“[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 modeling Omar, a fictional character, after a historical character and close friend of herself, Ahdaf Soueif does not only illustrate her interest in hybridity by blending history with fiction, she also succeeds in introducing a part of her personal life into the novel. She illustrates her private admiration by taking her friend as a model for one of her male characters.
3.2.2 Introducing Female Travel Writers in The Map of Love (1999)
While Ahdaf Soueif displays her admiration for some significant figures of Arabic feminism and Egyptian affairs such as Qasim Amin and Edward Said, she also expresses her esteem for Victorian female travelers who explored the Orient and sought to give a truthful account on how they experienced its culture. Numerous references are made not only to historical figures in Egyptian-British politics, but also to real female travelers, such as Lady Lucy Duff Gordon and Emily Blunt, many of whom wrote down their observations in travel books which were later published on British soil. By delivering descriptions of life in African Egypt, these accounts on the harem and other Oriental ways of living were expressed from a Western and female viewpoint. This, however, did not give the Egyptian, subaltern woman the ability to tell her story, but it did defy traditional colonial reports on the Orient, which were traditionally very gendered and written by male colonialists. Lady Lucy Duff Gordon travelled to Egypt in 1982, leaving behind in her native country England a husband and three children. She communicated with Egyptian natives frequently as she “pursued an itinerant lifestyle in search of dry weather and elusive health” (Wynne 2006: 58). In order to finance her stay she published Letters from Egypt in 1865, a book which displayed an “attitude hardly met with before in the English abroad: first of all she avoided the supposed comforts and security of Cape Town and took herself up-country to Caledon; secondly she chose the company of non-Europeans, preferring best to be with the poor Malay immigrants” (Robinson qtd. in Luo 2003: 86). In The Map of Love, Anna reads Lady Lucy Duff Gordon’s Letters and finds herself so intrigued by Gordon’s representation of the country that she starts projecting Gordon’s life upon her own. This projection is picked up by Amal, who explores the historical incident of the relationship between Gordon’s maid and her favorite Egyptian servant and wonders whether Emily’s detestation of the country and her longing for England was also determined by an unwanted pregnancy. Amal wonders: “Would she do what Lucy Duff Gordon’s Sally did and melt into the back streets of Alexandria, pregnant with the child of her mistress’ favorite servant, Omar al-Halawini?” (ML 68).
In addition to Anna reading Lady Lucy Duff Gordon’s book on Egypt and Amal’s comparison of her great aunt’s maid with Gordon’s, another historical woman traveler is mentioned in the novel. According to Luo (2003: 85), Lady Anne Blunt was inspired by her husband Sir Wilfrid Blunt, an explorer, Orientalist scholar and defender of the Arab Nationalist cause, to emerge herself in Egyptian life. While Anna is on the bridge of stepping in her footsteps, she contemplates on doing the same: “Though I did not fancy running barefoot in the streets of Cairo, dressing as a man to go on an expedition did not seem so outlandish it is said that Lady Anne Blunt does it and other ladies besides” (ML 107). Anna’s unwillingness to travel with a tour group, accompanied by fellow-Europeans, since “[then] I would have seen things through my companions’ eyes” (ML 212), is in addition to the influence of accounts written by female traveler predecessors, also inspired by her admiration for John Frederick Lewis’ paintings. Lewis defied traditional Orientalist stereotypes by depicting the Orient in its authentic shape, refusing to please his Western audience by painting an exotic and erotic world. Wynne claims that Lewis is another figure who can be seen as someone who was “occupying a Soueifian mezzaterra”, since he spent eleven years in the East and who surrendered himself to Oriental life (Wynne 2006: 62).
By inserting references to these people who sought to depict the Orient in its authenticity and by introducing historical characters passionate about Arabic feminism and national politics, Ahdaf Soueif displays her personal admiration for these figures. Reciting their words and actions gives the reader an idea of which people, according to Ahdaf Soueif, strove to find hybridity between cultures and therefore occupied the “Mezzaterra”.
3.3 English and Arabic cultural references
As argued in the introduction to this thesis, Ahdaf Soueif experiences a high level of hybridity in her personal life, which is constituted by a merger of Arabic and English cultural elements. In In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love Ahdaf Soueif delves into the effects of her upbringing which was characterized by the hybrid blend of two different cultures. Born in Egypt and educated in England, she illustrates her exposure to Arabic and European literature and music in her youth by integrating many intertextual references to songs and books in her novels. This thesis explores the manner in which Ahdaf Soueif integrates her personal interest in hybridity and the “Mezzaterra” in her fictional writings and one of the most striking examples that displays her passion in combining different cultures is the blend of references to Arabic and English arts, which will be discussed in the following section.
3.3.1 Arabic Songs and Anglophone Literature in In the Eye of the Sun (1992)
The title of Ahdaf Soueif’s first fictional novel is probably one of the most straightforward examples that illustrates Soueif blend of Arabic and English cultural references. In the Eye of the Sun refers to a line in the poem “Song of the Wise Children”, written by Anglophone author Rudyard Kipling in 1902 and published in The Five Nations. Part of this poem functions as the epigraph to the epilogue of Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (ES 737). According to the analysis made by Mary Hamer (2008), Kipling revisited in his poem the first years of his life which were spent Mumbai, then still known as Bombay. In his poetic construct, he pines over the delight and freedom that he experienced as a child in India, as opposed to the misery and cold climate he found in England. On the one hand, the reader can interpret this intertextual reference to the poem as a bridge between Kipling’s feelings of desolation and Asya’s unhappiness in In the Eye of the Sun, both relating to England, on the other hand, “the Arab reader of [Ahdaf Soueif’s] novel cannot miss its resonance with the famous 1960s song of Egyptian singer Shadia: ‘Tell the eye of the sun not to get too hot, for my heart’s beloved sets out in the morning’” (Massad 1999: 75). Shadia was an Egyptian singer and actress who appeared in more than a hundred feature films, before “donning the veil” in 1987 and leaving show business for religious reasons (Shafik 2002: 716). Despite the fact that Ahdaf Soueif cites many Arabic songs in her first novel, she does not refer to that particular song by Shadia, therefore “letting it linger in the cultural preconscious of its Arab reader” (Massad 1999: 75). The title illustrates Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at blending two different cultures which have played significant parts in her life marked by hybridity. The task is left with the reader to decide whether or not she intended the title to be a cultural reference to Egypt, Britain or a hybrid blend of both.
In addition to the dual interpretation of the title, In the Eye of the Sun also contains straightforward intertextual references to novels by nineteenth-century authors such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoj and Gustave Flaubert, as illustrated by the following extract in which Asya contemplates her adulterous affair:
You’ve committed adultery, you’ve done it, you’ve joined Anna and Emma and parted company forever with Dorothea and Maggie—although Dorothea would have understood—would she? Yes, she would; she would not have approved, she would have urged her to renounce, to stop, to send him away—but she would have understood; she had a great capacity for understanding. (ES 541)
According to Davis, the decision to cite heroines such as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke and thus expressing the influence of Western literature on her own writing, has placed Ahdaf Soueif “in a difficult, but not uncommon position for diasporic writers” (Davis 2007: 8). Rohan Maitzen even goes so far as in suggesting that In the Eye of the Sun can be called “the Egyptian Middlemarch”, because of its numerous intertextual references to George Elliot’s novel (Maitzen 2009). The most obvious references to Middlemarch are the epigraphs that open some chapters of In the Eye of the Sun:
… and do we not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. (Eliot, qtd. in ES)
There are many literal references to the nineteenth century novel present in the story itself, such as: “[Asya’s mother] ‘George Eliot? … But why were they arguing about George Eliot?’ [Chrissie] ‘I think Asya was saying she was a great writer and [Saif] was saying she wasn’t’” (ES 298). Maitzen claims that the two novels occupy, despite their different cultural backgrounds, a “literary mezzaterra or common ground” (Maitzen 2009).
As a child that was born in the East but grew up and received an education in the West, Ahdaf Soueif’s exposure to Arabic literature was more limited in comparison with the Anglophone novels she had at her disposure. Soueif admits that, during her youth, she read more literature in English, since it was the first language that she learned to read in (Soueif 1999: 88). Currently, Ahdaf Soueif is living in England, which makes it even more difficult to stay in contact with the Arabic literary scene, however, she does not neglect the influence of Arabic literary writings which have left their marks on her writing process as well. She explains: “I still remember the air of excitement in the house when al-Liss wa al-Kilab came out, as my mother was one of the main critics who wrote about Naguib Mahfuz. […] I read al-Tayyib Salih, I read Naguib Mahfuz, I read Yusif Idriss and Fathi Ghanim, a lot of current poetry, but in the end I read more English” (Soueif 1999: 88).
3.3.2 Eastern and Western Epigraphs and Hybrid Metaphors in The Map of Love(1999)
Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at incorporating hybridity by inserting intertextual references to Eastern and Western literature into her novels is also present, though less transparent, in The Map of Love. Soueif’s second novel shares its title with a collection of poems by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, which was published in 1939 (Diab 2008), however, it remains unclear whether the title also refers to Arabic literature or music. More importantly, each chapter in The Map of Love opens with an epigraph which refers to either a Western or Eastern text. Ahdaf Soueif inserts these references in an alternating pattern so that the Anglophone voices of Coleridge and Yeats are heard, as well as those of Arabic figures such as Arwa Salih and Ama Ata Aidoo. Soueif explains her decision to insert these intertextual references in her novels by linking them with her own private admiration for these stories, since these were the books that she read when she was growing up. She admits that those novels recited the stories “ [I] go back to again and again-the books that do for me what I want a novel to do, which is to open up a new world and seduce me into it, to make me feel that I am living there and getting to know these people” (Soueif 1999: 88). During her youth, Ahdaf Soueif came across ‘great romances’ which are considered ‘classics’ by contemporary readers and are still read in great numbers today. She admits to being absorbed by novels such as Jane Eyre(1847), Wuthering Heights(1847), Middlemarch (1871) and many others. However, as an adult, Ahdaf Soueif came to rethink the portrayal of the male heroes in Western literature, realizing that, on the one hand, these men oftentimes bore strong resemblances to Eastern men, while on the other hand, many Western books which did write about the East never really captured the notion of a true Egyptian man. This observation made by Ahdaf Soueif can be linked with Edward Said’s theory on Orientalism in which he claims that Western literature did not depict the East in its authenticity, rather it focused on the exotic elements, as illustrated by the success of Arabian Nights. Therefore, Ahdaf Soueif wanted to merge these opposite depictions of classic European and Eastern heroes in one character. She explains:
I became interested in 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 qtd. in Davis 2007: 5)
By characterizing the Egyptian Sharif, who is strongly passionate about the Nationalist cause of his mother country, after classic and romantic heroes as described in English novels is another significant example that illustrates Soueif’s interest in merging Egyptian and English cultural elements in her novels. She reacts to false portrayals of Eastern men in Western literature by creating an Egyptian hero who shares characteristics with classic, European, literary figures.
