The Map of Love and Misreading

A reconsideration of Ahdaf Soueif’s "The Map of Love."

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.

Within the tissue of the narrative, Omar is clearly a contemporary update of the exotic, fearless, and tribally dedicated Sharif, as if Soueif were enacting a parody of the primal scene of Freudian repetition, or in Bloom’s terminology, as if she had invested in “the compulsion to repeat the precursor’s patterns” in an attempt “to recover the prestige of origins…since such mediation holds open the perpetual possibility of one’s own sublimity.” Omar’s sublimity, however, is not persuasive; it is simply posited by authorial fiat. Indeed, Soueif’s stock in trade seems to be a manufactured glamor painted onto wooden characters.

But beyond the boundaries of the novel, as we have noted, Omar is intended to suggest Edward Said. He represents Soueif’s deceptive and largely untenable effort to valorize a literary and cultural giant who is now coming increasingly to look like the petty, hypocritical and mendacious doyen of a generation of leftwing postmodern intellectuals. The Map of Love is, finally, little more than a pulpy yet insidious piece of Islamic and Palestinian special pleading and a sorry attempt to rescue the endangered reputation of a morally tainted and intellectually dishonest scholar.

I wish to avoid Bloomian technicalities. Simply put, apophrades is the mode of thought which brings a dominant, commanding and idealized past into the given moment in order to create an even greater and more ennobled present. This imaginary time-transfer, Bloom warns, creates a present which subsequently vanishes between the two antithetical poles of the “past-in-the-future” (e.g., a projected restored Caliphate) and “the future-in-the-past” (e.g., a wished-for 7th century revival), which is the exactly the historical dilemma of contemporary Islam and, mutatis mutandis, of the Palestinian dream world. The Palestinian nomenklatura presupposes an ancient people and an idealized nation that never existed but which is taken as a past reality. This bogus construct is then elevated into a conceptual present which promises to be a restoration, a fulfillment and, ultimately, an even grander and more resilient political fact. But the possible and sustainable present—a viable, democratic and prosperous sovereign state living in peace with its neighbor—is lost in the gap between an apocryphal memory and a spurious future.

In The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif is playing the apophradic game, conjuring the Return of the Dead—or the Return of the Illusory—to affront the living with impossibility. On one level a literary artifact, it is on another, deeper level a subliminal political manifesto. She establishes an equation or “revisionary ratio” between 19th century England and Egypt on the one hand and modern Israel and “Palestine” on the other, all the while touting Edward Said as the visionary leader and prophet who labors for a desired future. As Egypt eventually triumphed in its quest for independence at the expense of imperial Britain, so “Palestine” will presumably realize its successful struggle against Israeli oppression, as Said urged and assumed in The Question of Palestine and other books.

That the equation is invalid, that the Palestinians never constituted a coherent and hereditary people, that their past and their future have no common boundary in a feasible or workable present, and that Israel, according to international law, the laws of war and facts on the ground, is not an occupying power—all this has no purchase on what is essentially, to cite Bloom again, a phony substitution of “early for late and late for early.”

Meanwhile, Soueif has done her tawdry and clandestine job, to nobody’s advantage except perhaps her own and those who gain from pushing the Palestinian fable. The map of love is really a map of misreading. A false prophet is given messianic credibility and a rich and productive present falls between the antipodes of a corrupted past and an anterior future.