Published: Jan. 2, 2007 By

[1] Romance has, to put it mildly, a sketchy political history. On the one hand, its focus on interpersonal dramas within the feminized private sphere, from aristocratic liaisons in the chivalric epics of the Middle Ages to the novels of Jane Austen to the tawdry delights of Harlequin, Mills and Boon, and the romantic comedy film, seem ill fitted to grand statements about social and political concerns. In this sense, the romance’s very identity depends on being defined against a masculinized realism and its weighty problems. At the same time, as scholars such as Anne McClintock and Laura Chrisman note, the romance’s tradition of male questers seems to lend itself all too well to narratives of imperialism as grand adventure, as evidenced by classics such as Ryder Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines(1885) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’Tarzan of the Apes: A Romance of the Jungle (1912). With their trademark depictions of exotic colonial subjects as alluringly available, primitively threatening, or often a combination of both, these colonial romances express the fears and fantasies of Western publics about their empires.

[2] If romance proved well suited to the xenophobic nationalism of the colonial project, it has been taken up equally enthusiastically as a vehicle for postcolonial nation-building. In Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, Doris Sommer describes how the genre of the “national romance” that dominated postcolonial Latin American literary production in the late nineteenth century functioned to reconcile diverse national populations with each other and with the goals of new national governments and their accompanying civil societies (12). The motif of lovers struggling to come together across barriers, whether of race, class, or religion, provided a “narrative formula” for gestures of conciliation between groups that had been positioned antagonistically within colonial hierarchies (15). Because the romances that are the object of Sommer’s study serve to unify the nation through a fantasy of reconciliation often at odds with the economic, gendered, and racial discrepancies of new Latin American states, she concludes that they are ultimately a “pacifying project” (12, 29). The bourgeois ideal of the nuclear family, married to the national ideal of the unified populace, produces a revisionist historical narrative that contains dissent in the service of national unity.

[3] But what happens when postcolonial writers take up the romance to the opposite effect? That is, rather than harnessing the affective force of the love story to justify the ends of empire like the colonial romance or to suture national inequalities like the national romance, what if one yoked the romance’s emotional power to a critique of the exclusionary violence of both? Diasporic Egyptian writer and journalist Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love works against the political failings of both the colonial romance and the postcolonial national romance even as she appropriates some of the key tropes of both sub-genres. Like the colonial romance, Soueif’s romance serves primarily to bring into contact colonial subjects and members of the populations they rule rather than disparate elements of the postcolonial nation. As with the national romance, the novel adopts the romance as a vehicle through which to represent problematic divisions within the nation-state. However, I argue that this particular redeployment of the romance functions to dramatize not the utopian desire for national unity represented in the Latin American novels, but the failure of nationalism as an ideological construct under the weight of postcolonial corruption and global capitalism. Instead of bridging gaps to bolster the precarious state, the romance here evokes transnational coalitions—significantly, of women—and unearths genealogies of their resistance in order to critique and transform the postcolonial state and to comment upon the international balance of power in the wake of British imperialism.

[4] What I hope to demonstrate is that The Map of Love‘s yoking of romance to politics allows for an exploration of transnational political coalitions for which neither masculinist nationalist rhetoric nor colonialist fantasy has provided the space. Representation in Soueif’s novel is the terrain on which these transnational affiliations take place. Within the novel, characters marginalized within national political conflicts turn to representation as an alternative discourse of resistance, reaching back across several generations to construct intensely imagined transhistorical political and artistic alliances with other women. As the novel’s contemporary women lose themselves in the stories of their foremothers, the novel dramatizes the affective intensity and private pleasures offered by the romance, only to demonstrate how that affect can provide the springboard for renewed social action. Thus, the text presents a certain doubling maneuver in which the author’s transformation of politically reactionary genre conventions is reinforced by her characters’ conviction about the transformative political potential of art. Yet, the novel’s sophisticated mediation of historical memory and the performative nature of its engagement with the romance genre have not always been acknowledged by critics, erasing much of the political force of Soueif’s project. Thus, in the final section of this essay, I briefly examine how the novel itself stages the encounter with otherness. Recent work by scholars such as Amal Amireh and Lisa Suhair Majaj has called attention to the necessity of analyzing how work by postcolonial women writers has been, to borrow Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, “read, understood, and located institutionally” in Western markets (Mohanty, 34). By considering Soueif’s staging of the romance genre alongside the novel’s reception in the West, I flesh out why Soueif’s depiction of a mediated and performative vision of coalition is as necessary as it is difficult to market.

Transnational Romance and the Political Possibilities of Representation

[5] In an interview at Brunel University in London in 2000, Ahdaf Soueif was asked to describe what led her to write her 1999 novel The Map of Love. Soueif replied,

After In the Eye of the Sun was published, I met up with a friend who had become a literary agent. . . . And she said, ‘Why don’t you write a best seller? Why don’t you write a pot-boiler—big thing, sort of East-West, and romance, and so on? I can get you a huge advance for that. And bits of In the Eye of the Sun show you can do sexy scenes. . . .’ And I went away and thought about it. And I said no. I mean, in the end, obviously I couldn’t do it. But it got me thinking along romantic lines, and what I became interested in was the idea of the romantic hero . . . as in Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff, and all the characters that we find in Mills and Boon novels—tall, dark, handsome, enigmatic, a stranger, proud, aloof, yet you just know that if you can get close you’ll find these depths of sensitivity and empathy and passion and tenderness, and so on. And this hero is very often kind of Eastern, but he isn’t ever really Eastern. And I’ve read novels and stories where he’s meant to be Egyptian and he really isn’t at all. He’s completely fake. Or . . . they have to make him Christian because they can’t go into the whole Muslim bit, but he’s called Ali or Mohammed because that’s what Easterners are called—very odd, pastichey things like that. And I thought, what if I make a hero who’s larger than life, who’s somebody I would think, Wow!—and he’s a real, genuine Egyptian, of that time, with the concerns of that period (Soueif, “Talking,” 102).