Ahdaf Soueif cleverly explores her belief in the “Mezzaterra” through the insertion of hybrid metaphors in The Map of Love. In the novel, Anna Winterbourne tries to express her hybrid identity characterized by English and Arabic elements, by combining different cultures in one, hybrid tapestry. As an English widowed lady, who has traveled to Egypt and has married a Muslim man committed to the political situation of his country, she finds a way to fuse the different cultures in one singe element. During her last months in Egypt, she makes a tapestry which displays images of Egyptian pharaohs, but it also contains the inscription of an Islamic verse. More importantly, the images depict the Goddess Isis with the God Osiris and between them the Infant Horus (ML 403), which illustrates “Anna’s transculturation in the Egyptian world, her way of rewriting the classical myth with her own love story” (Luo 2003: 93). This flag displays the Crescent and the Cross, illustrating the union of Egyptian Muslims and Christians in their struggle with British occupation. Other hybrid metaphors are “the mosque nestling inside a monastery; and the three calendars followed simultaneously in Egypt: Gregorian, Islamic and Coptic” (Malak 2000: 157).
Anna’s attempt at conveying her new, hybrid identity by making a tapestry is dispersed at the end of The Map of Love, because her work of embroidery is divided into three parts and distributed to different parts of the world, only to be restored in its entirety a century later. It remains unclear what Ahdaf Soueif wanted to express by breaking up this tapestry only to have it recombined a hundred years later. A possible interpretation is that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the conditions necessary for a hybrid identity to survive were not yet established, since the political situation in Egypt was still too determined by British colonization. The tapestry is restored at the end of the century, which could mean that through the new hybrid family constituted by Amal, Isabel and her baby Sharif, the hybridity which Anna tried to achieve is only realizable in a contemporary context.
Ahdaf Soueif’s attempt at blending different cultures illustrates her belief that, in some ways, cultures have always been and will always be connected, since “The Map of Love delves into history to find connections that have always bound all cultures, no matter how different, and suggests that a more intricate phenomenon is in fact taking place, as in those border zones where a complex syncretic cultural system comes to replace two or more cultures” (Luo 2003: 80). To decide whether Luo’s claim, which echoes Homi K. Bhabha’s theory on the “Third Space”, is correct, is a task set up for the reader. This section of the thesis has striven to expose Ahdaf Soueif’s belief in hybridity by analyzing the manner in which she blends Eastern and Western cultural references in her fictional writings. Not only does she introduce intertextual references to music and literature from England and Egypt, she also incorporates hybrid metaphors that respect cultural blends.
3.4 Women Confronting Gender Issues and the Politics of Desire
In her fictional writings, Ahdaf Soueif narrates the lives of young women from an Egyptian or English descent, who are exposed to the influential, cultural powers of East and West and who are constantly attempting to escape patriarchal conventions. As a female author whose personal life has been characterized by a high level of hybridity, Ahdaf Soueif allows her female characters to voice their own thoughts and feelings on the struggle that they encounter when trying to merge different cultures. Empowering these women to express their own voices provides them with the opportunity to disentangle themselves from earlier literature written during the colonial era, which focused on the image of the subservient and silent Arab wife. Ahdaf Soueif has chosen to attack these traditional views in her fictional novels and describes the lives of strong, female women who seek to take control of their own lives and discover their personal desires. As mentioned before, Ahdaf Soueif is, in addition to being a writer of fiction, also an essayist of nonfictional articles, who has explored the conditions for and consequences of the construction of a hybrid space where different cultures can co-exist and people from a different gender and race are considered equal. Part of this common ground is designated to the liberation of women from patriarchal visions which will eventually allow them to express their own desires.
Despite the fact that the following words are expressed by a male character, Sharif’s wish in The Map of Love seems to constitute in words what all of Ahdaf Soueif’s female characters try to achieve in deeds, “Our only hope now lies in a unity or conscience between the people of the world” (ML 484). This quote echoes Darraj’s claim, in which she claims that the female characters in Ahdaf Soueif’s fictional writings “are pulled between the polar forces of East and West, but only achieve balance when they carve out a place for themselves in the midst of that cultural intersection” (Darraj 2003: 93). Ahdaf Soueif fictionally explores the “Mezzaterra” in her novels by focusing on women in hybrid families, who try to create a place for themselves, real or imagined, within a world of Orientalist stereotypes, historical tensions and patriarchal concepts, in an imperial and postcolonial context, whilst never losing sight of their personal desires. In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love tell the stories of these women who have to undertake an emotional and liberating journey in order to achieve balance and a self-fulfilling, hybrid identity.
The central locus which connects the various themes of gender issues, postcolonial politics and East-West clichés together in Ahdaf Soueif’s stories is the focus on young women who struggle with their desire to express control and take repossession of their own lives, free from any form of patriarchal or colonial oppression. Before analyzing how these female characters voice their own desires, a discussion of the traditional images of Muslim women is needed. Shanaz Khan (2002) has explored the fixed and predetermined notions of Arab women that circulate the contemporary world, and argues that these women are often “forced to enter specific social and political spaces”, because their “minority identities” are predetermined, therefore they are faced with the impossibility to create a self-fulfilling identity. Arab women are predestined to be excluded from an imaginative space where equal rights are applauded, because the prejudices that depict them as weak and subservient creatures are rooted in society. Khan, influenced by the literature on Homi K. Bhabha’s “Third Space” (1984), suggests a departure from the fixed notions of Muslim women that have constantly denied them the opportunity to create a hybrid identity. The primary focus of this search for hybridity is the encounter of “East and West, of Arabic and English, and of men and women in an intercultural context” (Massad 1999: 75). Soueif explores desire not from either a Western or Eastern angle, but from a female viewpoint which condones gender oppression and applauds the women who take control of their own life and sexual desires whilst creating a hybrid identity that tries to combine elements from different cultures. This expression of desires has resulted in the depiction of Ahdaf Soueif as a “Middle-eastern women writer who breaks taboo terrain” on gender issues (Darraj 2003: 148), because the female characters in Soueif’s fiction often discuss complex sexual matters among themselves. Soueif’s female characters undertake a similar emotional journey to achieve equal rights, a process which faces them with many sensitive issues such as desire, love and sexuality. As a result, Ahdaf Soueif’s fiction seems to confront the literary landscape with some questions which have remained unanswered throughout history, such as whether or not (Arab) women have the right to liberate themselves from patriarchal conventions. It appears as if Ahdaf Soueif tries to answer this and similar confronting questions by allowing her female characters to explore and voice their desires whilst constantly moving between the cultures of East and West.
3.4.1 Attacking Patriarchal Stereotypes and Gender Conventions in In the Eye of the Sun (1992)
The recurring theme of women who are trying to explore and express their personal desires is explored in Ahdaf Soueif’s fictional writings in diverse ways. In the Eye of the Sun narrates the story of a young Egyptian woman who tries to liberate herself from patriarchal images that portray and thrust her into the role of submissive human being. Darraj (2003: 98) describes Asya’s private rebellion as her struggle between being the subject of her story “narrated by someone else, primarily the patriarchal forces”, embodied by Saif, “and the equally powerful Western forces in the novel”, characterized by Gerald, “and telling her story herself”. In doing so, she will become the narrator and sole determiner of her own life, an act which “requires a triumph over the stereotype of the sexual, but silenced Arab woman” (Darraj 2003: 98). In the novel, Asya is confronted with several male characters that represent patriarchal beliefs and Orientalist stereotypes, embodied respectively by Saif and Gerald, each of them guilty of trying to manipulate and possess her. Asya’s ongoing battle with these different forms of gender oppression starts when she marries Saif and she becomes the subject of his imagination and desires. She struggles with finding her way in the neatly-composed life and narrative that her husband implements. Dreaming of fleeing this overpowering patriarchal oppression, Asya’s first attempt at finding refuge is escaping into the lives of Western, female, literary characters told in novels such as Anna Karenina (1877) by Lev Tolstoj, and Madame Bovary(1856) by Gustave Flaubert. These female characters are European women who liberate themselves from unhappy marriages by initiating affairs. However, Asya is confronted with reality by her mother who warns her: “This is not a novel: this is your life” (ES 568), making it hard to achieve that particular moment where she can fully reclaim her own life from Saif.
