Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who has strong ties to England. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Lancaster, and her second husband was English. Her native language is Arabic, but most of her published writing is in English.
Her cross-cultural identity provides one of the recurring themes of her fiction. I have read two of her novels, The Eye of the Sun, and The Map of Love. Both of them are about women caught between (or perhaps within) two cultures, which leads them to grapple with cultural, sexual, political, and intellectual identities.
In the Eye of the Sun chronicles the coming-of-age story of a beautiful, upper-class Egyptian woman named Asya who tries to reconcile her intellectual, emotional, and sexual needs with the confines of Egyptian traditions. Like Soueif herself, Asya spends several years in a cold and lonely English university while pursuing her Ph.D. Asya is married to an Egyptian man but is apart from him while pursuing her degree and ends up having an affair with an English man. In the Eye of the Sun has been compared to Victorian English novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch because of its style, scope and the exploration of the inner life of her main character. On the other hand, In the Eye of the Sun is more modern and daring (one might even say racy) in its unflinching exploration of the sexual desires and sexual politics of its characters as well as the sexism of both English and Egyptian cultures. In that sense, Soueif reminds me a little of feminist writers such as Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath.
I would recommend this book for people who are interested in women’s issues, especially in Arab women’s issues. Don’t bother with this book if you like lots of action in a novel. It is much more about psychology and culture than action. Keep in mind that this is a hefty read—over 800 pages. I sometimes wished Soueif had not been quite so wordy. In this sense, her writing reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. (I have been told by Arab-American friends that Arabs like their words—that what Americans might call “wordy” or “flowery” prose are compliments, not critiques. ) I do think that the novel is worth the time it takes in getting through it. I do not know of other Arab writers (in English, alas) who have explored the psyche of female characters with so much depth and insight. (If you know of others, please let me know!)
Soueif’s Map of Love is the most famous of her works because it was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. It is a complex work that interweaves romance, history, and politics into a gorgeous Middle-Eastern tapestry. The plot is so complicated, in fact, it is rather difficult to convey briefly.
One thread of the narrative concerns Anna Winterbourne, a late 19th century English woman who travels to Egypt after the death of her husband. While there, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a dashing, upper-class English man (think Omar Sharif ). The 19th century plot is frankly romantic, complete with desert sojourns, kidnapping, and so forth. Normally that type of romance makes me nauseated, but for some reason it worked for me in this novel. Perhaps it worked for me because the romance was combined with a heavy dose of historically based portrayals of British colonialism and the horrors that ensued from it.
Another strand of the novel, however, is set in the present day (late 20th century). An American woman named Isabel Parkman finds some old papers of her mother that are written in Arabic. She meets an Arab man (think Omar Sharif meets Edward Said) who suggests she goes to Egypt to meet his sister Amal who can help her with the papers. (I told you it gets complicated). In any case, the novel intertwines the stories of the three women (Amal, Anna, and Isbael) and we find they are interconnected in unexpected ways despite being separated by time and geography.
Like In the Eye of the Sun, The Map of Love, also combines biting political critique with a sensitive exploration of women’s emotional terrains. The Map of Love, however, has a more complicated plot structure. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the novel a stronger scaffolding for the emotional exploration. On the other hand, juggling all the different characters, time periods, and historical references can be a challenge. Nonetheless, I loved this work. Again, I don’t know of anything else that combines the romantic with the political in such an intriguing style.
Soueif has written a number of other works, too, both fictional and nonfictional. Here is the link to her official webpage. Check her out!