An Analysis of Hybridity in Ahdaf Soueif's Works
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“[I am] like hundreds of thousands of others: people with an Arab or a Muslim background doing daily double-takes when faced with their reflection in a western mirror.” (Soueif 2004)
Born in Egypt, as the child of two Arab university professors, Ahdaf Soueif is an author who fuses elements from an English education and society with aspects from her Cairene milieu in her fictional and nonfictional writings. Several years of Soueif’s childhood were spent in London, where she was able to explore the Anglophone literary scene whilst embracing her Egyptian roots through the culture of her parents. Ahdaf Soueif is the product from a dual Eastern and Western upbringing, a life characterized by a mixture of different cultures which is commonly linked in postcolonial studies with hybrid identity. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, hybridity is “one of the most widely employed and most disputed terms in post-colonial theory, [which] commonly refers to the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonization” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1998: 118). Many literary analyses of novels produced in the era following colonial occupation focus on how two or more cultures fuse and how the characters in these stories attempt to negotiate the differences that come along with such a merger, a pattern which is also followed in Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (1992)and The Map of Love (1999). Homi K. Bhabha describes this process, known as hybridity, as the creation of culture and identity from the blending of cultural elements of the colonizer and the colonized, thereby defying the origins of any authentic identity (Bhabha 1990). Authors situated in this postcolonial era move between different worlds, trying to merge diverse cultures. This fusion of different cultures has led these postcolonial writers to a coalition of different reading audiences, which has exposed them to different levels of apprehension and appreciation.
Analyzing the high level of hybridity in Soueif’s personal life, one might expect that a similar interest in transcultural elements will be detected when reading her fictional and non-fictional work. Ahdaf Soueif has written several articles on political and cultural affairs that shape the contemporary world, such as “The Heart of the Matter” (2007) that deals with the troubles in Palestine in a present-day context. In 2004, she published a book entitled Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, which contains a collection of non-fictional essays on significant matters that are linked with the “Mezzaterra” in a globalized world. As a recipient of two different cultures, Ahdaf Soueif is engaged in making different cultural grounds meet throughout her writings, or as Soueif herself describes it, in exploring the “Mezzaterra”, which refers to the construction of a meeting point for diverse cultures and traditions, a common ground. This mutual ground is not competitive, rather it offers an enrichment working at both sides of the construction.
Ahdaf Soueif herself describes the common ground as followed:
[The Mezzaterra is] a territory imagined, created even, by Arab thinkers and reformers starting in the middle of the nineteenth century when Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt first sent students to the West and they came back inspired by the best of what they saw on offer. Generations of Arabs protected it through the dark time of colonialism. (Soueif, qtd. in Mahjoub 2009: 57)
The “Mezzaterra” constitutes a space where the best elements of different cultures are combined and where admiration for the thought, literature and music of the West is accompanied by confidence in the possibilities of an Egyptian culture, free from colonial occupation. Ahdaf Soueif’s strong belief in this unity of East and West is accompanied by a high level of hybridity, a model which she explores in her writings as well as in her personal life. For instance, in naming her offspring, Soueif illustrates her interest in merging two cultures since her sons have combined Arab-English names, namely Omar Robbie and Ismail Ricki (Darraj 2003: 91). She challenges transcultural issues in her fictional novels while she also writes non-fictional articles for English newspaper The Guardian as well as for Egypt’s esteemed newspaper Al-Ahram. Her fictional and her non-fictional writings epitomize her dual identity, the fact that she is the product of a cross-cultural upbringing, therefore making her a prime example of a hybrid writer. However, this high level of hybridity in her personal life has led her to be perceived as a writer who does not belong exclusively to Egypt or England. Soueif is frequently regarded as a foreigner by the English, while she is oftentimes denied the status of a native Egyptian (Darraj 2003: 92). Susan Darraj, who has written articles on Arab-Muslim feminism and Muslim writers, claims that Soueif’s “lush style is often described as exotic and foreign by her Western readers, while her sexual imagery and themes arouse the ire of some Egyptian readers who do not want to claim her as ‘one of their own’” (Darraj 2003: 91), which explains the perception of Ahdaf Soueif as an outsider by both sides. In an interview, Soueif addressed the confrontational issue of hybridity by claiming that “there are so many hybrids now, people who are a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The interesting thing is what we make of it, what kind of hybrid we become and how we feel about it” (Soueif, qtd. in Malak 2003: 148). Ahdaf Soueif seems to have found a space, despite the fact that she does not belong exclusively to either the Eastern or the Western literary circuit, which allows her to harmonize both her Egyptian and English roots. However, she admits that some voices in our contemporary world do not share her belief in the common ground, as she claims that: “[i]n today's world, separatism is not an option. In order to stay alive we will all eventually end up on some form of common ground. However, the loudest voices that are heard are those that deny the existence of this, who shout that a ‘clash of civilizations’ is taking place” (Soueif 2004, translated from KVS Express 2008).
Ahdaf Soueif was launched onto the international scene by her first novel In the Eye of the Sun (1992), which tells the story of a young Egyptian girl who finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage and who seeks intellectual and marital freedom in England. In addition to this first novel, Soueif has also published two short-stories compellations, Aisha (1983)and Sandpiper(1996), and a second novel, The Map of Love (1999). While Soueif’s first novel takes a young Arab woman out of the heart of Egypt and transports her to England, her second novel reverses the pattern and narrates how an Arab woman tries to puzzle together the life story of her great-aunt, an English Victorian lady who traveled to the East and started a second life in the harem. In my thesis I will focus on Ahdaf Soueif’s novels In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999) and investigate whether the author’s strong belief in the “Mezzaterra” and in hybridity, which has characterized her life, is also explored and therefore detectable in her novels. I have chosen these novels because both books narrate stories about young women who are moving between Egypt and England, or East and West, and the struggles they encounter when trying to merge different cultures. A comparative study of both books will expose how Ahdaf Soueif deals with the effects of her dynamic upbringing and identity in her fictional writings. This analysis will be preceded by a discussion of the existing body of academic theories on the topic of hybridity in postcolonial studies. In my analysis of In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love, I will focus on hybridity, and more specifically on the merger of Western and Eastern elements, by exploring the following research questions: (a) Which formal, textual elements of In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love display Ahdaf Soueif’s belief in the “Mezzaterra” and, more specifically, hybridity? (b) Which components on the level of content suggest that Ahdaf Soueif inserts the notion of hybridity into the lives and interests of the characters in her novels? (c) How does Ahdaf Soueif deal with traditional views concerning East and West? (c) What future does she describe for hybrids living in our contemporary, globalized world? At the end, a conclusion will be drafted and the initially asked questions will hopefully have been answered in detail.
