Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building

yacoubianI didn’t realize until I finished The Yacoubian Building how its characters and stories had caught me up emotionally. The consistently flat narration–I’m not sure if this is a function of the translation or a genuine reflection of Al Aswany’s style–and the dispersal of our attention across multiple plots conspired against any strong feelings except curiosity for much of the novel. But by the end I found that curiosity had turned into concern, even care, about how each person’s story would end, and each ending was, in its own way, deeply moving. Some stories (Souad, Taha, Hatim especially) are heartrending; others (Abaskharon and Malak) wryly comic; others (Busayna and Zaki) are surprisingly beautiful and hopeful.

The Yacoubian Building (and the Yacoubian Building) is a microcosm of a world that comes across as chaotic, risky, bleak, yet shot through with a kind of wistful longing for dignity and love, the two things all of the characters are ultimately in search of. Even as you watch their mistakes, their compromises, their sacrifices, their sins, it’s hard to sit in judgment, because the medium they move in is so relentlessly corrupt. The conviction that there’s no winning against this system may account for the matter-of-fact tone and the absence of authorial commentary about even the novel’s most depressing sequences, such as Taha’s descent into extremism–inaugurated not by religious fanaticism or political commitment but by the injustice and prejudice of a bureaucracy that blocks him from his honorable dream–or the disastrous conclusion of Hatim’s affair with Abd Rabbuh, for whose shame, guilt and resentment Hatim’s sad love proves an unequal match. “I’m sure that Our Lord will forgive us because we don’t do anyone any harm,” Hatim reassures his lover; “We just love one another.” If only that belief were reflected in the world around them.

Al Aswany’s storytelling is so inexorable it feels fatalistic. But against the backdrop of cynicism and despair, Al Aswany sets the unlikely, unforeseeable–the “strange and unexpected”– love story of Busayna and Zaki: “little by little, raising his arms aloft amid the joyful laughter and cries of the others, he joined her in the dance.”

The Yacoubian Building is this month’s reading for The Slaves of Golconda: check out the group’s website for other posts, and feel free to join in the discussion on the Forum.

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.

 

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.

Update

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.

Kate Pullinger, The Mistress of Nothing

The Mistress of Nothing won this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. I haven’t read any of the other contenders, but if The Mistress of Nothing is really the best of the bunch, I shouldn’t bother, because it is a pretty mediocre novel.* I love the idea of it, which is why I ordered it even before the GG results were announced; it’s just bad luck (mine and Pullinger’s both–not that she has any stake in what I thought of her book) that I reread Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love not long ago and it does so many similar things with so much more richness, and then so much more besides.

The Mistress of Nothing tells the story of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon’s maid Sally Naldrett, who on a trip to Egypt with her mistress in the 1860s falls in love with their Egyptian dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh. Pullinger sets up Sally’s predisposition to love all things Egyptian by making her a regular visitor to the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery:

I have my favourite . The first time I saw his shapely long face I thought he was a woman. But no, he’s a man, a colossal Pharaoh. Almond eyes, kohl-rimmed like a cat’s; I would run my hand along his cheek if I could reach that high, over his lips, down to his great chin, feeling the stone bones beneath the smooth cool stone skin. I stare at him, and he stares back at me. I laugh at myself: he’s the man of my dreams.

You can probably predict how this fantasy plays out, but in case you can’t, here’s Sally’s first impression of Omar:

He was a bit younger than me, perhaps in his mid-twenties, though it’s hard to tell. He was slender – all Egyptian men are slender, except when they are prosperous and very fat. He was neatly dressed, his clothes well cared for and tidy. Like most Egyptians he was clean-shaven and his skin was exceptionally smooth-looking. He reminded me of someone and this feeling nagged at me until I remembered: the man I used to visit in the Museum. My stone Pharaoh. I felt hot suddenly, and my throat tightened, and my heart skipped a beat.

“Man of my dreams”? “my heart skipped a beat”? This is award-winning literary language? Throughout the novel, in fact, the prose is uneven, with nicely evocative moments undermined (as the description of the stone Pharaoh is) by wooden exclamations insisting too hard on the obvious, forcing emotional intensity where it should arise from the situation, as here when Omar reveals to Sally Lady Duff Gordon’s sentence on Sally for having Omar’s child:

‘Abdullah must go to my wife Mabrouka in Cairo and you must return to England.’

In that moment, my life was ruined. With her words, relayed to me by my lover, I was destroyed.

Or, again here:

My Lady did her utmost to make sure my marriage day was as penitential and joyless as possible, but she did not succeed. My heart flew that day, and uncontainable joy bubbled up insde me. Truth be told, I could not have cared less about the ceremony and its trappings, Egyptian or English. Omar and I were married!

This kind of naivete would be tolerable if it were Sally’s alone, and we had reason to feel the novel as a whole distancing itself from her, but there are no traces of skepticism about this voice except insofar as Sally eventually discovers herself to have been deceived about the extent of Omar’s love and loyalty. Sally continues to narrate in the same wooden way right to the end (“As I made my way through the streets, I felt him behind me and all the warnings I had ever had about being alone in a city at night rushed up to overtake me”).

