Ahdaf Soueif: “We all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction”

Ahdaf Soueif had a thought-provoking essay in the Guardian recently about fiction and activism in general, and the effect of the Egyptian revolution on Egyptian novelists in particular:

 In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, of dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.

Fiction will come again, I hope …

Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. So it’s no use a story presenting itself, tempting, asking to be written, because another story will – in the next minute – come roaring over it, making the same demand. And you, the novelist, can’t grab one of them and run away and lock yourself up with it and surrender to it and wait and work for the transformation to happen – because you, the citizen, need to be present, there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.

 It’s not that she thinks writing fiction is itself apolitical, or that it can’t be a form of activism: “A work of fiction lives by empathy – the extending of my self into another’s, the willingness to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. This itself is a political act: empathy is at the heart of much revolutionary action.”  But Soueif doesn’t think great art can come from a sense of deliberate activism: “it may be a good cause and a just cause, but what you get will not be a novel – it will be a political tract with a veneer of fiction.” “Ah yes, Mary Barton,” says the sage Victorianist, nodding … and yet that doesn’t seem quite fair to Mary Barton, actually, which has more than a veneer of artistry even as it is an overt act of advocacy. Its art, we might say, is its advocacy.

Maybe the moment for such “novels with a purpose” has simply passed: today we want our fiction to intervene obliquely or ironically, rather than to confront us (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, anyone?) with demands, to raise questions rather than blandish prescriptions. Our tolerance for didacticism in art is very low. And yet maybe we underestimate the effects of that veneer of fiction, or overestimate the importance of aesthetic ineffables over social deliverables. Would anyone make a case for the artistry of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? I didn’t think so–but would we wish it unwritten? It played its part in the revolutions of its time. But then, if we had to choose between Mary Barton and another novel pretty much contemporary with it that had no immediate interest in “the problems of its day,” Wuthering Heights, which would be the greater loss?* We don’t blame Emily Brontë, surely, for not rushing off to Manchester to see what she could do about relations between master and men; we don’t suggest that she chose to “absent [herself] from the great narrative of the world.” But what difference did her book make, compared to Gaskell’s or Stowe’s? Do we care? Should we care? ‘Tis a muddle.

And so, like Soueif in her essay, we don’t take a stand one way or the other on whether the artist can or should, in general, “do one or the other.” But “at the time of crisis,” “if you cannot or will not remove yourself from the situation,” Soueif suggests, you lose the luxury of distance, the luxury of choice. At such a time, your responsibility “as a citizen of the world” is to turn your efforts and talents to things that are not made up. Thus, for the time being, she at least is no longer a novelist.

I found her reflections interesting not just because of the questions they raise about a novelist’s obligations, but because they reminded me of her comments last year about whether the revolution had rendered her (then) in-progress novel obsolete–and of my own dissatisfaction with doing literary criticism about her novels when world events made such a project seem pretty trivial. In the intervening time she has published one book of non-fiction, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. This was clearly, as I said in my review, “a book Soueif felt compelled to write”: this recent piece suggests that we will see more writing of this kind before we see another novel. A part of me is sorry, because I want to see what kind of fiction she writes next, but I accept that what she’s doing right now is much more important. I’m glad that she’s still invoking George Eliot, anyway.

*There’s the complicating factor that perhaps Mary Barton, which to be sure is a bit creaky around the plot points and shamelessly sentimental to boot, was important preparatory work for Gaskell’s later, better novels, but that just muddies up my attempt at a provocative comparison, so never mind that for now.

Ahdaf Soueif, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution

Everything about Cairo: My City, Our Revolution shows that it was a book Ahdaf Soueif felt compelled to write. Partly a chronicle of the 18 days in 2011 that changed the course of modern Egyptian history, partly a memoir of Soueif’s life in and love for Cairo, the book is emotional, affecting, polemical, and necessarily imperfect–because, as Soeuif is very aware, the story it tells wasn’t over when she wrote it and (as she often remarks) will have developed even further by the time it reaches its readers.

So why write it and publish it now, instead of waiting until we know more about what came after those 18 days? One obvious response would that it will almost certainly be years, not months, before we’ll know how things turn out–as if, of course, there ever can be a definitive or complete story of any event. Defining beginnings and endings is always to some extent arbitrary. What Soueif has done, then, is not to offer (and not to pretend to offer) a ‘history’ of the Revolution, but to give an account of a specific moment that actually, by historiographical standards, does have remarkably clear boundaries. On January 25, 2011, protesters marched to Tahrir Square demanding the fall of the Mubarak regime; on February 11, 2011, Mubarak stepped down. From the distance of one year, perhaps that has come to seem like not much, like  not enough; the regime fell but what has replaced it? On February 11, 2011, though, Mubarak’s resignation was more than most had ever imagined. It wasn’t (isn’t) everything, but without it, there could have been nothing further. So there’s an intrinsic rationale to telling that story, to giving us one insider’s view, one participant’s experience.

Viewed as this kind of immediate record, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is both gripping and inspiring. Soueif’s descriptions of the atmosphere inside Tahrir are especially moving: ringed around with tanks, beleaguered by agents of the regime every imaginable way, within Tahrir it’s another world:

Even the light in here is different, the feel of the air. It’s a cleaner world. Everything’s sharper, you can see the leaves on the trees. Badly lopped, they’re trying to grow out. Everyone is suddenly, miraculously, completely themselves. Everyone understands. We’re all very gentle with each other. As though we’re convalescing, dragged back from death’s very door. Our selves are in our hands, precious, newly recovered, perhaps fragile; we know we must be careful of our own and of each other’s.

The Midan is sparkling clean. The rubbish is piled neatly on the periphery with notices on it saying ‘NDP Headquarters.’ . . . Lamp posts have put out wires so that laptops and mobiles can be charged. The field hospitals provide free medical care and advice for everyone. A placard reading ‘Barber of the Revolution’ guides you to a free shave and a haircut. A giant transparent wall of plastic pockets has gone up. The shabab [youth] sit next to it. People tell them jokes and they draw or write them and slot them into the pockets; a rising tide of jokes and cartoons. A Punch and Judy show is surrounded by laughing families. A man eats fire. There’s face-painting and music and street theatre and a poetry stand.

