Forbidden to Grow up

Gabriele Annan

  • The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
    Bloomsbury, 529 pp, £18.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4367 4

When Tolstoy died in November 1910, one of the principal characters in Ahdaf Soueif’s new novel felt bereaved: ‘I have derived more enjoyment from Anna Karenina and War and Peace,’ Lady Anna Winterbourne notes in her diary, ‘than from any other novels that I have read.’ The Map of Love suggests that Soueif herself may have Tolstoyan aspirations. Aspirations, not pretensions: there is an engaging modesty about her voice. Still, both her earlier novel, In the Eye of the Sun (nearly eight hundred pages), and The Map of Love (more than five hundred) are more than romantic love stories: they are interpretations of Egyptian history, past and present; and prescriptions for improvements that might be made there – just as Tolstoy’s novels were for Russia.

Soueif’s come furnished with glossaries for the Arabic terms she uses, and with family trees. It would be nice if – like many English editions of Tolstoy – she provided an even fuller cast list, with explanations of who everybody is. A formidable amount of research has gone into The Map Of Love. Historical characters mingle with fictional ones, and since most of them are middle-ranking politicians, diplomats and journalists, Egyptian and English (Wilfred Scawen Blunt, for instance), it is flattering but also bewildering to have it assumed that one knows what their stance was on British policy in Egypt at the turn of the century. I spent a lot of time with the DNB, but it was useless, of course, for the Egyptians. Most of these have at least three names (plus titles) which can be arranged in different sequences. Some passages are quite hard going, like this one which comes at the end of a political debate bristling with names:

  Sharif Basha smiles. Twenty years ago Muhammad ‘Abdu saw nothing wrong with the French Revolution.

  Shukri Bey al-‘Asali comes forward to take the sheikh’s hand. ‘I thank Fadilatukum and I will take my leave and impose on you no longer. But I beg you to remember, al-Khalidi and I are not the only ones who feel uneasy about what is happening in Palestine.’

  Rashid Rida leaves with Shukri Bey, and Sharif Basha and Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abdu are left alone. The sheikh sighs and draws his hands over his tired face.

Me, too.

Like Tolstoy, Soueif interleaves history and political discussion with family life, and as in Tolstoy, family life is more fun to read about. She tells what it is like to be a woman in an Egyptian – therefore extended – upper-middle-class family: far from bad. There are shady gardens full of exotic trees, luscious upholstery in cool, tiled rooms, huge bathrooms, several generations of loving female company to consult and confide in, and a pool of charming children to share and absorb your own if you need to dump them for a while. Husbands are tender and brilliant in bed; and grateful, devoted servants keep it all going amid peals of affectionate laughter. They seem contented with what sounds like an unshakably benign patriarchal system. So do most of the fallaheen on the family’s country properties further up the Nile. Even in the late 1990s, it is the landlords they appeal to for protection against such reactionary government measures as the closing down of village schools.

The family in The Map of Love covers four generations and the story jumps backwards and forwards in time. Everything is experienced from the women’s point of view; the men – there aren’t very many – are heroes from romantic fiction: either old, wise and noble, or middle-aged, glamorous and noble. The passages about sex are very seductive, though not quite as explicit as some in Soueif’s earlier work.

There are three female narrators: the earliest is Lady Anna (1872-1933), an intelligent, high-minded young English beauty with violet eyes. Her husband dies from a wasting disease brought on by shame at having fought with Kitchener in the Sudan. She falls in love with the Orient by way of Frederick Lewis’s paintings, travels to Egypt and, in 1901, to the disgust of the British colony in Cairo, marries a well-born Egyptian nationalist lawyer called Sharif al-Baroudi (1856-1911).

The second narrator is Sharif’s married sister Layla (1874-1937); and the third Layla’s English-educated granddaughter Amal (1952-). Lady Anna keeps a diary and writes letters to England; Layla becomes her dearest friend and writes a running commentary on their lives; and Amal – two generations on from Layla and three from Anna – tries, in the present day, to piece together the papers they have left. Each of these characters has a different typeface to distinguish her input from the others’. The fourth generation and fourth woman is an American journalist called Isabel Parkman (1962-), who is Anna’s great-granddaughter, and only one eighth Egyptian by descent. Her e-mails get a fourth typeface.