2. Theoretical Concepts, Novels and Genres
2.1 The Postcolonial Matter – Ahdaf Soueif as a Postcolonial Writer
Critics have argued that Ahdaf Soueif is both an essayist of non-fictional articles and author of fictional stories who displays in her writings a great interest in the merger of different cultures in places characterized by a colonial past. As mentioned earlier, her nonfictional work has illustrated her belief in the “Mezzaterra”, a common ground for these cultures where they can live harmoniously and people can benefit from this productive merger. Soueif’s fictional writings have been identified by critics such as Susan Muaddi Darraj (2003) and Emily Davis (2007) as postcolonial literature, by claiming that she “reshapes, rethinks and re-evaluates the colonial period in the Middle East” (Darraj 2003: 102). The definition of ‘postcolonial’ is not without contradictions. Ama Ata Aidoo, who also writes articles and books on Western-Eastern tensions, claims that “the ‘post’ in postcolonial implies that colonization is over and this is not true”, because the regions which have a colonial history are still in the process of decolonizing today, “whether in economic, political, or cultural arenas […]” (Aidoo qtd. in Katrak 2006: xii). Within the framework of this thesis I would like to follow Aidoo’s line of thought which echoes the approach of Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin who argue that the process of colonization does not “cease with the mere end of political independence [rather it] continues in a neo-colonial mode to be active in many societies” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1995: xv). The problematic naming of notions relating to colonization and postcolonial literature proves that there is still much controversy and incongruity among theorists. In the purpose of this thesis, I would like to follow Ketu H. Katrak’s personal definition of postcolonial areas which she utilizes in her book Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (2006). She describes postcolonial areas as:
geopolitical regions that share a past – a colonial history of occupation and domination – and a present of continuing neocolonialism that necessitates active decolonizing strategies. Neither the colonial nor the postcolonial world is a given historically and geographically; these regions were deliberately named as such through histories of conquest and domination, of nations and national boundaries drawn often arbitrarily by colonizers. (Katrak 2006: xii)
The significance of this discussion of the notion ‘postcolonial’ can be explained by Adhaf Soueif’s exploration of places characterized by colonization, either by narrating the lives of characters living during England’s occupation of Egypt or by placing them in our contemporary world, which is faced with the effects of its colonial past, a process oftentimes associated with globalization.
Some of Soueif’s characters experience the direct effects of colonization while other witnesses are set in a postcolonial era. The question which Soueif tries to answer is whether Egypt has liberated itself from colonial occupation after it gained independence. In my opinion, Soueif condemns Western occupation of her native country, but simultaneously expresses admiration for the thought and culture of the West in her fictional novels, an act which illustrates her belief in a common ground where cultures co-exist.
2.2 Theoretical Frame and Concepts
2.2.1 The Issue of Hybridity - Homi K. Bhabha
Authors like Ahdaf Soueif, Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith, who are characterized as writers of postcolonial fiction, often narrate the stories of people that are confronted with the merger of different cultures and the creation of hybrid identities. This means that they have to find a way to combine an authentic identity with elements from a new culture. The creation of such a hybrid identity that acknowledges and values the fusion of elements emanating from different cultures proves to be a significant notion in In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love(1999). Vital attributions on the issue of hybridity have been brought to the field of postcolonial theory by Homi K. Bhabha, a postcolonial critic and accomplished essayist who has published articles on fundamental notions in cultural studies, such as identity, race and colonialism (Rutherford 1990: 207). These concepts have brought him to the discussion of some matters of contention which have proven to be cause for confusion and misunderstanding in cultures characterized by a (post)colonial history.
Homi K. Bhabha argues that many of our contemporary globalized, plural societies acknowledge the idea of diversity of cultures as a positive thing, so that cultural multiplicity is encouraged and established. However, he attacks the tendency of Western peoples, who consider themselves to be the ‘cultured’ or ‘civilized’, to “understand and locate cultures in a universal time-frame that acknowledges their various historical and social contexts only eventually to transcend them and render them transparent” (Bhabha 1990: 208). This way, Western societies continue to believe that nationalities and cultures which are different from their own are interesting enough to explore, but are, eventually, their minors in civility, knowledge and cultivation. Bhabha finds in this contradictory attitude two significant problems that concern the problematic issues of superiority feelings and racism (Bhabha 1990: 208). The first problem relates to the superiority approach of the ‘already cultured’ to newcomers, who, therefore, will always retain the status of ‘immigrants’ or ‘outsiders’. Despite the fact that multiple societies proclaim encouraging exclamations which seem to applaud and respect cultural diversity, there is, according to Bhabha, always an additional suppression of the other culture. He claims that the “host society” or “dominant culture” constitutes a norm in which other cultures are welcomed, however, they must be located within their own “grid” (Bhabha 1990: 208). This can be illustrated by the traditional Western view on Arab women who are wearing the veil. Many Western people do not know the history of this Arab cultural element but only see it as a manner of gender oppression, therefore they condemn it. Leila Ahmed, who has written several essays on the topic of Orientalist stereotyping in the West, claims that the veil is “more than anything a symbol of women separated from the world of men, and this is conventionally perceived in the West as oppression” (Ahmed 1982: 523). For this reason but also for other religious and political arguments, Arab women living in the West are oftentimes denied the opportunity to wear a veil, they must adjust to Western manners of convention. People with an Eastern background who migrate to the West must adapt or they will be excluded from society. What we can witness in our contemporary world is an ambivalent attitude towards globalization which justifies diversity but simultaneously denies some cultures the right of equality. The second problem which Bhabha attacks, focuses upon racism, a problematic issue often encountered in multicultural societies (Bhabha 1990: 208). Fear for something new and unfamiliar oftentimes entails an aggressive and degrading attitude towards newcomers. As opposed to centuries ago, the current population of a particular country is no longer characterized by a single people with solitary beliefs because globalization has opened the gate of one country to the rest of the world, facilitating an exposure to other cultures.