Soueif’s response describes a striking artistic decision: to take apart the colonial romance genre and reconstruct it through a hybrid combination of the nineteenth-century British novel’s modes of male characterization and the political and historical surround of a “genuine” Egyptian man at the turn of the twentieth century. She thus rejects her agent’s fantasy, but decides to pursue the fantasy she would have liked to read but that remained unrealized in Western romance fiction.

[6] To construct this new romance, Soueif explained that she wanted to take up another orientalist stalwart:

There’s a genre that I really am very interested in, which is travel writing, done by women, English women, mostly Victorian, and of course they are varied, from people with very set, very colonial attitudes, to people who were very broad-minded and opened themselves up to the culture that they were coming to see, like Lucy Duff Gordon who ended up living there until she died. And you can see them changing as you go through the letters, you see a different character evolving, and I really like that whole genre. And so I thought, what if you found a way to make a lady traveler like that meet and fall in love with my hero (Soueif, “Talking,” 102-3).

For Soueif, British women’s travel writing, like the tradition of the romantic hero that emerged in nineteenth-century British women’s fiction, provides possibilities for cooptation and counter-discourse. By brushing two often orientalist representational modes against the grain, Soueif opens up the ambivalent colonial rhetoric of the fake Eastern man and what Margaret Strobel calls “the destructive female” (Strobel) for a more nuanced fictional exploration of race, gender, and nationalism during and after colonialism.

[7] The Map of Love is structured around two narratives: the first concerns Englishwoman Anna Winterbourne’s romance with the Egyptian nationalist Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi in the early twentieth century; the second concerns American Isabel Parkman’s romance with the Palestinian American composer Omar al-Ghamrawi in 1997. In both narratives, falling in love with a man active in nationalist politics (Egyptian and Palestinian, respectively) leads the women to some level of involvement with politics that differs from the party line of their own home countries. Both women end up in Egypt and befriend their lover’s sister (Sharif’s sister is Layla, and Omar’s sister is Amal), a bond that, especially in the contemporary narrative, becomes the most significant relationship for each woman. The motif that weaves the two narratives together is a family trunk inherited by Isabel that reveals that she is Anna Winterbourne’s great-granddaughter and is thus distantly related to Omar, whose grandmother, Layla, was Sharif’s sister and Anna’s closest friend. In other words, Isabel is Anna’s great-granddaughter, and Amal is Layla’s granddaughter, making the two contemporary women cousins. Omar encourages Isabel to take the trunk to his sister Amal in Cairo, where the two contemporary women begin to reconstruct the earlier story from Anna’s and Layla’s letters and diaries. As they unearth the historical narrative, it becomes clear that there are significant parallels—personal and political—between this earlier moment and their own.

[8] Formally, the novel is a postmodern hybrid, interweaving Anna’s journal entries with letters, newspaper clippings and both third-person omniscient and first-person narrations of the thoughts and actions of the characters and of national and international political events. The hybrid nature of the novel is not surprising given Soueif’s own cosmopolitan roots. Born in Cairo to two prominent university professors, she spent several years of her childhood in London and returned as an adult to complete a Ph.D. in linguistics, an experience she chronicled fairly autobiographically in In the Eye of the Sun. While in England, Soueif married the British poet Ian Hamilton and had two children with him. The couple later separated, but Soueif has remained in London, writing creative fiction as well as several journalistic pieces, including a report on Palestinian responses to September 11 entitled “After September 11: Nile Blues,” for the Guardian. Soueif’s fiction demonstrates her familiarity with the European novelistic tradition. For example, in her first book of short stories, Aisha, the protagonist cites heroines such as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Dorothea Brooke as central figures in her childhood. Soueif’s Western literary influences, as well as her decision to write in English rather than in Arabic, have placed her in a difficult but not uncommon position for diasporic writers. For example, Mona Fayad notes “the inevitable hybridity of cultural practices” for Arab writers who work in the European languages of their colonizers (“Reinscribing Identity”). In her discussion of the Algerian novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar’s novel L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1985], Fayad describes Djebar in similar terms to Soueif as an intermediary between Arabic speakers and French historical records, as well as between a masculinist national history and one that acknowledges the role of Algerian women in the independence movement. However, Soueif’s status as the only major Egyptian-born novelist writing in English underscores her singular position as a translator between cultures and languages, a difficult position both politically and aesthetically. Soueif’s status as an Egyptian writer is by no means a given in Egyptian literary circles. At an annual women’s conference in Cairo (the 2002 topic was “Women and Creativity”) sponsored by the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture, Amina Elbendary describes how “a heated debate threatened to arise between [Sabry] Hafez [chair of the roundtable on Arab women’s writing in the West] and several participants when the chair argued that Ahdaf Soueif’s novels were not part of contemporary Arab literature but of English literature, since the Anglophone Egyptian novelist writes in English” (Elbendary, “Gathering One More Time”).

