The Map Of Love
by Ahdaf Soueif
(Anchor Books, 516
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
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.