly committed to his country’s cause.

A hundred years later, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee and a descendant of Anna and Sharif, goes to Egypt, taking with her an old family trunk, inside which are found notebooks and journals which reveal Anna and Sharif’s secret.

About the Author

Ahdaf Soueif (أهداف سويف) was born on March 23, 1950, in Cairo, Egypt. Her parents are university professors and her sister, Laila Soueif, is a prominent mathematician and human and women’s rights activist. Soueif was educated in Egypt and England, where she pursued a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Lancaster.

Soueif’s literary career began in 1983 with the publication of Aisha, a collection of short stories. Almost a decade later, in 1992, she published her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun. Her third work, Sandpiper (1996) is another short story collection. It won the 1996 Cairo International Book Fair: Best Collection of Short Stories. Her second novel, The Map of Love was a literary sensation, both critically and commercially. It was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize and sold more than a million copies. Soueif’s other works include Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004), a collection of her essays; and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (2012), a personal account of her experiences during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Soueif is also an active political and cultural commentator. Her writings were also published in London’s The Guardian, and in Cairo’s al-Shorouk, an Arabic-language national daily. In 2008, she was the founding chair of the first Palestine Festival of Literature. She was also appointed a trustee of the British Museum in 2012 and was re-appointed in 2016 but resigned in 2019.

She is married to Ian Hamilton, with whom she has two sons. She currently lives in London and Cairo.