[9] Soueif’s skillful interweaving of detailed historical research with fiction inThe Map of Love has led critics like Amin Malak to describe the novel as “atour de force of revisionist metahistory of Egypt in the twentieth century” (141). Important historical persons figure as characters in the novel, including the progressive imam Muhammad ‘Abdu, who is Sharif’s best friend, the popular poet Hafiz Ibrahim, and the famous women’s rights advocate Qasim Amin, author of the controversial book The Liberation of Women, who argues his case in the novel at a gathering of prominent Egyptian intellectuals at Sharif’s house. I should note here that Amin himself has come to represent a historical discourse on feminism that often celebrates male intellectuals at the expense of their female contemporaries. As Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke point out, Arab women like the Syrian writer Hind Nawfal and the Lebanese writer Zainab Fawwaz “had been writing ‘feminist’ or gender liberationist poems, essays, tales, and stories before the distinguished male judge had put pen to paper to write his famous book” (Badran and Cooke, xvii, xxxvii). In the present day, as Malak has noted, Omar bears a striking resemblance to Edward Said. Like Said, he writes books on the Palestinian situation and instead of “Professor Terror,” Omar is labeled the “Kalashnikov Conductor” and the “Molotov Maestro” (Soueif, Map, 17). The titles of Omar’s books, “The Politics of Culture 1992, A State of Terror 1994, Borders and Refuge 1996” (21), pay tribute to Said’s political and scholarly concerns (Malak, 155). These are simply a few of many resemblances Omar bears to Said. Like Said, Omar also resigns from the Palestine National Council in protest over the Oslo provisions (Judt, “The Rootless Cosmopolitan”). In addition, though not a professional conductor like Omar, Said was an accomplished pianist and close friend of the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. The two organized a series of controversial collaborative concerts in Jerusalem and Birzeit involving Palestinian and Israeli musicians, which are echoed by Omar’s concert in the West Bank in Soueif’s novel (Tamari, “No Ordinary Concert”). The sheer density of the historical material in the novel demonstrates Soueif’s awareness of the critical work on orientalism and her interest in revisiting the geopolitical and temporal particularities of the era of British colonialism in Egypt.

[10] But the doubled historical narrative is not simply a convenient device through which two unconventional families stand allegorically for a “larger” political scene. Unlike the allegorical structure that Fredric Jameson identifies in his account of “third world literature,” here the personal is not merely the political in the sense that sexual difference or other “personal” dramas provide the symbolic language for “larger” political questions. Such a framework cannot account for the complex ways in which heterosexual romance, family dynamics, and so-called personal issues are constituted by individuals interpellated by nationalist, religious, and other discourses and just as importantly how the personal is essential to the workings of constructs such as the nation-state. Ann Stoler echoes my own skepticism about models in which the personal functions merely as an allegorical stand-in for politics. In laying out the framework for her historical study of constructions of the intimate in colonial politics, Stoler argues:

I pursue these connections between the broad-scale dynamics of colonial rule and the intimate sites of their implementation not because the latter are good illustrations of this wider field or because they provide touching examples of, or convenient metaphors for, colonial power writ large. Rather, it is because domains of the intimate figured so prominently in the perceptions and politics of those who ruled. These are the locations that allow us to identify what Foucault might have called the microphysics of colonial rule. In them I locate the affective grid of colonial politics. (7)

Soueif’s complex narrative structure explores the linkages between sexual politics and national and international politics, both under the colonial conditions that are the subject of Stoler’s study and after fifty years of postcolonial statehood, without subsuming the familial/domestic narrative into the national as allegory like earlier critical work such as Jameson’s.

[11] But Soueif’s is an imaginative exercise: she is in no way attempting to depict a typical set of intimate relationships, as Anna and Layla’s friendship would have been unlikely. In contrast to British India, where white women were brought in large numbers to shore up racial hierarchies officials worried had been undermined by soldiers’ relationships with local women, there were relatively few European women in Egypt in the early twentieth century (Stoler, 79-111). As a result, rather than functioning as literal bodies to be protected from the threat of the sexual advances of men of color as they had in India (Sharpe, 128), in Egypt white women served mainly as a symbol of the freedoms enjoyed by the West but denied to Muslim women by a supposedly monolithic and oppressive Muslim ‘culture.’ Of course, as is usually the case, this rhetoric was laden with hypocrisy. For example, Lord Cromer, the infamously unpopular British consul general in Egypt in the early twentieth century, eagerly deployed this rhetoric about Western women’s freedoms even as he cut funding to already existing girls’ schools in Egypt and was a member of the vehemently antifeminist Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage back home (L. Ahmed, 153). Rather than mapping the actual historical “affective grid” of colonial politics, then, Soueif’s transnational romance instead offers a fantasy of an affective grid of anticolonial politics, transforming the historical record to meet the needs of her own artistic and political projects. In other words, the intimate relationships in Soueif’s novel are an imaginative attempt to will into being the coalitions necessary for the current political impasse at a moment when their absence in the “real” world seems truly dire. This imagined progressive transnational community, while set up by conventions of romance, quickly disrupts both the obsessive heterosexuality and the nationalism associated with the genre.

