Adhaf Soueif, of Egptian and British heritage and upbringing has set herself a formidable task in The Map of Love: to tell two cross-cultural love stories 100 years apart, both developing in our minds at the same time.  The older is being discovered through letters, journals and mementos from the early years of the 20th century, mostly of a life lived in Egypt, and mostly found in an old trunk.  The more recent love, 1997-98, much of which is also in Egypt, is that between the young American heir of her great grandmother’s trunk and the older brother, Omar, of the woman piecing the stories together, Amal.

Amal, it turns out is related by marriage to  the same owner of the trunk, Anna Winterbourne, who had come to Egypt after the death of her first, British, husband and falls in love with Sharif al-Baroudi, Amal’s great uncle.  The map of the title is not only the story of their unfolding loves, separated by a century, but of the unhappy marriage of England and Egypt at the turn of both centuries, as their lives are shaped by the events of the day.  The map is also of the family tree as we find it being constructed for us.

A formidable task indeed.  Not only are there two historical eras,  there are some 56 named participants, most of them with Arabic names, with various honorifics, creating both a challenge and an opportunity for the reader.  And, to add to both, Soueif has set us up with multiple first person narrators, the I shifting as we read a journal or a letter from Anna in 1901,  some writing from Layla, her sister-in-law in Egypt, often about Anna herself, or her brother and Anna’s husband, Sharif.  There is also the I of Amal in 1997, and I about Amal herself and her friend ship with Isabel who is falling in love with Omar, her own brother.  While often the I of Anna and Layla, from the 1900s, is directly from the “discovered” writings, set off in a different type-face, sometimes it is Amal’s creation of their lives, and so not set of.

For example, one section dates 1 May, 1901 begins ” ‘Ya Abeih, I will always be your little sister, but now am asking your permission to speak to you frankly.’  Layla stands in his study.  She has thrown off her cloak and is dressed in a beautiful costume of dark pink and blue.”  This is Amal’s creation, perhaps from a snippet she has gleaned from Layla’s journal, perhaps not; perhaps from imagining a life of her own grandmother, in the family house she and Isabel are spending time in while she is putting together the story.

The family history, despite the settings in national struggles, is not so much sweeping, as intense and dense, aiming, it seems to me, to be Souief’s way to show that love is possible and acts genuinely to knit together cultures and families, despite the divisiveness of government, corporate and military interests.  Anna’s love for Sharif, and his for her, theirs for their daughter Nur — Isabel’s grandmother– is tenderly imagined and told.  Anna is a bold Englishwoman who, once getting her feet in Egypt, insists on an adventurous trip out of the city, where she is first abducted then rescued and then taken further into the country-side disguised as a man, under the protection of Sharif, who will fall in love with her.

Descriptions of the big houses where both generations spend time, are lovely and evocative, the cool interiors protecting from the heat of the desert, the servants well treated and adding to the folk-advice given.  The history of both eras is conveyed in letters Anna writes to friends back in England, found in the trunk, and in discussions Amal creates for them, through the shared family lore, and research she is doing in Cairene archives. On the whole the family and the politics weave together is unexceptional ways.  We learn, or are reminded of, The Occupation by the British, the Khedive of the fading Ottoman turks, including mention of the first one, the Albanian Turk, Muhammad Ali, of Lord Cromer, the infamous Denshawi incident — which Anna and Sharif have a real part in.  We learn, or are reminded of, the perfidious role Theodore Roosevelt, past president, played in several speeches on “The Egyptian Question, and of the celebration felt around the Muslim world when the Japanese defeated Russian in 1905 — as evidence that Asians were not always trampled by the West. [Though not in Souif’s novel, the irony of this cuts sharply: the Japanese – denominated “honorary Aryans” by Roosevelt and his caste —  had been much encouraged by the then President, who regarded the Russians, and Slavs as an even lower on the ladder of race development than the Japanese.]

The events of the latter part of the century are often voiced by Amal or friends she, and often Isabel, meet and talk with.

Each week brings fresh news of land expropriations, of great national industries and service companies sold off to foreign investors, of Iraqi children dying and Palestinian homes demolished, fresh news of gun battled in Upper Egypt, of the names of more urban intellectuals added to the Jama’at’s hit lists, of defiant young men in cages holding open Qur’ans in the hands, of raids and torture and executions.

The events of a museum bombing in Luxor take place during the novel and directly impact the village where the Barhoudi summer home is.

In both generations English speaking women are learning Arabic; Anna in hers, Isabel in hers.  This gives Soueif the chance to talk about the Arabic consonantal root structure of words — she herself trained in linguistics before becomeing a novelist — giving an added interest into Arabic lives.

