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A Novelist in Tahrir Square

By (April 1, 2011) No Comment

The January 25th Revolution in Egypt was an extraordinary event: an uprising of millions of people united in their commitment to peaceful protest and their demand for lives of dignity and hope. They claimed, then stood, then won their ground, chanting “silmiyyah, silmiyyah,” we are peaceful, in response to threats, provocation, and eventually violent opposition. Working together, these brave people—young and old, Muslim and Christian, men and women—brought down a dictator and launched a new era of uncertain but exhilarating change. In the process they rediscovered themselves as authors of their own destiny. “We have rejected the passivity our rulers have been imposing on us,” declared novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif, who spent many of those terrifyingly heady days reporting directly from Tahrir Square.

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy
The Mubarak regime had, in Soueif’s words, “maligned and misrepresented the Egyptian people to each other and to the world,” but the revolution changed all that:

They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic—well here we are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty.

As this exultant display of their long-suppressed spirit revitalized Egyptians, it also broke down a wall of misunderstanding that once stood between them and many of those now cheering them on. Their revolution for their rights at home overcame stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims abroad, replacing reductive narratives of extremism, subjection, and submission with new stories of Egypt and its people which may be among the most important legacies of the revolution. What further revolution might we see in international understanding, not to mention foreign policy, if the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are seen as “interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities”?

These optimistic words come from an earlier essay by Soueif, whose voice has, fittingly, been prominent among those telling the revised story of Egypt to English-speaking audiences. Born in Cairo, Soueif was educated—and now lives—in both Egypt and England. Best known before Tahrir for her second novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love (1999), Soueif, who writes in both English and Arabic, is also a frequent contributor to the Guardian, al-Ahram Weekly, the London Review of Books, and many other publications.

A continuing theme across Soueif’s body of work is Western misrepresentation of the Arab and Muslim world. Soueif recalls living in London in the 1980s, when she easily found diverse opinions in the mainstream media about British or European issues but felt herself consistently “out of step” with coverage of the Middle East:

In almost every book, article, film, TV or radio programme that claimed to be about the part of the world that I came from I could never recognise myself or anyone I know. I was constantly coming face to face with distortions of my reality.

In her own writing, Soueif confronts these distortions with her own nuanced explorations of that reality. In “The Language of the Veil,” for example, Soueif restores complexity and difference where much Western discourse simplifies and homogenizes:

And so it is that, having refused many times to write about ‘the veil,’ I am now trying to put together some thoughts about the ‘dress code’ of Arab or Muslim women. But I immediately run into problems. Muslim women are not all Arab. The conditions of Iranian women are different from those of the women of Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and now, famously, Afghanistan. And they are all different from the Arabs. And not all Arab women are Muslim. Thirty years ago you could not have told whether an Egyptian woman was Christian or Muslim by her dress. In Palestinian villages you still can’t tell. So whose dress code shall I talk about? Where? The clusters of women you see around the shops in Knightsbridge, tented in black, their faces muzzled with leather-and-brass-beaked masks, are from the Gulf states and would (and do) look equally out of place in the shopping malls of Cairo and Beirut. Similarly, the women with layers of black chiffon over their faces and Jimmy Choo slingbacks tripping out from under their black abayas are Saudi, and their face coverings send out a different signal from those of an Egyptian or an Algerian.

In essays such as 2001’s “Nile Blues,” Soueif counters the Western media’s tendency to attribute “simple and immediate motivation to Arabs and Muslims as though they were all single-celled creatures.” Situated, herself, at one of what she has called the “touching points” between cultures, Soueif is perfectly positioned to effect a more nuanced form of cross-cultural understanding.

In her fiction, Soueif makes her most extended contribution to the project of establishing “a direct and authentic channel between the reader of English and the perceptions, feelings, and ideas of the people whose countries—whose lives, in fact—are the main theatre in which the dramas of the last several years have been played out.” Her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1992), does so implicitly just by being a realist novel told from the perspective of an Arab woman, Asya al-Ulama. The novel covers significant developments in contemporary Egyptian history, including the Six Day War, the death of Nassar, the decline of pan-Arabism, Sadat’s alliance with America and peace treaty with Israel, and the rise of Islamism in the 1980s; news bulletins repeatedly cut across Asya’s story, highlighting intersections between private and public events. The novel’s focus, however, remains intensely personal, its register emotional rather than political. The experience of a Palestinian friend “living under occupation,” for instance, moves Asya to a vertiginous meditation on “all those bruised people: Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and of course the Jews themselves,” and then on “all the things that are happening right now … as they sit here studying for their poetry exam”:

Secret deals being arranged in government departments, counterdeals in secret service meetings, ignorant armies moving silently by night, people being thrown out of their houses, babies being tortured, people being tortured—this is the point where Asya’s mind starts to do a loop. People being tortured. Right now. As we sit here. Tortured. And what do we do? We go on studying for our exams. . . . But what else is to be done? What can be done? Can you get up right now and rush off to some prison—assuming you know where one is—and hammer at the door? … No. No, well, of course not, that’s stupid—and yet how can you just go on sitting here while someone somewhere is having live wires pushed up his rectum, his teeth pulled out of his head, her vagina stuffed with hungry rats, or having to watch her baby’s head being smashed against the—

Asya jumps up. She always jumps up when she gets to this bit. Now she goes out on the balcony and stands holding on to the stone balustrade and breathing fast and looking at the lights of the Officer’s Club. She daren’t look up at the sky because the darkness and the stars will make her think of how the earth is a tiny ball spinning round and round in space, and space is something she cannot even begin to imagine.