[12] At first glance, The Map of Love‘s heterosexual romance does seem to have much in common with the national romance. Soueif’s hero, Sharif, like the national romance’s typical hero, is “unerringly noble, by birth and talent” (Sommer, 49). Moreover, Anna and Sharif exhibit a startling lack of personal conflict in their relationship, given their differences in culture and language. This “lack of personal antagonism or intimate arguments between lovers,” Sommer argues, is key to the national romance (49). Because the lovers function to model the ease of national coalition, all conflicts must stem from external sources. Thus, from the moment Anna arrives in Egypt, she easily rejects the colonialist stereotypes about Egyptians held by other members of the British community in Egypt. She shows no fear when she is kidnapped by Sharif’s nephews or when she first meets Sharif. In fact, he later teases her for her failure to buy into orientalist fantasy: “Weren’t you afraid of me? The wicked Pasha who would lock you up in his harem and do terrible things to you?” Anna merely responds, “What terrible things?” (Soueif, Map, 153). For his part, Sharif completely dissociates Anna from the British colonial violence that he is actively involved in fighting and even comforts her after the gruesome Denshwai incident in 1906, when Egyptian resistance to British soldiers leads to the deaths of several villagers and widespread anti-British sentiment (Fisher, 342, 350-53; J. M. Ahmed, 62-63).

[13] While in the national romance, idealized love is threatened by the same forces that undermine national unity to strengthen the reader’s desire for romantic and national unity, Soueif’s evocation of the colonial romance tradition necessarily complicates the nationalist equation. Sharif’s relationship with Anna cannot function simply as a tale about national unions, because Anna’s position as imperial white woman makes her an icon of the very forces that undermine national unity. Moreover, the forces that threaten their romance involve public ambivalence about the potential neocolonialism of their union. Unlike the national romance’s use of eros to bolster nationalism, here the romance’s dual aims find themselves at odds because of the complex network of national and transnational concerns about their partnership.

[14] For Soueif’s novel is not simply about national institutions, but about the corruption of a nationalism bolstered by imperial and neocolonial economic interests. Egyptian nationalism here is engaged with a variety of transnational forces, in particular the volatile political and economic nexus of Israel, Palestine, and the United States. For example, in the contemporary narrative, Tareq ‘Atiyya, Amal’s old friend and potential love interest, is considering bringing in Israeli agricultural firms to modernize farming methods on his lands in Minya near Amal’s ancestral property, land on which the now “emancipated” fellaheen scrape by as small farmers (Soueif, Map, 202). Low-wage Egyptian agricultural workers are no match for Israeli agribusiness, which is part of a powerful regional economy backed by American military muscle. These contemporary neocolonial economic conditions exacerbate fissures in national politics regarding the right path for Egypt, just as the presence of the British disrupted precarious nationalist coalitions in the early twentieth century. In a letter to England in the earlier narrative, Anna explains that, in addition to heated disagreements between those advocating immediate withdrawal of the British and those proposing a gradual dismantling of British rule, there are a host of

other divisions: People who would have tolerated the establishment of secular education, or the gradual disappearance of the veil, now fight these developments because they feel a need to hold on to their traditional values in the face of the Occupation. While the people who continue to support these changes have constantly to fight the suspicion that they are somehow in league with the British. (384)

Part of the novel’s point in juxtaposing early-twentieth-century British imperial rule with the corrupt Mubarak regime is to underscore the untenable position in which Egyptian activist intellectuals find themselves: caught between ineffective and increasingly reactionary nationalist movements and the devastating interventions of wealthy Western powers.

[15] Echoing Anna’s frustration, Omar in the present day speaks despairingly of the Palestinian situation, dismissing Arafat’s methods as “containment” (356). He rejects Arafat’s agenda, arguing that “he uses torture and bone-breaking just as much as the Israelis” (356). But Omar cannot see Hamas as a viable alternative, even though they have the most credibility among Palestinians. “They’re intelligent,” he tells his sister. “They’re committed. They certainly have a case. But one cannot approve of fundamentalists—of whatever persuasion” (357). Here, the need for national unity may be the same as in the national romance, but Omar’s relationship with the American Isabel cannot unify national factions any more than Sharif’s marriage to Anna. The fragmentation wrought by colonialism and neocolonial globalization is not mended in Soueif’s novel by romance. Omar’s rejection of Hamas and the implication that he is later assassinated for his views only underscores the gulf between alienated Leftist intellectuals and religious fundamentalists in the contemporary Middle East. Likewise, in the earlier narrative, Sharif and Anna are perpetual outsiders. Anna’s marriage ensures that she will never be at home anywhere, and Sharif’s murder testifies to his inability to maintain the nationalist coalition he painstakingly sought to build. It is never clear who has assassinated Sharif, because, as with Omar, there are so many groups who would be happy to see him eliminated.

[16] The violence and frustration caused by the fragmentations of colonialism and government repression, as the novel tells us, seem to lead “either to fanatical actions or to despair” (472). Omar’s sister Amal’s decision to move to her ancestral home in upper Egypt is a product of this tension between political commitment and despair. As she thinks near the end of the novel, the political obstacles in Cairo seem overwhelming and insurmountable. At least in her village she can see the concrete impact of her attempt to improve others’ lives by fighting for the release of fellaheen jailed by the government and keeping open a school that will educate their wives and children. All of the characters in the novel face the conflict between a potentially happy private life and a political situation in which change appears doubtful.