The politics of Asya’s personal pursuit of combining love and sexual desire is entangled with concepts of patriarchal conventions. Desire in In the Eye of the Sun can be seen as “the broad range of experiences of wanting, erotic and non-erotic” (Shihada 2010: 158), since it narrates the story of Asya who is continually preoccupied with the fulfillment of all her desires, both sexual as intellectual. However, Asya only liberates herself from these rooted conventions at the end of the novel, because she obliges to her husband’s humiliating wishes in the first years of their marriage. She is even compelled to neglect her own sexual desires because of Saif’s inability to consummate their marriage. This surrendering devotion which Asya subjects to can be linked with the patriarchal organization of a culture where the “privileging of the assertions of desire by men [is] accompanied by a sense of responsibility by women to assimilate and act upon these assertions of desire by males superiors” (Shihada 2010: 158). This means that women are obliged to put the fulfillment of their husband’s desires before anything else, including their own, private wishes. Asya’s struggle to liberate herself from male occupation is made difficult by an ongoing belief in patriarchal conventions, because these are rooted in her culture. Asya claims that she and Saif get along well “as long as she behaves the way he wants her to behave” (ES 299). Saif embodies the male, patriarchal society in Egypt which denies its women to speak up for themselves and live their own lives. Malak argues that in doing this, Ahdaf Soueif’s fictional writings echoes the works of almost all contemporary Arab and Muslim women who write in English, by claiming that these “reveal an unequivocal sense of affiliation with their Islamic culture, while at the same time condemning and combating the abusive excesses of patriarchy when it appropriates and exploits the religious argument to preserve its own spiritual and material hegemony” (Malak 2000: 144). These female, Arab writers do not disdain their culture as a whole, but they condemn the patriarchal aspect, which denies women and men equal rights, of it. Despite these patriarchal stereotypes and the fact that she used to love her husband, Asya begins the process of reclaiming her life and exploring her own desires by literally abandoning her surrendering devotion to her spouse and the patriarchal life which she unwillingly subscribed to. She even leaves Egypt and starts anew in England, which means that, at that point, Asya has started to seize full control of her life, although she still has to endure many obstacles before she can finally express her hybrid identity that acknowledges her personal desires. Although she manages to break away from her life with Saif in Egypt by pursuing her academic possibilities in England, their marriage is still declared valid and she is still bound to his will. At one point in the story, Asya seems to express her private sexual desires and liberate herself from Saif’s patriarchal conventions by initiating the affair with Gerald Stone, however, she soon finds herself trapped once more in the fantasy of a controlling, male character. Gerald Stone embodies the Western, male imperialist, extremely passionate about the Orient, who wants to add Asya to his collection of ‘exotic creatures’. By tearing herself away from Gerald and allowing herself to express her true feelings, she reacts to everything what this “sexual imperialist” (ES 723) represents: the Arab woman as an exotic, eastern princess who has to be captured and held captive. By rejecting this Orientalist fantasy and Saif’s patriarchal notion of a silent, dutiful wife, Asya creates a new identity which describes herself as an independent, strong woman, capable of exploring and expressing her own desires. According to Darraj, this new identity is based upon Asya’s own strengths and abilities, “which grows out of the acceptance of her hybridity as an Arab and an Englishwoman” (Darraj 2003: 100).
The last obstacle Asya has to overcome in the struggle that will liberate her from male oppression is the confession of her marital betrayal to her husband Saif. By giving him the letters she wrote during and after her affair with Gerald, which contain her true feelings and thoughts on their troublesome marriage that eventually led to her adulterous behavior, Asya finds herself on the bridge of finally becoming that independent person who liberates herself from gender oppression. Saif refuses to read them and throws the letters in the stove, hereby rejecting the image which Asya has been trying to achieve, since the letters allowed her to defy the patriarchal stereotype of the silent Arab wife. Despite Saif’s act, she refuses to become once more the object of his patriarchal fantasy. Darraj claims that Asya’s control of her narrative, and therefore her own life, signals “her ability to speak from the weaker position of the culturally, linguistically, and sexually colonized” (Darraj 2003: 101). She succeeds in accomplishing such an act because she is no longer trapped in the separated places of either East or West, symbolized by Saif and Gerald, but because she has found a space between Egypt and England, freed from gender occupation.
3.4.2 Addressing Gender Conventions in English and Egyptian Societies during Colonial Times in The Map of Love (1999)
The struggle for gender independence, which is undertaken by Ahdaf Soueif’s female characters in order to reach a common ground where man and woman are equal, is also present in The Map of Love, though less noticeable when compared to In the Eye of the Sun. While the latter focuses on a young Arab woman, trapped in an unhappy marriage with her Egyptian husband, the former centers around a Victorian English lady, Anna, widowed after the death of her spouse. At first sight, Anna does not appear to experience similar problems in comparison with Asya’s struggles for gender independence, however, she does experience some confrontational problems that have to do with man-woman oppositions. At the onset of the novel, Anna Winterbourne is living with her English, depressed husband in their London residence. Anna is left uninformed about the precise circumstances which led to Edward’s mental disposition, because she is a woman. The brutal war practices that he witnessed as a soldier in the Sudan war, have led him to behave strangely and emotionally depressed, however, Edward disregards his wife’s troublesome feelings by treating them as a “womanly folly” (ML 29). Excluded from knowing the truth and being unable to help, Anna believes that she is responsible for her husband’s emotional break-down, therefore she eventually takes the blame for his death. She reasons that “a happy man would not leave his home and go seeking death in the desert. A well-loved man would not die with horrors eating silently, secretly at his mind. If she had loved him better, perhaps he would not have needed to go to the Sudan. If she had understood him better, perhaps she could have nursed him back to health” (ML 41).
Ahdaf Soueif explores the conventionalized roles which were connected with women living during Victorian times, the rooted stereotypes that described them as subservient creatures and scapegoats who had to take blame for all the bad things that took place in their marriages. Gender issues play an important part in Soueif’s stories, as illustrated by Isabel’s quote in The Map of Love, after Amal has informed her about Anna’s feelings of guilt after her husband’s death: “ ‘We’re trained, conditioned to blame ourselves. This guy was inadequate, and somehow she, the woman, ends up taking responsibility…’ ” (ML 42). This excerpt clarifies Anna’s struggle with gender conventions, a battle which she even experiences after she has begun her life with her second husband in Egypt. Despite the fact that she conforms to the Arab way of living and respects the culture of the harem, she does experience some difficulty with gender customs in the Egyptian culture. After their marriage, Sharif is furious when he learns about Anna’s trip to the bank where she withdrew some money. In the Arab culture, when a woman goes to a bank to withdraw money from an account, she simultaneously sends out a message that accuses her husband of “negligence” (ML 351). This second fragment proves that Anna is not always aware of the politics of gender conventions and how sensible the topic is in both the Western and Eastern culture.
Anna’s ongoing battle with gender conventions is accompanied by her desire to experience life of an Egyptian woman in the Arab world, a desire which eventually takes her to Egypt. While it was Asya who, in In the Eye of the Sun, wanted to flee gender oppression illustrated by the patriarchal visions and Orientalist fantasies of Saif and Gerald, it is Anna who in The Map of Love desires to see the inside of a harem, a wish which, according to Wynne, was “not uncommon for the nineteenth century traveler of her class” (Wynne 2006: 57). Anna’s desire to see the inside of the harem originates from her fascination with John Frederick Lewis’ paintings which she saw on her daily strolls to London’s South Kensington Museum during her husband’s illness. After her husband’s death, she travels to Egypt to discover whether Lewis’ rendering of the harem is “a world which truly exists” (ML 46). In a recent article in which Ahdaf Soueif discusses Orientalist paintings, the author admits to finding Lewis’ work so attractive that it became a source of sustenance for the heroine of her novel, The Map of Love(Soueif 2008).Anna’s desire to explore the harem resulted primarily out of a Western, stereotyped wish to see for herself what this ‘exotic’ place looks like. However, Anna liberates herself from this traditional traveler-pattern and immerses herself in the Egyptian culture and, in doing so, gradually acquires understanding of the people, and, more specifically, the women surrounding her. When Anna puts on the veil to ensure an uncomplicated journey to the Sinaï, she feels exhilarated by the freedom that this Eastern piece of clothing provides, as illustrated by the following quote, uttered by Anna: “It is a most liberating thing, this veil. While I was wearing it, I could look wherever I wanted and nobody could look back at me. Nobody could find out who I was. I was one of many black-clad harem in the station and on the train and could have traded places with several of them and no one been the wiser” (ML 195);
This excerpt from The Map of Love can be linked with Leila Ahmed’s claim (1982: 523) in which she suggests that, although the veil is conventionally perceived in the West as a gendered oppressive custom, it is not experienced as such by the women who wear it. It functions as a symbol of women being separated from men, which is traditionally seen in the West as an act of oppression. By allowing Anna the chance to explore the world of the harem and by letting her wear the veil, Ahdaf Soueif illustrates that some stereotypes, which are rooted in our Western way of thinking about the East and that link these Arab customs with gender oppression, are falsely constructed and do not depict the Orient in its authenticity. The fragment makes clear that Anna starts to identify with the native, for even when she encounters her former fellow-English travelers at the train station, she feels a kind of alienation. Ironically, what brings Anna to fully explore her desires and see the inside of the harem is not the traditional journey a Victorian traveler would undertake, it is because of her friendship with the native Egyptian woman Layla that she is able and allowed to visit the harem. Anna can now fully explore her desires which make her realize that the traditional representation of the harem is, despite traditional beliefs, anything but erotic and violent.
3.4.3 A Woman’s Desire for Transcultural Understanding
While the exploration of sexual desires is one of the primary focuses in In the Eye of the Sun, it is more subordinated in The Map of Love. When asked whether the role of desire plays an equally important in both novels, Ahdaf Soueif claims that despite the fact that the theme is not similarly transparent in both stories, it is still desire that brings all of her characters together (Soueif 1999: 84). Ahdaf Soueif admits that she has made desire itself no longer the subject under examination in The Map of Love, while it was certainly the case for In the Eye of the Sun. However transparent this theme of exploring one’s sexual and intellectual desires may or may not be, it is the desire for love that transcends cultural differences and which connects the female characters in both novels. Layla from The Map of Love, describes the bond between Anna and Sharif as a “love across countries and seas” (ML 351). Asya in In the Eye of the Sun as well as Amal, Anna and even Isabel in The Map of Love are preoccupied with creating a hybrid identity in which they can make a bridge between different cultures, whilst never neglecting their native roots. Their desire to make their relationships work, across cultural, geographical and political boundaries is the most central part of both novels. In her stories, Ahdaf Soueif suggests that for the modern Arab and Muslim woman, “the task is not to deny conflicts or paradoxes relating to different cultures and beliefs, but to accept, understand and when possible, blend them” (Malak 2000: 147). The love story of Anna and Sharif illustrates this fantasy vision of cultural exchange between two members of the Egyptian and English elite. After having experienced the life of a native, Anna ignores presupposed Western stereotypes and patriarchal images of Arabic people, a condition she had to fulfill before she could fully make the bridge between her own English culture and her new Egyptian life. Anna is willing to adapt to the life of the wife of an Egyptian Basha and agrees to accept a new way of living. She tries to create a hybrid identity where elements of both cultures are compatible and neither one is neglected.
