After 800 pages of easy reading emotional turmoil I was so involved with the characters I wanted to read on and spend more time with Asya and her generation as they grew older – my hunger to know them better and find out what happened to them only increased, especially Deena, Asya’s generous, politically conscious, brilliant yet worldly science graduate sister, who I liked most of all. Undoubtedly one of the attractions of the book is the aesthetic and recreational variety of the lifestyle the family enjoys: they are professionals in a society where professionals form a prosperous and influential class. I don’t remember my parents ever having so much as a dinner party, and I am too shy to hold one myself, which probably accounts for my insatiable pleasure in reading about guests and gatherings. Related to this was my savouring of place, the specificity of cosmopolitan, decadent, sophisticated, elegant Cairo…
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s call
I long for Kyoto
Cairo! How can a book so strongly character-centred, plot-driven, personal, have left me with such a yearning for a place changed and a time passed? Perhaps because I myself hail from the anonymous North of England that so depresses Asya, that threatens to suck the life from her, desperately lonely among my unsociable kin.
Soueif cuts historical background into the story by inserting dated snippets of news, like extracts from a journalistic timeline. This device allows her to inform a wider English-speaking audience, likely to have limited awareness of these histories or the Egyptian perspective on them, of events that impinge on the lives of the characters, without having the cast spout exposition – they can discuss events and their effects quite naturally. Structurally, the novel opens in 1979, jumps back to 1967 and works its way forward to 1979 again, and has chapters divided into ‘scenes’ as if Soueif envisioned it as a movie. Minute details of action like applying mascara (Asya is never less than immaculately turned out, even for bed) are presented not suggestively by the author but as aspects of Asya’s intention turning into language in a mind over-trained to verbalise, the way I sometimes catch an inner voice noting ‘Zanna stirred in a tin of tomatoes and a slosh of olive oil’. To me this isn’t dull mundanity; not only does it create an intimate understanding of and sympathy with our protagonist and reveal her lexic orientation as someone embedded, encamped, engulfed in literature and language, but along with the narration of her and other characters’ thoughts, it builds up a dense, intricate texture that invites the movie reel to roll behind my eyes.
Most novels deal with sexuality or just sex on some level, and I guess that focussing on a character negotiating a conservative and sexist framing of female purity is hardly a fresh theme, but Ahdaf’s treatment is fresh, incisively nuanced, multi-layered, wholly believable, as well as sizzlingly erotic. She has the gift of giving life to her characters in spades – Asya never lapses into stereotype or appears a vehicle for authorial point-making. Depth and complexity arise from the fact that restrictions on love relationships are firm in an otherwise rather open, cosmopolitan society and among a social class whose relationship to tradition is inflected by privileged access to career choices, higher education and global travel. Asya’s situation is thrown into relief by a trip to Italy, in which a very similar traditional sexual conservatism meets an ostensibly ‘permissive’ convention among youth and tourists. Asya is positioned to see this compulsory heterosexuality as ‘degrading’ and exploitative, but when a man who is attracted to her but happy to keep their dalliance celibate asks her not to let anyone know that they are not sleeping together, she is delighted by the reversal of secrecy compared to Egypt. The oppression is always greener on the other side…
(I want to quash any impression that this story fits tidily into a white Euro-USian feminist/mainstream political framing of majority-Muslim or Arab societies as brutally oppressive towards women, who need to be rescued from such contexts. I hardly need add that this framing silences Muslim/Arab women by declaring that other women must speak for them, criminalises Muslim/Arab men, and is used to legitimise colonial expansion (‘civilising missions”bringing democracy’). As a side effect, women are prevented from articulating and criticising gender oppression that affects them because such critique risks being read and dismissed as internalised imperialism. Literature like this is a sure antidote to nuance-free notions about Egyptian women.)
The particular patriarchy of Asya’s social context delays her love marriage, apparently destructively, but I felt that the couple’s problems went much deeper. For me the key moment was when Asya listed the things Saif disliked about her – they were core aspects of her very style of being, they were the things I adored about her. The Egyptian men in Asya’s life are courteous and gentle towards and considerate and protective of women (this is my impression of the Muslim/Arab equvalent of European ‘chivalry’), and contrast with the white man with whom she becomes closely acquainted; a person so self-centred and suffused with entitlement he constantly demands that his lover ‘be herself’ when he so obviously means ‘stop being yourself and be the way I want you to be’. I read this as a very strongly feminist and woman-oriented text. Women in Asya’s life negotiate diverse situations, make diverse choices, and manage the consequences. One of Asya’s friends is in love with a Palestinian classmate, whose life becomes increasingly difficult over the course of the narrative. The hostility towards Palestinians and social class dynamics in Egyptian society are illuminated through relationships seen from female perspectives.
Soueif skillfully integrates layers of political awareness and a keenly felt sense of place into the spaces of private life in this work, and these fine ingredients are well seasoned by literary and music references from Euro-Usian culture. Asya questions her focus in education on English literature, and in the scene in which she is made to ‘produce’ Arabic sounds for a class on phonemics her discomfort finally forces her into silence. Her experience as a temporary migrant, suffused with terrible loneliness, also includes exotification. This fringe of unresolved unease around the globalisation (hegemony) of white/anglo culture is counterpointed by Asya’s joy in English-language poetry and literature, which she experiences passionately. It’s interesting that Soueif has her unwillingly, laboriously perform a juiceless analysis on this corpus (killing the pleasure). I took this as a wry comment on ‘Western’ education as well as futher detailing of Asya’s character ‘this will teach machines to understand metaphor’, she grimly reflects. The experience galvanises her to push hard, against barriers hidden by the impression of free choice, against her mother’s deep and long patience, against much of her own socialisation, for the space that will allow her to know her desires and direct her life towards meaning and fulfilment.