[17] Political forces like colonialism cannot truly be external to the private sphere, because, as Stoler reminds us, they are mutually constitutive. Nevertheless, the romantic relationships in the novel attempt to evade in the private sphere the irresolvable conflicts playing out in the public sphere. In the early-twentieth-century romance, Anna’s rejection of colonial ideology and Sharif’s ability to separate Anna the person from the actions of other British in Egypt carve out a space for them apart from social forces. This arrangement is inherently precarious, and both know it. Sharif’s life mission is nationalist politics, and Anna becomes an active supporter of this cause, translating his articles for the British press and working for an Egyptian women’s magazine and the newly founded art institute in Cairo. The tapestry she finishes weaving right before her husband’s death is meant to be her “contribution to the Egyptian renaissance” (403). Though they are romantically and politically committed to one another, they both pay a high price for Sharif’s alliance with his well-meaning English wife.

[18] In fact, Anna’s entry into the relationship seems possible only because she is completely alone. Her parents have died, she has no other family, and she has traveled to Egypt in the first place to come to terms with her husband’s death after his participation in the British military campaign in Sudan. Anna’s orphan status does not escape Sharif’s mother, who warns him that

you will be everything to her. If you make her unhappy, who will she go to? No mother, no sister, no friend. Nobody. It means if she angers you, you forgive her. If she crosses you, you make it up with her. And whatever the English do, you will never burden her with the guilt of her country. She will be not only your wife and the mother of your children—insha’ Allah—but she will be your guest and a stranger under your protection and if you are unjust to her God will never forgive you. (281)

In a moment of feminist solidarity later echoed by her daughter, Layla, Sharif’s mother notes the difficulty of Anna’s situation. Keenly aware of Anna’s isolation, Sharif makes Anna promise that she and their daughter will leave the country and return home should he die before her (459), arguing that he does not want his daughter, Nur, to have to struggle like they have. For Anna, Sharif’s assassination, partly attributable to their marriage, is a blunt reminder that she essentially remains an outsider in Egypt. She leaves Egypt as promised, losing her only remaining family in the process. As the disastrous ending of Anna and Sharif’s marriage makes clear, the romance here cannot unite the nation and refuses to justify colonialism; instead, it serves to highlight the unattainable ideal of a transnational partnership of open-minded intellectuals committed to a new political dispensation.

Friendship, Art, and the Turn to Activism

[19] While this partnership proves unsustainable via heterosexual romance, it does in fact take shape through the intense relationships between the different women. The men, while noble, are frequently absent and ultimately doomed to death, leaving the women to make sense of the past and construct genealogies of resistance to serve them in the present. The earliest of these friendships, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century friendship between Anna and Layla, is perhaps the least developed in the book. The two women meet when Anna is kidnapped by Layla’s relatives, who want to use the ransom of a British man to gain Layla’s husband’s release from jail. When they discover that they have in fact kidnapped a woman in men’s clothing, the men are at a loss and deliver Anna to Layla’s brother’s house. Under these unlikely circumstances, while they all wait for Sharif to return and decide how to resolve this potentially explosive problem, Layla and Anna become instant friends, speaking in French, their only shared language. Layla immediately recognizes herself in Anna’s attempt to know Egypt, having herself been a frustrated stranger in France:

It was a pity Anna was going away tomorrow; she could imagine so many things they could do together, so many things she could show her, this woman who had come across Europe and the Mediterranean Sea to find Egypt, and who had confided yesterday that she felt it had eluded her, that she had touched nothing at all. Layla understood what she meant, for what would she have known of France had she not been befriended by Juliette Clemenceau? (149-50)

Layla’s reference to her French native informant hints at a cross-cultural genealogy of women extending their friendship to strangers that is carried forward into the contemporary narrative.

[20] If Layla and Anna’s friendship is for the most part relegated to the backdrop of the tragic romance between Sharif and Anna, Amal and Isabel, Layla and Anna’s present-day descendents, completely displace the romance narrative between Isabel and Omar. As readers, we know that Isabel is in love with Amal’s brother, but he is barely present in the book and presumed dead by its end. Instead, it is Amal and Isabel’s relationship that unfolds, and there is no sense that Isabel, an orphan like Anna, will return to the U.S. after Omar’s death. While the colonial romance narrative of Sharif and Anna’s era seems inextricable from the framework of the heterosexual romance, the unconventional family composed of Amal, Isabel, and Isabel and Omar’s newborn son, Sharif, becomes at the end of the novel a model for personal and political survival out of the failure of romance. Isabel has lost Omar to political violence. Amal has returned to Egypt after “twenty-odd years” (38) living in Britain with her (British?) husband and children. She misses her sons terribly and thrills at baby Sharif’s arrival in her family.

[21] Amal’s new family echoes and resignifies the tapestry that Anna wove a hundred years before to represent her own transnational union. After her marriage, Anna had produced a three-paneled tapestry of the Goddess Isis, her husband/brother Osiris, and their baby son Horus, with the Qur’anic verse “He brings forth the living from the dead” stretching across all three panels. Uniting Pharonic iconography with Islamic text in a composition inflected by her own tradition of Christian hagiography, Anna’s artwork commented on the complexity of the modern Egypt her husband’s nationalist movement was willing into being. After Sharif’s death, a family servant had divided up the tapestry, giving the panel with Osiris to Anna and the one with Isis to Amal’s father. The panel of the baby Horus was lost, but magically reappears in Isabel’s bag at the end of the novel after her son’s birth. The tapestry’s trinity of the nuclear family gets mapped onto the contemporary trinity of Amal, Isabel, and baby Sharif. Similarly, when Amal and Isabel travel back to Cairo from Tawasi, they stop along the roadside to let the car cool down. To shade the baby from the sun, they use the family’s old flag of national unity, a symbol of Muslim-Christian coalition against the British that had been wielded in women’s street protests in the early twentieth century. Amal describes the scene: “I rooted in the car and found the flag and we pushed three sticks into the earth and spread the flag over them, and the baby lay on the rug with his mother on one side of him and me on the other and above his head the green and white flag of national unity” (481). Here, as in Anna’s tapestry, a national symbol is reconfigured by an atypical transnational family.