Despite the attempts of Soueif and other contemporary, female, Arab writers to dismantle gender stereotypes, many people living in the West continue to believe in this misrepresentation of the Eastern world. Darraj (2002) describes this persisting stereotypical image as followed:
Many Americans continue to purchase wholesale the neatly packaged image of the veiled, meek Arab woman. This pitiful creature follows her husband like a dark shadow, is forced to remain silent and obey her husband at all times, is granted a body only to deliver more children, perhaps even in competition with her husband’s other wives. (Darraj 2002)
Darraj further attacks the “big sister” role which the West now takes upon herself, which wrongly convinces the West that Egypt and other parts of the Arab world need to be liberated from these patriarchal practices (Darraj 2002). According to her, the West is now so preoccupied with liberating these women from the conventionalized roles that the voices that really need to be heard, those of the subaltern women, are often excluded. However, Ahdaf Soueif and other Arab women have started a new movement in which the Arab woman does express herself by voicing her thoughts and feelings on matters dealing with stereotypical images and patriarchal positions. This way, Spivak’s belief in giving the subaltern woman a voice is enforced. In her novels, Ahdaf Soueif is able to destabilize Western, stereotypical ways of thinking about Egypt and its culture. As a female, Arab writer, she shows that it is time that the subaltern woman speaks up and she reinforces this pattern by letting her novels tell the stories of similar women trying to break away from patriarchal conventions and stereotypes. Ahdaf Soueif’s hybrid identity which merges English and Egyptian cultural elements, allows her to speak on behalf of other Arab women in a Western language. Her hybridity enables her to shed a different light on the lives of Egyptian women in a manner that is comprehensible for a Western audience. This way, Ahdaf Soueif gives the subaltern a voice and illustrates that long-time stereotypical images are no longer maintainable in our contemporary world.
3.5 Dismantling Orientalist Stereotypes
“I hope my fiction and my journalism goes against the stereotypes — but only because I’m interesting in writing the truth, not because I’m interested in writing against Western stereotypes.” (Soueif 2008)
Creating a hybrid identity involves the conception of a self-fulfilling state of being, characterized by a fusion of elements originating from different cultures. As mentioned in the introduction to this thesis, Ahdaf Soueif is influenced by the culture of her native country Egypt, while she simultaneously experiences cultural impacts from England, where she was educated and currently lives. So far, this thesis has investigated some aspects of Ahdaf Soueif’s novels which reveal how the author explores the “Mezzaterra” in her fictional writings. I have illustrated how Egyptian and English cultural influences are vital influencing factors in the construction of the content and formal structure of Ahdaf Soueif’s novels. As a person who travels back and forth between Africa and Europe, Ahdaf Soueif inhabits both East and West and is recurrently faced with stereotypes that wrongly characterize either culture. Her exploration of the topic of hybridity in her fiction and nonfiction allows her to have a clear idea on the stereotypical images that are circulating our contemporary world, therefore the following segment in this thesis will explore how Ahdaf Soueif dispenses these stereotypes in her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love.
3.5.1 Exoticization in Colonial Times
Vital contributions on the creation of Eastern stereotypes were made by Edward Said and his theory on Orientalism, in which he links the construction of the image of the sexually immoral Orient to the colonial era. During its colonial heydays, Victorian England displayed a great interest in the culture of the Orient and the ‘exotic’ creatures that inhabited the curious and unfamiliar place. The English were confronted with a world that differed so greatly from the one they knew and they soon began to depict the East as a place where sexual practices were no longer tabooed into silence and where notions such as polygamy and nudity were not exceptional. I have already analyzed how during the colonial era, the West was fascinated with the Eastern culture but simultaneously created images that did not depict the Arab world in its authenticity. Before I illustrate how Ahdaf Soueif attacks Orientalist stereotypes in her novels, a general overview on the implementation of these images and the manner in which they are perceived is needed. In purpose of this outline, I refer to Leila Ahmed, who states that for centuries, the Western world has been continually “falsifying” and “vilifying” the Muslim world (Ahmed 1982: 523). Ahmed claims that, during colonial times, the focus on the harem was accompanied with a mixture of fascination and loathing and resulted in the construction of stereotypes which wrongfully linked this Arab cultural element with notions such as polygamy, sexual exploitation and erotic escapades. However, a broader vision on the description of the harem has to be considered before analyzing the authenticity of such a claim.
Leila Ahmed defines the harem as:
[a] system that permits males sexual access to more than one female. It can also be defined, and with as much accuracy, as a system whereby the female relatives of a man – wives, sisters, mothers, aunts, daughters – share much of their time and their living space, and further, which enables women to have frequent and easy access to other women in their community, vertically, across class lines, as well as horizontally. (Ahmed 1982: 524)
Leila Ahmed further claims that early Western accounts of the harem were very gendered and focused on the first aspect of the definition, which permits a man to have sexual access to more than one woman, and resulted in the condemnation of the system for its incitement of sexual abundance and immorality. The second aspect gave rise to the fallacious creation of images and stereotypes about women’s sexual relations with each other within the harem (Ahmed 1982: 524). However convincing these statements might have sounded, Western men had no imaginable way of access to harems, therefore their descriptions of this Arab cultural element as an erotic or female place of shelter, are mainly projections of Western desire (Wynne 2006: 57). Many of these stereotypical images were brought to the West by Orientalist painters, who depicted the East as a place where sexual morality was disregarded. In addition to these Orientalist paintings, other stereotypes concerning the life in Egypt were brought to English readers as fictional writings, such as Arabian Nights, but also as non-fiction, such as travel literature and memoirs of colonizers, which were also believed to be less mediated by imagination. Many travel books circulated the Victorian literary landscape which also implemented the idea of the Eastern, male tyrant and his female, obedient slaves condemned to sexual practices. Homa Hoodfar (1993: 8), who writes about the implementation of Orientalist stereotypes in her non-fictional essays, claims that these stereotypes about Oriental life and about Muslim women were celebrated through numerous travel books which gained a great reading public in Victorian England. It has already been made clear that postcolonial theories and academics try to unravel these stereotypical images of the Orient which were brought to Europe under colonial influences and which applauded the idea of necessary civilization within the culture of the colonized. The popularity of such literature supported the colonial cause, since
[t]he primary mission of these writings was to depict the colonized Arabs/Muslims as inferior/backwards who were urgently in need for progress offered to them by the colonial superiors. It is in this political context that the veil, and the Muslim harem as the world of women, emerged as a source of fascination, fantasy, and frustration for Western writers. Harems were supposed to be places where Muslim men imprisoned their wives, who had nothing to do except to beautify themselves and cater to their husbands’ huge sexual appetites. […] Women are invariably depicted as prisoners, frequently half naked and unveiled and at times sitting at windows with bars, with little hope of ever being free. (Hoodfar 1993: 8)
These accounts of the harem and the Eastern women that belonged to it were brought to Europe by male colonizers, writers and painters, despite the fact that, as men they would never have had access to the closed quarters, or ‘prisons’, of Arab women. Their reports did not depict the reality of the harem and its inhabiting women.
3.5.2 Exoticization in Contemporary Times
In several interviews, Ahdaf Soueif makes clear that she is aware of the ongoing tendency in the West to think of the East in a stereotypical manner that links the place with sexual escapades and brutal tyrants, a process also referred to as exoticization (Soueif 1999: 86). Her awareness of this process only began long after she started to read and write fiction. Ahdaf Soueif learned to read during her stay in England, which means that the stories that were given to her as a child were Anglophone books. Some of these tales were about the Arabic world but originated from an English hand. Ahdaf Soueif admits that for a long time, even at the beginning of her writing career, she was not aware of the politics of reception and the exotic way in which the West imagined the East. She even admits that the first stories she ever wrote, The Wedding of Zeina and Her Man, which were later published in the collection of short stories Aisha (1983), were tales that “[presented] Egypt or the East in terms that perhaps the West is comfortable with: as a world that is very traditional, very close to magic, ritualistic, a little brutal, and very sensual – our world as perceived by aficionados of the Arabian Nights” (Soueif 1999: 86). She links the immediate success of these stories, in which the reader is confronted with the gruesome rape of an Egyptian newlywed on her wedding night and the jealousy of an Egyptian wife who tricks her husband’s second wife into her own bed, to the desires of the West. Ahdaf Soueif claims that these early stories affirmed the stereotypical images of immoral sexual behavior and barbarous practices in Egypt, because “that was the Eastern world that the West was comfortable with and wanted to read about” (Soueif 1999: 86). Ahdaf Soueif’s awareness of the politics of reception and the process of stereotyping in the West, which traditionally link the East with immorality and exoticism, relates to the importance she attributes to the topic in her fictional novels. The following section of this thesis will illustrate how Ahdaf Soueif has grown from an author relatively unaware of Western exoticization of the Orient, to a writer who carefully explores the theme of stereotyping in her first novel, and more emphatically in her second book.
Both Joseph Massad (1999) and Shao-Pin Luo (2003) claim that Ahdaf Soueif is apprehensive of the journalistic interest that the West displays in the Arab world, but which does not aspire to enhance a “cultural dialogue”, rather it focuses on “exoticizing the Arab and Muslim Other” (Massad 1999: 79; Luo 2003: 100). This ongoing battle with exoticizing stereotypes is illustrated in In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love through recurring topics which display Soueif’s interest in dismantling these exotic images. In The Map of Love, when Amal is firstly contacted by Isabel, an American journalist, she is cautious of what the topic of the conversation will be: “the fundamentalists, the veil, the cold peace, polygamy, women’s status in Islam, female genital mutilation” (ML 6). The West can only think of the East in notions that link the place with political danger and gender oppression. Massad (1999) further claims that it is in fact Ahdaf Soueif’s aim to destroy the stereotypes which the West has over the East, however, Soueif admits that she herself struggles with this labeling. In an interview with Carr, she explains how she is confronted with the ongoing process of stereotyping: “A couple of weeks ago somebody said to me that something I had done goes against a stereotype and I said to her, ‘how long is this going to carry on being a stereotype?’ There are so many people working now … so much evidence that stereotypes of Arabs, and in particular Muslim women, are false” (Soueif 2008).