“I had another root for you,” Isabel says to me…“j/n.”
“Tell me,” I say
“Well, ‘jinn‘ is a spirit, and ‘janeen is a foetus and ‘jinan‘ is madness. So what’s the common theme?”
[We are interrupted by the little one.  When I get back to her ]
…she says, “The common theme is concealment.  ‘Jinn‘ are those which are hidden, and ‘janeen‘ is a diminutive hidden one.”
“And ‘jinan?'”
“From ‘junna: — his intellect became concealed.  And ‘al-Jannah’ – Paradise, the place that is hidden”
“Of course,” I cry.  “Oh, and Isabel, listen ‘junayanah,’ garden, is a little paradise…”

 

The makings of a dense and rewarding book – for those with the patience to put it together.  It isn’t quite fair, as some of the advertising blurbs have it, to call this a great historical romance, though in certain ways it is.  As the significant book it aims to be,  one can not take it  in during a month of going-to-sleep times.  It demands attention and interest.  I had to begin my own name table, even though a family tree is provided at the beginning.  The combination of Arabic names, the honorifics and varieties, all  new to readers of English, make it difficult to hang on to the sense of things without our own map.  In English it goes without saying the Lord Cromer and Lord Barrington are different people, and without relationship, unless otherwise informed.  What of Sharif Basha and  Ya’qub Artin Basha?  Are they related?  And what about Shukri Bey al-Asali?  If Basha is an honorific and so is Bey, what difference is being signaled? Why is Sharif called  Abeih Sharif by some and not others? And  Am Abu el-Ma’ati — who is he, and when did he first appear  Is Am an honorific like Umm?

This would all be cause for active, not merely passive, reading even in a straight forward narrative.  But Soueif is also showing us the trials of a writer putting this all together.  At times her own struggles become ours.

Chapter 25, in Cairo, 18 September 1997 opens with

“As for me, my dreams have become a confusion of times and places.  I am lying in the courtyard of the old Baaroudhi house — with Nur sitting by my head tugging at my necklace when I think to look in on my sleeping children. [Now we know  Nur is Anna’s daughter, circa 1906, and we know Amal’s children. in 1997, are grown, and not with her in Cairo, so what is going on?]  With Nur on my hip I go into the house and upstairs to the boys’ room in England…”

I have to say, this took me quite a bit of time to get straightened out. Once done, once understood, it becomes part of the landscape of Soueif’s writing.  Not an easy British stroll, however.

There are many other interesting asides in the book.  Anna, in her letters and journals, always refers to Sharif as “my husband,” never as Sharif.  She is written as the perfect wife, despite her isolation from her countrymen — who effectively shun her, as the wife of an “Arab.”  In fact, family life is almost too good to be true, especially given the strains of the times, and what eventually ends their marriage and effectively brings the book to a close.

The normality of first-cousin marriage in Arab cultures is still unsettling to me as I read it:  Layla, Amal’s grandmother, married her first cousin, Husni;  young Ahmad, Layla’s son, and Nur, Sharif’s daughter (and therefore first cousins) are spoken of constantly as potential husband and wife.  Isabel’s lover, and father of her child, Omar is more distantly related — except to Isabel’s mother who he also bedded; in fact there is a barely resolved question of whether Isabel might be Omar’s child, making their child both his child and grandchild.  As one reader phrased it on reading Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra,” such family trees are “yucky” to us.   A sub-story of a three-part panel of woven images, resurfaces several times in the story, with the purpose, I think, of representing wholeness from the parts, for the family.  But frankly, trying to hang on to the names and the political history, I had to give up on it.   I’ll save its thread for another read.

So, Soueif set herself a formidable task.  Did she succeed?  A Map of Love was short listed for the Mann Booker prize in 1999, so the judges that year certainly thought so.  My sense is she would not have been satisfied in herself with a less rigorous exploration, and that she has written this with both intellect and emotion.  Until the very end, I think, we don’t get the sense of intimacy with a fictional family, that we do in other such novels.  We do, however, mourn with Anna, and Amal as the story ends.  We close the book and think about them, with a certain sadness. [Though Amal, it seems, may be finding her heart opening again, after years of separation. — and we are glad for this.]  For a reader such as myself, with politics and history always in the middle-mind, it was a great companion to other reading I’ve been doing, from Destiny Disprupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary to earlier history of Egypt in Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

A Map of Love will be of most interest to those with background or interest in Egypt, especially now that it is shuddering once again through trials with roots in the same 1900s events, or those with deep attraction to love across cultures, and all their by-ways.    It does not, as some of the popular multi-family sagas of Australia [The Thorn Birds] and the American Mid-west [The Immigrants], simply sweep you on on a grand unstopping narrative.  Soueif sets up obstacles, or perhaps finds them in the history she is trying to recount.  Sometimes the wild river ride is what we want.  Sometimes picking our way from boulder to put-in and contemplating how the river has come to be is the richer ride.  Even if you are more of the adrenaline junky  I encourage you to pick up this book.  Ahdaf Soueif is a careful and competent guide.

Soueif herself has remained involved in her native Egypt, not only as a novelist, but an essayist and political commentator.  Her Mezzaterra is a compilation of essays which while somewhat dated are relevant to today. [Reviewed here.] A volume of short stories, I Think of You, is a recompilation of the best of two earlier selections, and is very rewarding. [Review]