[22] But why does this friendship and its resulting family so dominate the contemporary narrative in the novel, while the only developed romance in a self-proclaimed love story is confined to the past? I argue that it is because the novel is first and foremost a romance with the past. To make sense of the book’s reconfiguration of the romance, then, we must consider the relationship between Amal and Anna as the most important one in the book. From the beginning, Amal’s identification with Anna proves central to Amal’s political rebirth by allowing her to meditate upon the political potential of art under repressive conditions and as a vehicle for understanding coalition in not only spatial but temporal terms. On the first page of the novel, Amal describes her intense response to Anna’s story: “Across a hundred years the woman’s voice speaks to her—so clearly that she cannot believe it is not possible to pick up her pen and answer. . . . She reads and lets Anna’s words flow into her, probing gently at dreams and hopes and sorrows she had sorted out, labeled and put away” (4). Telling Anna’s story provides Amal with a political genealogy; she falls in love with national heroes such as her grandfather, Sharif, through Anna’s descriptions and identifies with their struggle to stay committed to their political fight in hopeless times that mirror the present. Writing Anna’s story absorbs Amal to the point that she loses sense of where and when she is:

Looking up from Anna’s journal I am, for a moment, surprised to find myself in my own bedroom. . . . I had been so utterly in that scene. . . . My heart had beaten in time with Anna’s, my lips had wanted her lover’s kiss. I shake myself free and . . . bring myself back to the present. Who else has read this journal? And when they read it, did they too feel that it spoke to them? For the sense of Anna speaking to me—writing it down for me—is so powerful that I find myself speaking to her in my head. At night, in my dreams, I sit with her and we speak as friends and sisters. (306)

Although Soueif seems largely concerned in the novel to highlight the political potential of the romance, here she calls less attention to it than to the commonly understood delights of the genre. Framed by the bedroom setting, she provides us the vicarious thrill of the hero’s kiss. Moreover, the description of Amal’s absorption in Anna’s journal mirrors precisely the experience of what reading a romance should be like: losing oneself in the past as evasion of the present. Yet, even by the end of this passage, we have shifted from Anna as a point of access to the male lover to Anna herself as the prize. Why is Amal so absorbed by the life of this early-twentieth-century white woman? And is the lure of Anna’s story about a desire to engage with the lessons of the past for the present, or is the real desire to retreat from the present altogether, as her grandfather Sharif had ironically decided to do the day he was murdered? Tellingly, after a painful political discussion with other Cairo intellectuals at the Atelier hotel, Amal longs to return to her Anna project: “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. . . . And you tell the story that they, the people who lived it, could only tell in part” (234). Overwhelmed by the current political moment, Amal turns to history. However, though she initially seems to lose herself in the past, her translation of Anna’s past into her present does not lead her away from politics as much as provide her with a way back into it.

[23] As a sort of modern-day Scheherazade figure, Amal stakes her politics on the artist’s ability to translate experience between cultures and across times (Darraj, 102, 106; Hassan). Her primary identification with Anna makes sense in this context, because Anna is the other true artist figure in the book, a woman who came to Egypt because she was inspired by a painting. Like Isabel, who asks Amal, “If people can write to each other across space, why can they not write across time too?” (468), Amal reaches back to Anna as a model for how to translate between East and West in a moment of profound political crisis in the Middle East. Anna’s changing understanding of art shadows Amal’s own artistic crisis. Whereas Anna begins her artistic work as a painter, she switches to weaving at the same time that she begins to work more consistently as her husband’s translator for the British press, a shift that signals a change in her thinking about both politics and art. In a letter to a friend, Anna describes her newfound preference for weaving over painting and writing:

I have quite taken to it. I find that when I work at it I am still a part of everything that surrounds me. It is not like reading or writing, when you are necessarily cut off from everything so that you may not hear when you are spoken to—indeed you may look up and be surprised to find yourself where you are, so transported were you by what is on the page. When I work at the loom I am still part of things and it seems as if the sounds and the smells and the people coming and going all somehow get into the weave. I can see you thinking ‘Ah! Anna is getting metaphysical’, but I am really most practical. . . . And then there is the pleasure of using the object you make—oh, I forget myself and preach. . . . But truly, I believe that my sitting at the loom in his courtyard has brought some pleasure to old Baroudi Bey. (385)

Although Anna’s writing is decidedly public in that it will reach major newspapers in Britain and Europe, it disengages her from her own immediate family and Egyptian cultural context in a way that weaving does not. Anna’s turn to weaving functions as a shorthand for an idea of art as both aesthetically beautiful and socially engaged—as she points out, her tapestry not only allows her to maintain a sense of her surroundings, it can even be used. Significantly, it also produces the first signs of life in her father-in-law, who has been completely withdrawn since his participation in Urabi’s failed revolt against the British-controlled army decades before. While he was not exiled like Urabi (Fisher, 341), Anna’s father-in-law has in essence exiled himself from his nation and family since his political ordeal. That Anna’s weaving integrates this once-political figure back into the social world underscores the potential of art (especially historically feminized art forms) for sustaining those involved in exhausting political struggles.