3.5.3 Orientalist Stereotyping in In the Eye of the Sun(1992)and The Map of Love (1999)
Ahdaf Soueif utilizes her novels to illustrate that many stereotypes Western people hold over the East are falsely constructed and do not display the contemporary Arab woman in a truthful light. The first novel that Ahdaf Soueif has written tells the story of a young Egyptian girl who finds herself trapped between different stereotypes, expressed by the men she meets. In addition to the implementation of patriarchal images which she has to endure, Asya also struggles with the exoticization of the Eastern culture, an act effectuated by Gerald, whose wishes and exclamations implement the very exotic stereotypes and fantasies which were brought to the West during colonial times. Despite the fact that Asya initiates the affair with Gerald, Ahdaf Soueif makes it clear it is in fact him who is the “sexual imperialist” (ES 723) and who desperately holds on to Orientalist stereotypes which depict Asya as an exotic creature. Asya starts to recognize his behavior when he wants her to unclothe, let down her hair and wear nothing but jewelry. On occasion, she even confronts him with his Orientalist fantasies by asking if he wants her to be his “odalisque” or his “concubine, a female slave” (ES 563). At the end of the novel, she is fully aware of Gerald’s ongoing quest for control over her and other ‘exotic’ women and confronts him with his acts:
‘Why have all your girl-friends been from “developing” countries?’ […] ‘You’ve never had a white girl-friend.’ […] ‘The reason you’ve gone for Trinidad – Vietnam – Egypt – is so you can feel superior. You can be the big, white boss – you are a sexual imperialist.’ […] ‘You pretend – to yourself as well – that it’s because you don’t notice race – or it’s because these cultures retain some spiritual quality lost to the West – you pride yourself that you dance ‘like a black man’ – but that’s just phoney.’ (ES 723)
At this point in the novel, Asya is ready to take control of her own life and disregard the images that the men in her life want her to be, namely the good, silent Arab wife and the exotic, sexual slave. She refuses to be stuck in the fantasy of a man and play the stereotypical role he wants her to portray.
In addition to the patriarchal images that Saif reinforces in his marriage to Asya, his behavior illustrates that he is also fully aware of the ongoing exoticization of the Orient by the West, an awareness which leads him to falsely reaffirming these stereotypes. According to Darraj, Saif “succumbs to orientalist embellishments to please his Western associates” (Darraj 2003: 98). When English friends ask Asya and Saif how they met, he neglects to tell the true story of their meeting on the steps of a college library in Egypt and instead claims that they met during a political demonstration, therefore pleasing his Western audience by exoticizing the story. This example illustrates Saif’s awareness of the exotic stereotypes in which the West imagines the East, but he does not try to demolish them, rather he chooses to ‘confirm’ them, which means he has to lie about reality so that the truth is disregarded and stereotypes are repeated. Saif is the Egyptian man who is aware of the exotic way in which the Arabic world is imagined, but who neglects to dismantle these false representations, Gerald Stone characterizes the Western archetype that is found guilty of creating them.
While Ahdaf Soueif has already displayed her concern for the act of Orientalist stereotyping in In the Eye of the Sun, the theme is much more present in her second novel The Map of Love. Part of this growing exploration of exoticization of the East is explained by the temporal setting of Ahdaf Soueif’s second book. This novel moves between stories, one set at the end of the nineteenth century, when Egypt was under English control, and the other set at the closing stages of the twentieth century. While Egypt belonged to the British empire, it was not uncommon for English citizens to travel to the Orient and bring back accounts which wrongfully depicted the place they had visited. Since it is partially set in that particular era, The Map of Love allows Ahdaf Soueif to freely explore the topic of Orientalist stereotyping.
When analyzing Ahdaf Soueif’s approach to these stereotypes in her second novel, it is essential to begin that particular discussion with the physical and psychological actions and thoughts of one of the main characters, namely Anna Winterbourne and, more specifically, her view on traditional notions concerning East and West. At the onset of her story, Anna is a soon-to-be widowed lady living in Victorian England who is trying to cope with her husband’s mental disposition. Wanting to help him overcome his illness, but unable to do so, Anna takes her worries outside of her home and begins to take strolls which eventually lead her to the South Kensington Museum where she becomes familiar with John Frederick Lewis’ paintings. In these watercolor paintings, Lewis depicted traditional Eastern scenes, such as a harem, but he refused to shed them in the traditional light which Western viewers were used to. According to Ahdaf Soueif, Lewis was the only Orientalist painter that captured “the truth about the spirit of the place” (Soueif 2008), and therefore disregarded traditional stereotypes of the Orient. Darraj echoes Ahdaf Soueif’s claim and argues that, despite the fact that Lewis showed the East in a truthful way, the many references to these paintings and Anna’s reference to the British translation of Arabian Nights “indicate how deeply England was drowning in its culture of orientalism – a culture that allowed the English to imagine the Arabs as exotic ‘other’, and thus as people who lacked morals and dignity” (Darraj 2003: 102). In The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif returns to these traditional Victorian ways in which the West depicted the East and its culture. Ahdaf Soueif begins her novel by encountering a meeting between a prototypical Victorian lady and the characters in Lewis’ paintings of the Orient. On the one hand, Ahdaf Soueif utilizes Anna’s fascination with Orientalist paintings to illustrate the West’s preoccupation with Oriental life in Egypt, but on the other hand, the use of Lewis as a painter who tried to paint the East in its most truthful way exposes Soueif’s wish to criticize other Victorian artists who only sought to establish Eastern stereotypes.
Anna’s struggle to look beyond stereotypes is not only influenced by Lewis’ paintings, since she also has a close relationship with her ‘beau-père’ who displays an anti-imperial way of thinking, unlike some of the other British characters which Anna meets. After the death of her English husband, Anna travels to Egypt to see whether or not she can find the scenes as shown in her beloved paintings in real life. According to Luo (2003), Anna thinks at the beginning of her stay in Egypt in a rather stereotypical manner. He claims that the first impressions of Egypt that she shares with the reader are “superficial” and “romantic” (Luo 2003: 90). Luo’s claim is illustrated by the following extract from The Map of Love in which Soueif describes Anna’s first impression of the Bazaar she visits:
It is exactly as I have pictured it; the merchandise so abundant, the colours so bold, the smells so distinct – no, I had not pictured the smells – indeed could not have – but they are so of a piece with the whole scene: the shelves and shelves of aromatic oils, the sacks of herbs and spices, their necks rolled down to reveal small hills of smooth red henna, lumpy ginger stems, shiny black carob sticks, all letting off heir spicy, incensy perfume into the air. It is quite overwhelming. (ML 67)
Although Anna’s first impression of Egypt is rather traditional and based upon stereotypes, the reader soon realizes that The Map of Love does not tell the story of a prototypical colonizer who travels to a foreign country to experience the exotic culture of the colonized. During her stay in Egypt, Anna oftentimes criticizes fellow-Europeans who have undertaken the same distant journey to the African land, only to stay within the safe world they have always known and therefore maintain their stereotypical manner of looking at the foreign country. She even pours judgment on her travel company and refuses to travel with a tour group in Suez, because then, as she admits to Sharif: ‘‘I [Anna] would have remained within the world I knew. I would have seen things through my companions’ eyes, and my mind would have been too occupied in resisting their impressions to establish its own’’ (ML 212). At one point in the novel, Anna even refers to Victorian travel literature, namely a Thomas Cook’ tourist handbook to Egypt, and criticizes it because it only depicts the beauty of the land while disregarding its inhabitants.
When we first meet Anna Winterbourne in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, we meet a young, Victorian woman who is, just as her contemporary fellow man, smitten by the Orient and its exotic culture. However, the fact that Ahdaf Soueif has chosen Lewis as the main awakener of her admiration for the East illustrates how Anna is not just any other Western European who firmly believed the stereotypes which circulated at that time, since Lewis was one of the few Orientalist painters who captured the reality of the East in his paintings, without endorsing stereotypical images. Even Anna herself admits to being inspired by Frederick Lewis: “When I found those wonderful paintings by Frederick Lewis, I had, I believe, some sense of divine ordination. And when the day came and it was deemed proper that I should travel, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that my thoughts would turn to Egypt” (ML101). Once arrived in Egypt, British-born Anna feels as if she has fallen in one of Lewis’ “beloved paintings” (ML134). Luo (2003: 91) goes so far as in suggesting that Anna uses the same language in describing her first image of Layla as one would describe Lewis’ paintings, by using many references to different shades of colors:
She was Egyptian, and a lady – the first I had seen without the black cloak and the veil. She had pulled a cover of black silk up to her waist, her chemise above that was the purest white, and then again, her hair vied with the silken cover for the depth and luster of its black. Her skin was the colour of gently toasted chestnut, and she lay on cushions of deep emerald and blue, and the whole tableau was framed, yet again, by the lattice of a mashrabiyya. (ML 134)
Soueif chose to make Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis the biggest person of influence in Anna’s decision to travel to Egypt because she believes that of all the painters who visited the East in the nineteenth century, he was the one who ignored colonial stereotypes. In an article which Soueif wrote for The Guardian, she expresses her admiration by admitting that
[o]f all the ‘oriental’ paintings I [Soueif] had come across, only those of Lewis beckoned me in. At the simplest level, the world he shows is a happy one, filled with sunlight, people, animals, flowers, food. But something else is transmitted from his surfaces: empathy. Lewis lived in Cairo for 10 years, and ‘went native’ in adopting Egyptian dress. But that wasn't it. Edward Lane did the same, and I find his work unreadable. […] Lewis's truth, expressed in colour and brushstrokes, was a truth about the spirit of the place. (Soueif 2008)
The first painting from Lewis’ hand to be exhibited in Britain was The Hhareem, a picture which, according to Soueif, “gave his audience everything they desired: a slave-dealer displays a prize beauty to an oriental nobleman surrounded by his wives and attendants” (Soueif 2008). The reason for this was that Lewis was afraid of being fired from the Society of Painters in Watercolours. However, Soueif claims that despite giving the people what they wanted to see, he was already rebelling against the traditional, colonial, stereotypical vision of the harem, since in Lewis’ portrayal of the harem “the master of the house, far from being the lascivious cruel Turk of tradition, has a young fresh face, full of wonder; his new acquisition has something of a defiant stance, and the description places the painting firmly in the past, in Mamluk times. It declares itself a fantasy” (Soueif 2008). Ahdaf Soueif does not hesitate to express her admiration for this British Orientalist painter who defied conventional stereotypes of the East. However, not all critics see in this reference to the Orientalist paintings of Frederick John Lewis a blameless or positive connection. Wynne claims that Lewis, as a male European, would not have had access to the harem and that his portrayal of a typical Egyptian scene was only made possible because of British occupation of the East (Wynne 2006: 62). Wynne argues that:
Soueif’s deployment of Lewis as the inspiration of Anna’s lived experience draws the text within the very problematic of what she is seeking to escape. […] Lewis’ paintings are made possible by European control of the East, but Lewis as an English male would not have access to harems. By drawing on Lewis, Soueif reinscribes traditional discourses of the Orient. Anna’s Egyptian years are both familiar and foreign, a recreation of an image that is first encountered in a museum by an English Orientalist painter. (Wynne 2006: 62)
Anna’s initial admiration for Egyptian life was born out of her excitement for watercolors which could only be painted because of colonial power of Britain in the East. In this way, her journey to Egypt was based upon a desire to see this exotic place and was only made possible because of British occupation. However, Soueif convinces the reader that Anna is not any other European aristocrat characterized by a compelling belief in the colonial mission. After having entered Egypt, Anna realizes that there is more to the country and its culture than portrayed by its Western visitors.
