Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

On April 4th we met to discuss Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999.   Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love is a massive family saga, a story that draws its readers into two moments in the complex, troubled history of modern Egypt. Soueif weaves an account of the consequences of British imperialism and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists through the gorgeously romantic love story of Anna Winterbourne and Sharif al-Baroudi. Told through the voice of Amal, Sharif’s grandniece, Anna and Sharif’s story is echoed by the love affair between Isabel, their American great-granddaughter, and ‘Omar, Amal’s brother, set against the continuing political turmoil of the Middle East.

Adhaf Soueif is a political and cultural commentator, writer and translator.

About the author

Ahdaf Soueif (أهداف سويف‎) (born March 23, 1950) is an Egyptian novelist and political and cultural commentator. Between the ages of four and eight she lived in England while her mother studied for her PhD at London University, where she learned to read English from Little Grey Rabbit and English comics.  She received a BA in English Literature, Cairo University, 1971; an MA in English Literature, The American University in Cairo, 1973; and a PhD in Linguistics, University of Lancaster, 1978. She has taught at Cairo University and the University of King Seoud.

Soueif writes primarily in English, but her Arabic-speaking readers say they can hear the Arabic through the English. Her debut novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1993), set in Egypt and England, recounts the maturing of Asya, a beautiful Egyptian who, by her own admission, “feels more comfortable with art than with life.” Her second novel The Map of Love (1999) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies. She has also published two works of short stories, Aisha (1983) and Sandpiper (1996) – a selection from which was combined in the collection I Think Of You in 2007, and ‘Stories Of Ourselves’ in 2010. Soueif has also translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (with a foreword by Edward Said) from Arabic into English (2004).

Along with in-depth and sensitive readings of Egyptian history and politics, Soueif also writes about Palestinians in her fiction and non-fiction. A shorter version of “Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey” was originally published in The Guardian and then printed in full in Soueif’s recent collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004) and she wrote the introduction to the NYRB’s reprint of Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love. In 2008 she initiated the first Palestine Festival of Literature, of which she continues to be on the board and an active supporter.

In 2007, Soueif was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed an open letter initiated by Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism and the South West Asian, North African Bay Area Queers (SWANABAQ) and calling on the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival “to honor calls for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions, by discontinuing Israeli consulate sponsorship of the LGBT film festival and not cosponsoring events with the Israeli consulate.”

Soueif writes in both English and Arabic and has written various essays and reviews published in: Akhbar al-Adab, al-Arabi, Cosmopolitan, Granta, al-Hilal, al-Katibah, The London Magazine, The London Review of Books, New Society, Nisf al-Dunya, The Observer, Sabah al-Kheir, The Sunday Telegraph, Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post and others.

About the book

Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love is a massive family saga, a story that draws its readers into two moments in the complex, troubled history of modern Egypt.  Soueif weaves an account of the consequences of British imperialism and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists through the gorgeously romantic love story of Anna Winterbourne and Sharif al-Baroudi. Told through the voice of Amal, Sharif’s grandniece, Anna and Sharif’s story is echoed by the love affair between Isabel, their American great-granddaughter, and ‘Omar, Amal’s brother, set against the continuing political turmoil of the Middle East.

Longing to assuage her grief at the loss of her husband, Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt. She corresponds with her friends, with her father-in-law, Sir Charles, a fierce critic of British imperialism, and keeps a journal. While travelling disguised as a man, she is abducted by Egyptian nationalists and taken to the home of the al-Baroudis. There she meets and becomes firm friends with Layla. Sharif, Layla’s brother, accompanies her to Sinai, ensuring her safe conduct and the adventure she had sought. On their return, the couple undertake a marriage that will see Anna ostracised from British society and Sharif under suspicion from his nationalist colleagues.

A century later, Isabel Parkman finds Anna’s papers, some written in Arabic, in a family trunk when her mother is taken to hospital. When she meets the renowned conductor and political activist, ‘Omar Ghamrawi, he suggests she take the papers to his sister, Amal, for translation. Already a little in love, Isabel travels to Egypt where she and Amal piece together Anna’s life from the contents of the trunk. The stories of Anna and Isabel, one a member of the British ruling classes, the other a citizen of the world’s most powerful country, are merged with scenes from Amal’s life and set against the backdrop of a political struggle in which only the names seem to change in the hundred years that separate Isabel from Anna.

Together the two women begin to uncover the stories embedded in the journal of Lady Anna Winterbourne, who traveled to Egypt in 1900 and fell in love with Sharif Pasha al-Barudi, an Egyptian nationalist. To their surprise, they stumble across some unsuspected connections between their own families. Less surprising, perhaps, is the persistence of the very same issues that dogged their ancestors: colonialism, Egyptian nationalism, and the clash of cultures throughout the Middle East. The past, however, does offer some semblance of omniscience: That is the beauty of the past; there it lies on the table: journals, pictures, a candle-glass, a few books of history. You leave it and come back to it and it waits for you–unchanged. You can turn back the pages, look again at the beginning. You can leaf forward and know the end. And you tell the story that they, the people who lived it, could only tell in part.

With its multiple narratives and ever-shifting perspectives, The Map of Love would seem to cast some doubt on even the most confident historian’s version of events. Yet this subtle and reflective tale of love does suggest that the relations between individuals can (sometimes) make a difference. “I am in an English autumn in 1897,” Amal confesses at one point, “and Anna’s troubled heart lies open before me.” Here, perhaps, is a hint about how we should read Soueif’s staggering novel, using words as a means to travel through time, space, and identity.  It is a passionate, culturally enlightening story, with a beautiful symbolic artifice: the legend of Osiris, Isis, and Horus – and Soueif writes simply and beautifully – Anna’s journal entries are particularly evocative. In doing so weaves the stories of three formidable women from vastly different times and countries into a single absorbing tale.

“Ahdaf Soueif has written a masterpiece … set in the past and present, it has the weight of a Victorian novel without trading in nostalgia. Filled with subtlety, grace and beauty, it will make the reader cry. ” — The Big Issue

“Half-romance and half a gently nationalist defense of Egypt – Soueif never raises her voice.”  — The London Review of Books

Where to order a copy?

You can order a copy directly from the author at: http://www.ahdafsoueif.com/

The Author’s list of Publications:

2007: I Think of You, (stories from “Aisha” and “Sandpiper”), Bloomsbury: London
2004: Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, (Essays), Bloomsbury: London
1999: The Map of Love, (a novel), Bloomsbury, London
1996: Zinat al-Hayh wa Qisas Ukhra, (short stories), Dar al-Hilal, Cairo
1996: Sandpiper, (short stories), Bloomsbury: London
1992: In the Eye of the Sun, (a novel), Bloomsbury: London
1983: Aisha, (short stories), Jonathan Cape: London (reissued by Bloomsbury in 2000)

Works the Author has Translated:

2000: I Saw Ramallah, a memoir by Mourid al-Barghouti, AUC Press, Cairo, Random House, New York and Bloomsbury, UK.
1998: In Deepest Night, a play for al-Warsha Theatre Group perfomed at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC.

AWARDS and FELLOWSHIPS:

Winner of the first Mahmoud Darwish award, 2010.
Honorary DLitt (Exeter University) 2008.
Honorary DLitt (London Metropolitan University) 2004.
Honorary DLitt (Lancaster University) 2004
Lannan Foundation (USA) 2002.
Bogliasco Foundation (Italy) 2002.

PROFILES & INTERVIEWS:

Join the discussion on GoodReads reflecting on the Map of Love.

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