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Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground 

 
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Mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground, by Ahdaf Soueif

A glimpse of hope in a polarised world
By Guy Mannes-Abbott

November 2004

Ahdaf Soueif is best known for The Map of Love, a novel which did much to 
open up the minds of English-speaking readers to Egyptian modernity. It 
brilliantly interwove the love affair of an English colonial woman and an 
Egyptian nationalist in the early 20th century with a burgeoning national 
"renaissance", and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.

That book followed an earlier novel and two collections of stories. However, 
the political writing she began in 2000 with Under the Gun has made her a 
writer of special importance. Mezzaterra includes "The Waiting Game", her 
brave, despairing return to the occupied heart of Palestine, and a recent 
portrait of Palestinian writers under existential siege.

Mezzaterra's second half, literary pieces from two decades in London, is the 
surprising bonus. It includes reviews of writers from Jean Genet and Amitav 
Ghosh to Philip Hensher, along with pieces on al-Jazeera, Islamic "queens" 
and "the veil": a term without an Arabic equivalent. Each exhibits Soueif's 
demanding exactitude, whereby she will apologise for making "small points" 
before demonstrating their full import. Words, she proves repeatedly, 
matter.

Soueif is obsessed with language and power, the way words like "freedom" and 
international laws are abused when applied to Islamic contexts. She dissects 
sloppy mistranslations of Arabic and ideological cliches about Islam. More 
subtle difficulties loom when transliterating her own name from the Arabic 
as Soueif, in contrast to her brother, Ala Swafe. Reviewing William 
Golding's An Egyptian Journal, she takes elegant revenge for Ala's 
anonymously belittled efforts to coach the author in such subtleties.

The brilliance of this collection lies in Soueif's linkage of "small" things 
to universal categories. She praises her friend Edward Said for being 
"human", "fair" and "inclusive", qualities that describe the "mezzaterra" of 
her title. This common ground, where differences enrich rather than clash, 
is civilisation. A "with us or against us" world, with its "war on terror" 
and "peace process", is the opposite.

Souief is transfixed by the Palestinian uprising. She writes, contra Said, 
of having always felt "essentially in place: Egyptian, Muslim". So, writing 
about Israel's dispossession of the Palestinians in front of a wilfully 
diverted world, her combination of centred gravity, minute precision and 
insistent humanity generates highly clarified truth.

The truth makes for bleak reading, as her nightmares materialise in massive 
Israeli settlements. "And yet there is still hope," she writes, even in 
ravaged Ramallah where Palestinian writers like Liana Badr and Adania Shibli 
shape exquisite stories against chronic injustice. The only real hope is for 
"a viable Palestine". Although it may require courage, take these marvellous 
essays to heart.

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