In 1997 Isabel falls in love with a charismatic, world-famous, New York-based Egyptian conductor called ‘Omar al-Ghamrawi (1942-). He is Layla’s grandson (and the ex-lover of Isabel’s now Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother). He and Isabel discover they are cousins. When she tells him she is going to Egypt, he asks her to take a trunk full of family papers to his sister Amal. It turns out to contain not only Anna’s tremulous account of her courtship, but also – unaccountably, mysteriously, significantly and with occult overtones – the missing panel from a tapestry of Isis, Osiris and Horus. This object, woven by Lady Anna, must symbolise something: but what?

As Layla does with Anna, Amal forms a loving, protective, sisterly friendship with Isabel, and when Isabel has a baby by Omar, Amal seems almost more fond of her brother’s child than Isabel is herself. Amal guides Isabel through the unfamiliar corridors of Egyptian life. Soueif warns her readers against romanticising Egypt, yet she sets traps all over the place: moonlight, scented gardens, soft silken cushions, tendrils of dark hair – all that.

Inevitably, a book of this scope requires a great deal of explanation. So it becomes a guide to Egypt (minus the antiquities). Guidebooks don’t have to mention the bad things, and Soueif’s palpable love of her country enables her to omit them without a qualm. Her book is half-romance and half a gently nationalist defence of Egypt. She never raises her voice. ‘Gentle’ is one of her favourite adjectives, and throughout the novel she maintains a soothing, velvety touch, a sweet reasonableness, which is very winning. Her women combine their gentleness with feistiness. Lady Anna, for instance, dresses as a man to travel on horseback through the Sinai Desert to visit St Catherine’s Monastery; and at their first meeting her future second husband mistakes her for a boy: a classical start to high romance.

Anna’s anti-imperialism has to be gently expressed, but her first father-in-law, Sir Charles Winterbourne, has no inhibitions. She recounts his ‘tirade against the Empire – or rather, the spirit of Empire, for he is angered equally by the doings of Kitchener in South Africa, the King of the Belgians in the Congo, the Americans in the Filipines, and all the nations of Europe in China’. Sir Charles is a good Englishman. There are several of them, but there are more bad ones. Anna analyses what is bad about the British attitude in a letter to Sir Charles:

What we are doing is denying that Egyptians have a ‘consciousness of themselves’ ... and ... by doing so we settle any qualms of conscience as to our right to be there. So long as we believe that they are like pets or small children, we can remain here to ‘guide them’ and help them ‘develop’. But if we see that they are as fully conscious of themselves and their place in the world as we are, why then the honourable thing is to pack up and go – retaining perhaps an advisory role in economic matters – which I think the Egyptians themselves would wish.

Anna’s sister-in-law echoes her:

The Occupation determined the crops that the fallah planted, it stood in the face of every industrial project, it prevented us from establishing our own financial institutions, it hampered our wishes for education, it censored what could be published, it deprived us of a voice in the Ottoman parliament, it dictated what jobs our men could hold and it held back the emancipation of our women. It put each of us in the position of a minor and forbade us to grow up.

It isn’t only the English who can be bad. There are bad Frenchmen and Americans (letting Iraqi children starve; or die for lack of imported drugs). Bad Jews – Zionist settlers – expropriate the Palestinian fallaheen; but there are also good, anti-Zionist Jews, and the family Anna marries into have good anti-Zionist Jewish friends. We don’t get to meet any bad Egyptians, if they exist, and today’s young Islamist fanatics who grow beards and shoot tourists and disemancipate women by making them wear veils and stop them using birth control – they are poor, desperate, unemployed young men with no future, because the land laws and American economic imperialism have ruined it for them, just as the British occupation did a hundred years ago.

All Anna’s Egyptian family, at the turn of the century and in the present, are moderate nationalists. In 1913, towards the end of the book, Sharif writes an article in which he explains their stance. Before it even appears he is assassinated. By whom? Muslim fanatics? Coptic fanatics? British agents? The Khedive’s agents? Layla writes, ‘my brother’s last orders were that nobody should be allowed to make use of his murder,’ and Soueif doesn’t. It is a dignified response to the patronising attitude of the British which so disgusted E.M. Forster when he went to Egypt less than two years after Sharif’s death.

It is difficult not to be moved by the sheer commitment of this high-minded book. Perhaps it is too well-intentioned for its own good. It is full of political statements which are perceptive, subtle, forceful, reasonable and convincing. Soueif is a political analyst and commentator of the best kind. She is also an exciting and alluring short-story writer. But the combination of seriousness and romance doesn’t quite work at the highest level of fiction.