Ahdaf Soueif: Is Everything I’ve Done Now Obsolete?

Monday morning: time for a little thinking out loud as I warm up for my week.

I’ve said quite a lot on this blog about my interest in Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I first discovered her when I came across The Map of Love in Duthie’s on a trip to Vancouver (sadly, Duthie’s is another independent bookstore that has now closed up shop). I read it and wrote it up soon after. (I hadn’t looked at that post for a long time, and it is interesting to see how mixed my reaction was, as I’ve just reread the novel very slowly, in “work mode,” and appreciated it much more overall. Though the issues that struck me as unsuccessful in the working out of the Lady Anna plot [I see I actually used the word “boring”!] still strike me as problems, they seem also more deliberate, more politically challenging, than I understood them to be on that first reading.) I was interested enough to get ahold of In the Eye of the Sun and to read more about Soueif–which led me eventually to an idea for a critical essay which led me to a bunch of reading in post-colonial theory, then a conference presentation, then yet more post-colonial theory. My intention for some time has been to extend the discussion of In the Eye of the Sun into a comparative discussion of the two novels, with particular attention to their engagement with the novels and moral philosophy of George Eliot. When my sabbatical began, finishing this essay was first on my “to do” list, and indeed reviewing my notes and sources and rereading The Map of Love were among the first things I got working on in January.

Then the January 25th revolution began. It is no credit at all to me that I took a special interest in this world-historical event because for the past couple of years I had been reading and thinking a fair amount about contemporary Egypt–with a literary bias or angle, to be sure, and I wouldn’t begin to claim expertise in either Egyptian history or modern Egyptian politics. Still, I learned far more about both than I would ever have done otherwise as I puzzled over the relationship between the worlds Soueif’s characters inhabit and the literary traditions she draws on. Because of the imaginative investment I’d made in Soueif’s novels, the real world struggle that might otherwise have been just one more story in the headlines felt more personal to me. I suppose another way to put it would be that it was part of a story I was already in some sense following. I’ve written a couple of times here about fiction that aspires (among other things) to illuminate or humanize difference–this is one of the explicit goals, for instance, of Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran. Then there are the books that made me think about Anthony Appiah’s term ‘moral tourism’A Thousand Splendid Suns is one example, The Wasted Vigil another (more sophisticated) one. Though I think it’s possible to criticize works that market themselves through an appeal to the very exoticism or Orientialism they also want to undermine, watching the stream of videos and tweets and reports coming from Tahrir Square made me think about how much more prepared I was to listen to and hope for the protesters than some other people (including, it often seemed, most of the staff and the stable of commentators at CNN) who seemed stuck in reductive stereotypes and worn-out narratives about the Middle East. (Rather than try to say a lot more about this myself, I’ll refer you to Aaron Bady at zunguzungu and his links and comments about the way the regime itself contributed by ‘staging Orientalist theater.’ All of his posts from January 25 to February 11 are worth reviewing–and of course his blog is worth following just in general.) In my post about The Wasted Vigil I worried about the value of the aestheticized experience we get of ‘otherness’ by reading such novels. While fretting that reading is not, really, acting, I still wondered whether, “if reading leads to understanding, especially appreciation for nuance and complexity, isn’t reading a kind of doing? Isn’t it a good thing to do? And wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people (former world leaders, even) perhaps read such novels?” As I watched Al Jazeera obsessively through those astonishing, frightening, exhilirating days, I couldn’t help but be aware that I would have been acting differently (though not, I hope and believe, indifferently) if I hadn’t read the novels I had, and particularly if I had never started reading and writing about Ahdaf Soueif.

My spectator’s interest and my scholarly interest converged completely as Soueif herself became a conspicuous presence in the revolution. She wrote several pieces for the Guardian reporting from Cairo, including some written in the center of Tahrir Square. She was interviewed for various programs including on NPR, and she is featured in this excellent documentary on the ‘Women of Tahrir‘. Her home page now features the exuberant headline “Welcome to the New Egypt; Have a Lovely Stay.” Tomorrow night she is giving the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia (how I wish I could be there!), long scheduled but now announced with the title “Notes from Tahrir Square.”

