Isn’t that a beautiful wish for a traveler? Think about it: may you be happy in your life, bring your good fortune with you to the places in which you journey, and share your gifts so wisely and well that you are missed when it’s time for you to return home. I absolutely love that. Ahdaf Soueif quotes this ancient Egyptian prayer in The Map of Love, which offers the reader two tales of intercultural love in Egypt, one in the late 19th century, and the other at the end of the 20th century. And to me it crystallizes the sentiment of the Egyptian people that Soueif describes in this beautiful novel: open and welcoming, and willing to take strangers into their hearts and homes, yet fearful of being taken advantage of in their hospitality.
This is a complex novel, with politics firmly woven into both of the love stories. The 19th century story of Anna Winterbourne and Sharif, told through diaries and letters, focuses on the difficulties of a romance between members of a conquering and conquered people, and deals head on with issues of racism and imperialism during the British occupation. The modern story (in my opinion, the weaker of the two) echoes the themes of the first, set against the complications of the Islamic Fundamentalist movement – as it turns out, just before September 11 (the book was published in 1999).
I really liked the novel, but I did have some problems with it. Anna Winterbourne was just a tad too virtuous for my tastes. While I appreciated her openness to the culture in which she found herself, I had a hard time believing the transition to the haremlek (the woman’s part of the Egyptian house) could be so seamless – a new bride just moves into her mother-in-law’s house, a mother-in-law with whom she shares no common language at the beginning, and there’s no tension to report? Yes, there is one cultural skirmish that causes an argument between the newlyweds, but it seemed completely trivial – most newlyweds have a good deal of adjusting to do, and they’re not usually trying to bridge an enormous cultural divide! The modern story took a very strange turn into a theme that is becoming almost banal in modern novels, and by that I mean incest. Frankly, this is a very serious subject, and the author just seemed to toss in this possibility without ever resolving it, in a way that I considered most cavalier. That was a disappointment, because for the most part the book is beautifully written.
As Soueif points out, the Egyptians have plenty of reasons to be wary of strangers. Egypt’s rich agricultural base and storied history have made it an object of desire for expanding civilizations since the Hittites. It’s easy to see how the outsiders’ veneration of Egyptian culture could eventually serve to dismantle the structure of the very civilization they admire so much. And yet, Soueif’s novel suggests Egypt remains a place where people are open to outsiders, even while they struggle to define themselves as a nation. This book reminded me of how very much I have always wanted to go to Egypt. I would recommend it for those who love literary fiction, especially those who are interested in Middle Eastern history and politics.