While Ahdaf Soeif is encouraged to write about an imaginative space where different cultures come together to live harmoniously with each other, Bhabha denies the possibility of such an effortless or peaceful act. He claims that cultures that adhere in a contemporary context are often radical opponents on the field of political principles, religious conventions, sexual orientations and other significant cultural issues (Bhabha 1990: 208). Following this reasoning, the necessity for “a politics which is based on unequal, uneven, multiple and potentially antagonistic, political identities” has to be realized to answer the “[changing] nature of the public sphere” (Bhabha 1990: 208). Homi K. Bhabha argues that societies in a contemporary, postcolonial context should not try to reshape newcomers to their own model, since it will be more satisfactory to focus on a merger where cultural differences can co-exist.
To further support his claim, Homi K. Bhabha introduces the notion of the “Third Space” (Bhabha 1990: 211), an imaginative space which functions as a meeting point for opposite powers which do not attempt to reach cultural domination. This contact zone, which Bhabha describes, is not achieved through a serene fusion of elements from different cultures, rather it is constructed by contradictory, and oftentimes, irreconcilable notions. According to him, the act of merging different cultures and pretending that they can live side by side harmoniously is impossible and oftentimes counterproductive. Bhabha further explains that:
[a]ll forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity. But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom. (Bhabha 1990: 211)
A key notion for peoples anchored in this hybrid construction of the “Third Space” is the quest for an identity which does not acknowledge only one authentic culture, but which is constituted by the inclusion of new cultural elements. The original and separated identities are no longer significant, since the new, hybrid identity has replaced them. Critics claim that the notion of hybridity has often been used in postcolonial theories to refer to “cross-cultural exchange” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1995: 119), however, this use has to be criticized, since it neglects the discrepancy that joins the merger of different cultures. When discussing the quest for a hybrid individuality, Bhabha gives his preference to the notion of identification instead of identity, since the former relates to the act of identifying “with and through another object, an object of otherness” (Bhabha 1990: 211). Identity has to do with myself, identification has to do with the ‘Other’ and myself. Bhabha describes this process of cultural hybridity as the stimulator of “something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation” (Bhabha 1990: 211).
Michaela Wolf, who is inspired by the many theories on hybridity, describes Bhabha’s “Third Space” as a sort of “in-between-space, which is located between existing referential systems and antagonisms, […] [in which] the whole body of resistant hybridization comes into being in the form of fragile syncretisms, contrapuntal re-combinations and acculturation” (Wolf 2008: 13). However, she finds in Bhabha’s approach to hybridity a controversial boundary, since the name implies a plurality of cultures, which automatically incorporates concepts of inclusion and exclusion (Wolf 2008: 14), a process which is for instance often linked with the issue of language. Globalization is an ongoing development which merges diverse cultures and therefore enables exposure to new and different languages. As a result, minority languages might disappear while others find a growing number of speakers. In the case of (post)colonial literature, the act of translation may prove to be a problematic issue for the people involved. In her novels, Ahdaf Soueif exposes a great interest in the issue of language, by allowing her characters to shift between the English and Arab language whilst continually drawing attention to the problematic act of translation.
2.2.2 Orientalism - Edward Said
When discussing the importance of language and the issue of stereotyping in hybrid writings that deal with Eastern-Western oppositions, it is important to refer to Edward Said and his work Orientalism (1978). Said described the theory of Orientalism in his book as a way of looking at the East that can be regarded as “a manner of regularized writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient” (Said 1978: 202). More specifically, it refers to the superiority approach of the West which dominates, restructures and holds authority over the Orient. The Orient is not “an inert fact of nature, but a phenomenon constructed by generations of intellectuals, artists, commentators, writers, politicians, and, more importantly, constructed by the naturalizing of a wide range of Orientalist assumptions and stereotypes” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1998: 168). In summary, colonialists depicted the Orient as an exotic and immoral place in urgent need of Western civilization, therefore Orientalism enforced the colonial mission. Said was one of the first academics to study colonialism on the field of discourse, and therefore showed the close interaction between the “language and the forms of knowledge developed for the study of cultures and the history of colonialism and imperialism” (Young 2007: 1). Said’s theoretical approach to colonial literature implemented the understanding of acts practiced in colonial times by analyzing accounts in literary texts, travel writings and memoirs. He concluded that the language used in those reports to analyze or represent colonialism was not purely instrumental. Said argued that Orientalism developed as a construction on the discursive field, so that the language in which colonization is represented, is never unbiased, neutral or objective. Furthermore, Orientalism is “a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (Said 1978: 203). This significant approach to Orientalism defies traditional academic views upon the representation of colonization in Western literature. Said’s theory claims that in these texts, the written accounts on the Orient only depicted Western desires which envisioned the East as an exotic place, therefore Orientalism bore little evidence to the authenticity of its object. So the Orient is not an actual place, rather it is a "system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire" (Said 1978: 202). This allegation made by Said in his book Orientalism (1978) is important for hybrid writers positioned in our contemporary literary landscape who tell stories about their colonial heritage. Hybrid authors are oftentimes characterized by the fusion of elements which formerly belonged to the different cultures of the colonizer and colonized. These writers who are now narrating stories that deal with (post)colonial issues are no longer people remotely situated from the source. Ahdaf Soueif, an example in case, is despite her English upbringing closely connected with her Egyptian heritage and still has a strong connection with the country of her roots, as opposed to earlier colonists. Robert Young acknowledges this fact and Said’s theory by suggesting that “colonial discourse analysis has meant that we have learnt a lot about the fantasmatics of colonial discourse, but at the same time it has prevented us by definition from knowing about the actual conditions such discourse was framed to describe, analyze or control” (Young 1996, 2007: 2).
