Review 1777: In the Eye of the Sun

Best of Ten!

Recently, I remembered liking Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, so I decided to see if she had written anything else. What I turned up was In the Eye of the Sun, which her Wikipedia page confusingly calls her debut novel, even though she wrote one earlier.

In the Eye of the Sun is the story of the maturing of a young Egyptian woman, told over a period of 13 years. The daughter of two university professors, Asya wants to get a Ph.D. in English literature and teach at Cairo University. The novel looks back to 1979 when she is studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education before beginning at the university and follows her until shortly after she finishes her Ph.D.

Although the novel deals with many subjects—cultural collision, Near Eastern politics, family, sexuality among them—it primarily concerns Asya’s relationship with Saif, who eventually becomes her husband. Asya meets Saif early in her university career and falls madly in love with him. The two want to marry, but her parents insist that they wait until she graduates. They don’t even allow them to become engaged for a couple of years.

At first, their relationship is intense, even though it does not involve intercourse because Saif wants to wait. However, Asya feels him pulling away from her as soon as they are engaged. She has caught him in a few pointless lies, but she doesn’t challenge him with them. However, he stops wanting to discuss anything of substance. Asya does not attempt any kind of discussion of these issues, though, before they are married. Nor does she discuss them with anyone else.

At their marriage, things become even more complicated, because Asya finds sex so painful that after a few attempts Saif stops trying. They never fully consummate their marriage. Even when Asya begs him to try, Saif seems more content to treat her as a sort of doll, picking out clothes and buying jewelry for her. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when he takes a job in Syria while she goes to attend a university in Northern England. There, she finds the surroundings cold and uncongenial and her studies in linguistics difficult.

This novel is quite long, but it is involving and extremely honest. Although a primarily sympathetic character, Asya can be quite annoying in her personal contradictions, for she doggedly continues intellectual disagreements while seldom broaching personal issues. She is brilliant while being occasionally terribly neurotic. I strongly felt that this was an autobiographical novel. If so, Soueif’s honesty is extraordinary.

The Map of Love

The Wife

Under the Lemon Trees

Day 482: The Map of Love

Cover for The Map of LoveBest 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.