Asya herself is not an allegorical or representative figure but a complexly specific character. Like other literary heroines she often thinks about—Dorothea, Maggie, Anna, Emma—Asya struggles to make room for her individual desires in an inhospitable world. Asya and her novel belong within this literary tradition, and indeed are self-consciously placed there. Asya’s panic at the overwhelming realization of others’ suffering refers us back to the novel’s epigraph, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (“if we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence”); Soueif’s filtering of political developments through Asya’s experience closely resembles Eliot’s method there of ‘history by indirection.’

Soueif’s oblique angle on politics in In the Eye of the Sun is also an implicit commentary on the Western expectation that all stories of Middle Eastern women will conform to particular patterns shaped by Western preoccupations. In the Eye of the Sun presents Asya in all her individuality: her development does not depend on either a literal or a metaphorical ‘unveiling’; she does not define her life through a struggle against either Islamic extremism or Western imperialism. Asya’s parents are university professors, and in their cosmopolitan milieu English and European culture are as familiar as Egyptian or Arabic. Asya is raised in what Soueif calls the ‘Mezzaterra,’ or the middle ground, “a meeting-point for many cultures or traditions.” “Growing up Egyptian in the Sixties,” Soueif recalls in the introduction to her essay collection Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004),

meant growing up Muslim / Christian / Egyptian / Arab / African / Mediterranean / Non-aligned / Socialist but happy with small-scale capitalism. On top of that, if you were urban / professional the chances were that you spoke English and / or French and danced to the Stones as readily as to Abd el-Haleem.

It’s not until Asya moves to England that she (like Soueif) finds herself maneuvering among narrow assumptions about her identity, including the Orientalist fantasies of her English lover, Gerald. There she also confronts the paradoxes of her own mixed allegiance to West and East. Walking along the Embankment in London, she gazes on the “accoutrements of Empire” and wonders why she cannot “find it in her heart to feel resentment or bitterness or anything but admiration for and pleasure in the beauty, the graciousness, the harmony of this scene.” Is her admiration “a sinister, insidious colonialism implanted in her very soul”? Must she take sides? It’s in England, not Egypt, that Asya must struggle not to be defined solely by being Arab and Muslim.

Because the novel is told almost exclusively from Asya’s point of view, our own propensity to slot her into reductive categories is disabled. We are caught up in her personal life, particularly her vexed relationship with her husband and then her sexually liberating but otherwise unsatisfactory affair. Above all, we are engaged in her process of self-discovery. “Can’t I just find out,” Asya finally demands, “what it’s like to be free of everything else, to find out what I would do if I could do what I wanted?” The novel’s web of literary allusions as well as its own literary form, the Bildungsroman, insist on the familiarity of this yearning—on its affinities to what we already understand—even as it places it in a context of differences.

Soueif’s second novel, The Map of Love (1999), is overtly structured around the challenge of negotiating cultural and political differences. Its parallel plots follow two Western women separated by nearly a century—the Victorian Lady Anna Winterbourne and the contemporary Isabel Parkman—on their travels to Egypt. Both fall in love with Egyptian men: Anna with Sharif, a committed nationalist working against the British occupation, Isabel with Omar, a charismatic composer and cosmopolitan intellectual known to his antagonists as the “Molotov Maestro” (the parallels with Soueif’s close friend Edward Said, derided in his turn as the “Professor of Terror,” are clear). Anna’s and Isabel’s stories are complemented and framed by the observations of Sharif’s sister Layla and Omar’s sister Amal. Ultimately the women’s friendships are more important than the novel’s romances for creating an environment in which affinities can be felt and differences rendered unthreatening. “What difference,” Amal wonders as she reads Anna’s journal, “do a hundred years—or a continent—make?”

That is the novel’s promise, reflected also in its form—that people can, indeed, connect across time and place, that their diverse stories can be shaped into something at once multiple and unified. The fulfillment of this hope depends on repeated instances of the same mental displacement provoked by In the Eye of the Sun. Without the desire or ability to shift one’s point of view, cross-cultural encounters will always lead to stalemate, or worse. Middlemarch is an explicit presence in this novel too, and Soueif’s emphasis on seeing situations from different perspectives puts a political spin on Eliot’s famous interjection in Chapter 29: “One morning some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” Both authors exercise their readers’ moral imaginations, Eliot by the movement of her narrative attention, Soueif by interweaving first and third person accounts with letters and diaries, so that the story we read is always multifaceted.