Young’s contribution to Bhabha’s analysis of colonial discourse has shown how Western representations of the Orient and colonization in general delineated not just a theoretical approach but more so a portrayal of their exotic desires. In her novels, Ahdaf Soueif reacts to this ongoing tendency in the West to imagine the Orient and its culture as exotic objects, by dismantling the stereotypes which were originally constructed to illustrate Western desires. For ages, Orientalist discourse has been a form of “Western fantasy [which could] say nothing about actuality” (Young 2007: 2). These colonial reports on the Orient have initiated a process in which elements belonging to the Eastern culture, such as the harem, the veil and polygamy are regarded as synonyms for female oppression. In the postcolonial era, hybrid writers are able to write stories about their own native country in a format and language which does not discourage Western readers, therefore accounts from secondary sources are excluded and a more trustworthy picture of the Orient is illustrated.
2.2.3 The Subaltern - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discusses the problematic issue of ‘voice’ for oppressed people in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in which she refers to this group as the “subaltern” minorities (Spivak 1988: 66). The notion subaltern refers to those of inferior rank, a term which was introduced by Antonio Gramsci to designate the minority groups in society who are struggling with the domination of the ruling classes (Spivak 1988: 78). Spivak argues that histories which truthfully narrate the lives of these oppressed people have remained ignored for centuries, a case in point illustrated by accounts on the subaltern woman, which were always narrated through colonial, male voices whilst never allowing the woman herself the opportunity to recite her narrative. Spivak continues her claim by stating that “within the effaced itinerary of the subaltern subject, the track of sexual difference is doubly effaced. […] If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (Spivak 1988: 83). The colonized subject, and more specifically, the subaltern woman, is and has always been missing in documentary archives, because she is not given a voice. The question whether they can speak is a question that the subaltern must ask (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1998: 218).
Spivak elaborates on her discussion of the exclusion of subaltern groups by referring to the contemporary and ongoing epistemic suppression that Eastern voices experience, since they are forced to implant Western forms of thought and writing (Spivak 1988: 80-82). This claim is based upon Spivak’s presumption that the subaltern must adapt their way of thinking, speaking and writing to a more Western model if they want to be heard. Spivak argues that this is a case which does not allow those subaltern peoples to really speak their mind and therefore they will never achieve their hopes to be actually heard, since they must adopt Western ways of thought and reason. By trying to give the subaltern a voice mediated to a Western model, these oppressed peoples become even more silent. Spivak ends her article and answers the question whether or not the subaltern can speak as followed: “The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish” (Spivak 1988: 104). Spivak concludes that by trying to adapt to Western notions of thinking, writing and telling, the subaltern reaffirms his position as the subordinated. The significance of the discussion of the subaltern to this thesis relates to the identity of writer Ahdaf Soueif, who is a female, Anglophone author writing in the former-colonizer’s language in a postcolonial era. To follow Spivak in her claim about the subaltern, who cannot speak, would mean that Ahdaf Soueif narrates her stories in a lingual and structural model that pleases the West. However, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin argue that Spivak’s main concern is not that the oppressed cannot voice their resistance or that they must adjust to a Western mode of voicing their thoughts in order to be heard, rather she focuses on an “unproblematically constituted subaltern identity” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin 1998: 219).
The significance of discussing all of the vital contributions on hybridity, Orientalism and female voices delivered by different academics to the field of postcolonial theory relates to the purpose of this thesis in which the level of hybridity in Ahdaf Soueif’s fictional novels is analyzed. Therefore, in the following chapter of this thesis, I will illustrate how the theoretical concepts and ideas described above are explored in In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999).
2.3 Novels and Genres
My analysis of In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999) will prove that Ahdaf Soueif’s writing style tries to capture the spirit and conventional customs of the era in which she is narrating her stories. In the Eye of the Sun tells the story of a young Egyptian woman Asya, whose life is set against the political actions of the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century. It focuses on her years-long struggle for personal independence and her attempts to break away from patriarchal conventions and Orientalist stereotyping, therefore making it “a coming of age novel in the European Romantic tradition of the bildungsroman” (Massad 1999: 75). The novel begins in England in 1979, where we meet a twenty-nine-year-old Asya who has taken the care for her dying uncle upon her. The story then goes back in time to the infamous year of 1967 where Asya witnesses the destroying effects of the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As a young student, she falls in love with Saif but she soon finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage based upon patriarchal conventions. Her first steps to independence are set once she has decided to follow her mother’s example by obtaining a Ph.D. in England. However, she soon finds herself captured in the fantasy of another man, the American Gerald Stone who embodies Orientalist stereotypes.
In The Map of Love, a contemporary Arab woman, Amal, tells the story of her English-born great-aunt Anna Winterbourne, who fled her life in Victorian England to travel to the East at the end of the nineteenth century. Recently widowed, Anna has a desire to explore Egypt to see whether her admiration for the Orientalist paintings of John Frederick Lewis is justified and whether he depicted Arab life in its authenticity. Ignoring traditional views the West holds over the East, Anna follows the footsteps of real Victorian female travelers, such as Lady Lucy Duff Gordon and Lady Emily Blunt, who looked beyond Orientalist stereotypes. Anna finds love and a new family in Egypt when she marries Egyptian nationalist Sharif Basha. Over a century later, Amal magically reconstructs Anna’s story by exploring the content of a trunk which was brought to her by an American woman, Isabel. The trunk contains letters, diaries and newspaper clippings. Isabel’s love story echoes Anna’s, since both of them fall in love with an Egyptian man, passionate about the political affairs of his country. In Isabel’s case, she falls for Amal’s brother Omar. My research will illustrate how Ahdaf Soueif cleverly fuses the fictional and historical level in this novel by capturing the spirit of the age in which her love story is set, making it a historical romance.