Anna Winterbourne is inspired by real Victorian women who traveled to Egypt and wrote down their observations in books which were later published. According to Luo it was traditionally seen very uncommon for a woman to leave her native home to travel to a foreign country, as it was even less common for a woman to pick up her pen and write about her experiences (Luo 2003: 83). Luo indicates that the discourses on Western people traveling to the East were gendered, describing the act of travelling as something only men should do, since in the Victorian era, it was very uncommon for a woman to leave behind her home to travel to distant shores. In The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif clarifies that Anna was greatly influenced by that limited number of Victorian women who undertook the journey to Egypt and who tried to find themselves within the Eastern culture, neglecting stereotypical ways of thinking. Anna is inspired by the life and the writings of Lady Lucy Duff Gordon and Lady Anne Blunt, who, just as Anna, traveled to Egypt and learned about Eastern native life. Anna even steps into the footsteps of Lady Blunt when she dresses up as a man to travel the Sinai. The more she learns about Egyptian life, the more she wants to deepen herself within that Eastern culture. Despite the descriptions which are given to Anna by her fellow countrymen of the Agency, which display Mr. Blunt in a negative light, she still expresses her curiosity to meet him:
But I hear them [English officials of the Agency in Egypt] mention Mr. Blunt, who holds views identical to those of my beau-père, and whom they regard as a crank who chooses to live in the desert, and they use of him the phrase ‘gone over’ by which I assume they mean he sees matters from a different point of view. I own I am curious to see Mr. Blunt […]. (ML 70)
Anna disregards traditional and stereotypical ways of thinking about the Orient and expresses her desire to really perceive and experience the authentic Egyptian culture. One of the most striking passages that establishes Anna’s refusal to believe in stereotypes which represent Eastern men as brutes is her thoughts on her abduction by Egyptian nationalists. Misled by Anna’s disguise, the abductors think they have kidnapped an English man instead of a woman and take her to Sharif Basha’s sister Layla. The reader might guess that any other traditional Victorian, English lady would be terrified to death but Anna appears to be fearless as illustrated by her thoughts only moments after her abduction. Even later in the novel, after their engagement, Sharif asks Anna whether or not she was frightened by him when they first met, a question which she merely answers with “What was there to be afraid of?” (ML 153). Though she is not influenced by a stereotypical way of thinking of the Orient, she is aware of this Western fantasy which portrays Egypt as an exotic and dangerous place. Even Egyptian Sharif is aware of the portrayal of him and his fellow countrymen in Western literature, as shown in the following excerpt:
[Sharif] ‘Weren’t you afraid of me? The wicked Pasha who would lock you up in his harem and do terrible things to you?’ [Anna] ‘What terrible things?’ [Sharif] ‘You should know. They’re in your English stories.’” (ML 154)
This extract is an example of how Soueif tries to dismantle stereotypes which were already present and distributed in the colonial era and are still very common today. This is also a claim made by Darraj who argues that Soueif wishes to “speak back to the colonialist vision of the Arab in order to correct it” (Darraj 2003: 103). Anna’s friendship with Sharif’s sister Layla, allows her to deepen herself even more into her beloved paintings of Lewis. Because of her close friendship with the Egyptian woman, Anna is allowed to see the inside of a harem, an act which was very uncommon for an English woman. In The Map of Love, Soueif gives a description of the harem as seen through the eyes of Anna and her representation of this Egyptian element goes against stereotypes which have traditionally depicted the harem as something overly erotic and immoral. Instead, we experience the harem as a place where women live harmoniously side by side, talking about their daily occupations and their families. After Anna’s marriage to Egyptian Sharif, Anna’s friend Caroline expects her to deliver a detailed rendering of life in the harem, but Anna is reluctant to do this, as she claims “I find in myself a strange unwillingness to provide a detailed picture of ‘life in the Harem’” (ML 354). She does not want to convey an account on something sacred which has become part of her new life in Egypt, but which has also been the cause for stereotypical exoticization in the West. Caroline’s question to give details and Anna’s reference to it as if it were merely another chapter in a Western book on Eastern habits that the English are so eager to read about, establishes once more England’s ongoing preoccupation with exotic Egypt. However, Anna also admits that she, as an Englishwoman who is now a member of an Egyptian harem, could give a true account and dismantle stereotypes, as she suggests that “it is only then, […] that she [Caroline] would gain a true picture of my life here” (ML 354).
While there are many references to the dismissal of stereotypes of the Orient, there is at one occasion an indication of an Egyptian character that has to reconsider her opinion on English people. Anna is not the only one who has to rethink the ethics of some stereotypes of Egyptian life which are circulating in her home country. Layla also reevaluates her initial way of thinking about the English, once she has met Anna. She is astonished that Anna displays “none of the arrogance or the coldness” she and her family were used to find in her countrymen, even to the effect that she “almost forgot that she was English” (ML 372). Despite different backgrounds, Layla and Anna become close friends who can look beyond stereotypes.
Soueif attacks the problem of the stereotypes in The Map of Love by cleverly reversing this exoticization process. At a given point in the novel, Anna wants to look beyond the limited view which her English countrymen have over Egypt and which is restricted for tourists. She wants to truly see and experience the country, but in order to do so, she has to dress up as an Arab woman. When she is disguised as an Egyptian woman who is wearing the veil, she experiences that “not only are her looks transformed but so are her perceptions as well as those of others toward her” (Massad 1999: 82). When she passes some of the people she knows from the Agency at the train station, roles are reversed, and this time she sees them as ‘the Other’, as shown in the following extract:
I felt at once the fear of being discovered and the strangeness of their sweeping by me without acknowledgement – but the oddest thing of all was that I suddenly saw them as bright, exotic creatures, walking in a kind of magical space, oblivious to all around them; at ease, chattering to each other as though they were out for a stroll in the park, while the people, pushed aside, watched and waited for them to pass. […] Nobody could find out who I was. I was one of many black-clad harem in the station and on the train and could have traded places with several of them and no one been the wiser. (ML 194-195)
This can be linked directly with Homi K. Bhabha’s theory of hybridity, which he links with the superiority of the ‘already cultured’. Anna’s fellow-European citizens consider themselves as the ones that are cultured and civilized, so they are “oblivious” to everything of the Arabic culture that surrounds them. The fragment described above forms a fitting conclusion to the discussion of Ahdaf Soueif’s approach to Orientalist stereotyping in her fictional novels. Not only does she dismiss traditional ways of looking at the Orient as a sexually immoral place, she even succeeds in reversing the pattern of looking at it in an exotic way, by allowing a Western character to describe her fellow countrymen as “exotic creatures” (ML 194).
“[I write in English because] I can’t write in anything else. My Arabic is good enough for daily purposes … articles, reports, but to write fiction you need a different level of being able to manipulate language. What you’re doing is creating effects.” (Soueif 2008)
A confrontational issue that plays a significant role in the distribution and the appreciation of the published work of postcolonial authors such as Ahdaf Soueif, is the language in which these writings are delivered to their reading audiences. Hybridity focuses on the merger of two different cultures, often the union of Eastern and Western cultivations and as consequence, these hybrid authors often speak, in addition to their mother tongue, one or more second languages. As mentioned before, Ahdaf Soueif writes non-fictional articles in both languages, which is illustrated by her job working as a journalist for English newspaper The Guardian and for Egyptian paper Al-Ahram. This alternating pattern which commits her to two different newspapers published in two different countries exposes Ahdaf Soueif’s ability to move between different languages. The question which is then remained unanswered is why Soueif’s fictional novels are written and published in English. I will explore Ahdaf Soueif’s decision to create and write fictional stories in the English language. In addition, I will demonstrate how she incorporates the issue of language into her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love by revealing how Soueif’s characters are constantly aware of the problematic notion of language.