Within The Map of Love it’s love, unsurprisingly, that draws people across mental as well as geographical borders. Anna’s initial skepticism about Britain’s imperialist narratives is provoked by her first husband’s despair after his military service in the Sudan. Distressed by her inability to comfort him, she travels to Egypt after his death seeking her own insight into the conflict that broke him. She is drawn also by her fascination with the “luminous beauty” of Frederick Lewis’s Egyptian paintings at the South Kensington Museum:

On a low bed, pressed into a pile of silken cushions, a woman lies sleeping. Above her, a vast curtain hangs, through the brilliant billowing green of which the fluid shadows of the lattice shutters can be made out, and beyond them, the light. One wedge of sunshine—from the open window above her head—picks out the sleeper’s face and neck, the cream-coloured chemise revealed by the open buttons of her tight bodice. A small amulet shines at her throat.

Lewis, The Siesta (1876)

Anna loves “the wondrous colours” of Lewis’s paintings, “the tranquility, the contentment with which they are infused.” Soueif’s descriptions of the Egyptian desert are similarly evocative:

the setting sun brought out the red and black of the ore in the mountains and the sea reflected it all back. All the reds, and yellow and orange and purple, were in that wonderful landscape, and as it faded and the colours all round us melted more and more into gentleness, I thought there should be some act—some formal recognition of this daily magnificence. Even as the thought formed itself in my mind, we came to a halt as though by agreement. The animals knelt, the men dismounted and turned towards the South-East. One voice was lifted: ‘Allahu Akbar’, and they prayed silently together. I walked around behind them and observed the sea, and the darkening of the waters that just moments earlier had been so silvery and flecked with light, and I too offered up a prayer…

Anna’s aesthetic and emotional response makes her curious: “Is that,” she wonders, “a world which truly exists?” Art opens minds by opening eyes.

Once in Egypt, Anna becomes increasingly impatient with British ethnocentrism. “I have started to believe,” she records in her diary, “that what we are doing is denying that Egyptians have a ‘consciousness of themselves’”—extending to the level of nations Dorothea’s moral recognition in Middlemarch that we all have an “equivalent centre of self.” Anna’s yearning to engage with Egypt on its own terms leads to her meeting with Layla and Sharif; her love for them gives her courage to create a new life in their home. Isabel’s passionate feelings for Omar intensify her interest in contemporary Egypt, and in reconstructing the history of their shared ancestors, Anna and Sharif. In turn, our own romantic hopes for a happy ending to both love stories enlist us on the side of these attempts to transform what Amal thinks of as “that no-man’s-land between East and West” into the joyful shared space of the Mezzaterra.

But the experiment is finally unsuccessful, the promise unfulfilled. Sharif is assassinated by extremists. Anna returns to England to raise her daughter Nur, whose granddaughter Isabel will love Layla’s grandson, Omar, only to lose him too (or so we infer) to the fanaticism of his enemies. The parallel tragedies suggest a disheartening pessimism, one that is echoed in Soueif’s description of the increasingly beleaguered Mezzaterra: “as some have sought to invade and grab territory and others have thrown up barricades, I have seen my space shrink and the ground beneath my feet tremble.” Anna and Isabel can inhabit this attractive but perilous territory because they acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge: they are willing to revise their preconceptions and frames of reference. “I am very sensible,” Anna writes at the outset of her travels, “that I know very little of the country and must be content to try to educate myself until such time as I am equipped to form my own views.” “I know there’s an awful lot I don’t know,” Isabel says to Amal. “That’s a start, isn’t it?” Against this epistemological humility, which enables exploration, discovery, and cooperation, run powerful countervailing certainties that, refusing empathy, instead license prejudice, inhumanity, and violence.

Soueif’s novels work against such certainties. Even the heartrending conclusion to The Map of Love is productive, because our mourning prompts us to ask why, to demand a better, more just, more hopeful resolution. Both novels also not only invoke but create their own version of the Mezzaterra: a literary common ground, an optimistic, if endangered, space well served by the novelist’s tools. Ales Debeljak calls this space the “Republic of Letters,” “a place where the only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy—that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.” By creating such a space for her readers, Soueif held out an alternative to the limited and limiting narratives about her country that she saw around her. Sitting in the middle of Tahrir Square in January and February of this year, she was surrounded by millions of allies in this project. They spoke to and for themselves, not the West, but in doing so they overwhelmingly reinforced Soueif’s longstanding efforts to “demythologis[e] the representation of the Muslim and the Arab.” It is apt that Soueif—whose restored optimism is inspirational—is now narrating this exciting new chapter in the history of Egypt.

Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.