3. Analysis: Hybridity in In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999)
In order to systematically and thoroughly answer the research questions put forward in the introduction of this thesis, a distinction has to be made between the different manners in which Ahdaf Soueif integrates the issue of hybridity in her fictional novels.
Firstly, I will analyze how Ahdaf Soueif integrates hybridity in the formal construction of her novels by merging different types of texts and by integrating history within fiction. Equally important are the intertextual references to music and literature originating from Eastern and Western cultures. Secondly, I will analyze how Ahdaf Soueif, as a person who moves between the distinct spaces of East and West, is capable to explore confrontational and problematic concepts that deal with the merger of different cultures. Therefore, the analysis will examine how hybridity in Ahdaf Soueif’s personal life has allowed her to find a place between Egypt and England to write about challenging subjects in her novels. I will argue that, because she believes in a common ground where cultures meet, she narrates the lives of young female women that struggle with patriarchal images and Orientalist stereotyping. I will continue by analyzing the important issue of language and the act of translation, which prove to be significant and confrontational elements in the lives of Ahdaf Soueif’s characters. The concluding part of my analysis will investigate what kind of future Soueif upholds for people marked by hybridity in a contemporary context.
3.1 A Hybrid Narrative Structure
This thesis investigates in what manner the concept of “Mezzaterra” is constructed in Ahdaf Soueif’s fictional novels by focusing on the merger of different cultural elements that suggests a level of hybridity. The analysis will examine textual and content-related evidence which suggests that Soueif combines Eastern and Western cultural elements in her novels, influenced by her dual upbringing that was marked by hybridity. The following part of the research will focus on the composition of the narrative structures of In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999) by investigating whether Ahdaf Soueif strives to achieve a similar level of hybridity in the formal construction of her fictional writings.
3.1.1 Attempted Hybridization in In the Eye of the Sun (1992)
One of the most striking distinctions between In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love is the manner in which each novel is formally constructed and how its content is narrated. Content related, the former focuses on the story of Asya, an Egyptian girl who moves to England during the seventies of last century, while the latter explores two different stories, set in separated periods of time, and concentrates on two main characters, Anna and Amal. These differences in content signify that the novels will also differ greatly in textual design, since Asya’s story in In the Eye of the Sun begins with an epilogue that takes the reader to 1979 but afterwards jumps back twelve years and from that moment onwards continues chronologically, while The Map of Love juggles two different stories set over a century apart from each other. Joseph Massad has conducted a detailed analysis of both books and describes their temporal settings and the manner in which the events are narrated as followed:
In the Eye of the Sun begins in medias res in July 1979 and goes back to May 1967, only to proceed chronologically again to April 1980. In doing so, Soueif is telling a story that is still happening. This is quite different from the way she sets up a dialogic of past-present juxtapositions in The Map of Love [which] begins with the present (1997) and then transports the reader into a series of back-and-forth temporal peregrinations between the last fin de siècle and the current one. (Massad 1999: 79)
The different manner in which the plots of In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love are constructed marks the way in which many structural elements regarding the narratives are composed. To begin with, In the Eye of the Sun focuses on the life story of a young Egyptian girl Asya, set against the political happenings of the sixties and seventies of the previous century, told by an omniscient narrator. In addition to Asya’s account on her own life, the novel contains several ‘non-fictional’ sections in which the political situation of Egypt is narrated, beginning with the war in 1967. However, further on in this thesis I will argue that these bulletin reports render the impression of reading newspaper clippings, since they give static accounts on Egypt’s political affairs without referring to any of the novel’s fictional characters. These political dealings are matters that do not have a primary impact on Asya’s life, rather they seem to determine and affect the lives of less important characters. The textual lay-out of Soueif’s first novel illustrates an unsuccessful blend because the text can easily be divided into two separate parts, namely the fictional component, which tells the story of Asya with her own bildungsroman-like narrative, and the historical part that gives an elaborated, overly-detailed account of political affairs in mid-twentieth century Egypt. Therefore, I would like to argue that In the Eye of the Sun illustrates Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at hybridizating different types of texts, but that the merger is ineffective.
3.1.2 The Map of Love (1999) as a “Textual Tapestry”
Although The Map of Love tells two different stories which are separated by time, the reader only gets to know the story of Anna Winterbourne by closely following the process in which Amal tries to put the pieces of her great-aunt’s life back together. We learn about English-born Anna and her feelings on her new and married life, which she began in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century, through her diary extracts and the letters she wrote to her English friends and father-in-law. In addition to Anna’s personal writings, the journal extracts composed by Layla help Amal to shed a different light on Anna’s Egyptian life. Consequently, we have two different stories in The Map of Love that are connected through history, of which the oldest one is entirely reshaped and retold by a contemporary voice. As a result, the novel contains a framed narrative that consists of a “fascinating collage of different texts as the [narrator does] enormous amounts of research” (Luo 2003: 88). The narrator in this case is Amal who is guiding the reader through Anna’s story by exploring her journals and letters. The novel illustrates how Amal comes to terms with her own hybrid identity, which fuses Arabic and English elements, since she is fascinated with the task of retelling her great-aunt’s life story which also focused on the merger of those cultures.