And yet what I wanted from Pullinger was not less prose, but more (if also better). The novel is desperately thin on context and character development and thus on motivation–which becomes a fatal flaw at the novel’s turning point, Lady Duff Gordon’s complete rejection of Sally after the exposure of her relationship with Omar. This development is totally unprepared for. Well, to be fair, we are prepared for it by both the jacket blurb and the first chapter, which begins, “The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human. . . . When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her” (and so on for a whole paragraph). But as this rejection is the pivot on which not just the plot turns but also the whole idea of the book (according to the GG site, “realizations about the nature of power – its seductiveness, its elusiveness and its ability to alter the soul in manifold ways”), we need to feel it as something profoundly meaningful, revelatory even. Sally’s relationship with her mistress is clearly intended as one that (temporarily) transcends conventional class boundaries, but we have not experienced their bond as something extraordinary enough or deep enough that Lady Duff Gordon’s reversion to strident authoritarianism and prudery feels anything but arbitrary, necessitated by the facts of the case but not by the accumulated pressures of the novel. Why should she turn on Sally so abruptly and completely? We never get an explicit answer, and we don’t know Lady Duff Gordon well enough to infer one. The absence of reason could be made meaningful by linking it to questions about human nature, repressed female rivalries, the corruption of class privilege, the threats of colonial resistance, or really anything provided it arose from the personal and historical situation of the characters, but it just happens and so it feels (despite apparently being the truth) like nothing more than a plot device. Omar’s choice of Lady Duff Gordon over Sally is similarly overdetermined and underdeveloped: we don’t know him, either, well enough to grasp why he would love her, marry her, protect her, and then turn away from her to serve his own self-interest.

The novel is just too thin. Historical fiction can founder, to be sure, on heavy-handed exposition, but The Mistress of Nothing moves so briskly along that instead of being elliptical or evocative (which I gather is the usual intention with contemporary fiction with this kind of sparse declarative style) it feels perfunctory: have to get them to Egypt, have to get them to Luxor, must stop at some pyramids and see some crocodiles, be sure to bring up the tensions between the peasants and the khedive. The landscape is mentioned more than described. The Valley of the Kings gets most of a paragraph. I find it baffling that Anthony Sattin, who literally wrote the book on the Victorians in Egypt, would say that Mistress of Nothing “brings 1860s Cairo and Luxor to life, not as an Orientalist fantasy, but as they might actually have been.” There are a lot of period details, but as with the descriptions of the Egyptian landscape or historical sites, their sensory impact is minimal (this is one respect in which The Map of Love seems to me far more successful). Did Pullinger deliberately avoid giving her novel depth or breadth from fear of its looking like a historical blockbuster rather than a ‘literary’ novel? Or was she impatient to get to the end of the interesting true story she had decided to retell? It certainly felt like the latter, especially towards the end of the novel, which has an implicit “and then, and then, and then” rhythm. Nothing is lingered over, and to this reader anyway, that’s a shame when the material (historical, geographical, even, potentially, thematic) is so rich. A particularly intense moment of disappointment for me was the throwing off of the stays. Clearly, this is, or should be, a compellingly symbolic moment: the constraining, “heavy-boned” stays represent all the social and other constraints of their old life in England, while their embrace of Egyptian-style clothing signals the transformation of their life and values by their experiences. But it’s only page 52, and we haven’t seen life in England in enough detail to appreciate why it needs to be thrown off (does Pullinger assume that her readers will take for granted that Victorian England is disposable?) much less what it is exactly about Egypt that they should want to put on. It’s also done very theatrically (how far can we trust Lady Duff Gordon’s flamboyant gestures?) but the possibility that it is not a sincere or profound change is not explored. What we do get, rather inexplicably, is an assertion from Sally about how this change in her mistress’s outfit changes their relationship:

My Lady cast off her English clothes and it was as though in that moment our relationship shifted as well, in some unspoken, unpredicted way. I was not her equal, I was part of her routine, part of her life, my care for her so intimate that it was as though I was part of her body – a hand, perhaps. A foot. Something indispensable, to which you do not give much thought. But from that moment hence, things shifted between us, and life changed.

Yes, well, if you say so–and you do, insistently and yet unconvincingly.

And what about Orientalist fantasies? There’s no question that Sally’s romance is with an idea of Egypt, embodied (as shown in the sculpture passages above) in Omar. The novel might have taken this up as a problem, showing Sally replacing her fantasy with a more complex and realistic idea of modern Egypt. A bit of this does go on, as she and Lady Duff Gordon get interested in agriculture and politics. But Sally remains prone to generalizations about all things Egyptian, or to predictable effusions such as “Egypt is sleeping, as it has slept for millenia.”

Leafing through the book one more time, I am reminded that it’s not all bad but in fact contains some bits of fine writing and tells a story that is intrinsically interesting. In the end, though, I just don’t think it does justice to its own raw materials, and also I think that “some bits” of good writing are not enough to earn it a major literary award. Some of the very best bits in fact are in the letters of Lady Duff Gordon (published as Letters from Egypt), so I have downloaded them from Project Gutenberg to take a further look. I had high hopes when I ordered The Mistress of Nothing that it might be substantial enough to become part of whatever exactly the project is that I’m doing on Ahdaf Soueif, Victorianism, and postcolonialism. But it really doesn’t say enough, about the Victorians in Egypt, about English writing about Egypt, about gender or class in these contexts, or about the novel as a form that is significant to our understanding of other times or places or people.


*I kind of doubt that it was, as Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness was a finalist. Perhaps the jury decided Munro had won enough prizes already this year?

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.