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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Julia Sneden


In this issue:


A rediscovered trunk containing a diary is the trigger for Ahdaf Soueif's novel, The Map of Love, a tale of two love stories that parallel one another though separated by 100 years.


Shop Girl is a slight, sexy, smart, funny little book . The author is Comedian Steve Martin. Surprised? Don't be.



The Map Of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

(Anchor Books, 516 pages; $14.00)

This remarkable book was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 2000, the third book by an author born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England. She has produced a novel that fascinates on many levels, because it elucidates the politics of the Middle East as seen through Egyptian eyes, while it also details two love stories that parallel one another though separated by 100 years. The first begins at the end of the 19th century, and the second is set in modern times.

The device Soueif uses as catalyst to her story is a trunk discovered by a young woman named Isabel Parkman, an American falling in love with a fascinating, famous older man named Omar Ghamrawi. He is Egyptian by birth, educated in the United States, a musician/conductor who lives in America but travels the world.

As she takes over the care of her mother, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Isabel comes across the trunk. In it are several items of interest, chiefly a diary written by Isabel's great grandmother, an English aristocrat named Anna Winterbourne. Anna was a young widow when she traveled to Egypt, fell in love with an Egyptian lawyer, and married him. It was a time when such a liaison was quite unacceptable to others of her nationality and class, but she and her husband shared a deep and loving bond that transcended the stresses and strains that society placed on their marriage.

The trunk triggers in Isabel a desire to visit Egypt. She shows the trunk to Omar and he suggests that she take it with her when she goes to Egypt, as his sister, Amal, would would find it of great interest. What he doesn't tell Isabel is that Anna Winterbourne, her great grandmother, is also his great aunt. His grandmother, Layla Ghamrawi, was sister to Sharif Basha, Anna's husband.

The story is propelled by the two best friends of Anna and Isabel. Layla Ghamrawi writes commentary on the romance of Sharif, her brother, and the Lady Anna Winterbourne, and Amal, one hundred years later, writes about both the diary and about the growing love between her brother, Omar, and her new best friend, Isabel.

There is a glossary of Arabic terms in the book as well as similarly useful genealogical chart at the front. Both pages quickly became dog-eared in my copy, as I attempted to keep straight the relationships and to deal with unfamiliar words. But the language of love needs no glossary, and make no mistake, the parallel love stories are beautifully portrayed.

For an outsider, the Arab slant on the politics of the Middle East is fascinating, as are the economics and social unrest of a nation trying with all its might to fit into the modern world without losing its history. References to the rule of the British Protectorate over Egypt may well send an earnest reader to the encyclopedia to fill in the educational gaps that exist for most Americans concerning that period in history.

Perhaps most interesting for readers is Soueif's skillful portrayal of her characters who, by virtue of never being drawn as simple or stereotypical, give us deep insights into the universality of human relationships.

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For the month of March, Julia Sneden is our Culture Watch Reviewer while Emily Mitchell takes on an assignment for Opera News.
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