The protestors watch Omar Sulaiman interviewed by Christiane Amanpour:

We watched the old torturer, stiff with formality and self-belief, clinging on to his simple conspiratorial concepts, holding himself rigid against the tide, his thumbscrews and cattle prods for the moment useless. When he says his message to us is: ‘Go home. We want to have a normal life,’ the streets answer with one voice: ‘Mesh hanemshi / Enta temshi!’ We’re not going / You go home!

And then, in the Midan, there was a wedding, and then more music and everywhere there are circles of people sitting on the ground talking, discussing; ideas flowing, from one group to another until the most popular find their way to one of the four microphones on the stages. I pause by one group and they immediately invite me to sit. People introduce themselves before they speak. Three civil servants, a teacher, a house painter, two women who work in retail. They talk about what brought them to Tahrir. In the end, the house painter says, it comes down to one thing: a person needs freedom.

Soueif’s enthusiasm for this utopian moment is infectious, as is her admiration for the young people who started it, fought for it, and in many cases died for it. She recalls a man “with his hand on his son’s shoulder” who says to her as they pass, “Yes, really. I thought so badly of him; sitting all day at his computer. Now look what he and his friends have done. Respect. Respect.” Her book is an eloquent tribute to these young men and women and to all the protestors who held their ground. It’s also a passionate reiteration of their idealism, of the hope for a free, open, compassionate world that Soueif found manifest in miniature in Tahrir during those 18 days. (Here’s an interview with Soueif from February 3, 2011, that captures the energy of that time. She’s wonderfully articulate, as usual.)

As a document about that moment in time, then, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is compelling. A second rationale for the book, though, is that Soueif also explicitly considers it a contribution to the larger struggle begun on January 25, 2011 but nowhere near finished when the book went to press, and certainly not finished today either. Soueif’s account of the 18 days is offered in two parts that sandwich a third section called simply ‘An Interruption.’ Here, from the vantage point of October 2011, Soueif records and reflects on some of the events after the protestors left Tahrir: “On February 11 it seemed that we had emerged into a clear open space and that our progress would be swift. Now, eight months later, our landscape is more ambiguous, more confused.” Egypt has not been transformed: “SCAF have allowed no one to examine, punish, rehabilitate the security establishment, so the country is full of armed and disgruntled police and baltagis [enforcers], short of cash and ready to be used. The regime is still rich. And the old alliance between the regime and the security establishment is still in place.” The army that refused to fire on its own people now hinders the revolution at every turn; the generals rule nearly as despotically as Mubarak, and the result is “a story of escalating confrontation between the revolutionaries and SCAF.” Protests are violently broken up, people are beaten and jailed, different elements exert their influence–“I see the Saudi flag flying in Midan el-Tahrir.” The organic community of those 18 days has been dispersed.

But Soueif believes its energy has not been lost, and her book is an effort to sustain it and to spread its idealism and optimism.”Events in Egypt,” she concludes,

did not go in a beautiful straight line from our Tahrir days to a truly representative government implementing the empowerment of the people. So we’re still fighting. And this book is part of my fight, my attempt to hold our revolution ‘safe in my mind and my heart.’

She sees signs “across the planet” that people around the world understood and supported the Eygptian protesters because there is a common dream of freedom and dignity. She invokes as one example the Occupy movements, which achieved in their encampments similarly inspiring, fragile models of a world governed by something besides power and greed. She’s right that “as [we] read, [we] know a great deal more” than she can about what has become of those movements. She was right that “there are many bad possibilities.” Is she also right that “there are more good ones”? It’s not an easy time to be an idealist, but Soueif argues that “optimism is a duty”:

if people had not been optimistic on 25 January, and all the days that followed, they would not have left their homes or put their wonderful, strong, vulnerable human bodies on the streets. Our revolution would not have happened.

And so she closes with her most optimistic dream: that Cairo, the city she loves and has watched degraded and defaced and corroded, is now

the capital of an Egypt that’s come back to her people, that’s regained control of her land, her resources, and her destiny, and Egypt that is part of a world on its way to finding a better, more equitable, more sustainable way of life for its citizens,where people’s dreams and ambitions and inventiveness and imagination find an open horizon, and where variety and difference are recognized as assets in confident, vibrant, outward-looking communities.

This vision reminds me of her writing about the ‘Mezzaterra,’ which I think is central to her fiction as well as her political vision (I wrote about it in my essay on Soueif for Open Letters). Her insistence that optimism–belief in the possibility of a good outcome–is a moral duty is compelling. Nothing guarantees bad outcomes more surely than giving up on the hope of better ones, after all. There was a lot of that kind of negative thinking during the 18 days of the revolution, and I’ve heard and read plenty of people pointing to recent violence and trouble in Egypt as if it shows they were right to expect no great improvements. Against such defeatism, Soueif’s book is a great tonic. Perhaps inevitably, because I have thought so much about Soueif and George Eliot together, its underlying belief that we make things a bit better just by hoping for the best reminded me of Dorothea, who tells Will, “I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me”:

That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil–widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.

Soueif is deeply (understandably) troubled by her sense that Mubarak’s fall unleashed “the Forces of Darkness” encased and organized by his regime: “Now the casing’s been smashed and the Darkness is out there, unchannelled, panicked, rampant, twisting into every nook and cranny as it seeks to wrap around us again.” A book, however eloquent, may not be much, against such forces. But her hope is clearly that it will help keep the light of the Revolution bright and, indeed, make “the struggle with darkness narrower.” “This is about a better way of being in the world,” she says in the interview I’ve linked to above. That seems well worth hoping for.


The Cosmopolitan Republic of Letters and the Mezzaterra

I don’t have much to say here because I am trying to use my writing energy to move my Ahdaf Soueif essay along–trying to work through the doubts I expressed last week, just to put enough into words that I can at least feel better what the project is now. Here are some excerpts from my notes that I think are going to be helpful as I do this, comments that are playing off each other in my mind as I work.  First is a quotation from an essay in World Literature Today by Ales Debeljak, called “In Praise of the Republic of Letters”:

It is true that we readers are the citizens of various nation-states, each with our own home address and hometown. Yet the moment we open a book and yield, in our unique ways, to the adventurous challenge, we take part in the same ritual. We assert that our place of residence is in the same community, in the Republic of Letters. It cannot be found in any world atlas; its borders are unstable and are passionately negotiated time and again. With every story read, with every verse quietly recounted, we renew our citizenship in the Republic of Letters. Many opportunities arise and dissolve within it, faces distorted by horror offer a hand to fantastic patterns of paradise, and every page read turns a new chapter in a reader’s biography.

