The unblushing bourgeoise

"You either learn to play politics and keep glancing over your shoulder, or you don't," says Egyptian-expat novelist Ahdaf Soueif

Hind Wassef

Renowned author of the 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun, a young girl's bildungsroman as she matures between Egypt and England, Ahdaf Soueif has been hailed as Egypt's George Eliot. A consummate novelist of manners and mores, a chronicler of the personal and the political, she has also -- according to Edward Said and countless readers -- put gender politics on the Arab literary map.

What happens when an Egyptian female author writes -- in English -- a very personal, closely autobiographical novel of the life of a young Egyptian woman coming of age in Cairo and England? On this side of the divide, she is accused of being immoral, defaming the image of Egyptian women, while on the other side she is given a firm lesson in the use of English grammar by such a respected critic as Frank Kermode, who forgives her only on account of her "formidable narrative energy." In this no-win situation Ahdaf Soueif and her writing tread the divide between two cultures.

In 1983 Soueif published her first collection of short stories, Aisha, a series of tableaux from Egyptian life. In the Eye of the Sun started out as two short stories, but Soueif soon realized she was writing something much bigger, something that had been germinating in her mind for twenty years. Since it is largely autobiographical, to the extent that it is based on her "inner landscape," writing the novel has been almost therapeutic for her.

"These characters and incidents that have been swirling around in my mind for years have been fictionalized, put into a structure, and now I can stop thinking about them. It is like housekeeping," says Soueif. "You clear this accumulation by working it out into fiction." The sexual detail, however, proved a little shocking for some readers. Because English was her medium, the easiest thing has been to denounce her as not part of Arab literature at all. The novel was declared immoral, and an insult to Arab women, by what she calls -- in her polished British accent -- the "loony fringe," whom she insists have not read it at all.

Soueif's decision to move from short stories to a novel was a deliberate one. "There is more architecture and more of a sustained effort," she says. But the only time she was actually able to sustain this effort was during a period when she taught at King Saud University in Riyad. Soueif refers to this stage of her life as her writing "health farm," in that it was so regimented: she was professor in the morning, mother to her son Omar Robbie in the afternoon, and writer from 7pm onwards. Living this way for two years, she managed to write half the novel, and completed it in London when she went back in 1989. It was then that she had her second son, Ismail Ricki; until the novel was finished, writing and motherhood went very well together. Now that she has a full-time job at the Al Furqan Center for Islamic Studies she has managed to write only one more collection of short stories, Sandpiper. The beauty of short stories, she says, is that they capture a moment; accordingly, she wrote some in just two nights. Not so with the architecture demanded by the novel.

Ahdaf Soueif is a detailer by nature. Her home in Wimbledon is filled with small, delicately hand-crafted objects of glass, of silver, of brass, displayed on shelves and over the fireplace, each piece no doubt having a history and an emotional significance. And she fits so cosily among these things, like a child tucks into a bed full of toys. She is the kind of person who finds it painful to answer a question like, "How was the party?" in two sentences; she would immediately delve into detail. So it is with In the Eye of the Sun, where Soueif takes her reader on journeys through meticulous descriptions of atmosphere, feeling, movement and the trappings of the Egyptian bourgeois lifestyle.

She recalls a woman once sarcastically commenting to her that it must be wonderful to be so interested in nail polish and jewelry. But she shrugs this off lightheartedly: "That's how I am. It is the details that matter and that all add up to character and personality." She shudders at the thought of having to remove one word from her novel (though plenty of readers groaned that the book required a ruthless editor).

At the time of writing In the Eye of the Sun, Soueif did not have length in mind; in fact, its epic scale quite took her by surprise. When she finished, she ran a word count and found that it was 313,000 words long, "the same length as Middlemarch," she says proudly. And indeed the novel, which weaves a social and historical tapestry of Egypt from the 1967 war to 1980 through the experience of protagonist Asya Al Ulama, has been called "Egypt's Middlemarch." For Soueif, the heroine came first, but then to explain Asya's existence she found that history and ethnography were an essential backdrop. "We Egyptians are indivisible from our history. I don't know if this is particular to us as a people who have had so many wrenchings in their history, so many waves of occupations followed by national resurgence then another occupation and so on. It is this that gives us this compulsion to go back to find out who we are." And she is very much a product of this wrenched history: an Egyptian living in England writing about Egypt in English.

