Manners and mores: Egypt's 'George Eliot' in bloom
Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif is a study in multiculturalism. She looks at the world through Egyptian eyes, and writes English fiction in an Arab hand.
Her books speak of a world which may not be tangible now, but which still exists for countless people.
“If fiction has a social function," Soueif 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."
She shot to international fame in 1992 with her book “In the eye of the sun”; an epic the size of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” The book, which is set in Cairo and England - was devoured by some and torn apart by others.
Nonetheless, the story about the coming to age of a young Egyptian woman in the 1960s left an indelible mark on her readers. Her other books include “The map of love”, “Sandpiper” and “Aisha”.
Soueif, who completed her bachelor's degree in literature from Cairo University, holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Lancaster. She is the chairperson for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction, which is given to women writers. Soueif lives in London; she has two sons from her marriage to writer Ian Hamilton.
CM: It has often been said that, through your writing, you have put Arab gender politics on the map. Was it intentional on your part or did it just happen?
Ahdaf Soueif: "You write about what you’re passionately interested in at any given moment. At the time of In the Eye of the Sun I was interested in tracking the life and development of a particular set of characters. Issues of gender simply stemmed from that."
CM: You have been quite proud of the comparisons of "In the eye of the Sun" with Eliot's "Middlemarch". Who are your other favourite writers?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Yusuf Idris, Tayyib Salih, Naguib Mahfouz, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Colette and Philip Roth."
CM: How much of Asya Al-Ulama, or, for that matter, any of your characters, is a reflection of you?
Ahdaf Soueif : "Asya al-Ulama thinks the way I thought when I was her age. She has the same questions, the same ambitions. Amal al-Ghamrawi in The map of Love sounds like I sounded five years ago."
CM: You remain quite romantic, so to speak, about Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. Why is this so?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Because I love these places. And because I think that people too easily dismiss some of their wonderful qualities as not being ‘modern’ or ‘useful’. I feel the need to keep going on about this, to provide some kind of counter-view."
CM: In your writing, you pay incredible attention to detail. (For example, the bit in "In the eye of the sun", when you describe Asya's toilette before a party.) Why is this so important to you?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Because life is made of detail. When you talk to someone it is the little nuances and body language and assumptions that make up most of what you take away from the conversation. You cannot cook or iron or clean a room (properly anyway) without being aware of the details. The entire structure of a day can be done in a few sentences: I wake up, get the children to school, go to the office, collect the children, come back home, feed them, do some reading, go to bed. What does this tell you about anything? Nothing at all. Most of life – the texture of life - is in the detail. So to create a world in a novel, a world into which your reader can enter and believe you have to build it out of the detail."
CM: What do you think of contemporary Arab literature? Is it reflective of the Arab people, their hopes and dreams?
Ahdaf Soueif: "I think there is some brilliant writing going on in the Arab world today. And yes, it does reflect the condition and the dreams of the people. A pity the translations are generally not up to the task."
CM: Do you believe that the veil, so often perceived as a tool of repression is really one? Do you think that unveiling Muslim women, as it were, is a key to liberating them?
Ahdaf Soueif: "I think the question of the veil is a red herring that the West has been distracting us with for the last 100 years. This is a question which should be left to Muslim women to discuss or not and I think everybody else should back off. Truly."
CM: Where does the Arab woman stand today? Has education and a certain amount of modernisation helped much?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Helped with what? The Arab woman, like women everywhere, has lived her life at an intersection between prevailing social mores (different from one place to another and one period to another) and her individual personality and circumstances. Her life has been sometimes easy sometimes difficult according to her particular point of intersection. Education is generally helpful. I’m not sure about modernisation."
CM: The word "Arab" still conjures up images of date palms, oases and Bedouins. Why do you think these stereotypes still persist?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Once an image of someone comes into existence it’s quite hard to shake it off. Particularly when it’s exotic and strange. Also, this image was created by the West. And the West still has the upper hand in the creation of images worldwide. The word “Arab” for Arabs does not conjure up these images."
CM: Edward Said has commented that the only "good" Arabs are those who "decry modern Arab culture and society without reservation". Do you agree with him?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Yes I do. Look at the American mainstream media and see which Arabs get the space to speak there."
CM: What are your views on the current situation in Iraq? It has been noted that the long-defunct "Arab street" has been revived. Is this true?
Ahdaf Soueif: "The current situation in Iraq is a nightmare. And what the US administration and the British government imagine for it is a worse nightmare yet. Yes the Arab street has been revived but it remains to be seen what will come of that. Nobody could have been more ‘revived’ and more resilient and brave than the Palestinians for the last two years but we don’t know yet whether they will get the independence that they seek and which is rightly theirs."
CM: You are the chairperson of the panel for the Orange Prize for Fiction. What is your opinion about women's writing today?
Ahdaf Soueif: "It’s very strong, very varied. I think it’s in really good shape."
CM: Are you working on another book? What is it about?
Ahdaf Soueif: "Not yet but I hope to be soon. The ideas are still forming in my mind so I can’t really describe them coherently yet."
Prizes and Awards for Ahdaf Soueif
1983 Guardian Fiction Award (shortlist) Aisha
1996 Cairo International Book Fair Best Collection of Short Stories Sandpiper
1999 Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) The Map of Love