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.

This Month in My Sabbatical: Not a Bad Start

I’m sort of missing the routine of my weekly teaching posts–not just writing them, but the act of taking stock that they represent. So I thought I would have a go at a similar exercise reflecting on my  progress (if that’s what it is!) through my sabbatical term. It may be even more useful, in a way, to make sure I am self-conscious about the passage of time, because my days are much less structured and my goals are in some ways more diffuse! So here goes.

Ongoing Business: Despite what non-academics often think, being on sabbatical does not mean not being at work–it means shifting the focus of your work, particularly by re-allocating the time usually spent in class prep, teaching, marking, and administration to research and writing tasks. Most of that time, that is, because there are always teaching and administrative tasks that still need to get done. For instance, this month we were asked to turn in our course descriptions for next year, which means I have already spent some time thinking about reading lists. Book orders will be due later this spring, so at this point my choices are only tentative, but I did brood about how things went with specific books or courses the last time and make some changes accordingly; I also researched and then wrote away for exam copies of some alternative texts, particularly for the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I set up and marked a make-up exam for a student who had a family crisis right before our December final. I worked through 100 pages of a draft thesis chapter from one of my Ph.D. students and about 40 pages from another (and I attended a colloquium paper presented by yet another whose committee I am on). I wrote a lot of reference letters (and have three more I plan to finish up today or tomorrow).

Housekeeping: During teaching terms, though I stay on top of the day-to-day business pretty well, I find there’s not a lot of time to spend thinking about how I organize things, or sorting through old materials to see what needs to stay and what can go. After 15 years in this job (and 10, now, in this particular office) stuff does rather pile up. One of the first things I did in the new year, then, was to begin going through my filing cabinets: so far I have three bags of paper ready for recycling, and much less duplicate or unnecessary material taking up space. I’ve also donated (or at least put out on our “help yourselves” shelf in the department lounge) an array of unwanted books. Equally important now that we do more and more of our work electronically, though, is electronic filing, and here I have begun a big project of reorganizing my files of course materials. Long ago I decided to keep my paper notes and handouts in files by author and text, rather than course, which has worked very well for me: if I’m teaching, say, Great Expectations, I pull out the DICKENS GREAT EXPECTATIONS folder and in it I find old lecture notes, discussion questions, overheads, essay topics, etc. But my computer files have always been by course and then by year. This worked well for a few years, but now I often find myself puzzling over which year it was that I taught The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or where the latest version of the exam questions on Jude the Obscure are filed. Of course, you can simply search for key terms, but inefficiencies still emerge if you’re trying to browse your materials for a particular text or topic–plus there’s redundancy here too, as I end up with many files of lecture notes revised, expanded, or improved on over the years but still stored in multiple versions. So I’m re-sorting all this stuff into the kinds of groupings that I think will help me quickly gather what I need when I’m prepping for class and deleting outdated or duplicate files. Once the teaching ones are better organized, I’d like to do the same for my research materials. Many of these files I might copy into OneNote, which is where I now organize my new notes and draft materials.

Research: My main research project for this sabbatical is getting a version of my essay on Ahdaf Soeuif ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal–at least, I think that’s what I want to do with it, though I admit, the revolution still unfolding in Egypt has made me feel dissatisfied, somewhat, with what I’ve been doing. More about that later, perhaps. In any case, I have finished taking my fresh set of notes on The Map of Love (on January 25th, as it happens, I was just working through a scene of intense political discussion in the novel, a debate about the future of Egypt and the possibility of change). One of the challenges of academic writing is figuring out, not just what you want to say, but when you’re ready–or allowed–to say it, given the array of contextual and critical material that already exists. When can you stop reading, in other words, and feel entitled to contribute to the discussion? There is no right way to answer this, of course, and it is easy (at least for me) to get so overwhelmed by the vastness of the existing scholarship and the difficulty of drawing lines between what’s relevant and what’s peripheral that I can’t put two words of my own together. I find what helps me most, in this situation, is to go back to my primary text, allowing whatever else I’ve been reading to buzz around in the back of my mind and help me notice things and generate questions as I go. I make detailed notes, going page by page through the novel, and along the way I usually begin to see where the main questions are for me, and how I might begin to answer them. Then I am better able to see what I don’t have to read, and to position myself in the discussion I want to be a part of. In this case, because I am starting from my analysis of In the Eye of the Sun, I wanted to stay in roughly the same territory, thinking about the relationship between Soueif’s work and the English literary tradition she repeatedly invokes. But The Map of Love is a very different book, particularly in its form, and it seems much less confident about the idea of common ground (or ‘mezza terra’) that I argued is central to the earlier novel. Towards the end of last week I started roughing out the new section of the essay.