[24] Amal, who works as a translator of novels, has been a writer in just the sense that Anna describes, absorbed in her solitary task to the point that she loses her connection to the outside world. Amal contrasts this privacy of writing with the public nature of her brother’s music conducting, which involves putting on concerts in Palestine and the ruins of a bombed out building in Sarajevo. Amal argues that “for her it has been different. She has not had a public life. She has concentrated on the boys, and she has translated novels—or done her best to translate them. It is so difficult to truly translate from one language into another, from one culture into another; almost impossible really” (515). Yet she refuses to abandon this difficult task, in spite of her fatigue and despair. Revitalized by translating Anna’s struggle, Amal tells us that she has “made up her mind. When Anna’s story is finished she will close down her flat and move to Tawasi. Not for ever, but for a while. If she has any responsibility now, it is to her land and to the people on it” (297). Appalled at the jailing of innocent villagers by the police in Tawasi on charges of terrorism, a reenactment of the humiliating and unjust actions of the British at Denshwai, but this time by her own corrupt government, Amal demands “Whose country is it?” She throws in her lot with the fellaheen, vowing to protect the people in her village from further brutality and to write about their lives. Aware that she cannot single-handedly stop the corruption and despair that leads young men to violence, she decides that “she can learn the land and tell its stories” (298). Inspired by characters from her past, Amal’s relationship to writing transforms over the course of the novel from private occupation to political mission.

[25] Renewing her commitment to translate not just novels but the stories of the fellaheen entails rejecting the political despair she had experienced in earlier conversations with the disenfranchised Egyptian intelligentsia. Asked about the role of the intellectual in voicing the people’s concerns, a friend had responded, “We’re a bunch of intellectuals who sit at the Atelier or the Grillon and talk to each other. And when we write, we write for each other. We have absolutely no connection with the people. The people don’t know we exist” (224). This rehearsal of the fraught relationship between the native intellectual and the subaltern prompts Amal to reconceive her artistic identity to speak to new audiences. Mona Fayad claims that the retrieval of communal history through women’s oral narratives functions as an essential component of re-reading history in Arab women’s writing (Fayad, “Reinscribing Identity”), and Amal’s decision at the end of the novel to move to the countryside and transcribe the villager’s oral narratives follows the pattern Fayad describes. While I suspect that Spivak might have her suspicions about the ease of Amal’s new cross-class identification with the fellaheen, her recent argument that the intellectual must “learn to listen” to the subaltern resonates with Amal’s new role as chronicler of her villagers’ stories (Spivak, “Keynote Address”). Thus, though I do not want to excuse the book’s aristocratic leanings, which pose a serious limitation for the book’s political vision (and merit a longer discussion than I can give here), I do think the novel’s understanding of coalition in more flexible and unstable geographical, temporal, and aesthetic terms is worth investigating.

[26] Through her dedication to oral narratives as well as her relationship with Isabel, Amal in effect renews her dedication to the plea her grandfather, Sharif, had articulated in his final essay: “Our only hope now—and it is a small one—lies in a unity of conscience between the people of the world for whom this phrase itself would carry any meaning. It is difficult to see the means by which such a unity can be effected. But it is in its support that these words are written” (481). Amal works to build this difficult unity of conscience through her art and her new family. Since she has decided that art is her new means of enacting social change, it is not surprising that her support network for her new political commitment is in effect a colony of artists. Amal works as a translator and storyteller, and Isabel is an aspiring filmmaker as well as a savvy web designer, setting up a home page for Omar so that people all over the world can access not only his music but his writing and links to other political news sites (481).

[27] Amal’s imaginative reconstruction of a genealogy of the political possibilities of art allows us to read Amal’s primary identification with Anna as another woman living in between, produced by multiple, and at times antagonistic, aesthetic and political traditions, including colonialism, nationalism, and romance. Just as Amal reads Anna through the lens of European characters such as Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke, Anna’s Western training in painting and epistolary writing leads her to the Egyptian artistic renaissance and the anticolonial movement. In this sense we can see The Map of Love as a hybrid subject’s meditation on the subtlety and complexity of identity, drawing cultural genealogies across borders and genres even as she attempts to find her place in local politics as a transnational subject. The romance provides her with an opportunity to resurrect a new Egyptian hero out of orientalist schlock, and her romance with the past through Anna points her toward a renewed sense of a transnational political community even as it problematizes the idea that anyone can ever truly know anyone else.

