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The Map of Love: A Novel, by Ahdaf Soueif.

January 28, 2012

The Map of Love: A Novel, by Ahdaf Soueif. Anchor (2000), Edition: 1st Anchor Books ed, Paperback, 544 pages

I read this book as part of the African reading Challenge.

Map of Love is an epic historical novel, telling the story of an extended Egyptian family and of Egypt itself from the consolidation of British dominance in the early years of the twentieth century to the violence still plaguing the region in the late 1990s when the book was written. The major focus of the work is the early period when Anna, a young English widow meets and marries Sharif, a prominent Egyptian Nationalist. Their story is framed by that of another couple also reaching across worlds at the century’s end.

The narrator of Map of Love is Amal, a woman of Cairo, who is caught up in events swirling around Egypt and the greater Middle East in the 1990s. Her own story hauntingly depicts the “Arab Spring” of 2011 just waiting to happen. She is sorting through the trunk left by Anna, her great aunt. Inside the trunk are letters that Anna wrote and sent to English friends and journals kept by both Anna and Layla, Sharif’s sister and Anna’s closest friend. For both Anna and Sharif, their attraction was love at first sight. Their initial hesitation over whether or not to marry quickly dissolved into wonder and surprise over the perfection of their match. Despite their cultural differences, their marriage is depicted as fulfilling for both of them.

Just having finished reading Memories of Rain, by Sunetra Gupta, I began Map of Love wondering if a woman from a colonial power would be any more free of the dominating stance of the colonizer than the man in Gupta’s book had been. Anna could not have been a sharper contrast to him. She was already disillusioned with British foreign policy and with the English community in Egypt. She willingly gave up almost all of her English friends and culture when she married Sharif. Yet at times, Anna still seems quite a Victorian heroine, a spunky individual, but totally absorbed in her husband, his extended family and his affairs. No real conflict with her husband could have entered her mind, much less her letters and journals. Even her hints of homesickness are few. Her details of life within the family compound provide rich and satisfying images of what life in Egypt could be like. The private story of Anna and Sharif’s marriage, however, is overshadowed and interrupted by political turbulence and violence.

British assumption of ever-increasing power in Egypt, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish attempts to colonize Palestine, and the growing European contest over North Africa are central to this book. These were unfamiliar stories for me, and ones I sometimes stumbled to understand. I knew some of the pieces, but not how they were connected. What was clear was the justified anger felt by Egyptians like Sharif and Anna over their loss of control over their own world. In one sense, this story also provided me with even deeper background for understanding the Middle East and on-going Arab anger at their colonizers; colonizers whom Arabs see as including Israel and the United States.

Anna’s trunk had been brought to Amal by Isabel, a distant cousin who had inherited it. The two women are drawn together by a joint interest in its contents and by Isabel’s attraction to Amal’s brother, Omar, a prominent Egyptian-American orchestral conductor. The friendship between Amal and Isabel, however, lacks the seamless quality which Anna and Layla are described as having. Amal expresses annoyance over the words and actions of her American visitor, especially Isabel’s brisk claims to both Anna and Omar.

As the story unfolds, Amal reclaims her own roots in the family’s rural estate and expands her own life. The larger story of the extended family is fleshed out, and family bonds are renewed. But political oppression and violence still threaten the family.

I enjoyed Map of Love, and learned a great deal from it, particularly about Egypt as part of the British Empire and the complexity of colonization’s impact on the lives of individuals. At times I had minor complaints about the unbelievable role of coincidence in the story and the too conflict-free relationships of Anna, Sharif, and Layla. Overall, however, I consider this is an important book. Its primary concern is not with the personal matters which many contemporary readers tend to expect. It is a story about Egypt and a well-told one.

My awareness of Map of Love came when Amy Goodman interviewed its author at a point when the crowds in Tahrir Square had just ousted their dictator, Hosni Mubarak. That seemed like a good recommendation and it was.

In turn, I recommend Map of Love highly to all readers, especially those who like historical fiction and/or those who want a deeper understanding of the Middle East today.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 6:43 am

    This sounds really great, thanks so much for the review. I really ought to be searching for more Egyptian literature prior to my trip there in two months and this sounds like a great one.

  2. February 1, 2012 10:04 am

    A trip to Egypt sounds great. Yes, this would be a good book to read before you go. The author includes many very detailed discriptions of particular places. I doubt you will be arriving by boat into Alexandria, but you may visit some of the places she writes about. In some ways this seems a very old-fashioned novel, but I think you would enjoy it.

  3. February 16, 2012 1:04 pm

    Iread her earlier novel In the Eye of the Sun a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but I do like to give authors a second chance. And this sounds like the subject matter at least is appealing!

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