Other Reading and Writing: I’ve done quite a bit of reading this month. I began looking at some recent books in Victorian studies, in keeping with my goal of refreshing my own expertise for both teaching and criticism in “my” field. One was Patrick Brantlinger’s Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies, but it ended up not being of great interest, as it recapitulates texts and debates that I had already become reasonably familiar with. He’s a good writer and it’s a good overview, to be sure. I’ve begin Rachel Ablow’s The Marriage of Minds: Reading, Sympathy, and the Victorian Marriage Plot, and I have James Eli Adams’s A History of Victorian Literature out from the library–another overview, but given how specialized critical work has become, I thought I’d start big and zoom in. But, speaking of specialized, I saw Julie Fromer’s A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England in the library while I was browsing around and couldn’t resist checking it out as well. Necessary indeed! I’ve documented most of my other reading on this blog already, including the beginnings of my Margaret Kennedy project–I’m two books in and feeling, frankly, underwhelmed, but I will persist! And if the essay that results is along the lines of “Margaret Kennedy: As Well Known as She Deserves, Actually,” well, that will be as interesting in its own way as “Margaret Kennedy: Underappreciated!” Among the other books I’ve read and written up are Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, for the book clubs I now participate in, and I’m now reading Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, not really for fun (how could it be? too grim!) but with an eye to my mystery class in the fall.  In addition to the ‘other writing’ that I have done here on Novel Readings (including a long piece on Sex and the City 2), I also wrote a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for Open Letters Monthly–though this is not an academic publication, it certainly draws on the work I’ve done preparing for my courses on detective fiction.

Overall, then, though I’d like to be a bit further along in the rough draft of the Soueif essay, and though I feel I have not, actually, done as much reading as I’d like, or (with the academic reading) as much as I probably should have, I think I have made a reasonable start on accomplishing my goals for this sabbatical. A lot of time I might have spent working on other things, I spent reading and watching coverage of events in Egypt–I’m not inclined, actually, to see that as in any way irresponsible. I’ve also been going fairly regularly to the gym, where I run around the dreary concrete track, and I’ve made good progress on my cross-stitch “Bookshelf” sampler, including changing the pattern to include more of the books and authors I like best! Maybe next weekend I’ll get the binding on the quilt that has been sitting unfinished on my sewing table for months, and then I’ll really feel I’m getting things done…

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.

Sun spots?

Wait a minute: did I miss something? Here’s the plot summary of Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun given in a reputable reference source:

Aisha [one of Soueif’s earlier characters] reappears as Asya in In the Eye of the Sun, a novel about a feminist’s failed marriage to a dry intellectual that has parallels to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Moving between various Middle Eastern cities and using passages from Arab newspapers, this long, detailed novel recalls the anti-Western politics Gamel Abdel Nasser, his death, the 1967 war with Israel, and the rise of Anwar Sadat. Asya ignores public events, tries to immerse herself in Western culture, but is forced into an arranged marriage with impotent Saif, who works for Syrian intelligence. Unhappy with her marriage she studies in England for a doctorate, sees in England’s monuments symbols of imperialism and exploitation of Arabs, blames England for the creation of Israel, and becomes disenchanted with English literature. Bogged down in research at a provincial university, she starts an affair. Learning of the affair, Saif accuses her of selfishness and ignoring the consequences of her actions on others. Seeing the parallel between her personal life and her neglect, as an intellectual, of Egypt, she returns home where she teaches birth control while wanting a child of her own.

