Ahdaf Soueif, the world's top-selling Egyptian writer working in
English, on literature, politics and how the politics of literature has
seen her likened to Joseph Goebbels
By Manal el-Jesri
Egypt Today ' May 2006
Literatry sensation and activist Ahdaf Soueif is everything one may
imagine her to be, from the top of her well-coiffed head to the tips of
her manicured fingernails and her chic, but simple, attire. In fact, she
looks like one would imagine an older Asya El-Ulama (the female
protagonist in Soueif's first novel, In the Eye of the Sun) to look:
very well turned out. Behind the cosmopolitan fa'ade is the bestselling
Egyptian novelist writing in English today, a woman who writes about us
and is read and enjoyed by Western readers.
She has already achieved what many writers strive a whole lifetime to
accomplish. Soueif's visit to Cairo last month sparked an unusual degree
of interest, prompting her to set aside a day for interviews. I watched
her from across a busy hotel lobby as she carried out a long interview
with an Egyptian daily newspaper. All day, she gave one interview after
the other, and frankly, I was worried.
How many profound interviews can one person give in one day?
An obvious multi-tasker, Soueif was hardly a disappointment. We grant
our celebrities halos and put them on a pedestal, and I was worried that
Soueif would not live up to the image in my mind. One of my favorite
writers, she has written two short story collections, Aisha and
Sandpiper, in addition to two novels, the second of which (The Map of
Love) was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. Her latest book,
Mezzaterra, is a collection of articles, some of which were written
after a visit to Palestine. It has already earned her the title 'The
Next Edward Said,' although some detractors have compared her to the
Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels.
Soueif lives in England, where she works as the executive officer for
Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, takes care of her two sons,
writes the occasional column, gives lectures, and hopes to squeeze in a
'When do I write? That's a very good question. My last novel was in
1999. [After 9/11 and 7/7] since I live in England, I find myself all
the time having to respond to things that happened,' she says. 'It is a responsibility, and it takes up a lot of time. It puts you in a different frame of mind than the one you need to write a novel. You need space in your head for things to be born.'
Soueif has lived in England most of her adult life and says the English
language is her tool of choice. Although she was criticized by Arab
intellectuals for writing in a foreign language, she has since been
accepted for who she is. I believe it is her activist work and the
lectures she gives all over the world to promote the cause of Arabs and
Palestinians that have gained her deep respect from her Arab
counterparts. In all the interviews she has given to the Arab press, it
was this aspect of her work and her life that was probed the most.
Being the fan of her works that I am, I have to exhaust the topic of
creative writing first. Asya (the protagonist of In the Eye of the Sun)
vs. Anna (The Map Of Love). Many of those who have read both novels feel
strongly towards her characters, strongly preferring one over the other.
Soueif herself has noticed this ' and is surprised by it.
'In fiction, first of all you work from the area that you feel
passionately about,' she explains. 'In The Map of Love, I was concerned
about the idea of feelings [and whether they can travel] across
cultures. The other concern was how much of a personal life do we have.
To what degree is our personal life affected by geographical location or
through where we are in history?
'But essentially what you do is create characters. At first, the idea is you want characters from two different cultures, and you sort of know what kind of time you want. But then the character has to come and acquire its own distinction. You start moving within this historical-geographical parameter that you have created, and through the characters you explore this idea, of how much freedom you have, what are the pressures you have, and so on. But essentially, you have nothing without the character.'
Politics is a strong theme in both novels, be it the post-revolutionary
era of In the Eye of the Sun or the post-Orabi revolution and the
current threats of terror and the dilemma of the modern Egyptian
intellectual in The Map of Love. 'Some nations at one time or another
are more affected by politics. Maybe if I were a novelist working in
Ancient Egypt when everything was fine, [I wouldn't have to write about
politics],' Soueif muses.
Or an American before 9/11, which is basically the same thing? I ask.
The author giggles, 'Yes, true, which is why I guess people say the American novel in the 1990s had ceased being a novel of ideas.'
Is the character of Asya, a child of the 1960s, part of Soueif, who was
herself a child in the 1960s? 'Her consciousness, her personality, her ambitions are all mine as I remember them at the time. [In this novel], the characters are very much drawn out of life, which is not the case in Map of Love.'
Readers have tried to draw a parallel between Asya's growth and the
development of the nation. Soueif is not very comfortable with
generalizations. 'Nothing of this is conscious, but as you are writing
you do not limit yourself to reality of characters and events. The
character sort of grows and takes on a new dimension. Looking at the
epilogue, there is the Pharaonic statue, the Islamic cemeteries and the
folk story. They are all cultural aspects of Egypt. But what I can say
is it was not done consciously. What is very interesting in the creation
of any art is the interplay between what is conscious and what isn't.'