We can all become citizens in this republic, without restrictions. The only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy – that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

I’m also thinking about–or perhaps, thinking along with–Anthony Appiah’s idea of cosmopolitanism, and particularly of cosmopolitan reading. Here’s an excerpt from his essay “Cosmopolitan Reading,” in the collection Cosmopolitan Geographies:

Cosmopolitan reading presupposes a world in which novels .. . travel between places where they are understood differently, because people are different and welcome to their difference. Cosmopolitan reading is worthwhile because there can be common conversations about those shared objects, the novel prominent among them. Cosmopolitan reading is possible because those conversations are possible. But what makes the conversations possible is not always shared culture . . . not even, as the older humanists imagined, universal principles or values . . . nor shared understanding . . . What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that,  it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do. . . . [W]e do learn something about humanity in responding to the worlds people conjure with words in the narrative framework of the novel: we learn about the extraordinary diversity of human responses to our world and the myriad points of intersection of those various responses.

These ideas resonate, for me, with Soueif’s notion of the “Mezzaterra”:

This was the world that my generation believed we had inherited: a fertile land; an area of overlap, where one culture shaded into the other, where echoes and reflections added depth and perspective, where differences were interesting rather than threatening, because they were foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities.

The rewards of inhabiting the Mezzaterra are enormous. At its best it endows each thing, at the same moment, with the shine of the new, the patina of the old; the language, the people, the landscape, the food of one culture constantly reflected off the other. This is not a process of comparison, not a ‘which is better than which’ project but rather at once a distillation and an enrichment of each thing, each idea. It means, for example, that you are both on the inside and the outside of language, that within each culture your stance cannot help but be both critical and empathetic.

Sadly, I think The Map of Love is ultimately pessimistic about about these Utopian theories of literary coexistence. In the Preface to her essay collection Mezzaterra, Soueif describes that space as diminished, hardened, under threat. In The Map of Love it is still conjured up as an ideal, as the characters cross and recross boundaries, at once critical and empathetic, having the kinds of conversations enabled by the narratives they read and create. But there seem to be forces that are stronger than that willingness, and these bring both of the intertwined stories to unhappy endings. Maybe the weakness of empathy as a moral and political force is suggested in this bit from Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: “the great lesson of anthropology is that when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end.” The little caveat “if that is what you both want” is hardly noticeable in the longer passage, but every day it seems we have reminders that progress towards understanding, towards reconciliation, relies on mutual effort and willingness–on genuine conversation.

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.

Cairo Time

I’m finding it impossible not to be preoccupied by the drama unfolding in Egypt this week. Every news network is covering it in detail, of course; for a round-up with commentary, check out Aaron Bady’s recent post at zunguzungu. I’m not in a position to add anything original of my own, but I wanted to draw attention to two compelling pieces by Egyptian novelists (one of which Aaron also links to). Here’s Ahdaf Soueif, writing in the Guardian yesterday:

Patience is a virtue – maybe even the supreme one in Egypt‘s popular hierarchy of values, but patience also has its limits and, now, at last, it seems as if we’ve arrived at ours. And fittingly, it’s the young of the country who are leading us. They’ve had enough of unemployment, deteriorating education, corruption, police brutality and political impotence.

As is now well known, they organised Tuesday’s protests over Facebook and in closed virtual and actual meetings. Talk about grassroots! “They” is some 20 groups that have sprung up over the last five years. The question has always been how and when will they coalesce? They did on Tuesday; they fused, and with them multitudes of Egyptians young and old – inspired by what happened in Tunis.

They organised protests from Assiut in the south, to Sheikh Zuwayyid in Sinai, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities the length and breadth of Egypt. For Cairo they chose three locations: Shubra, Matariyya and Arab League Street. These were strategic choices: naturally crowded neighbourhoods, with lots of side streets off the main road. Young activists started their march in nearby areas, collected a following and by the time they reached, for example, Arab League Street, they were 20,000 marching.

The Central Security Forces were in chaos; when they formed cordons the people just broke through them. When they raised their riot shields and batons the young people walked right up to them with their hands up chanting “Silmiyyah! [Peaceable] Silmiyyah!”

In Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, on Tuesday night Egypt refound and celebrated its diversity. The activists formed a minor part of the gathering, what was there was The People.

Young people of every background and social class marched and sang together. Older, respected figures went round with food and blankets. Cigarette-smoking women in jeans sat next to their niqab-wearing sisters on the pavement. Old comrades from the student movement of the 1970s met for the first time in decades. Young people went round collecting litter. People who stayed at home phoned nearby restaurants with orders to deliver food to the protesters. Not one religious or sectarian slogan was heard. The solidarity was palpable. And if this sounds romantic, well, it was and is.

Then, at1am, Central Security attacked. Ferociously.

(Here’s an earlier piece by Soueif, also, that almost anticipates this week’s events.)

Novelist Alaa Al Aswany was among the protestors:

I found myself in the midst of thousands of young Egyptians, whose only point of similarity was their dazzling bravery and their determination to do one thing – change the regime. Most of them are university students who find themselves with no hope for the future. They are unable to find work, and hence unable to marry. And they are motivated by an untameable anger and a profound sense of injustice.

I will always be in awe of these revolutionaries. Everything they have said shows a sharp political awareness and a death-defying desire for freedom. . . .

More ordinary citizens are now defying the police. A young demonstrator told me that, when running from the police on Tuesday, he entered a building and rang an apartment bell at random. It was 4am. A 60-year-old man opened the door, fear obvious on his face. The demonstrator asked the man to hide him from the police. The man asked to see his identity card and invited him in, waking one of his three daughters to prepare some food for the young man. They ate and drank tea together and chatted like lifelong friends.

In the morning, when the danger of arrest had receded, the man accompanied the young protester into the street, stopped a taxi for him and offered him some money. The young man refused and thanked them. As they embraced the older man said: “It is I who should be thanking you for defending me, my daughters and all Egyptians.”

That is how the Egyptian spring began. Tomorrow, we will see a real battle.


More from Ahdaf Soueif today:

Now, as I write, the president has announced a curfew from an hour ago. And the army has started to deploy. If I were not writing this, I would still be out on the street. Every single person I know is out there; people who have never been on protests are wrapping scarves round their faces and learning that sniffing vinegar helps you get through teargas. Teargas! This is a gas that makes you feel the skin is peeling off your face. For several minutes I could not even open my eyes to see what was going on. And when I did, I saw that one of my nieces had stopped in the middle of the road, her eyes streaming. One of her shoes lost, she was holding out her arms: “I can’t, I can’t.”

