Best Book of the Week!
The Map of Love is an absorbing novel to read now, just after the Arab Spring and during the troubled times that have continued on. It is a love story certainly, its title tells you that, but it also explores the roots of the political turmoil in present-day Egypt and some of the other countries that used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire.
The novel follows the course of two cross-cultural love affairs 90 years apart. In 1900 Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt in an attempt to overcome her grief. She is the widow of a man who recently served in the Soudan, and even though their marriage was not a happy one, she is sorrowful that she could not help him overcome his despair at participating in an unjust war. Almost accidentally, she meets Sharif al-Barroudi, a Cairo lawyer and activist, and falls in love with him.
Anna’s diary and letters are discovered by her great-granddaughter, Isabel Cabot. Isabel herself has fallen in love with ‘Omar al-Ghamwari, a famous Egyptian-American orchestra conductor who is rumored to work with the Palestinians. ‘Omar feels that their age difference is too great for a relationship, but he suggests that Isabel take her find to his sister Aman in Cairo so that she might help Isabel translate some of the materials.
Aman becomes absorbed in reading Anna’s diaries and letters and realizes very soon that she and Isabel are related, for Anna’s beloved sister-in-law Layla is Aman’s own grandmother. With Layla’s diaries of the same time period, she begins to reconstruct Anna’s story and that of Egypt’s history during a turbulent period. Aman has returned from life abroad to live in Cairo in another turbulent time.
Anna’s courtship is fraught with difficulties, but once she and Sharif are married, she is caught up in his work for Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire and from British oversight. As the years go by, his efforts extend to attempts to keep Palestinian land, once owned by his family and by his neighbors and occupied by hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from being bought up by Zionists who would expel them.
The blurb for this novel stresses the similarities between the two love stories, and there are many points of similarity, but the focus of the story in the current time is more with Aman than with Isabel and ‘Omar. Aman is at first at loose ends in Cairo, but she becomes involved with trying to help the fellaheen who occupy her family’s land, as they are treated unjustly by a corrupt and paranoid government. I was frankly more interested in Aman and in Anna and Sharif than I was in Isabel and ‘Omar, who are much less present in the novel.
For me, not very politically aware in regard to problems in this part of the world, this was a fascinating and revealing reading experience. It points up the complex history of the area from a point of view we westerners seldom hear. It is affectingly told in the context of a great love affair between two lovingly created characters. The characters of the two sisters, Layla and Aman, are also vivid. This novel is beautifully written and evokes for us a vibrant culture.