Susan Darraj finds in The Map of Love “a textual tapestry that weaves together several parallel stories: the titles of the book’s four units (‘A Beginning,’ ‘An End of a Beginning,’ ‘A Beginning of an End,’ and ‘An End’) hint at the epic proportions and tremendous historic scope of the tale about to unravel” (Darraj 2003: 101). Anna’s journals and letters constitute the central part of the novel, since it is Amal who, over a century later, tries to retell her story by investigating these documents. Amal takes her time to narrate her great-aunt’s life story step by step and, in doing so, she becomes the perfect guide who gradually takes the reader through the novel without rushing or stalling the process of narration. Susan Darraj sees in Amal a reincarnation of Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, who, in order to save her life from decapitation the following morning, told her tyrannical husband each night an exciting story without revealing its end. Amal is a narrator who resembles Scheherazade because, in retelling her great-aunt’s life, “[she] does not create stories herself, but retells them and highlights their magic” (Darraj 2003: 102). The following lines illustrate this theme of story-telling as Amal claims:
[T]his is not my story. […] This is a story conjured out of a box; a leather trunk that travelled from London to Cairo and back. […] It is the story of two women: Isabel Parkman, the American who brought it to me, and Anna Winterbourne, her great-grandmother, the Englishwoman to whom it had originally belonged. And if I come into it at all, it is only as my own grandmother [Layla] did a hundred years ago, when she told the story of her brother’s love. (ML 11)
Amal possesses a sense of entitlement to her great-aunt’s story, to the degree that she wants to pick up her own pen and answer Anna’s letters and write across time. Amal’s continuing longing to work on her Anna project is administered throughout the novel, as illustrated by the following quote from The Map of Love, uttered by Amal: “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” (ML 234).
Emily Davis explores in what manner Ahdaf Soueif expresses her belief in hybridity on the narrative level in The Map of Love and claims that “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” (Davis 2007: 8). Davis further claims that the very hybrid nature of Soueif’s second novel is not something to be unanticipated, since the author herself has cosmopolitan roots. This level of hybridity in the narrative structure of The Map of Love, referred to by critics such as Darraj as a “textual tapestry” (Darraj 2003: 101), is constituted by many different documents originating from newspapers, letters and diaries. One of the most important objects in the novel which enables Amal to make a connection with her ancestor’s story is the trunk that contains all these objects. The trunk encloses the journal that chronicles Anna’s life in England before she travelled to Egypt, the diary which recounts her stay in the African country, and another journal which tells the story of her adventure in the Sinai desert and how she fell in love with Sharif. The letters that Amal finds in the trunk make her reconsider the popularity of travel literature in that time, since Anna’s writing style proves that the writer was “a little self-conscious perhaps, a little aware of the genre – Letters from Egypt, A Nile Voyage, More Letters from Egypt’’ (ML 58).
At the beginning of the novel, when Isabel gives the trunk and the whole of its content to Amal, they hope that they can retell Anna Winterbourne’s story, without ever realizing that they are both related and that they share a history. The trunk is a symbolic and textual element which brings together these two separated branches of one family and also connects the two main stories narrated in The Map of Love.
Amin Malak, who has written several essays on Muslim fiction, specifies the significance of the trunk as followed:
“Anna’s trunk, now an heirloom to Isabel, involves a multitude of objects and documents: Anna's detailed diaries of her life in Egypt; period newspaper cuttings in both English and Arabic covering the first two decades of the twentieth century; a testimony from Layla al-Baroudi, Amal's grandmother, on family events concerning her brother's, Sharif Basha's, marriage to Anna; and a tapestry, made by Anna in Cairo, symbolically conjoining Pharaonic and Islamic ciphers. The trunk, which has travelled from Egypt to Europe to the United States and then back to Egypt, represents not only an inventive plot device but also a signifier of the novel's salient cross-cultural appeal.” (Malak 2000: 152, italics mine)
The trunk, which contains the journals, diaries and letters, connects Anna’s story with that of her great-niece Amal. Amin Malak further applauds this level of “text-hybridization” by suggesting that The Map of Love gives the reader a narrative that celebrates hybridity not only “linguistically, but also discursively leading subtly towards humane, positive perspectives on Arab-Muslim culture in its most tolerant illustrations and in its openness towards the Other” (Malak 2000: 157).
Amal’s desire to recompose Anna’s life story is not attended with a wish to tell her own narrative, rather she is utterly preoccupied with telling the story of her ancestors. Amal’s desire to tell Anna’s story provides her with a “political genealogy” (Davis 2007: 22), because Amal also falls in love with national heroes such as Sharif through the descriptions that Anna delivers. She even identifies with Anna and Sharif’s struggle of committing themselves to a political fight in a time that mirrors the past by protecting and supporting the fellaheen, the native peasants, in her Egyptian home town. Amal’s quest for retelling Anna’s story results in the construction of a perfectly constructed, hybrid text composed out of archival documents, journal writings and personal letters. The same level of textual hybridity is not experienced when reading In the Eye of the Sun, which already anticipated the author’s attempt at fusing different narrative forms, but the blend was unsuccessful. It was discussed earlier that Ahdaf Soueif tries to find a merger between the levels of fiction and history in her first novel by introducing newspaper accounts on political events. Part of this failed attempt at blending the two layers in In the Eye of the Sun can be attributed to the ineffective textual hybridity. Ahdaf Soueif has find a way to successfully combine historical events and characters with fictional plot elements in The Map of Love bymerging them together into two stories which are closely connected and by making these historical components significant and determining factors in the lives of her main characters. However, this is not the case with In the Eye of the Sun, since Ahdaf Soueif chose to make the historical events less important determiners in the life of her main character Asya. As a result, Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at achieving hybridity in the textual composition of her books is, in comparison with her first novel, much more applauded in her second one.
3.2 Blending History and Fiction
“I think that I've become more and more convinced that most everything we do is determined by our context. And that embraces the wider context as well. To understand a character, to work out their motivations, reactions, what they're capable of and what they're not, is all tied to their history, to what surrounds them.” (Soueif 1999: 87)
Both of Ahdaf Soueif’s novels In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999) are characterized by a process in which different levels of content and structure are blended, a merger which accounts for the author’s interest in hybridity. One of the most striking blends that appears in Ahdaf Soueif’s stories is the mixture of fictional and historical characters and events, which is achieved in two ways. While genuine historical people make an appearance in Ahdaf Soueif’s novels and interact with other characters, the construction of some fictional figures is based upon real people. In an interview with Joseph Massad (1999), Ahdaf Soueif admits that she delivers to her Western readers the uneasy task of having to disentangle history from fiction, because she has a willingness to explore the possibilities and the limitations of people’s personal lives as influenced by certain historical circumstances. As Ahdaf Soueif claims: “I wanted to map out my characters' lives against a genuine historical background. Why should I invent a historical background, when it's all there really” (Soueif 1999: 87). This attempt at integrating the private and the political level illustrates one of the most fascinating features of postcolonial writing (Malak 2000: 146). The following section in this thesis will illustrate how Ahdaf Soueif integrates her interest in hybridity in her fictional writings by literally blending history and fiction.
