Bloomsbury, 1999
ISBN: 0-7475-4563-4
The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif, is a story of love stories. A young English widow intrigued with the country that killed her husband goes to Egypt for the first time. She enters the occupied Egypt of the turn of the 19th century as a decorous and correct, if exceptionally curious, visitor. Slowly, however, she is drawn to the “true” Egypt, most especially in the person of the ardent nationalist Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Close to our own time, a young American woman, Isabel, becomes intrigued by her past. She meets and is attracted to Omar, a controversial and charismatic Egyptian conductor, and through this connection the two stories come together. Isabel has a trunk full of souvenirs of the past, journals and trinkets belonging to her great-grandmother Lady Anna Winterbourne, who married an Egyptian. Isabel takes herself and the trunk to Egypt, to Omar’s sister Amal, who begins to piece together the narratives. 
     The stories in The Map of Love develop slowly and in parallel, but the similarities are not heavy handed. Rather, you happen upon parallels one at a time, like coming across small trinkets on a journey. Both stories have, essentially, two themes: love and politics. Anna’s story is fairly straightforward, even traditional, in its romanticism. Anna falls in love and so does Sharif; it’s a meeting of souls. Their acquaintance originates from a less-than-plausible accident, a perfect romantic catalyst in the style of Wilkie Collins. In fact, the path of Anna and Sharif’s love very much follows the literary traditions of their day. In some ways this is appropriate, yet the book itself is so obviously a book of our time that I found myself amazed that the well-drawn characters of Anna and Sharif would live such a simplistic life. Their love is unshakeable and true, almost perfect, although they hardly know each other. Various hardships of daily life in no way try their relationship—their love is end-of-the-book love, with all the problems smoothed out. Anna’s assimilation into Egyptian life, which she accomplishes with ease, is equally unbelievable. She is so willing to embrace Egypt that everything suits her. She complains perhaps once of misunderstanding, but touchingly apologizes when she understands the basis for Sharif’s behavior. I would have believed her more if she had manifested any of the poignant difficulties of assimilation. Her desire to love everything made me feel for her; that she is chattering with the family, wearing traditional clothes and weaving Egyptian tapestries with such gay abandon startled me. The opportunity was missed here for the subtleties—or should I say, realities—of two cultures meeting. 
     Just as Anna’s is Edwardian in tone, the modern day love story, that of Isabel and Omar, is a truly contemporary tale. Throughout Isabel’s story we are conscious that blind love is not always returned, and that even when you get what you want you don’t truly know what you are getting. Isabel’s hopeful take on facts and events is familiar to any one who has had an obsessive “crush”. In this story there is no remarkable meeting, just a simple acquaintanceship from a dinner party. And the affection that exists between the two is never on a very secure footing. Yet it, too, is a love story, and Isabel’s stubborn determination to love Omar is realistic and touching. The parallels with Anna’s story are deftly interwoven. Isabel, too, has been married before (although she is simply divorced) to a man of her “own” kind, but it is the Egyptian who captivates her heart. 
     The axis for the twin wheels of the plot is Omar’s sister, Amal. She lives alone, purposefully, and it is her solitary voice we hear most often. She takes the trunk from Isabel to piece together the story of Anna and Sharif, and the reader learns it as Amal unravels the history. Even though the narrative sticks close to Amal, she is more of a mystery than any of the other characters. She is strangely vacant, thinking often of her sons but doing little in her everyday life. Isabel’s intrusion wakes Amal up, but neither the reader nor Amal is sure what she is awakened to. Nevertheless, it is through Amal, rather than through Omar, that Isabel is able to see the modern version of the “true” Egypt. 
     That the Egyptian characters care deeply about politics is appropriate and interesting. I had no problem with the mine of information Ms. Soueif brings to light, both in the 19th and 20th century stories. Yet there was something less than pleasing, in literary terms, about the way in which the political lessons were delivered. I found myself comparing the book to A Passage to India, Forster’s tale of a young woman who wants to see the “real” India. The agony of impotence and the frustration of culture that animate A Passage to India are nowhere in The Map of Love. Instead Anna comes, sees, hears, understands and loves. In a way she becomes a partisan. My attention was held because the story of Egypt is not a regular subject for literature, but I cannot help but feel the “informational” style adversely affects the book as a whole. 
     What the novel gains in its presentation of history and politics it loses in tone and characterization. Anna and Isabel are such strangely passive and willing receptacles for the politics of their lovers. Both women come to Egypt like blank pages: ready, even eager, to be written upon. Some of the minor characters seem to exist simply to be the “good British” who understand the “real” situation and do everything they can for Egypt. Although their actions are unquestionable, as characters they are mannequins used to bulk out the “good” side. The bad men are, strangely, more real, perhaps because it was harder for Ms. Soueif to animate characters whose views are so obviously opposite to her own. At any rate, moral ambiguity made them more interesting. In addition, while the love elements of both stories only mirrored each other in subtle ways, the politics of both stories were almost the same. Perhaps this was intended; but again, the lyric fluidity of Ms. Soueif’s imagination took second place to teaching. Occasionally the politicking ran into the ridiculous; we are expected to believe that Israeli agricultural experts are the cheapest because they are scheming to do Egypt harm and need to get in the country. However, in the end the black-and-white politics only slow down the narrative a little. Our attention is still kept by the quintet of main characters. 
     The narrative voice in the book switches constantly between Anna’s journal, Sharif’s sister’s journal, Amal’s inner musings or a simple third person narrator. This inconsistency marks the pace of the book. Like Amal sorting through Anna’s keepsakes, we put The Map of Love together from fragments. A few fragments materialize from a sort of magic realism, although comparisons of the book with M‹rquez are, I believe, unfounded. Ms. Soueif’s touches of fantasy are like a few delicate dabs of gilt—they highlight the picture but by no means provide a base color. What is pleasing about the book is the author’s light touch, which is consistent throughout the work, with the exception of occasional moral stiffness. The book was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, and one of its best features is the language. I was impressed by the way the author blended Arabic and English in a way that infused her language with a sense of Egypt while avoiding the trite or merely quaint and colorful. The dreamy tone of the book overlays and joins together Amal’s clean, precise sentences, Anna’s journal musings and Isabel’s dynamic Americanisms. As a love story/history/travelogue, The Map of Love is a rich and flowing narrative with an intriguing and touching tale to tell.