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The Anglo-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif is not a bad writer but she’s not a very good one either. Her reputation rests mainly on one book, The Map of Love, which sold over a million copies and was shortlisted for the 1999 Man Booker Prize, and on some tendentious and partisan political journalism for The Guardian. What unites her fiction and her journalism is an overt sympathy for the Palestinians—she was the founder of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature—and a corresponding hostility toward Israel. Clearly, these are political attitudes that endear her to a literary establishment and wide readership who share these conventional leftwing and pro-Islamic sentiments, and which may partially account for the book’s success.
Publishers Weekly anoints Soueif as “the intellectual heir of Edward Said,” and there is certainly a slight modicum of truth to this promotion to the ranks of influence and repute. In her slanted and one-sided Guardian essay, “Under the Gun,” collected in Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, she laments that her life “has been overcast by the shadow of Israel,” proceeds to reduce the complex nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations to the dimensions of a fairy tale, misrepresents UN Resolution 242 in passing, and raises the 2000 Intifada to the heights of an epic struggle of the pristinely innocent against the barbarously guilty. For Soueif, “the discord between the Arab world and the U.S. is entirely to do with Israel,” aping the palpably flawed position associated with Said and his followers, like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their shabbily confected The Israel Lobby. Soueif does her best to advance and popularize such gross distortions of truth in both her commentary and her fiction.
The Map of Love pushes all the right buttons in the great console of ready-made opinion that prevails today. It purports to be a love story unfolding on several parallel historical planes, set a century apart in colonial and modern Egypt. An English widow, Anne Winterbourne, moves to Egypt and falls in love with an irredentist radical, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi, whom she marries in 1901. In 1997, her great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman, embarks from New York on a journey to Egypt to trace her family history, and falls in love with the symphony conductor and activist Omar al-Ghamrawi who has embraced the Palestinian cause, an obvious surrogate for Edward Said. The novel is admittedly rich in evocative description but is fatally weakened by an air of romantic sensationalism, an haut goût of maudlin evangelism and an insinuating current of predictable disinformation.
Soueif’s novel brings to mind another cartographical production, Harold Bloom’s celebrated critical volume, A Map of Misreading (a companion to The Anxiety of Influence). Among the various litcrit categories or “revisionary ratios” that Bloom develops we find one he names “Apophrades” (from the Greek for “impure days,” inauspicious events”), which he redefines as a form of poetic and literary influence resembling “the Return of the Dead”—the great writers of the past who haunt and intimidate the present-day author with precisely their greatness. What Bloom calls “the imagination’s struggle with its own origins” leads to the imagination surrendering to a “teleological error,” its projected ends marred by a faulty and melodramatic reading of both its past and its present.
In the case of The Map of Love, the structure of the device is repeated on the plane of narrative. The writer constructs a false tableau of the now that is meant to subsume and transcend the sentimental ideal of the then. It is, in effect, an impure or inauspicious transaction. A supposedly exalted past when men were heroic and larger than life and women were wise and adventurous is reprised and strengthened in a simulating present.
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