[28] The complex interplay among national, international, and sexual politics in the novel raises the question: What political possibilities does reworking the colonial romance genre open up, and what possibilities does it foreclose? Soueif’s self-conscious deconstruction of the genre’s codes, in particular her transformation of the destructive woman, produces a nuanced transnational engagement with the relationship between art and political activism. That it ends with women artists is perhaps itself an argument about the failures of nationalism for those not defined as its ideal citizens. As the novel seems to conclude, what would be the use of dedicating all of one’s energy to electoral politics when the very framework of nationalism writes women out of the political picture? These women find a different space for themselves to engage with politics by turning to representations grounded in particular political coalitions. Amal represents her turn toward storytelling as emphatically not a turn away from political engagement, moving to her chosen site of political struggle to begin her artistic work and to nurture her new family. Amal’s genealogical project signals her need to imagine models for continued political struggle, because, as she demonstrates, we need representations to inspire us, even if the ideals they represent are unattainable. Souief’s interest in the possibilities of representation, in particular her transformation of politically maligned genres such as the romance, points toward the potential for destabilizing the gender, class, and race formations associated with particular narratives of both art and politics without offering any easy formulation of representation aspolitics (Loomba, 243-44). Her experiment with the romance raises the question of whether its utopianism and nostalgia, so closely associated with reactionary politics, might in fact be put toward more subversive ends.

Staging Encounters: Soueif and Her Critics

[29] One of the most fascinating aspects of Soueif’s novel is that she in effect stages how Western readers should read it. The novel itself dramatizes several acts of reading in which the reader acknowledges the limitations of her ability to truly grasp what she is reading. For instance, this is Amal’s approach to Anna’s letters and journals, which are themselves attempts to read Anna’s new surroundings. By presenting Anna’s growing horror at her own implication in the British imperial project, as well as the ongoing thematic of how women’s history gets passed down through ephemeral and frequently neglected art forms such as journals, letters, and tapestries, Soueif not only challenges the erasure of women from the historical and artistic record but also presents an alternative ethics for approaching narratives about others. In other words, Soueif presents her own overt challenge to a model of contact as “the clash of civilizations” (Huntington) through a feminized narrative mode that highlights precisely the masculinist underpinnings of that antagonistic political model. The romance provides a useful vehicle for staging this drama about reading and knowing, because it is all about the consuming desire for access to another. However, the characters themselves seem completely aware that they are not following the script and, as I discuss above, even comment at times on what would have happened at a particular moment if this had been a “real” romance.

[30] This performative element of the novel has not always registered with critics. Part of what first interested me in Soueif’s novel was the discussion around why it would not (or should not) win the Booker Prize in 1999. Interestingly, it was voted the “best read” by the Booker Prize committee, while the prize went to Coetzee’s Disgrace instead (McEwan, “The Map of Love”). Responses to the novel varied widely, but one common thread ran through nearly all of the critical responses: a profound unease with the novel’s combination of romance and politics. For critics, the genres of the romance and the political novel functioned as two mutually exclusive and irreconcilable traditions, and their reviews thus tended either to valorize the novel’s political content and criticize its formulaic romance or to celebrate the romance as an escape from the realities of the book’s political commentary and an indulgence in the guilty pleasures of mass-market fiction. For example, Library Journal‘s Ann H. Fisher concludes that the novel is “recommended as something a little different where historical romances are popular” (98-100), while Gabriele Annan writes in the London Review of Books that Soueif’s “combination of seriousness and romance doesn’t quite work at the highest level of fiction” (28). Soueif’s book was in effect doubly damned. Because it adopted conventions of the romance, critics argued that it was not artistically strong enough to merit the Booker Prize. On the other hand, its stringent critique of Israel’s regional role in Middle Eastern politics caused some critics to argue that the book was too radical politically and could not win the award because it would offend Jewish readers. Thus, Asim Hamdan argues in Arab View that “the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif was the most deserving among the final list of the writers [nominated for the Booker Prize]” but concludes that the main reason she was ultimately denied the prize was her vocal pro-Palestinian stance (“Zionist Denies”).

[31] Soueif’s use of romance proved particularly difficult for critics to stomach, and I think there are some important reasons for this. First, Western readerships have been trained to expect the “political novel” from postcolonial writers, in part because they are encouraged to read novels about the rest of the world as transparent historical documents rather than aesthetic experiments of any kind. Simon Gikandi, writing about Western readers of African literature, reiterates the danger of this assumption that literature is “a mere reproduction of reality, and language a tabula rasa that expresses a one-to-one correspondence between words and things” (Gikandi, 149). Soueif’s partial satisfaction of this expectation made for an ambivalent reception: the novel includes the kinds of historical and political discussions considered appropriate for postcolonial fiction, but the romance’s theatricality and overt artifice call into question the transparent factuality of the rest of the novel. Another key element here is of course the historically gendered divide between mass-market women’s (genre) fiction (often romance fiction in some form) and ‘literature’ that has operated both in the academic canon and in the literary marketplace. Publishers are very savvy about packaging texts to appeal to the demographics they think are most likely to buy them. Soueif’s novel was marketed, particularly in the U.S., as the perfect women’s reading group book, and the Anchor web site provided a list of discussion questions to facilitate its use in such groups.

[32] The combination of the political expectations for postcolonial writers and the historically gendered value system used to distinguish literature from women’s fiction in the West helps explain the sharply divergent evaluations of Soueif’s literary merits. But what do we gain from paying such close attention to the story of this particular novel? What concerns me about Soueif’s case is not simply that a book that was considered good by some critics, but bad by others, might fail to enter the literary canon. Instead, I am hoping that my discussion of Soueif’s redeployment of romance demonstrates the ways in which loaded conventions about literary genre and taste in the West, as well as the global market forces that cater to them, might prevent scholars from engaging with complex and experimental Anglophone texts by women that fail to meet their expectations. If the problem is not as much about Soueif’s text as the tools with which scholars are able to approach it, then literary studies needs to develop new methodologies for exploring the interplay among global literary traditions, readerships, and markets.

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