“You have to. Run.” We all held arms and ran. This was on 6 October Bridge, just under the Rameses Hilton, and the air was thick with smoke. The thud of the guns was unceasing. We were trying to get to Tahrir Square, the main square of Cairo, the traditional destination of protests. But ahead of us was a wall of teargas. We ran down the slope of the bridge and straight into a line of central security soldiers. They were meant to block the way. We were three women, dishevelled, eyes streaming. We came right up to them and they made way. “Run,” they urged us, “Run!”

“How can you do this?” I reproached them, eye to eye.

“What can we do? We want to take off this uniform and join you!”

Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt

Having cleared at least the semblance of a path through the draft thesis chapters that have taken up the bulk of my time since my summer class wrapped up at the end of June, I’m finally turning my attention back to my summer research project, which is to extend and perhaps even complete the essay on Ahdaf Soueif that I’ve posted about here and at The Valve before. Yes, that’s right, it’s not done yet. It got as far as a conference paper last year, and since then, in between other projects, I’ve been collecting references and sources for it and trying to conceptualize what it is I hope that the final essay will do, or be about and where exactly I might submit it. My basic idea is to fill in more details about In the Eye of the Sun and then develop a comparison between it and The Map of Love–which I’ve just finished re-re-reading. The Map of Love has a more complex form than In the Eye of the Sun, interweaving the story of two 20th-century women (Isabel, an American, and Amal, an Egyptian who turns out to be Isabel’s cousin) with the story of Lady Anna Winterbourne, an Edwardian Englishwoman who travels to–and eventually marries and lives in–Egypt. While my motivating interest is still the intertextual relationship between Soueif’s work and George Eliot’s, The Map of Love clearly has strong ties to other literary sources, particularly accounts of “lady travellers” in Egypt. Lucie Duff Gordon is probably the most famous, but I’ve also signed out of the library a lovely illustrated edition of Florence Nightingale’s Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-50, which turns out to be quite entertaining. For instance, like me she wages war on biting insects:

I and the gnats have so many ways of outwitting each other. X and Mr B. look as if they had the small-pox; but I, who would sleep in an Indian rubber tub with a tallow candle in my mouth if it were suggested, shut my windows before sundown; and I hear those who are in, furling their wings and uttering little infernal cries of triumph. Then I set my door open, and put a light in the passage, and they think I’m there, and follow; but I’m not,–don’t tell them. Then, when night comes, I take out a large sheet of paper and begin to write, and they believe I’m not thinking of sleep. But I leave off in the middle of a word, run with all my might at the Levinge [an elaborate netted sleeping bag], where I insert myself by so small a hole that you would say a camel could get through the eye of a needle; and then I clap my hands, and sing a little ode in honour of Mercury, the god of theft, because I have stolen myself from the gnats. Meanwhile I hear their whistle of rage and disappointment, and I see their proboscises coming through the curtains, as if they would fly away with the whole concern.

In a more serious vein, she often reflects on what she perceives of “Mahometism.” Carefully fitted up in “Egyptian dress,” including a complete veil, for instance, she is able to step inside a mosque to observe:

That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries, where Christ has not been to raise us. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. . . . Still, the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling; X was struck with its irreverence. Some were at their prayers; but one was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting round him–others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London church.

It is so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure,–if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect,–perfect at least compared with the streets of London and Edinburgh, where there is not a spot on earth a poor woman may call her own to find repose in. The mosque leaves the more religious impression of the two, it is the better place of worship,–not than St. Peter’s, perhaps, but better than St. Paul’s.

I don’t know why it surprised me, from the author of Cassandra, after all, but I was struck by how often her interest and enjoyment in the scenes she observes are undercut, or at least rendered more problematic, by her consciousness of her sex and the complications it brings:

We have had a delightful week at Cairo. I wish we were going to stay longer. It is the riding in the streets, above all, which is so delightful, of which one never wearies; the latticed windows meeting overhead, the pearls of Moorish architecture at every corner, the looking up to the blue sky and golden sunlight from the wells of streets and in the bazaars, the streets entirely roofed in; and as you stand bargaining for a pair of yellow slippers, you see the corner of a street with the spring of an arch covered with Moorish network, and the sunlight pouring through the square holes left in the roof which shuts in the street. . .

In riding home by moonlight, … there is not a corner which is not a picture; and no picture can give an idea of the colouring. But you don’t enjoy all this for nothing. A Christian female dog has two titles of dishonour here, and she cannot stir out without her ass, her running ass-driver, and at least one gentleman or a dragoman. A la langue this dependence becomes tiresome beyond what a European can conceive. It is not that one minds being spat at (which I have been) for a religion which one loves, but one is so afraid of the gentlemen of one’s party noticing any insult, as an Englishman’s complaint would bring a bastinado upon the poor wretch, which has often ended in death.

Like Soueif’s Lady Anna, she is particularly fascinated and spiritually moved by the desert. “The oftener you are astonished at it, the more like a stranger a mysterious power it seems,” she remarks;

While the earth in our country is rich and variegated with light, and crowded with animation, the sky above contrasts with its deadness. Here, on the other hand, the sky is radiant, the light is living, the golden light which seems to pour not only from the sun, but from all the points of the transparent blue heavens. One looks down, and the ungrateful earth lies there, hopeless and helpless, a dying, withered desert: one almost fancies one hears the Devil laughing as he dares even Almighty power to bring forth bread.

This is what gives one a supernatural, mysterious feeling in Egypt,–the looks naturally turn to the sky when the earth has no beauty that one should desire it, and the heavens have all beauty. The struggle between God and the Devil is perpetually visible before one’s thoughts, for the earth seems the abode of the Devil, the heavens of God; and you do not wonder at the Orientals being the mystical people they have become, nor at the Europeans, where all beauty is of the earth, and the thoughts turn to the earth, becoming a practical, active people.