3.2.1 Introducing Political Figures and Events in In the Eye of the Sun(1992)and The Map of Love (1999)
Previous parts of this thesis have already indicated that Ahdaf Soueif’s novels explore similar elements and themes that play significant parts in the lives of young women who are trying to merge different cultures. In the Eye of the Sun was published in 1992, therefore making it Soueif’s first novel, while her second, The Map of Love, was released in 1999. This gap of seven years has been significant in the growth of Ahdaf Soueif as an author of fiction, because it appears as if in that extent of time Soueif has found a new and possibly improved way to blend history with fiction.
To begin with, In the Eye of the Sun is foremost the coming-of-age story of Asya, whose life of gender oppression and Orientalist stereotyping is set against the Egyptian political affairs of the sixties and seventies of last century. The novel lays emphasis on the historical events of that era and takes the reader “from the devastating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War and the shock of Nasir’s sudden death to the massacres of Palestinians in Jordan, Sadat’s new era, the brad riots of 1977, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Washington Post’s list of foreign leaders on the CIA payroll” (Massad 1999: 77). Ahdaf Soueif provides a detailed account on the political meetings and actions that happened during the war of June 1967, in which over a hundred thousands were killed. In doing so, she addresses a journalistic approach by giving static reports on the events but, simultaneously, she fictionally narrates how the Egyptian people experienced the war, by looking at the effects of it through the eyes of a young girl. However, it is significant to point out that Asya does not experience the consequences of Egypt’s political actions directly, as Ahdaf Soueif has chosen to make the secondary characters the immediate victims of the war practices. Soueif does not make these events significant issues in the lives of her main character. Some parts of In the Eye of the Sun are composed by numerous pages of descriptions detailing the political meetings which were held without making any reference to the plot or linking the importance of the events to the fictional characters. The result of this failed blend, for there is practically none since the historical and the fictional remain separate elements in almost every part of the novel, is the delivery of dreary and rather unnecessary newspaper clippings. The few occasions in which Ahdaf Soueif connects a historical event with the life of a fictional character and only in that case achieves in making a blend, is a task set up for minor important, secondary characters, such as “[Asya’s] friend Chrissie [who] loses a lover in the 1967 war; her friend Noora [who] marries a Palestinian, Bassam, and as a consequence is disowned by her family; her sister Deena’s husband Muhsin [who] ends up in the infamous Tora prison for leftist activism against Sadat’s government” (Maitzen 2009). As a result, Ahdaf Soueif does not succeed in convincing the reader of In the Eye of the Sun that the historical events, which are carefully mapped out by detailed accounts, determine the lives of her main character and therefore contribute to the plot. In my opinion, they interrupt the narrative.
By criticizing Ahdaf Soueif on her unsuccessful blend of history and fiction I contradict critics such as Amin Malak (2000) and Emily Davis (2007) who claim that politics provide an interesting background to the novel’s fictional story. In an interview with Massad, Ahdaf Soueif explains how she came to write her first novel:
In the Eye of the Sun really started out as the story of Asya al-‘Ulama and then the story of the family and friends surrounding her. It was not possible to do that without the history and politics, but the impulse that generated the novel was interest in this character and in her immediate circle. […] History and politics come into it only insofar as they affect our protagonist and those around her: Chrissie’s fiancé lost in the Sinai in 1967 or Bassam being thrown out of Egypt at the time of Camp David. (Soueif 1999: 83)
I disagree with Ahdaf Soueif’s claim in which she states that political events and history only appear in the novel when it is significant and necessary for the plot. I prefer to argue that many detailed accounts on political events which are integrated in the narrative of In the Eye of the Sun are non-compulsory and only interrupt the narrative because of their externality. They do not blend on the level of narrative structure (cf. A Hybrid Narrative Structure) nor do they merge on content level.
Joseph Massad has compared Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at blending fiction and history in both novels and claims that politics and history are “hors de texte” in In the Eye of the Sun, while they are “au fond du texte” in The Map of Love (Massad 1999: 81). In an interview with Ahdaf Soueif, Joseph Massad asked her why her writing has “a strong political inflection that varies in style” and why “macropolitics play very important yet different roles” in both novels (Massad 1999: 83). Soueif admitted that a difference in the way historical events are intermingled with fictional ones is noticeable between her two books. She explains that
[t]he impulse behind The Map of Love was different [than with In the Eye of the Sun]. It was more overtly historical and political, to do with cross-cultural relationships, with history, with the relationship of the Western world to Egypt and to our area. So, there, the history and the politics are much more in the forefront, much more central to the novel and the plot. Part of what The Map of Love is about is how much room personal relationships have in a context of politics and history. And so history and politics are as much players as the characters- maybe even more so. (Soueif 1999: 83)
Part of the success of The Map of Love is explained by Soueif’s achievement of integrating historical events within the level of fiction by making these historical occurrences significant factors in the lives of the characters. In Anna and Sharif’s story, which begins at the end of the 19th century, the political situation in Egypt focuses on Britain’s occupation and how its culture affected the Egyptian way of living and communicating. Anna directly experiences the tension underlying Egypt’s struggle with British occupation and the colonizer’s intervention in their cultural and political spheres, as illustrated by her abduction by Egyptian nationalists, her marriage to an esteemed figure in Egyptian politics, and her commitment to the act of translating important documents. Anna’s part of the novel tells the story of the British realm when it was still an empire and its political affairs affected many parts of the world, while the contemporary story of The Map of Love focuses on Amal’s life at the end of the twentieth century, where the focus has shifted from Britain to America and its current globalization. Massad describes in his article how the “old colonial order when the British roamed the country freely, is compared with the present neocolonial globalized one” (Massad 1999: 80). Ahdaf Soueif successfully blends history with fiction, and in doing so, she even attempts at bridging political powers at the end of the Victorian age with those of the contemporary era. Making the political affairs in Egypt significant and determining factors in the lives of a story’s main characters has proven to be a productive blend of fiction and history, while it is simultaneously a more enjoyable and easier read. By successfully combining these levels in The Map of Love, the reader is more encouraged to acknowledge and understand the political events which are reported in the novel, rather than skipping five or more pages at once because the historical accounts do not administer great significance to the plot, as is the case with In the Eye of the Sun.