So why in English? Very simply and without hesitation, "I write better in English. My professional training was in English and it was the first language I read in. I am so conscious of the depth of Arabic, where a word can have certain nuances of which I am not aware." But there was no apology for not writing in Arabic. (At a recent literary conference on the Arab novel in Cairo, Soueif read an unpublished short story in Arabic -- perhaps as a subtle rejoinder to her detractors who make her writing in English such a point of contention.)

Though Soueif's novel poses questions of identity and authenticity, the individual and history, she is strangely unable -- or unwilling -- to situate herself among other Arab writers or in relation to her society. She seems, in a sense, extremely out of it. She has nothing to say about Arab literature (other than "I don't read as much as I should"), refuses to engage in the authenticity debate, and indulges in a rosy romanticism about her native land. She is also, as with the nail polish and the jewlery, unapologetic. "You either learn to play politics," she shrugs, "and keep glancing over your shoulder, or you don't, and run the risk that comes with that," meaning the danger of inviting accusations of being detached and, therefore, not being taken seriously.

Soueif may not talk about politically-correct issues, but she does write about them. In Sandpiper, she collapsed national boundaries, setting the stories in Egypt, Gulf countries and England. Even when she is talking about Egypt, she emphasizes the country's multiculturality through characters of different ethnic origins. Ironically, it was also Sandpiper that was translated because she wanted some of her writing to exist in Arabic, and for which she received a Cairo International Bookfair award in 1997. Soueif worked very closely with the translator, occasionally dropping words or phrases that sounded odd when transposed into Arabic, caring in a way that she would not were the work being translated into Dutch or German. And even writing in English she cannot help but let Egyptian rhythm and phrases seep through the language, so that it may as well not be English in some parts -- a point lost on Kermode, who merely chided her for "incorrect" English. The cultural meanings of phrases like "He'll be like iron again," and "My heart feels that they won't do me any good," would bypass the English reader, yet they directly address the Arab reader.

Soueif's creative edge is her hybrid vision -- she transposes an Egyptian spirit into that which is non-Egyptian. A measure of her success comes from the numerous responses she has gotten from women around the world telling her that she has written their life-story. And across the gender line, Soueif recalls one letter from a New York Jew who wrote to her saying he had watched the 1967 War as if it were a baseball game his team was winning, and that it was an eye-opener for him to see it from the other perspective, via her archival and social documentation. "If fiction has a social function," she contemplates, "this is it. Getting across a spirit to people for whom that spirit is foreign; they come to know you that little bit better."

Being away from Egypt means Soueif is somewhat out of touch. But she continues to participate in literary conferences in Egypt, and feels part of a "sisterhood" every time she returns. And it is at such conferences that she finds women's voices are most powerful and elicit the most response. "There is a women's movement [in Egypt], because there are all these women doing different things with such energy and drive, and leaving their mark. I am full of admiration for it." It was this sisterhood that embraced her work after the "loony fringe" were done trashing it. Writers like Latifa Al Zayyat and Radwa Ashour, she acknowledges, gave her moral support and public encouragement.

Exactly how much she enjoys being in London is difficult to say. "I would never have chosen to live abroad. It just happened. And one day I'll go home. I've no intention of being an old person here. On the other hand, maybe it has given me my subject." Had she been living in Cairo all this time she may have taken the good things for granted and been caught up in the daily annoyances of life here. Being away, she can see a deep-seated determination, and even rebellion, in a donkey cart going up the wrong side of a bridge, and a spirit of accommodation in the cars that swerve to make way for it. She also finds an innate friendliness in chatting with the greengrocer as he gives an extra fruit on the kilo. Deluded nostalgia? Yes, and she's comfortable with it.

Thoughts on the future she doesn't have much of, except that she is working on a new novel which also deals with the relationship between the individual and history; this time the story is divided between the beginning and the end of the century in order to explore how much we live in the shadow of life a hundred years ago. She has tried to go beyond using her own life as material for the new work. With so much of what Soueif writes about being so tied in with who she is, that may be hard to do.

Vol 2, Iss 5
30 April 1998