Here’s an excerpt from Lady Anna’s (fictional) journal:

We rode on, and we stopped only twice. Once when we made camp for the night. The other earlier: when the sun set beyond the Gulf of Suez, making clear to me whence came the name the ‘Red’ Sea, for the setting sun brought out the red and black of the ore in the mountains and the sea reflected it all back. All the reds, and yellows and orange and purple, were in that wonderful landscape, and as it faded and the colours all round us melted more and more into gentleness, I thought there should be some act–some formal recognition of this daily magnificence. Even as the thought formed itself in my mind, we came to a halt as if by agreement. The animals knelt, the men dismounted and turned towards the South-East. One voice was lifted: ‘Allahu Akbar’, and they prayed silently together.

I might think that Soueif is delicately parodying the orientalizing English tendency to translate the Egyptian landscape into something exotically mystical, except that in her scene, Anna too is moved to prayer and to peace–and after all, isn’t there something spiritually uplifting about extraordinary natural beauty? For George Eliot, it’s the landscapes of one’s childhood that carry one towards “religious” peace and truth. What’s interesting in these examples (well, one among many interesting things) is the way an unfamiliar landscape opens up new spiritual ideas or possibilities.

Anglo-Egyptian Fiction

As I putter away at my project on Ahdaf Soueif, I’ve been trying to think of other modern novels that qualify as “Anglo-Egyptian”: that is, novels by English novelists but set primarily (or at least significantly) in or about Egypt. For my purposes, I think I would exclude novels about Ancient Egypt (which in my experience tend to be of the costume-and-jewelry form of historical fiction–not that there’s anything wrong with that, and also Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning is an old favourite of mine). I would also not expect to be interested in lighter fiction, such as mysteries, for which Egypt is really just a conveniently exotic setting. I could be persuaded, of course, to look at interesting examples from either of these categories. But I’m mostly looking for “serious” or literary fiction, fiction with some ambition, if you like, primarily because that’s where I would expect to find interesting ideas about what it means for an English novelist to write about Egypt. The obvious examples I’m aware of are Lawrence Durrell‘s Alexandria Quartet, Olivia Manning‘s Levant Trilogy, and Penelope Lively‘s Cleopatra’s Sister and (another old favourite) Moon Tiger. Other suggestions?

Update: Now that I’ve read it, I realize that Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister is not actually about Egypt.

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch


As I have posted several times here (and there) about my unfolding project on Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, I thought it was only fair to post the conference paper I delivered on Sunday at ACCUTE, which is the first concrete result of the research and thinking I have done so far. Tempering justice with mercy, I won’t put the entire paper, especially because I can’t figure out how to put only the first bit on my front page. The paper was written to be read aloud, and the time limit was strict (20 minutes): both of these requirements have certain effects on both style and substance. Beyond that, I have only myself to blame. In italics is some material I wasn’t sure I’d have time to read (mostly, I didn’t). And so, without further hemming and hawing…

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch

Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun has been called ‘the Egyptian Middlemarch,’ a comparison invited by its numerous intertextual gestures towards George Eliot’s masterpiece—most conspicuously, its epigraph is the famous ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage. Critical work on the novel so far has focused on Soueif as a postcolonial writer and thus on her Arab or Egyptian perspective, on issues of national identity or the possibilities of “cultural dialogue” (Massad 74), and on her works as examples of cultural and linguistic hybridity (Darraj, Malak). Though I believe that these are not just inevitable but also illuminating approaches to Soueif’s fiction, including In the Eye of the Sun, I also think it is important not to limit the range of questions we ask of a text because it appears to fit into a particular category (in this case, the postcolonial novel). In doing so we risk enacting a kind of literary essentialism by which our interpretation of a text is determined by the geographical origins of its author. Priya Joshi notes that the “persistent critical reference to writing from once colonial lands as postcolonial” may inhibit attention to their particularities:

When does it end? For how many years after empire ends does writing have to be “post” before it can become itself? . . . does it ever end or does all literature from once colonized lands always bear the stamp that comes with the appellation “colonial”? . . . The danger, therefore, of preserving any part of the term “postcolonial” is that it ultimately eviscerates the possibility of conducting a historically grounded or specifically directed study. . . . (233)

A particular danger seems to me to be that reading a text as “postcolonial” means fixing it in a certain relation to the world, and especially to the literature of the “colonizer”–often viewed within postcolonial studies as “a vehicle for imperial authority” (Tiffin et al.). The work of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and many others on the ways 19th-century novels are “implicated” or even complicit in imperialism, for instance, has established a near-normative paradigm that predisposes us to find a confrontational (or at least corrective) relationship between a “postcolonial” author or critic and any given Victorian text he or she might invoke. I will argue that Soueif’s allusions to Middlemarch work against this oppositional paradigm. Rather than writing back against Eliot’s novel, Souief writes with it, sharing and extending some of its central ideas about how we perceive and live in the world, ideas that are not determined by national identities or other historical contingencies but appeal to “a commonality of human experience beyond politics, beyond forms” (In the Eye of the Sun 754). The two novels coexist, that is, in a literary version of the space defined by Soueif in her non-fiction writing as the ‘mezzaterra,’ or common ground. There, “differences [are] interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities” (Mezzaterra 7).

I’m going to use the rest of my time to bring out what I see as “affinities” between Eliot’s novel and Soueif’s. I’ll start with some basic information about Soueif and In the Eye of the Sun (assuming that most of you are familiar with Middlemarch). Like Asya al-Ulama, the protagonist of In the Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif was raised and educated in both England and Egypt. Though she began publishing fiction (written in English) as early as 1983, In the Eye of the Sun was her first full-length novel. It attracted a lot of mostly positive attention from high-profile critics including Edward Said (in the TLS), Frank Kermode (in the LRB), and Hilary Mantel (in the NYRB). Essentially a Bildungsroman in its structure, the novel is heavily autobiographical. Like Soueif, Asya, the child of Cairo University professors, is raised in a cosmopolitan milieu in which English language and culture are as familiar as Egyptian or Arabic. Also like Soueif, Asya aims to follow her mother into the University’s English Department (“To hear her father when he had to give his occupation for some form or another say ‘University professor,’ you would know for sure there was no other job in the world worth having” [450]). While an undergraduate at CU she falls in love with Saif Madi, older, worldly, self-confident. Though Asya somewhat inexplicably adores him, from the beginning there are hints that all will not go well with them: Saif makes Asya feel tongue-tied, naïve, inadequate (“I talk plenty to everyone else, but he seems so clever, I just don’t want to look stupid in front of him by saying something not particularly profound” [107]); to suit his taste, she begins choosing clothes that are “much more subdued,” mostly beige (227, cf 651). One of their most serious early conflicts is on an unexpected subject. “’What was the argument about?’” Asya’s mother asks Asya’s friend Chrissie:

‘It was about George Eliot, Tante’
‘George Eliot? … But why were they arguing about George Eliot?’ ‘I think Asya was saying she was a great writer and he was saying she wasn’t.’
‘I thought you were supposed to care about literature. [Asya protests]. . . And anyway that wasn’t what it was about, it was about him. He hasn’t read her and yet he can sit there and say she’s not worth reading. If it’s not Sartre or the Spanish Civil War or Camus or someone he already knows than it’s worth nothing. . . . I thought he was…available to—to life. But he’s got a closed mind. He actually makes me think of that passage where she says Mr. Casaubon’s mind is like a—an enclosed basin. (298)

As Asya says, George Eliot is here really just the occasion for one of a series of struggles between Asya and Saif that, whatever their explicit topic, really turn on Asya’s right to her own point of view. The alienation between them worsens during the years Asya is in England studying (as Soueif did) for her Ph.D.; for Asya, the failure of their sex life (in nine years they never fully consummate their marriage) becomes both symbol and symptom of the deeper failure of intimacy between them.

Disillusioned by the realities of both her married life and her (dull and unrewarding) scholarship, Asya resolves to resign herself to her narrowed lot, to

create meaning in her life by striving to be the best person she can, not in the ways that appeal to her, not by spooning aid porridge into the mouths of rows of starving children or bringing comfort to shrapnelled soldiers or . . . or writing Middlemarch, but in the more difficult way that has been allotted to her—for the moment—and to draw strength that while she is doing her best for those whose lives most immediately touch her own, she is not at a standstill; she is working towards making her own life the way she wants it. (462-3)

But Asya finds renunciation “á la Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke” very difficult (303), and eventually in her frustration and loneliness, she begins an affair with an English business student, Gerald Stone. Characters from 19th-century novels continue to serve as her reference points:

You’ve committed adultery, you’ve done it, [she reflects after her first night with Gerald] 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. (541)

The affair is sexually liberating for her, but unfortunately Gerald proves shallow and emotionally parasitic. Eventually she confesses the affair to Saif; although she insists it is meaningless and Gerald is “irrelevant,” Saif is outraged, and the resulting conflicts, some of them violent, destroy the remnants of their marriage. Asya eventually does complete her doctorate and then returns to Egypt, not only to teach English literature, but to work with a program offering sex education and birth control to Egyptian village women.

Aside from Soueif’s intertextual allusions, there’s not a lot in In the Eye of the Sun that brings Middlemarch immediately to mind. Their plots have little in common besides the bad marriages. Futile scholarship is another shared element, though, as Said remarked, “in many ways Asya is her own Casaubon” (her Ph.D. research, for instance, is essentially a key to all metaphors, and she stores her index cards in stacks of boxes reminiscent of Casaubon’s pigeonholes [379]). Both are very long books! But other overt parallels are hard to discern. The novels diverge most significantly in their forms. Middlemarch, of course, presents a web of complexly interrelated plots and characters unified by the narrator’s sage moral, philosophical, and historical commentary. The novel’s subtitle, ‘A Study of Provincial Life,’ indicates its aspirations to breadth and objectivity. As my overview of In the Eye of the Sun shows, Soueif’s novel in contrast is intensely personal, a priority also reflected in its form—as a Bildungsroman, it focuses almost entirely on Asya and is told almost entirely from Asya’s point of view. No narrative interventions put her experiences in broader perspective.

These differences might seem like indications that Soueif rejects the premises of Eliot’s formal choices: that comprehensive understanding (promised via multiple plots) and universal norms (established via the narrator’s commentary) are discredited in Soueif’s postmodern, postcolonial world. If this were the case, we would, I think, be led towards an interpretation of In the Eye of the Sun as an example of postcolonial ‘talking back,’ or at least revision, asserting difference, contingency, and resistance in the face of imperialistic presumptions of universality. Such a reading would be consistent with Amin Malak’s claim that “dislocation between the realm of Western literature and the reality of the Middle Eastern world constitutes a leitmotific feature that runs throughout Soueif’s fiction” (134).Yet these conclusions seem inadequate to the actual uses of Middlemarch (and, just btw, other “Western” texts) in Soueif’s novel and to the similarities in theme and ethos that the novels manifest despite their surface differences.

For instance, though In the Eye of the Sun is far more focused on one individual life than Middlemarch, Asya’s story is carefully placed and contextualized historically. The Six Day War breaks out as Asya studies for her university entrance exams in 1967; as the novel proceeds we learn of Nasser’s sudden death and the decline of his version of pan-Arabism; we watch the dawning of the Sadat era; we hear about the beginnings of civil war in Lebanon; we witness, on Asya’s return to Cairo in 1980, the increased Islamist influence signalled particularly by the presence in her classroom of veiled students. The stories of Asya’s friends and family also put human faces on regional conflicts and politics: her friend Chrissie loses a lover in the 1967 war; her friend Noora marries a Palestinian, Bassam, and as a consequence is disowned by her family; her sister Deena’s husband Muhsin ends up in the infamous Tora prison for leftist activism against Sadat’s government. Malak points to this integration of “the private history of a woman and her family with the political history of the nation” (146) as a typical feature of postcolonial writing; a Victorianist would also readily identify it as a form of the “history by indirection” typical of novels by Scott, Thackeray or George Eliot, which also portray and thematize intersections between private and public life, between the individual and the historical.

I’d like to walk through two more examples of subtle but persistent thematic congruity between In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch, both of which, I think, further discourage an oppositional or postcolonial reading of the relationship between these two novels and move us towards the idea of a literary mezzaterra or common ground…

[Here I move into a comparison of the passages I looked at in this post, arguing that although they seem very different, overall both novels move us towards the same conclusion: that sympathy is the antidote to cruelty or suffering, on whatever scale. Then I argue that, while urging the necessity of acknowleding that everyone has, as Eliot’s narrator says, “an equivalent center of self,” the novels also dramatize the necessity of acknowleding your individual needs, a particular challenge for the female protagonists.]