3.6.1 English as a Language for Fiction
Ahdaf Soueif’s novels recite the stories of young women who have a close connection to the Arab and the English world. While her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, takes a young, Arab girl out of the heart of Egypt and transfers her to England, Soueif’s second novel tells the story of an English widow who finds a chance to lead a new life in Egypt. Since both stories deal with English and Egyptian characters and cultures, Ahdaf Soueif was faced with the opportunity to write them in either English or Arabic, however, she did not decide to compose her stories in her mother tongue, instead she chose to write them in the second language that she learned, namely English. Soueif’s decision to write fiction in English proved to be a matter of convenience, since it was only as the result of her failure to write stories in Arabic that she turned to her second language. In an interview with Massad, Soueif explains how she came to write her novels in English and not Arabic as followed:
I had sat down to write, and I had assumed that I was going to write in Arabic. But the words didn’t come, the Arabic didn’t happen for me, the words came in English. That was the area where I was struggling. I kept trying to write in Arabic, because I hadn’t thought that I would write in English. Eventually, it was a choice between writing in English or not writing at all, so I wrote in English. (Soueif 1999: 86)
This quote illustrates how Ahdaf Soueif’s decision to write in a particular language is confrontational and oftentimes problematic for hybrid authors who have different languages at their disposal. It was Soueif’s initial intention to write her stories in her mother tongue but the only achievable way to create fiction was to type out her words in English. Her final decision to write and publish her novels in English has its advantages, as well as its drawbacks, since as an Egyptian-born native, writing in the language of the former colonizers, she is able to clarify and focus attention on the many questionable accounts of the Orient which were brought to Europe during the colonial era. As an Egyptian native writing in English, Ahdaf Soueif is able to dismantle these stories and the stereotypes that were created and give a true account on life and culture in the Orient.
A second and equally significant advantage that writing in English gives Ahdaf Soueif is the ability to distance herself from delicate, Egyptian matters. An Arab, female author who decides to use English as a medium for telling stories about Egypt, dissociates herself from the Eastern field, which enables her to consider things from a neutral viewpoint. Malak claims that Ahdaf Soueif’s “hybridized English allows the conscious feminist narrative voice to infiltrate taboo terrains, both sexual and political, that might be inaccessible when handled in Arabic” (Malak 2000: 161). He further argues that, because Soueif is dissociated emotionally and culturally from her native country, English proves to be a “liberating medium to the author to broach and delve into issues such as feminine sexuality, politics of power and gender, and the disfranchisement of the poor: English here accords a liberating lexical storehouse and semantic sanctuary” (Malak 2000: 161). Not only is the subaltern woman, as described by Spivak, given a voice to tell her story, but by telling it in English, Ahdaf Soueif is also able to write about confrontational issues relating to sex and politics. In the discussion of postcolonial theories in this thesis, it was discussed how Spivak argues that the subaltern often has to moderate his words to a mediated Western model, and therefore will never be actually ‘heard’. However, it is important to claim that Ahdaf Soueif’s choice to write in English puts her at a distance from the controversial issues in Egyptian culture and enables her to write about them.
3.6.2 The Issue of Language and the Powers of Translation in In the Eye of the Sun (1992)and The Map of Love(1999)
As described above, the issue of language proves to be a significant matter for hybrid writers such as Ahdaf Soueif, a theme which is also integrated in her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. In these books, Soueif’s characters seem to embody the author’s preoccupation with the notion of language and the oftentimes problematic issues that come along with translation. In Soueif’s first novel, Asya is often asked to translate certain passages from Arabic songs and letters into English. The same question is presented to Amal in The Map of Love, while Anna is asked to translate English letters into Arabic. In passages where songs, texts and letters are translated into another language, Ahdaf Soueif cleverly moves between two languages and “transforms English into Arabic and Arabic into English in revolutionary ways” (Massad 1999: 75). One of the best examples that illustrates Ahdaf Soueif’s ability to render Arabic phrases into English without neglecting syntactic constraints is from In the Eye of the Sun, in which Asya renders translations of songs sung in her native language as “May the rest be in your life” or “God give earrings to those without ears” (Massad 1999: 75). These are sentences which do not display much meaning to a contemporary, English reader, but they are understandable and they are able to render some of the richness of the Arabic language and how it works.
In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love are novels that give the female characters a sense of empowerment by giving them the ability to switch between languages. Therefore, the notions of language and translation are powerful tools in the establishment of cultural dialogue between different nationalities. In the Eye of the Sun recites the story of Asya who is confronted with stereotypical ways of thinking about the East and women, as embodied by the different men that she meets. This novel illustrates that knowledge of different languages is an instrument of power. After she has started an affair with the American Gerald Stone, Asya receives three letters, one from her friend Chrissie, another from her father and the last from a European acquaintance. Gerald demands that he should be the one to open the envelopes and read the letters before Asya can. Asya’s hopes that the letters are written in Arabic are partly answered, since two of them are written by Egyptian natives. Despite Gerald’s imperialist desire to possess all that has an exotic origin, he is limited in his knowledge of the topics that matter, such as language. Since he cannot speak or read Arabic, he demands that Asya translates the letters in English. The politics of power are reversed, because Asya’s knowledge of the Arabic language puts her in the position of the superior. She realizes that language has given her a sense of empowerment that she can use to deceive this ‘Western usurper’. Soueif describes in In the Eye of the Sun how Asya reads one thing, but says another to mislead the person who tries to take control over her life. Her knowledge of both languages helps her to retain and reclaim some elements of her life which Gerald tries to take control of, or as Darraj sees it: “She limits his knowledge of her life through lingual and narrative control” (Darraj 2003: 100).
The theme of power that language offers is also explored in The Map of Love. Several years into their marriage, Anna is asked by Sharif to translate a letter which was forwarded to Lord Cromer by one of his spies as an English translation of an original Arabic letter exposing the details of a national uprising. At this point in the novel, Soueif explores the lingual capacities of her hybrid upbringing and her knowledge of multiple languages by inserting, not only double, but also triple layers of translation in the text of the novel. Anna has to translate into French the English translation of a letter which was, supposedly, originally written in Arabic. These levels of translation expose Ahdaf Soueif’s belief in the concept of language as an important instrument of power. Anna’s knowledge of both languages makes them realize that the letter never originated from an Arabic hand, it was composed by an Englishman who thinks that Arabs write in that manner. Even when Sharif has the letter translated back into Arabic, they realize that the letter was just a misleading device to support Lord Cromer’s request for reinforcements in Egypt. Ridiculous sentences from the letter such as “May all the odour of these greetings be upon you” (ML 417) and “Why do the camels march so slowly? Are they bearing stone or iron?” (ML 419) illustrate that the letter was written by an Englishman and sent to Lord Cromer, pretending that they received it from one of their Egyptian spies. However, Sharif and Anna realize that the letter was the work of “an ignorant Englishman who imagines he knows how Arabs think” (ML 419).
In The Map of Love, language as a medium for communication between different nationalities proves to be a significant but not automatically problematic issue. Lady Anna Winterbourne is an English Victorian lady who travels to Egypt where she falls in love with Sharif. Neither of them is educated enough in the language of the other person, so they decide to converse in French, since this language is the least biased. This example illustrates a situation where two people neglect their mother tongue and choose to communicate in a second language in order to enable a better and less prejudiced understanding. As Saif claims: “Perhaps that is better. You make more effort, you make sure you understand – and are understood. Sometimes I think, because we use the same words, we assume we mean the same things” (ML 272). It appears as if Soueif suggests that in a situation where communication between two different language users is needed, the most efficient way to enable this lingual contact is when both parties ignore their first languages and choose a language they both have in common. Once again, this example illustrates Ahdaf Soueif’s belief in a common ground where different cultures can meet, without the oppression or superiority of one single culture.
Although the English and Egyptian characters in The Map of Love have found a way to communicate in French, Anna establishes a great willingness to learn the linguistic workings of the Arabic language. In the novel, there are many examples of conversations between Anna and Layla where they explore the etymology of Arabic words. This pattern of an Egyptian woman educating a Westernized character on the workings of the Arabic language is repeated over a century later, when Isabel is taught Arabic by Amal. Massad claims that one of the most important elements that Ahdaf Soueif uses to establish a cultural dialogue is “her creative use of etymology in explaining Arabic words, which constitutes one of the many delicate pleasures that the novel offers the reader” (Massad 1999: 80). In these passages, Soueif cleverly incorporates stereotypical images with language issues as illustrated in the following excerpt from The Map of Love. Isabel and Amal study the linguistic similarity between the Arabic words for mother (Umm), nation (Ummah) and religious leader (Imam) and they realize that these words are closely connected. Isabel reasons: “‘So two incredibly important concepts, […] nationhood and religious leadership, come from “mother”. The word goes into politics, religion, economics and even anatomy. So how can they say Arabic is a patriarchal language?’” (ML 165). In this extract, Isabel realizes that the etymologic origin of words that have a positive connotation is often connected with a feminine root (Malak 2000: 158).
All of the examples described above illustrate Ahdaf Soueif’s ongoing awareness of the power of language and translation. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the closing lines of The Map of Love deal with the problematic issues that the act of translating encounters. Amal has finished puzzling the pieces of Anna’s life back together and the end of her ancestor’s attempt at living a hybrid life makes her wonder about her own life. She realizes that her job of translating novels is a difficult process, since it is oftentimes impossible to capture the whole meaning of an element in one single word, as explained in the following extract:
[Amal] 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. Take that concept ‘tarab’, for example; a paragraph of explanation for something as simple as a breath, a lifting of the heart, tarab, mutrib, shabby, tereb, tarabatta, tarabattattee, Taroob, Jamal wa Taroob: etmanni mniyyah / I’ve wished / w’estanni ‘alayyah / I’ve waited / ‘iddili l’miyyah / I’ve counted […] . (ML 313)
Despite the critical appraisal that Soueif has received for her marvelous attempt at explaining the linguistic and syntactic workings of the Arabic language and the passages that deal with translation, she seems to suggest that the act of translating embodies more than simply finding a suitable alternative in another language. Language is a powerful element that embodies elements from the culture to which it belongs, which makes it barely impossible to translate into another language that belongs to a different culture.
3.7 The Future of Hybrids
This thesis has investigated several aspects of Ahdaf Soueif’s writing style that illustrate the author’s personal interest in the concept of hybridity. So far, I analyzed textual and content related elements of her two novels, In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love, which have indicated that Soueif integrates elements from her Arabic and English heritage in her writings. This concluding section of the analysis of her novels will investigate what future the author upholds for people wound up in a hybrid context. Both novels recite the story of young women who try to merge elements from an Egyptian and an English culture in order to create a self fulfilling hybrid identity. The question that will be explored in this section of the analysis is whether these female characters in In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love succeed in their purpose and create an identity that fully commits them to a fusion of different cultures and whether such an identity is possible to survive in a contemporary context.
