Undoubtedly one of the attractions of the book is the aesthetic and recreational variety of the lifestyle the family enjoys: they are professionals in a society where professionals form a prosperous and influential class. Related to this was my savouring of place, the specificity of cosmopolitan, decadent, sophisticated, elegant Cairo How can a book so strongly character-centred, plot-driven, personal, have left me with such a yearning for a place changed and a time passed? Perhaps because I myself hail from the anonymous North of England that so depresses Asya, that threatens to suck the life from her, desperately lonely among my unsociable kin. Soueif cuts historical background into the story by inserting dated snippets of news, like extracts from a journalistic timeline.
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Her first husband was Egyptian and she has continued to write for Egyptian journals. At its best it endows each thing, at the same moment, with the shine of the new, the patina of the old; the language, the people, the landscape, the food of one culture constantly reflected off the other.
As well as giving a narrative tension and symmetry, Soueif is clearly making positive points about the ability of cross-cultural love to recur: she is something of a joyous postcolonialist. Informative about Egyptian history, the novel is unashamedly romantic as well as political, which has greatly helped its success.
But it should not be forgotten that Soueif has written other fiction, too. In the Eye of the Sun was praised by Edward Said on publication; a long and ambitious novel, it is in fact a more satisfactory work than The Map of Love. The Map of Love is the perfect introduction to Soeuif, and has been a worthy favourite with reading groups; but we should go beyond that, through In The Eye of the Sun to her political writing, which is as good as, if not better than, her fiction.
The popular media ties in the pagan splendour with cruelty and the sense of it being a place to be got out of. Now throw in a mad bearded fundamentalist and some oppressed women wearing the veil and having their clitorises chopped off and you have a fairly heavy image. I am in opposition to this government. Of course, the matter is a different one in a different country, and Soueif is well aware of this.
Her anxiety reflects a more anxious world; we are lucky to have her voice in it, sometimes romantic, sometimes pleading, but always burningly committed to truth and justice. Dr Nick Turner,
Soueif is one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing. But these so-called orientalists have essentially been tourists; they have looked at Egypt from without, from England and from an English point of view. And the Egyptians have now and then looked back. In their own literature, largely inaccessible to us, there are English characters, English travelers and officials, but no great dream of England, no answering curiosity, no powerful wish to know what it is about us that makes us dream of them. Ahdaf Soueif, born and brought up in Egypt, has lived for long periods in England. She knows us as we cannot know her. In Cairo, she has dreamed about London; in London, she has dreamed - in English — about home.
In the Eye of the Sun