One answer to the question “why always George Eliot,” then, is that despite their different origins and contexts, and despite the conspicuous differences in the particulars of their novels, there are strong affinities between Soueif’s vision or ethos in In The Eye of the Sun and Eliot’s in Middlemarch. I suppose this might seem an unremarkable conclusion, given that Soueif signals as much by her choice of epigraph (!). But in fact in the context of postcolonial discourse there is something unexpected about it. It points us towards a theory of literary relations according to which Middlemarch need not be read as the Western text and In the Eye of the Sun the Eastern—or Middlemarch need not represent Victorian literature, or English literature, or colonial literature and In the Eye of the Sun need not be, or stand for, Egyptian, or Arabic, or post-colonial perspectives. This need not be seen as returning us to a problematic universalism. For one thing, both Soueif and Eliot are too intensely conscious of the role of history in determining character and values. Instead, I want to come back to the notion of the mezzaterra, an arena in which “differences are foregrounded against a background of affinities.” Said concludes his review of In the Eye of the Sun with a question that (especially coming from him) cannot be seen as wholly rhetorical: “Who cares about the labels of national identity anyway?” (19). Soueif’s sympathetic invocations of Middlemarch (or, I would also add, her entirely non-ironic choice of a line of Kipling for her title) show setting aside such labels, including the label “postcolonial,” lets us focus on things we share (including our global literary inheritance) and thus “inhabit and broaden the common ground”(Mezzaterra 23). (Said: “In fact, there can be generosity, and vision, and overcoming barriers, and, finally, human existential integrity.”)

The Other Sides of Silence

I’ve begun trying to organize my ideas about In the Eye of the Sun. At this point I’m finding that the questions and confusions in my head about the novel’s relationship to Middlemarch are increasing rather settling into some kind of order. I’m hopeful, of course, that this mental chaos, while disconcerting this close to my conference deadline, is evidence of the interest and complexity of the interpretive project I’ve undertaken, as well as of the wider range of ideas I’ve brought to my latest re-reading of Soueif’s novel thanks to my excursions into postcolonial theory, modern Egyptian history, the story of Cairo University, and other materials directly by or about Ahdaf Soueif. I often reassure my thesis students that things inevitably get messy for a while, especially in the ‘discovery’ phase, when you are moving past the provisional hypotheses of your research proposal and actually looking at how the pieces you’ve assembled relate to each other and finding out the ‘unknown unknowns’ (a much-derided phrase I’ve always felt some sympathy for, despite its source, as one of the great challenges of research is precisely that you don’t always know what you don’t know until your work is well underway).

In any case, one thing I do know at this point is that time constraints–not just for the writing of the conference paper, but also for its presentation–mean I couldn’t address all the potential angles that have occurred to me even if I did sort them all out. So my main task in the next couple of days is setting the limits for this version of the paper, which I hope over the summer to develop into the fuller, more wide-ranging form envisaged in the proposal I submitted. I’m thinking right now of focusing quite specifically on the novel’s most overt gesture towards Middlemarch, which is its epigraph, taken from the famous ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage in Chapter 20:

…and we do 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 on that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

There are a number of passages in In the Eye of the Sun which (on my reading, anyway) invoke a “roar … on the other side of silence,” but it is not easy to see just how they engage with this moment in Eliot’s novel–whether, for instance, they reflect, extend, or critique it. Here is one such passage, for example, from Part VI of Soueif’s novel. It is 1971 and the protagonist, Asya al-Ulama, is with her friends studying for their exam in 20th century poetry. One of the company is Bassam, a Palestinian; thinking about his experience of “living under occupation” leads Asya to a wider meditation on “all those bruised people: Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and of course the Jews themselves,” and then on “all the things that are happening right now … as they sit here studying for their poetry exam:”

secret deals being arranged in government departments, counterdeals in secret service meetings, ignorant armies moving silently by night,* people being thrown out of their houses, babies being tortured, people being tortured–this is the point where Asya’s mind starts to do a loop. People being tortured. Right now. As we sit here. Tortured. And what do we do? We go on studying for our exams. . . . But what else is to be done? What can be done? Can you get up right now and rush off to some prison — assuming you know where one is — and hammer at the door? … No. No, well, of course not, that’s stupid — and yet how can you just go on sitting here while someone somewhere is having live wires pushed up his rectum, his teeth pulled out of his head, her vagina stuffed with hungry rats, or having to watch her baby’s head being smashed against the —

Asya jumps up. She always jumps up when she gets to this bit. Now she goes out on the balcony and stands holding on to the stone balustrade and breathing fast and looking at the lights of the Officer’s Club. She daren’t look up at the sky because the darkness and the stars will make her think of how the earth is a tiny ball spinning round and round in space, and space is something she cannot even being to imagine.

When these panics come over her, Asya copes by trying not to think. It is easy to see not just the comfort but the necessity of being, as Eliot concludes even the best of us is, “well wadded with stupidity.”

Both passages turn on the possibility of being overwhelmed by too full an awareness of suffering in the world. But the specifics of that suffering seem very different. Dorothea is sad in Chapter XX because she has married the wrong man, because the “new real future which replaces the imaginary” for her is such a disappointment. The narrator acknowledges that her situation is commonplace and that to see it as a tragedy requires a recalibration of “tragic” to accommodate something so unexceptional. Much of the moral pressure of Middlemarch is precisely in this direction: towards extending our sympathies to those suffering through the petty trials of “ordinary human life.” The novel, we might say, encourages us to listen for the squirrel’s heartbeat, to risk casting off some of that protective padding (constituted largely of egotism), as Dorothea, in her sorrow, is just beginning to do:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness that is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects — that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.**

On the other side of silence in Middlemarch, then, we have a vast accumulation of “equivalent centre[s] of self,” and the roar we hear (if, unlike Mr Brooke, we go “too far”) is a cacophony of personal feelings.

In contrast, in In the Eye of the Sun we hear “men from the Muslim Brotherhood [who have been] pumped up, blown full of water,” and then jumped on and exploded–screams of literal, physical (not metaphorical, moral, or spiritual) pain. Such acts are, indeed, unthinkable, and yet they are part of the everyday reality of Asya’s world: not of her everyday experience, of course, but part of the news she reads, the stories and rumours that circulate among her friends and family, the fears and motivations of people she knows. It is possible to find Dorothea’s “faintness of heart” at learning of Mr Casaubon’s deficiencies trivial by comparison to the sufferings enumerated in Asya’s versions of “Hamlet-like raving” about “all the trouble of all the people in the world” (Middlemarch Chapter 77)–and if In the Eye of the Sun were a different novel overall, I think this contrast might propel me towards a reading of it as critical of Middlemarch, taking the passage from Chapter XX as its epigraph in an ironic spirit (at best) and trying to show up the political inadequacy of its highly “self”-centered morality. I don’t think this is how the epigraph is in fact refracted through Soueif’s novel, though. My task for work tomorrow (if our ritual departmental “May Marks Meeting” allows) will be trying to explain why… I think it has something to do with the interplay of personal and political in both cases (both exemplify what Jerome Beatty calls “history by indirection”), and with the specific relationship of Dorothea and Asya to their husbands (within story space) and to the form of their novels.

