Excerpted from The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. Copyright © 1999 by Ahdaf Soueif. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of two novels, In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999; a story collection, I Think of You; and an essay collection, Mezzaterra: Notes from the Common Ground. She lives in Cairo, where she was born.
Q: The common American perception of an Arab harem is that it is a "personal cache" of women scantily clad in belly-dancer costumes lounging around and waiting to sexually service the man they "belong" to. In fact, the actual definition of a harem is very different. Could you talk a little bit about what "harem" really means? Why do you think Americans have such a negative perception of the harem?
A: Firstly, a'harem' is a Turkish institution rather than an Arab one. As the Ottoman Turks were the rulers of the Islamic empire from 1512 to the end of World War I, their social institutions and patterns of life came to be imitated by the rest of the empire. The American perception of the harem is, I believe, a merger of white male fantasies that masqueraded as tales from the Orient in the 18th and 19th centuries plus a residue of fascination with the slave system prevalent in the States before the Civil War.
The word 'harem' itself derives from the Arabic root h/r/m which denotes a sacred or inviolable space. The 'harem' of a mosque is the space within its walls. The 'harem' of a university is its campus. The 'harem' of a man is his wife.
By extension the harem of a man included the women who lived in his house and--if you like--under his protection: the women who had rights upon him. So they could be his wife (or wives if he had more than one), his mother, his sister, his aunts, his daughters, his domestic servants--and his slaves or concubines if he had them. It was also the word used for the women's quarters in the house--where no man could enter without permission--this included the master of the house.
I imagine the only harem that ever approximated the American fantasy would have been the harem of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul until World War I. And that harem, because of its uniqueness, exercised a powerful influence on the Arab imagination too. In other words, the American perception of the Arab harem is very similar to the Arab perception of the Sultan's harem in Istanbul.
Only great houses actually had harems--for obvious economic reasons.
Harems have disappeared as cultural ideas have changed, for example with the abolition of slavery, with women going out to work, with extended families no longer living together and with the social unacceptability of having more than one wife.
At worst a harem would be full of intrigue and jostling for position--rather like a Western girls' boarding school of the time. At best it would be a working and supportive community of women.
Q: In The Map of Love, the harem is a positive and powerful tradition for women. The harem that the novel's heroine, Anna Winterbourne, is a part of establishes a women's newspaper, schools for children, and political activism. How realistic is this portrayal of harem life in the early part of the 19th century? Do harems serve a similar function today?
A: Very realistic. All women technically lived in the harem--the women's part of the house. The entire women's movement in all its manifestations came out of the harem.
Today, the harem as such does not exist. People live in apartments, not houses; in nuclear family units not extended ones. Where there is home help it is usually on a live-out basis. The 'community of women' exits, in the sense of women working together at various levels to provide support, but that is not very different from the West.
Q: The idea of the "veiled woman" figures prominently in the American perception of the Arab world, both past and present. Sometimes the veil is presented as an erotic image, as in the cult TV show I Dream of Jeannie, and in other instances it is portrayed as a debilitating, cruel way of repressing women. In fact, several American celebrities have taken up "the veil" as the cause of the moment. How would you describe and explain the veil?
A: The veil is a 'construct.' In essence it is a piece of fabric used by a woman to cover her hair, her hair and part of her face, or her hair and the whole of her face.
The interesting question is why do some women use it? What does using it denote? How does its use change from one period of history to another? From one Muslim society to another? How does its use vary between urban and rural women? How does it vary between the social classes? What degree of freedom does a woman have when she chooses to adopt a certain level of veiling? Or when she chooses not to veil? Or when she chooses to discard the veil after she has adopted it? What is each Muslim woman signaling to the world by wearing a veil? Or not wearing a veil? In other words, you can deconstruct it as you can deconstruct any item of clothing, and indeed it cannot be analyzed separately from its context.
1. A thoroughly top-to-toe black-veiled woman in stiletto heels sashays through a shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
2. A woman in a pistachio-green hair-veil festooned with braids, a long loose green dress and white medium-heeled sandals, her face fully made up, sits in a Cairo coffee-shop with a young man.