The research which Ahdaf Soueif conducted in order to write a novel focusing on a particular time in the history of Egypt began with carefully analyzing that period. Afterwards, the fictional story was integrated within the historical level and the characters and plot were constructed (Soueif 1999: 87). Both In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love illustrate how Ahdaf Soueif is interested in the issue of hybridity by her attempt to accomplish a strong blend in which history and fiction are mutually significant. Critics have admired the research she must have undertaken in order to deliver a fictional work which stays true to important events in Egyptian history. Massad (1999) praises her work, shown in the following extract which focuses on Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love. He claims that
[Ahdaf Soueif] has familiarized herself with minute details about a period of Egyptian history (Autumn 1897-December 1913) that is not particularly well studied (except for the infamous shootings at Denshwai), as it is bracketed between two revolutions-the 'Urabi revolt of 1882 and the 1919 revolution-to which it is subordinated. The Mashriqi and Palestinian histories of the period are also meticulously revisited. From the beginning of the Zionist colonial project to the apex of Arab anti-Ottomanism, Soueif transforms history into a guide to the present. (Massad 1999: 82)
The strongest blend of fiction and history in The Map of Love is constructed by the introduction of historical people within the story. Figuring them as characters in the story has labeled Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love as "a tour de force of revisionist metahistory of Egypt in the twentieth century" (Davis 2007: 9). Historical figures are given a second life and voice in Ahdaf Soueif’s novel, which allows them to express their beliefs. An example of such a figure who is introduced in the novel as a character is Mohammad Abdou, who is introduced as Sharif’s best friend and who was a pioneer in the intellectual revival movement in his home-country, who believed in openness to other cultures and reformation (Davis 2007:29). A second example of a historical figure who is introduced in Ahdaf Soueif’s second novel is Qasim Amin, author of controversial books and who delivers a feminist touch to Ahdaf Soueif’s story by focusing on the rights of women (Darraj 2002: 103). Both Layla and Anna write in their journals about meeting this Arab feminist at the beginning of the twentieth century. By letting Qasim Amin communicate with her fictional characters and by literally allowing him to voice his thoughts, Ahdaf Soueif displays her admiration for this historical figure and his thoughts on the rights of Arab women, as illustrated by the following quote, uttered by Qasim Amin: “‘We cannot claim to desire a Renaissance for Egypt, while half her population live in the Middle Ages. To take the simplest matters, how can children be brought up with the right outlook by ignorant mothers? How can a man find support and companionship with an ignorant wife?’” (ML 380-81). Soueif’s fictional actors are inspired by the words and thoughts of real, historical characters and by giving them a second life and allowing them to speak their minds, she succeeds in constructing a bridge between significant matters regarding the Arab people over a century ago and those living in the contemporary world.
Ahdaf Soueif does not only introduce historical characters who are passionate about the Egyptian nationalist cause to render her story more real, she also gives the opposite side a voice by bringing Britain’s consul general in Egypt Lord Cromer in the picture. To insert this matter of Egyptian-British dual opposition which dominated political affairs at the end of the nineteenth century, but more so to contrast Qasim Amin’s feminist belief in women rights with Cromer’s, Soueif illustrates how Western people interfered in Eastern affairs, not always with a progressive agenda. As opposed to Qasim Amin, Lord Cromer was an opponent of the feminist movement who “cut funding to already existing girls' schools in Egypt and [who] was a member of the vehemently antifeminist Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage back home” (Ahmed qtd. in Davis 2007: 11).
As discussed earlier, Soueif does not only succeed in merging historical characters and events with fictional ones, she also uses them as models for her characters. In The Map of Love’s contemporary story, which focuses on Amal and Isabel’s efforts in telling their ancestor’s story, Amal’s brother Omar bears a striking resemblance to Edward Said. As argued before, Edward Said was interested in the discourse on the Orient and “shifted the study of colonialism among cultural critics towards its discursive operations” (Young 2007: 1). Not only did he make many significant attributions and discoveries on the field of colonial theory and literature, he was also passionate about contemporary worldly affairs and politics and a close friend of Ahdaf Soueif. In September 2003, one day after his death, Soueif published an article in which she celebrated his accomplishments and expressed her admiration for her friend by calling him “not just a formidable thinker and writer” but also “a loyal and thoughtful friend” (Soueif 2003). Ahdaf Soueif did not hesitate to show her admiration for her friend prior to the publication of that article, since she had used Said as a model for one of the most important male characters of The Map of Love, which was published four years before Said’s death. Both Said and Omar are inspired by the Palestinian situation and resign from the Palestine National Council to react against the Oslo Accords. Both are writers, and according to Malak, the titles of Omar’s books, "The Politics of Culture 1992, A State of Terror 1994, Borders and Refuge 1996" (ML 21), pay tribute to Said’s political and scholarly concerns (Malak 2003: 155). While in real-life Said was often referred to as the “Professor of Terror”, referring to his hypothetical double career as a literary scholar and the supporter of terrorism, Omar has to undergo the labeling of a similar degrading emblem, since he is called "Kalashnikov Conductor" and the "Molotov Maestro" (ML 17). Edward Said was an acclaimed pianist and together with his friend Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli conductor, he organized a series of concerts for the collaborative cause, which involved Palestinian and Israeli musicians (Davis 2007: 9), an event which resembles Omar’s concert in the West Bank in The Map of Love. By mode
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