All of these events, from the protests and their outcome (still, of course, very much a work in progress) to Soueif’s activism and role as an eloquent mediator between two worlds she knows equally well, have very little to do with me personally. I understand that! They are about so much more, something much, much bigger than my essay project. I issue that disclaimer because now I’m going to focus on what they have meant, or might mean, for me and that essay project, my own little work in progress.

One reasonable answer is: nothing at all. The essay is about the engagement between Soueif’s novels and a particular literary predecessor. The novels haven’t changed, and the essay was never going to be an intervention in current events.

But another answer is, surely something. Rather unexpectedly, something that began as a purely academic project has at least peripheral relevance to our contemporary moment. Writing about Soueif has gone from being a quirky sideways move for a Victorianist (finally, a new angle for writing about George Eliot!) to being something with some real possible significance, including to readers outside the academy–though not necessarily if the essay continues along quite the same lines as before.

And what about the essay’s lines of argument? Actually, they were never entirely literary. Or, more accurately, they always dealt with ways in which literary form reflects or enables ethical thinking, and the ethical issues, particularly in The Map of Love, have a lot to do with Egyptian history and encounters between ‘east’ and ‘west.’ The arguments I have been trying to work out are arguments about crossing cultural borders, inhabiting hybrid identities, the limits or potential of sympathy, the role of the imagination in mediating difference. Particularly in The Map of Love, these abstract issues are played out in the context of the occupation of Palestine; of the vexed role of the United States in the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular; of reductive Western stereotypes of both Arab men and Arab women; and of the dehumanizing realities of life in Mubarak’s police state. On January 25th, as it happens, I was taking notes on Chapter 16, which includes an impassioned political discussion among a diverse group of Egyptians, mostly women, and Isabel, an American visitor, who mostly listens (one not-so-subtle hint here is that America would do well to listen more to the voices of the people in the countries they meddle in, a lesson that of course the ongoing uprisings eloquently continue). Here’s an excerpt:

‘Ya Doctor, a national project comes about as an embodiment of the will of the people,’ Arwa says. ‘Nasser’s project finally did not work because for the people to have a will it has to have a certain amount of space and freedom, freedom to question everything: religion, politics, sex –‘

‘So the sans-culottes had freedom and space?’

‘No, and your revolution here will be an Islamist radical one. Because every other ideology is bankrupt. And capitalism isn’t an ideology, it isn’t something that people can live by . . . ‘

. . .

‘It seems to me,’ says Isabel, after a moment, ‘that people are completely caught up in trying to analyse the situation. But no one says, “This is what we should do.”‘

‘I don’t think anyone knows what we should do,’ I say.

‘I know some things we should do,’ Deena says. ‘We should speak out against the sanctions on Iraq. We should put a time limit on this so-called peace process. What’s the use of sitting around talking peace when the Israelis are constantly changing the landscape–putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle?’

‘And when the time came, you’d go to war?’ Isabel asks.

‘If we had to. And I would stop this charade of ‘normalisation.’ What normalisation is possible with a neighbour who continues to build settlements and drive people off the land? . . . I’d mobilise the people to get our economy straight–‘

I can see why this section struck me on my first reading, as laborious, though clearly done with the understandable goal of trying “to educate her Western readers about international politics from a non-Western point of view, especially about the effects of colonialism in the early story, and the conflict over Palestine in the contemporary one.” In the novel, this kind of conversation (though educational) makes less difference to how people actually behave towards each other than the personal relationships that forge across boundaries of potential misunderstanding–Lady Anna’s romance with Sharif, in the earlier plot, but also, maybe more significantly, her friendship with his sister Layla, and then Isabel’s romance with Omar in the more contemporary plot, and again, more significantly, her friendship with his sister Amal. These affective developments (or so I was [am] going to argue) move people into what Soueif has called the ‘mezzaterra,’ a space Soueif says (in her introduction to her essay collection Mezzaterra) has been sadly beleaguered and dangerously shrunken in recent decades. My essay has been aiming at a discussion of how Soueif draws on both English and Arabic literary traditions as well as manipulates her own literary forms to explore and maybe expand that territory.  I’m also very interested in the relationship between her emphasis on romance and friendship and the role of the novel in achieving cross-cultural understanding. And I’m interested in the pessimism in The Map of Love, in the way violence cuts off compromise and seems to show the inadequacy or futility of those same personal relationships for bringing about real political change.