Working on an unconscious level, allowing her characters to move as they
are destined, Soueif is often surprised at the symbols her fans find in
her work ' work she herself does not re-read.
'I never have. Once I read the proof, khalas, it's over. I think as an
artist you do not want to look too closely. You just want to get on with
it, let it happen. As a novelist, you work with the particulars, and you
hope that if you're true to the particulars, then what you're doing will
have a general significance. You can't be thinking of the general while
you're writing, because you just turn your characters into symbols.'
Anna, the nineteenth-century British woman in Map of Love, provides an
entry point for Western readers. Soueif, throughout her career, has
criticized and analyzed the relationship of the Orientalists with the
East, and Anna is everything Orientalists were not. Has anything changed
in the way the West perceives us?
'It is kind of worse. There is bias. It is hard for me to come into
contact with it. Mostly when people write to you or to your publisher it
is because they want to tell you they like you or they feel with your
work. When I write articles, I put my email address to gauge audience
reaction. Most of the response is positive, but you get some negative.
The negative tends to be completely irrational and abusive. It doesn't engage with you on an intellectual level.'
A critic of Mezzaterra compared Soueif to a Nazi, because she was
describing the pressures and injustices under which Palestinians live.
'They do not just criticize you, but your whole race and nation. I just
feel a bit horrible for a while, and I feel I want to go have a shower.
You brace yourself and you learn, but I can't see how what I write can
be like Goebbels. I try to find the rationale, but I can't.'
The LA Times described her book Mezzaterra as ominous and anti-Semitic.
Although Soueif tries to be as objective as possible, she explains.
'Because I am writing in the West, and because there is always this
tohma (accusation), in the article 'A Letter to Blair,' which is about
the Israeli invasion, everybody I quote is Israeli. I quote Israelis who
speak like we do. They still tell you you are an anti-Semite and these
people are self-hating Jews. Then khalas, the parameters are set, and if
you are biased you're biased.'
Although no legal action has been taken against her, Soueif is not
optimistic after the new English anti-terror laws, which can see authors
jailed if they are deemed to be promoting 'hate' or 'glorifying' terror.
'You know how to do things, to say what you want without opening
yourself up, so far. But now they have started this bill about the
glorification of terror. Maybe if you write sympathetically about the
Palestinians, you are glorifying terror. We'll just see how far the government pushes this issue.'
Soueif believes Western media and literature are helping the 'powers
that be' in demonizing Arabs and Muslims the same way Jews were
demonized in the past century.
'We are the target of the new imperial project. This is simply the
spirit of the age, and this is why it is so crucial to keep on fighting.
It is easier to bomb Iraq if your domestic audience in the West sees
Iraq as an undifferentiated mass of fanatics rather than as individual
people. It all feeds into itself, although there are a few voices rising
[against this]. There is a struggle. You can look at a lot of media
outlets and see there is a struggle within them as to how to perceive
and how to represent, whether they are fair to this or not, and that's a
'This is partly brought about by the fact that the Palestinian issue is
clear. They got it now. What they use to muddy the moral issue is the
suicide bombing. That's the only thing. The rest has been uncovered.
That is one thing giving impetus to a lot of people to try to work
against the current. The war on Iraq has taken so long, and they have
done terrible things there, and they will continue to do them because
the resistance is there. People are starting to be more and more aware
and to address this and try to write about it, and so the government is
trying to clamp down on them. Internal conflict is there and the longer
the situation the louder the protest will be and the fiercer the
government will be in trying to quiet them. People see what is really
happening, but the price is terrible.
'The West has always wanted the same thing from our part of the world:
our resources. But the attack is worse now because it is a unipolar
world. That's why I think it's such a ferocious attack on us, and not
just in terms of bombing but in cultural terms. There is a serious
attempt to discredit our culture.' It is a time of crisis, she says, and
what she calls the 'West's attacks' are likely to stall the development
of freedom and democracy in the region. 'And [the attack] hasn't reached
its climax. People in the US believe if there is an area of chaos, like
in Iraq, that is not getting solved, let's make it wider, make more
chaos. Include Iran and Syria. For us who live in the line of fire, it
just gets more difficult.
'I was there when 7/7 took place. It was quite dreadful. But it must be said that people in general seem to understand. It is the media that pushes and pushes. The average English person is more aware, unlike the average American. There is a great deal of ignorance. You can live in Ohio, for example, and not know anything about the rest of the world. It is a sad state of misinformation that makes you act in a certain way.'
'My real concern at the time being, though, is to get my next novel written, because I have enough of it in my head to feel I need to sit quietly in a room for three weeks for it to emerge, then I can handle other things around it.'
Soueif was good enough to whet my appetite with a sneak peek of her idea
for the new novel. 'All I know is that it will be in two times, one is
contemporary and one is in Ancient Egypt.' I can't wait.
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