In the Eye of the Sun tells the coming-of-age story of a young Egyptian woman who moves back and forth between Egypt and England. Asya overcomes her struggle with patriarchal conventions and Orientalist stereotypes by escaping the men in her life that implement these images. The first elements that suggest that Asya is constructing a hybrid identity, appear after she has made the decision to get a Ph.D. in England. Saif does not accompany her on her journey to Europe, which means that she has to find a way to live in the foreign country on her own. At the beginning, it appears as if Ahdaf Soueif suggests that Asya’s travelling to England was not a brilliant idea. As Asya is the main character, the reader gets to know all her thoughts and feelings on living alone in a foreign country. As she writes her friend Chrissie, she admits “[that] people were right to look doubtful about this place. It’s so cold, oh Crissie, it’s so cold. I’m always cold” (ES 335). She makes it clear that England is only a place where she will live momentarily, “[Asya] ‘But in the end, I’m going home. I’ve got a job at home. I’m only here on study leave’” (ES 323). These exclamations make clear that Asya never intended to stay in Europe, since she has always had the idea to return to her mother country as soon as her Ph.D. was finished. This is also what happens once she has rid herself from the oppressive, male figures that so far determined her life. After finally having earned her Ph.D., she moves back to Egypt to teach at the Cairene University.
In The Map of Love, the cross-cultural relationship between Sharif and Anna is explored in a political, historical and geographical context, hoping that their love for one another will overcome these boundaries. This quest for a hybrid identity parallels Anna’s ongoing love and respect for both her fathers-in law. Throughout her stay in Egypt, Anna continues to write to her anti-colonial father-in-law by her first marriage in England, Sir Charles, while at the same time she occasionally turns to the ex-revolutionary al-Baroudi bey, Sharif’s father, for advice. This special relationship which Anna maintains with both men, each symbolizing either the West or the East, is paralleled with Amal’s emotional closeness and attachment to the fellaheen in her home village, while she simultaneously keeps in touch with Isabel, an American woman. Amal even goes so far in bringing the West, illustrated by Isabel, to the heart of Egypt by asking her to accompany her on her visit to her home town.
However, at the end of Anna’s story in The Map of Love, the differences between cultures seem to take the upper hand, since the hybrid family is dispersed because of Sharif’s murder and Anna has to return to her native country with her child, leaving behind her Egyptian family and friends. Ahdaf Soueif remains ambiguous on the identities of the plotters behind Sharif’s assassination, however, his murder reminds Anna of the fact that she will always be an English outsider in Egypt and that the construction of a hybrid identity was a mere fantasy which she could only experience very briefly. While Anna and Sharif’s love ends dramatically in tragedy, Ahdaf Soueif suggests that a similar fate might be awaiting the new hybrid family constructed a century after Anna’s. The contemporary story of the novel focuses on another hybrid family, namely, Isabel’s relationship with Omar, Amal’s brother, which has resulted in the birth of a son, Sharif. Davis suggests that Amal’s new family parallels Anna’s tapestry, woven over a hundred years before and represents her own “transnational union” (Davis 2007: 21). Once again, Ahdaf Soueif remains ambiguous about the precise circumstances on Omar’s probable death, since the novel ends with Amal waking up in the middle of the night, feeling that something bad will happen to her brother, without exactly saying what. The reader can find the constitution of a new hybrid family in the special relationship between Amal, Isabel and her son, baby Sharif, two branches of one family tree that are brought together one century after they were separated by a murder. As I have argued before, this might suggest that during the colonial era, when Egypt was still under British occupation, the exact conditions for a “Mezzaterra” were not yet established, since power relations saw one culture as superior to another. In our contemporary context, such hybridity is possible, as illustrated by the friendship between English-Egyptian Amal, American Isabel and her American-Egyptian baby.
The aim of this thesis was to study the different manners in which English-Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif explores the concept of hybridity in her fictional novels In the Eye of the Sun (1992)and The Map of Love(1999). By integrating significant notions of postcolonial studies by Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, I have tried to conduct an elaborated analysis which has answered the initially asked questions.
Each of Soueif’s fictional books investigates the concepts and themes that characterize the relationship between England and Egypt, marked by political and cultural differences, in a (post)colonial context. Hybridity has left its mark on Ahdaf Soueif’s personal life, therefore she is able to navigate the common ground between Egypt and England and write about the problematic issues that steer our contemporary world. Within this perspective, the analysis of stories, written by a female author, that center around young women moving between East and West presents an opportunity to investigate how representation of the Orient and its creatures developed and how treatment of the voice of the subaltern woman shifted from segregation to admittance.
The most significant concepts discussed in this thesis analyze the exploration of the “Mezzaterra”, and more specifically the implementation of hybridity on textual and content level and the attack of Orientalist stereotypes in the West and gender oppression in the East. Homi K. Bhabha’s theory on the “Third Space” which displays a belief in the construction of an element which cannot be simply brought back to its two original spaces can be illustrated by investigating Ahdaf Soueif’s manner of writing. As an author who inhabits the common ground between Egypt and England, she is able to investigate and narrate stories that deal with problematic topics relating to the notions of East and West from a distanced perspective. As her definition of the “Mezzaterra” describes, the hybrid space in which different cultures meet is inspired by the best thoughts and actions of both roots. Influenced by the culture of the West, Ahdaf Soueif is able to voice her thoughts on the challenging patriarchal conventions maintained in Egypt, which shove the Arab woman in the role of subservient and silent wife. This theme of women confronting patriarchal conventions was most apparent in In the Eye of the Sun. Belief in hybridity and the “Mezzaterra” allows Soueif to distance herself from the problematical notions of patriarchalism and narrate stories in which Arab women trapped by the conventional stereotypes liberate themselves from unhappy marriages. As argued before, Ahdaf Soueif’s confidence in hybridity and the common ground gives her the opportunity to observe and criticize the cultures of East and West from a biased perspective. She does so by leading In the Eye of the Sun’s maincharacter through her struggle with “sexual imperialist” Gerald Stone. The theme is also integrated in The Map of Love, where we have an English Victorian lady who challenges the authenticity of Orientalist stereotypes.
Occupying the “Mezzaterra” also allows Ahdaf Soueif to maintain a clear perspective on the implementation of Orientalist stereotypes which are circulating the Western world. In her novels, Soueif attacks traditional ways of looking at the East as an exotic place characterized by erotic escapades and hereby she echoes Edward Said’s theory on Orientalism. Ahdaf Soueif follows Said’s footsteps by showing that the Orient is not an immoral place in urgent need of civilization, rather she displays its rich culture.
In his theory, Bhabha contemplates about the merger of different cultures and sees the creation of a “Third Space” as the creation of a new, hybrid identity which is built upon incongruity. By analyzing Ahdaf Soueif’s exploration of confrontational issues that people from the common ground meet, I can argue that Soueif is a person who inhabits what Bhabha calls the “Third Space”. By attacking patriarchal conventions in the Egyptian culture and by addressing the problematic act of the West’s tendency to exoticize the East, she confronts elements from both cultures, without taking sides. Occupying the “Third Space” allows her to look upon patriarchalism in Egypt, whilst being influenced by the culture of the West. Simultaneously, Ahdaf Soueif is familiarized with the true nature of the East and knows that many stereotypes that depict Egypt as an exotic place are false and do not display the Orient in its authentic form.
In her essay, Spivak contemplates about minority groups who are never given a voice and, therefore, are missing from documentary archives. She also writes about how these subaltern people have to adapt to a Western model of thinking and writing in order to be heard. I argue that the hybridity in Ahdaf Soueif’s life has allowed her to shed some light on life as an Arab woman. Because of her Egyptian roots, Soueif is able to give subaltern women a voice by telling stories of these women. I believe that, because of her hybrid identity, Ahdaf Soueif is able to narrate these stories. She writes them in a language that permits a direct link with the people of the West.
Soueif’s inserts her confidence in hybridity in the narrative construction of her fictional novels in multiple ways. By introducing historical events and characters within the world of the novel, a bridge between the two separate levels of fiction and history is made, which results in the construction of a new, hybrid text. Ahdaf Soueif attempts to transport this hybridity to the narrative structures of her books have resulted in unsuccessful format hybridization in In the Eye of the Sun and successful conjoining in The Map of Love. Inspired by the cultures of Egypt and England, the hybrid author has also found a way to insert cultural references to Eastern and Western literature and music. Both cultures are acknowledged and respected, as illustrated by the many intertextual references that are integrated in both novels. The hybrid upbringing of Ahdaf Soueif has exposed her to a mixture of different languages, a significant fact which is also explored in her books. Despite her decision to write fiction in English, she cleverly introduces the richness of the English and the Arabic languages by exploring the difficult act of translation as experienced by her characters. Allowing them to move between these languages and letting them comment on the issue of translation exposes the reader of Ahdaf Soueif’s novels to passages that magically capture the essence of languages, without losing grip on the syntactic constraints.
In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love send out ambiguous messages about the future of hybrids. The merger of Egyptian and English cultural elements in Soueif’s second novel, as illustrated by the love story between Anna and Sharif, ends in tragedy, which might suggest that the conditions for the “Mezzaterra” were not yet fulfilled round the beginning of the twentieth century, since Egypt still suffered from British occupation. The second story of the novel is set at the closing stages of that century but its end suggest that our contemporary world is not ready to embrace hybridity, illustrated by the probable murder of Amal’s brother, Omar. One could find in Isabel, Amal and baby Sharif, who is the son of Isabel and Omar, a new hybrid family, however, Ahdaf Soueif remains vague about their future.
All of the examples described and analyzed above would not have been integrated in Soueif’s novels if she herself had not been influenced by the concept of hybridity. Occupying the “Mezzaterra”, which combines the best concepts of these cultivations, makes it possible for Ahdaf Soueif to create fictional stories based upon cultural elements marked by hybridity. This thesis has illustrated how this concept of hybridity is integrated in the construction of her novels. My analysis has shown that hybridization has a significant impact on the formal structure and content of In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. Hereby, I can conclude that Ahdaf Soueif is a female novelist who writes about the merger of different cultures in a postcolonial context and therefore, she navigates the “Mezzaterra” in her fictional writings.