Isn’t all this just as interesting and relevant as it was before January 25th? My problem right now is that while the context of the project seems to have a whole new hum of significance and that’s exhilarating, when I contemplate its specifics, I feel strangely deflated.

One somewhat trivial reason for this, I think, is just that literary criticism is not revolutionary action, it’s scholarly writing. Most of the time, I’m good with this. I’ve even felt discomfort (or worse) with criticism that aims or claims to be overt activism. As if! Our job is not really to march in the streets but to analyze the refractions of politics through literary history and literary form (among other approaches we can take and things we do, of course). And as I keep saying (because though I’m sure…pretty sure…it’s true, I need to reassure myself about it) Soueif’s novels are what they are, and nothing in the analysis I’ve been doing is inappropriate to them. I just have get on with it: to finish the piece and submit it for peer review as planned.

But less trivial is my uneasy sense that maybe the questions and arguments I’ve been pursuing are somehow mistaken from the start, or, if not necessarily mistaken, are not the most important questions to be asking right now. It matters how ‘east’ and ‘west’ understand each other, but throughout the days of protest one resonant message (from, just to name one eloquent voice, Mona Eltahawy) was that the events in Egypt were about Egypt–not about America, or Israel, or any other country obsessing about what the revolution might mean for it. A fascinating post today at Millicent and Carla Fran’s blog notes

After all we’ve written and thought about “selfish” and “unselfish” feminism, about the problems posed by Qaddafi’s female guards and the uneasy relationship between Middle East and West, it’s an honor to witness how Muslim women are talking not to the West (that’s a fraught interaction) but to each other about their vision for the future and—maybe as importantly—their vision of the past. (read the rest here–it lays out an important unfolding Twitter conversation about Muslim feminism)

In The Map of Love (also, but not quite so much, in In the Eye of the Sun) Soueif is explicitly working on ‘east’/’west’ relationships–this is hardly an issue that has been resolved by recent events, but recent events have also shown how partial this preoccupation is, maybe even that focusing on it tilts the conversation in a misleading way towards the east-west encounter as defining what matters. Or maybe what they have shown is that, unbenownst to her, Soueif was writing, not one historical story and one contemporary one, but two historical stories: by placing her novel so carefully in time and place, she made herself vulnerable to–not obsolescence, but at least becoming dated. Highly topical fiction transcends the passing of its moment either by exemplifying that moment so powerfully that it can go on to represent it, or by using its topical specificity to reach towards lasting problems or themes. I’ve only just begun to think about this, but I’m not sure if The Map of Love achieves the latter kind of resonance. If not, does that really matter at all to the novel as a novel? And does it matter at all to the essay that I’ve been trying to write? Is there some other essay I should be writing, either about The Map of Love or about Ahdaf Soueif?

In her interviews with NPR’s Renee Montagne, Soueif talks about her own work in progress:

The novel that I have been trying to work on for years now, was really supposed to be a prelude to something like this happening. And so now, you know, whats happened has caught up with it. And I at some point will have to sit and think whether it’s possible to sort of incorporate what has happened into what I’ve been doing, or whether everything that I’ve done is now obsolete.

I think it’s clear in context that she doesn’t mean the last remark generally, that “everything she’s done” over her whole writing career is obsolete but only that a novel imagined as a “prelude” to some kind of Egyptian transformation must be re-imagined now that radical change is underway. Her comment echoes in my head, though, as I work through my notes and contemplate the essay I’ve been trying to write. At least now I’ve started trying to articulate the questions it raises for me.

5 thoughts on “Ahdaf Soueif: Is Everything I’ve Done Now Obsolete?

  1. JoVE March 7, 2011 / 4:39 pm

    Aren’t you glad you have a blog where you can think these thoughts out loud and give them some coherence. There are certainly important things to be said here.