(Trying to put even this much into something clear enough to post has been very helpful: I feel that I have, at least provisionally, cleaned up a little of the mess.)

*I just caught the echo of “Dover Beach” here, another tempting bit of intertextuality. That’s what I mean by things getting messier.
**Middlemarch is such a wonderful book.

An Unfamiliar Sensation; and, More on Post-Colonial Criticism

I think it’s called a “lull.”

I’ve just crossed off the last teaching-related task that I can do for now. This afternoon my Mystery and Detective Fiction students are writing their final exam and my Victorian Faith and Doubt papers are due at 4:00. Until these milestones are passed, however, I am free. Free, that is, to work on other things, like my Soueif paper! But a change is as good as a rest, no?

So, about that paper. In between my other recent activities, I’ve been thinking more about post-colonial criticism and why I’ve been assuming that it is a necessary component of this project. Some time ago I asked “whether working on Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory.” The always-helpful Aaron Bady responded that a more productive version of my question might be “how to determine to what extent the meaning of Eliot in Egypt is determined not merely by Eliot herself, but by the meaning of ‘English literature’ in Egypt.” Now that I’ve looked at least a bit more closely at what it means to “use” post-colonial theory (or, properly, to do “post-colonial readings”) I think I understand better the difference between these options. If (though I realize now that this is debatable) a “post-colonial reading” means reading with a specific focus on how the text under consideration is “implicated” in imperialism, then that is not the right angle from which to approach a text like In the Eye of the Sun, which is itself (perhaps) a post-colonial text. If a post-colonial reading is called for in this project, it would presumably be a reading of Middlemarch, in order to see how (or whether) Soueif’s engagement with that novel is an engagement with it on those terms. My own preliminary sense of In the Eye of the Sun is that this is not what it is doing with Middlemarch–but I can’t be sure unless I can grasp what a post-colonial interpretation of Middlemarch might entail, so there is a reason to continue my exploration of this theoretical approach. Priority reading, then: Nancy Henry’s George Eliot and the British Empire and Patrick Brantlinger’s new volume Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies. I’ve spent some time with Henry’s book before and recall it focusing primarily on Daniel Deronda. So far I’m not aware of any specifcially post-colonial reading of Middlemarch.

Returning to Aaron’s reformulated question, though, about the meaning of ‘English literature’ in Egypt, this turns out to be quite an interesting question to think about, and not an easy one to answer. A slight refinement of it might be, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean to Soueif–or, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean in In the Eye of the Sun? What does it mean for an Egyptian novelist to invoke this novel as a touchstone in a novel about an Egyptian woman studying English literature in Egypt and then in England? What interpretive freight does Middlemarch carry here? There is a textual dimension to these questions (what is actually said about literature, for instance, or about Middlemarch). But there’s a contextual dimension too, such as the conditions by which English becomes a subject of study in Egyptian universities in the first place, so that Soueif herself, as well as her character Asya, has anything to do with Middlemarch at all. Here too, colonialism is clearly a factor. So far, I haven’t found much scholarship addressing the history of English studies in Egypt; more attention has gone to English studies in India, such as Guari Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest, which emphasizes the role of literary studies in “strengthen[ing] Western hegemony” and imperial control. I was prompted by Amardeep Singh’s extremely clear and helpful comments here to order Priya Joshi’s In Another Country (on sale now at Columbia UP, in case you are interested), but I think there too the focus is on India. I’ve found one book on the history of Cairo University, Donald Reid’s Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt, which gives some useful insights into the competing imperial impulses and nationalisms that shaped the formation of that institution. English studies get fairly brief mention, though what is there is certainly interesting. For instance, did you know that Robert Graves taught at what was then the Egyptian University for a while, or that Jehan Sadat’s PhD thesis was on “the influence of nineteenth-century English romanticism on twentieth-century Egyptian writing” (219)? Reid’s explanations of the Egyptian educational system more generally, as well as his account of the “Islamist challenges” of the 1970s and 1980s, certainly help place Asya’s experiences in the novel for me, especially her uncomfortable encounters with veiled students on her return to the university after her years abroad (I learned, for instance, that in 1981 Sadat imposed a ban on students wearing the niqab, a ban which was overturned in 1988). More specific analysis of the curriculum of English studies, or the value attached to it, or its ideological implications in a specifically Egyptian context I haven’t yet found. In fact, at this point it seems to me that English-Egyptian relations have received far less scholarly attention than English-Indian relations, at least in the areas where such scholarship would overlap with literary scholarship. I may learn otherwise as my research continues, but if I’m right about this, that in itself is kind of interesting. In the meantime, I can consider what has been said about English literature in India to see what insights there might seem portable to my own context. Again, I have a preliminary sense that In the Eye of the Sun is not setting English literature up as an antagonist or ‘problematizing’ English studies on political or nationalistic grounds, but everything I learn about how and why someone in Egypt would be reading Middlemarch is helfpul to my thinking. Though in exploring these issues I will be thinking about relationships between a former colonial power and a former colony, I don’t believe that probing these questions qualifies as doing “post-colonial criticism.”

One final thought about all of this: I really do think one of the reasons I have been worrying about post-colonial criticism even though it’s not clear to me that its concerns are my concerns, is anxiety about the expectation that Soueif’s novel is best understood as a post-colonial critique of Middlemarch–that I will get questions from the floor along those lines, for instance, and not know how to answer them. Even if those questions might represent a kind of unwarranted knee-jerk assumption about how Victorian novels always already function in a post-colonial context, there I’d be fumbling the question about Said or Homi Bhaba or whatever and my protestations that the question is a sort of category mistake would just make me look either ignorant or evasive. The work I’m doing right now may turn out to be largely irrelevant to the arguments I ultimately make about In the Eye of the Sun, but at least I will be better prepared to explain why I have done the project I have done, and not something else.

And now, off to invigilate my exam and (circumstances permitting) read Viswanathan.