3. A dancer, in a belly-dancing costume, a red veil drawn across the lower half of her face, undulates and quivers on an Istanbul stage to the beat of the tabla.
4. A young woman in a white hair-veil, a scrubbed face, loose jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers hurries into the university library in Bir Zeit, Palestine, with an armful of books.
5. A lady of sixty, in a chic black overcoat, pale stocking and black shoes, her hair covered by a crepe-de-chine veil held in place by a discreet diamond pin, wearing very light make-up walks into the elevator of a '30s apartment building in Garden City, Cairo.
6. A woman in an all-covering loose black tent slinks furtively alongside a wall in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1998.
I could dream up another twenty. In each case, the veil is saying something different. Beware of easy explanations and don't hold positions on something you don't understand.
Q: Do many modern Egyptian women wear veils? Are they aware of America's idea that Arab women "need" to be "saved" from the veil? What do Egyptian women think about that?
A: The veil has made a comeback in Egypt in the last twenty years or so. Mostly it is a statement of identity, a protest against cultural globalization, an opposition--it must be said--to the suggestion that Western model is the only model available for women in modern times.
It follows, therefore, that any American or Western attempts to 'save' Egyptian women from the veil are seen--by Egyptian women--as at best muddleheadedly patronizing, and at worst, aggressively neo-colonial.
Q: How does the veil figure in The Map of Love? Was it something you thought about while writing the novel?
A: Part of what The Map of Love is about is to show the inner workings of Egyptian society or an Egyptian household at the beginning of the twentieth century. Anna Winterbourne, our English heroine, is captivated--while in London--by Frederick Lewis' paintings of Egyptian domestic interiors. I, too, love those paintings. I wanted to take Anna into one of those interiors and make her become part of it--bring it all to life.
The veil was very much part of life then. When Anna is first introduced to the veil it makes it possible for her to move about freely without being recognized. It is therefore an agent of her liberation rather than an instrument of repression as she had imagined it to be.
I think that part of what The Map of Love does is to turn upside down, or at least to give a different perspective on western notions about Egypt, about the Arab world, about Islam--and among all this about the veil. It does not set out to do this deliberately. It's something that comes about naturally because the novel gives a 'true' description of these things as they actually are in our own--Egyptian--consciousness.
1. Anna and Sharif meet under very dramatic circumstances. Why does Soueif use a highly charged, potentially dangerous kidnapping to bring the two together? Could have they found each other and fallen in love in the course of their everyday lives in Egypt?
2. Is the portrait of Anna's and Sharif's courtship and marriage realistic? Are Anna's sacrifices in the name of love overly noble or romantic? Does her easy adjustment to life in an Arab household ring true?
3. What impact does his marriage to an Englishwoman have on Sharif's position and the way he is perceived by the Egyptians and the British? Why is the couple accepted by Egyptian society and ostracized by the British? What implications does this convey about the fundamental attitudes and character of the two cultures?
4. Anna and Sharif speak to each other in French. Is this only a matter of convenience? To what extent does language define identity? Does speaking a language that is native to neither help or hinder communication between Sharif and Anna?
5. In what ways do Anna's letters to Sir Charles differ from the entries she makes in her journals? How do her descriptions of the Khedive's Ball [p. 92], her trip to the Great Pyramid [p. 95], and other anecdotes shed light on the political situation in Egypt and on British imperialism in general? Are Lord Cromer, James Barrington, Mrs. Butcher, and other members of the British community fully realized characters, or do they merely serve as symbols for various political beliefs?
6. Why does Anna embrace the cause of Egyptian nationalism with such fervor? In addition to her desire to see justice done, what other emotions motivate her?
7. "How can it strike so suddenly? Without warning, without preparation? Should it not grow on you, taking its time, so that when you think 'I love,' you know—or at least imagine you know—what it is you love?" [p. 48], Isabel muses after she meets Omar for the first time. The words could also describe Anna's feelings for Sharif, and Sharif's for Anna. Discuss how the separate but intertwining stories in The Map of Love shed light on eternal realities of love, as well as on the particular qualities of love between people of different, and often conflicting, cultures.