    I wonder if there is more than one essay to write. Perhaps for different audiences. And if thinking of this as one essay is part of the problem you are having with writing this. Could you write one of the essays more easily if you knew that there are other essays that will develop some of the other ideas?

  2. Litlove March 7, 2011 / 7:12 pm

    Hmm, tricky one. I think there are certain truths in your post that can be used as foundations for whatever comes next: a) that what you are writing is essentially literary criticism, unless you make a bold decision to cross a line into political comment; b) that literary criticism is not, nor will it ever be, divorced from issues of social, cultural and historical importance – the question is how to find the best angle, via the text, on those issues; c) you can be interested in anything Soueif is interested in – that’s your prerogative; d) if books had historical sell-by dates then we could wave goodbye to a great deal of world literature, and writing on events like the Holocaust, the two World Wars, the Enlightenment, etc would all be obsolete. I really cannot buy into the notion of cultural obsolescence – where an author is engaged with humanity, there is relevance, just the prism through which we see it may change.

    I’m sure you’ll end up with an even better essay out of your material than you would have had six months ago – this strikes me as an opportunity for really interesting analysis, as any great shift in thinking, ideology or political power must necessarily entail. I’m sure you’ll find just the right path through.

  3. Susan Messer March 7, 2011 / 11:28 pm

    Agreed with the two earlier commenters. You’re applying such good, powerful thinking to these questions (and such good writing), I’m certain that something wonderful and important will emerge. Writers in every genre are plagued by these questions of whether they have anything new to say, whether they are courageous enough to say anything important (take a bold position), whether their thoughts are obsolete or how soon they will be.

    When I read that first excerpt you quoted from History of Love, when the characters got to talking about Iraq and Israel, it sounded as though it could have been written today. And Soueif’s concerns, about whether there’s anything to be salvaged from the novel-in-progress . . . what heartache for a novelist . . . to have the world change around her and feel her work might be left behind. I can’t imagine that all that work will be “wasted.” I am very interested in stories that take place just before some momentous historical event, people perched there, not knowing what lies ahead. But that’s more Soueif’s issue than yours. I like the idea of several essays, perhaps several genres. Will be very much interested in following the story of where you go with this.

  4. Annie March 8, 2011 / 6:13 am

    We all seem to be in agreement here. You may have to pause and allow your thinking to reform and reshape itself, but it’s importance can never be lost. If you were a student I was supervising, I think I would be advising you to put this to one side for a while and turn you attention to something else. While you’re working on that you will almost certainly find that your subconscious brain will do a lot of the sorting for you and you will come back to it with a clearer idea of how you want to go forward. But, you will go forward.

  5. Rohan Maitzen March 8, 2011 / 10:20 am

    Thank you all for helping me take stock! It really is very useful to have sorted out the mental clutter that had been accumulating, and then to be reassured that I’ll find a way to reorganize it. Jo, I think you’re right that instead of losing faith in the original essay, I should be thinking about how to do something else as well. Litlove, I take your point about the ‘sell by’ date for literature. I think it is possible for books to lose their intrinsic interest if they are too insular, and to become more historical artefacts than aesthetic ones (Soviet fiction of some varieties, for instance?)–but I certainly would not put either of Soueif’s novels into that category. Susan, it is interesting, isn’t it, how little relevance that conversation has lost? In fact, if anything the revolution has given it new urgency, as a ‘new’ Egypt is going to have to orient itself on all of these issues. I think Soueif is so thrilled to see the transformation in Egypt that she might think her work on the new novel well lost! Annie, that’s good advice (and in fact just the advice I too would give a student in a similar situation, now that I think about it). I have some immediate, finite tasks to do this week anyway, and having written out the problem I felt I was having, it’s time to let the questions simmer a bit on that proverbial back burner.

    I hope Soueif’s talk at Columbia tonight is recorded as a podcast or something. If anybody reading this is able to go, do, and report back! Her interviews are always extraordinarily articulate and engaging, but I’m curious what she will say given a chance to prepare and reflect more formally.

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