The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, 2000, 540 p (including xii p Glossary of Arabic terms.)

The Map of Love cover

This novel is set in two time lines, the Egypt of its present day, the late 1990s, and of the same country in the 1900s. The present day sections are told from the viewpoint of Amal al-Gamrawi whose brother, ‘Omar, a famous musician, has fallen into a relationship with US citizen Isabel Parkman, but its main thrust comes via the letters and journal of Isabel’s great grandmother, Lady Anna Winterbourne, which relate to her experiences in Egypt almost a century before. Isabel’s discovery of a trunk containing her grandmother’s letters was recognized by ‘Omar as a family connection and he encouraged Isabel to take them to his sister in Egypt for transcription. While in Egypt Lady Anna had formed a mutual attachment to Amal’s great uncle, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, an Egyptian patriot, and married him; much to the dismay of all but two of the English contingent in Egypt at the time. Anna’s letters and journal track the course of that love affair and marriage. Isabel is their descendant and so related to Amal and ‘Omar. Some sections of the narrative are Amal’s imaginings of incidents from the past, others are seen via the viewpoint of Layla, Sharif’s sister.

Soueif wrote this in English but in some respects the novel feels like a translation as its immersion in Egyptian culture is total, though the Western perspective is acknowledged. But it is Egyptian concerns and history that dominate. “Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.” (Yet, barring ‘the mother of civilisation’ and with just the name changed, that quote could apply to almost any country. It certainly does to Scotland.)

There are multiple resonances between the two times. The trouble with contemporary Israelis in Palestine – “putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle,” ….. “It’s either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamic radicals. Take your pick,” is mirrored by events in the 1900s when 50,000 Russian Jews escaping from persecution wanted to settle in the Holy Land. “Europe simply does not see the people of the countries it wishes to annex – and when it does , it sees them in accordance with its own old and accepted definitions: backward people , lacking rational abilities and subject to religious fanaticism.” At one point Layla says of the de facto ruler of Egypt, “‘Lord Cromer is a patriot and he serves his country well. We understand that. Only he should not pretend that he is serving Egypt.’” Cromer’s attitude ignores that, “We in Egypt have been proud of our history; proud to belong to the land that was the first mother of civilization. In time she passed the banner of leadership to Greece and then Rome, and from there it reverted to the lands of Islam until in the seventeenth century it was taken hold of by Europe.” As one Egyptian says to Isabel, in a phrase that perhaps prefigures and goes some way to explain the attack on the twin towers only a year after the novel was published, “all the Americans I meet are good people, but your government’s foreign policy is so bad. It’s not good, you know, for a country to be hated by so many people.”

The politics may be an essential background but it is not the focus. That is the love story between Anna and Sharif and the ever fascinating nature of human interactions. Soueif’s ability as a novelist to portray these is not in doubt. The tapestry triptych which Anna weaved on the loom Sharif bought for her and of which one part had disappeared in the intervening years is perhaps a little too obvious a metaphor, though, and I did have a reservation at the introduction of a further possible twist in the net of relationships here, a thread picked at but not truly resolved.

Nevertheless this is a very well written, engaging novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which, while not, quite, in the absolutely highest class is certainly not far off.

Pedant’s corner:- Abd el-Nasser (in the epigraph it was ‘Abd el-Nasser,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) occasional unnecessary spaces after quotation marks, the odd missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “more that an eccentric Englishwoman” (more than,) Selfridges’ foodhall (I know the shop is now named Selfridges but it was founded by a Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co so its possessive should always have been Selfridge’s, therefore Selfridge’s foodhall,) staunched (stanched.)

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