8. Isabel learns that she and Omar share a common ancestry not from him but from Amal [p. 184]. Why doesn't Omar share this information with Isabel before she leaves for Egypt? Are Omar's reservations about their relationship based solely on their age difference? What other factors in Omar's personal life underlie his reluctance to become involved with a young American woman? Sharif marries Anna despite cultural and political sanctions against their union. Why is it easier for Sharif to commit to marriage to Anna that it is for Omar to commit to Isabel?
9. When Isabel meets Amal's friends, Amal writes, "That is the first thing you notice, I think, when you look at these three women: Awra and Deena, with faint circles under their eyes, a slight droop in their shoulders, a certain dullness of skin, look worn. While Isabel, shining with health and a kind of innocent optimism, looks brand new" [p. 222]. What is the significance of this passage in terms of the themes of the novel? Does Amal see Isabel's "innocent optimism" as a positive or negative quality? Is Isabel less innocent at the end of the novel?
10. Amal's former professor says to the young Egyptian activists, "Do you realise, when you speak of a political programme, that your programme now is the same that Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi's government tried to establish more than a hundred years ago?" [p. 227] Why have the Egyptians been unable to achieve their goals? Are they, as Mustafa argues, "a nation of cowards—we live by slogans" [p. 224]? To what extent have their ambitions been thwarted by the long period of English occupation and Western antagonism and disdain toward Arabic culture and civilization?
11. The Map of Love is firmly grounded in historical fact and current realities, yet two of the most striking incidents are the afternoon Isabel spends at the house of her ancestors, now a padlocked shrine in the heart of Cairo [p. 292], and the inexplicable reappearance of the third panel of Anna's tapestry [p. 495]. Why do you think Soueif includes this "magical" element? Why is the rediscovered panel the one depicting the child of Osiris and Isis?
12. Early in the book, Amal says, "[T]his is not my story. . . . It is the story of two women: Isabel Parkman . . . and Anna Winterbourne" [p. 11]. Is Amal more than a conduit of Anna's and Isabel's stories?
13. For more than a century, Amal's ancestors were leaders in Egypt's nationalist movements and revolutions; her parents lost their home in West Jerusalem when the state of Israel was established in 1948, and after the 1967 war, her mother is devastated by the realization that she will never be able to return to her homeland [p. 118]. Does Amal family's history affect the way she presents Anna's and Isabel's stories? Do the political beliefs Amal holds undermine the persuasiveness or power of novel for the reader?
14. In reviewing one of her previous books, Edward Said called Soueif "one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing." Does Amal's position as a member of respected family and her education abroad allow her freedoms that are denied to other women? What incidents in the book, either historical or contemporary, contradict Western stereotypes about the roles of women in Islamic society? Are Layla and Zeinab Hanim portrayed merely as tradition-bound, subservient women? What evidence is there that they are able to effect change not only within their own families but within society in general? Both Isabel and Amal live independent lives, free of the demands of husband and family. Which woman embodies your own idea of feminism?
15. What parallels are there between the decisions Anna and Isabel face? In what ways do the characters represent the "norm" of their respective cultures? To what extent do they defy cultural rules and expectations? How does Anna, for example, compare to the women of her period, both real and fictional, you have read about in other books?
16. How does religion shape the actions of Sharif and his family in both negative and ways. Are Amal and Omar affected in any way by the religious tradition in which they were brought up?
17. Does the passage of time change Isabel's understanding of love? Does her love for Omar deepen as she learns more about his background? In what ways does the course of their romance mirror Anna and Sharif's marriage? Which couple has to overcome greater obstacles? Beyond the impediments imposed by society, how do the personalities of each character effect their relationships?
18. The Map of Love contains a great deal of information about the history of the Middle East, as well as about the current situation there. How successful is the author at integrating fact and fiction? Did the discussions of politics help you understand the characters and their motivations or did you find them intrusive?
19. Did the novel change your perceptions of the conflicts in the Middle East? Did the depictions of the aspirations of Egyptians and other Arabs differ from preconceptions you may have had? Did it change your view of Israel? Your attitude about the role of the United States in Arab-Israeli relations? Soueif draws parallels between U. S. involvement in the area today and British imperialism. Is this a valid analogy?
20. Do you think Soueif expresses the views of the majority of Egyptians today? What have you read or heard about that supports your opinion?