I’ve only read In the Eye of the Sun once so far, but I’m not sure the author of this source has read it at all–or else I read it very badly! First, I probably would not label Asya a “feminist,” unless that’s what you call any independent-minded woman. Second, Saif is not a “dry intellectual”; it’s Asya, actually, who comes closest to being that for a while, through her linguistic analysis of metaphors (which I thought was meant as a kind of ‘key to all mythologies’). Third, theirs is not an “arranged marriage” and, far from being forced into it, Asya yearns for it and idealizes it. Fourth, Saif is not impotent; the sexual problems in their marriage arise from Asya’s fears of intercourse. Fifth, she does not go to England because she is unhappy with her marriage, as this summary implies. Sixth, I didn’t notice meditations on imperialism or exploitation of the kind described here, though of course these are themes explored (in a more nuanced way, I thought) in the novel. Seventh, OK, she does start an affair, but (importantly) it’s with an idiot. Eighth, is that why she goes back to Egypt? I suppose that may be an interpretive question, but most of these other points are pretty straightforward ones. It was a disorienting experience (no pun intended?) staring at this paragraph.

Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

For about the first half of this novel, I was tremendously impressed and moved by it. Whatever it takes to communicate what feels like an authentic, rather than contrived, sense of history (see previous posts on historical fiction), Soueif has; she makes both Lady Anna’s past experience and the experience and perspective of Isabel and Amal in the (more or less) present seem alive, real. Isabel’s exploration, while running a nice parallel to Anna’s, turns out to be less important than Amal’s; while Isabel is in her own way experiencing the exotic world of others, Amal is taking another look at her own world, in the illumination provided by her experience of Westerners, from her husband to Isabel and Anna. Soueif seemed especially good, to me, at showing the complexities of identity, the impossibility of pointing in any one direction and saying, “look, there, that is (or he or she is) truly Egyptian.” But at the same time I felt the novel yearned for an idea of Eygpt, an idea of an Egyptian identity, that could endure the cataclysms as well as the slower erosions of history, cross-cultural conflict and change, and just time. Like Scott, Soueif avoids nostalgia, but in her landscapes especially there was a hint of something like it.

The two historical stories are interwoven artfully in ways that keep the reader thinking about relationships and continuities. Is Isabel looking for the same thing that Anna is? Anna looks for something like redemption, for her nation’s sins including those committed, however unhappily, by her first husband; she looks for freedom from rules about who she can be; she looks (of course, this being a novel) for love. Isabel starts with love, with Omar, but how are we to read her being struck so fast with feeling for him? She goes to Egypt in part to understand “where he’s coming from,” as the saying goes, but in this case, literally, as if knowing his homeland will tell her his character–which, it seems, it does, because his sympathies and loyalties, his politics, are the result of his history and the history of the Middle East. One of Soueif’s goals is clearly 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 way novelists are often credited with, she puts human faces on what too easily become abstractions, such as redrawn borders. She also to some extent allows for the humanity on more than one side of controversies, showing up the inadequacy of single-minded advocacy on any one side.

By the end of the novel, though, I didn’t think she was able to sustain the weight of the political and historical detail she included: the story began to suffer as conversations or descriptions of gatherings required long lists of names and allegiances, factions and parties (always unnatural, as in ordinary conversation we don’t have to explain who everyone is). Sections seemed more like textbooks, and the momentum of the plot suffered. I also thought she did not use Anna well enough. Here she gave us an Englishwoman unconventional enough to ride across the Sinai dressed as an Arab man, whose very feistiness is part of what draws Sharif to her. But once she’s married, she accepts entirely the life of an Egyptian wife, including a degree of segregation and dependence that would surely have galled even a more conservative Englishwoman of the early 1900s. Her one ‘rebellion’ is by mistake, when she withdraws her own money from the bank only to learn she has thereby shamed Sharif by implying he does not provide for her. Rather than resisting this implication as a misrepresentation of the facts, she apologizes abjectly. How much more interesting if she had continued to defy expectations and tested the compatibility of her “English” values with the tolerance of her new Egyptian family, especially as the intolerance of the English community for her is shown to be complete. Would her new kin have loved her so easily if she had not adopted their values and customs? It’s true that Soueif is at pains to depict life in the haramlek as having its own kind of freedom, dignity, and beauty, and that Anna and Sharif become collaborators in the reports they send back to England. But Anna’s rapid embrace of all things Egyptian seemed like a lost opportunity to me, and her story became fairly boring, until the melodrama of Sharif’s violent death (leaving the killer’s identity ambiguous was a nice touch that allowed, again, for the multiple complexities of politics and allegiances). Amal’s struggle to negotiate the violent realities of contemporary Egypt held more dramatic interest and was movingly rendered. What are we to assume has happened to Omar at the end?