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The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love is a family saga, a story that draws its readers into two different eras in the complex, troubled history of modern Egypt. The story begins in 1997 in New York. There Isabel Parkman discovers an old trunk full of documents, some in English, some in Arabic, in her dying mother’s apartment. Incapable of deciphering all this material by herself, she turns to Omar al-Ghamrawi, a concert conductor and a man with whom she fell in love with. Omar directs her to his sister Amal in Cairo. Together the two women begin to uncover the stories embedded in the journal of Lady Anna Winterbourne, who travelled to Egypt in 1900 and fell in love with Sharif Pasha al-Barudi, an Egyptian nationalist.

To their surprise, they stumbled across (I wouldn’t say surprising, because the family tree was included before Chapter 1!) connections between their own families. Less surprising, perhaps, is the persistence of the very same issues that plagued their ancestors: colonialism, Egyptian nationalism, and the clash of cultures amongst the Colonists, the nationalists and the fundamentalists throughout the Middle East.

In alternate chapters, Lady Anne Winterbourne’s letters and private journals portrayed her life when she first arrived in Egypt and befriended Layla and falls in love with her brother, Sharif, because both can’t speak one another’s language, Lady Anne and Sharif spoke in a third language: French. Back in modern 1997, Isabel and Omar are struggling to come to terms with what went on a generation ago (hint: Isabel’s mother Jasmine) and get along with their relationship.

The granddaughter’s, Isabel’s present-day love story although offers a much easy reading dialogues, pales in comparison to the landscape and scenes of her grandmother, Anne’s colonial backdrop and history. Speaking through the pages of her faded journal, the extraordinary Anna follows her heart, sacrificed her social status and estranged from all that are familiar to her and became a traditional Egyptian wife. The part that pulled my heartstring is the part where Anna reminiscence of Christmas celebration she could no longer partake, her wide-eyed compassion and tolerance to her new family, her understanding to societal rules imposed on her, all struck a chord to my personal experience. On contrary, the drama that plays out in Isabel’s love life is a little trite and forced, if you asked me.

A major part of the historical settings dealt with the British occupation in Egypt (you can skip history, in green fonts, if you like) and included many famous Egyptian historical figures mentioned below. 

Female nationalists demonstrating in Cairo, 1919

The History of modern Egypt conventionally begins from 1882 when Egypt became part of the British sphere of influence in the region, a situation that conflicted with Egypt’s position as part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914, the country became a British protectorate and achieved independence in 1922. British troops remained in the country until 1956 after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and the declaration of a republic in 1952. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s resultant one party state has seen many changes but has remained in place, firstly under Anwar Sadat, and until the present day government headed by Hosni Mubark. 

In 1882 opposition to European control led to growing tension amongst native notables, the most dangerous opposition coming from the army. A large military demonstration in September 1881 forced the Khedive Tewfiq to dismiss his Prime Minister. In April 1882 France and Great Britain sent warships to Alexandria to bolster the Khedive amidst a turbulent climate, spreading fear of invasion throughout the country. By June Egypt was in the hands of nationalists opposed to European domination of the country. A British naval bombardment of Alexandria had little effect on the opposition which led to the landing of a British expeditionary force at both ends of the Suez Canal in August 1882.

The British succeeded in defeating the Egyptian Army at Tel El Kebir in September and took control of the country putting Tawfiq back in control. It is unlikely that the British expected a long-term occupation from the outset, however Lord Cromer, Britain’s Chief Representative in Egypt at the time, viewed Egypt’s financial reforms as part of a long-term objective. Cromer embarked on a programme of long term investment in Egypt’s productive resources, above all in the cotton economy, the mainstay of the country’s export earnings.

This marked the beginning of British military occupation of Egypt that lasted until 1936. In 1906 the Denshawai incident provoked a questioning of British rule in Egypt. In 1914 as a result of the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was nominally a part, Britain declared a Protectorate over Egypt and deposed the Khedive, replacing him with a family member who was made Sultan of Egypt by the British. A group known as the Wafd Delegation attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to demand Egypt’s independence. Included in the group was political leader, Saad Zaghlul, who would later become Prime Minister. When the group was arrested and deported to the island of Malta, a huge uprising occurred in Egypt. (source: Wikipedia)

The Map of Love is my first book set on Egyptian landscape, the first of many others that I inspired to read. Ahdaf Soueif English prose is so beautiful and graceful that even though there is only one or two drastic turn of event(s), the book delivers a good taste for Egyptian history and political lessons. Although written in English, a lot of its speech and thought takes place in Arabic. There are a lot of Arabic expressions and proverbs that are typical of the Arabic culture and Soueif offers an Arabic glossary at the end of the book. There is an awkward formality to English translation of Arabic dialogues, it is due to how Arabs expressed themselves when they greet each other or mention one another, for example: “Zeinab, may God grant her love life”; and other non instinctual English expressions like the area is boiling with angry dissidents, OR “You have to clear your heart towards him. He is your father.” “My heart does not forgive him.” OR “heaven is at the feet of the mother” takes awhile to get accustomed to. I find it endearing because I have heard the same expressions being used in my extended families.

The mentioned of Amr Dyab (pronounced Amro Dee-yab, Egyptian famous singer and actor) on page 42 draws a smile from me, because it is a song that I heard before titled habibi ya nour el ain (Beloved, light of my eyes) and it goes like this:

page 42 – The latest Amr Dyab song, the tune vaguely Spanish, spirals up at us from the still open general store belowBeloved, light of my eyes/Who dwells in my imagination/I’ve loved you for many years

Amr Dyab is still recording, adopts a sex symbol image and looks better than his early years. 😉

Souief truly writes a very good political rhetoric on the psychology of colonisation. My favourite passage on page 482 on the need of :

a kind of attachment that comes from a satisfaction with the European’s own image of himself in the East, an image different from the one he has of himself in his own country and among his own people. Certain aspects of the Europen’s personality which find no outlet in his own land, he allows to flourish while he is the East.

and its full text was very well argued.

The novel led us to believe that having to speak through an artificially adopted language is a kind of liberation (I’m not entirely convinced, 😉 ). Sharif asks Anna if she is troubled by not being able to speak to him directly. “No. It makes foreigners of both of us. It’s good that I should have to come some way to meet you.” Sharif’s poet friend Isma’il Sabri tells him that it is better for two lovers not to have a shared language. “You make more effort, you make sure you understand – and are understood.” All if rosy in the novel, but whether that is a boon or a bane in real life, remains debatable.

While there is limited vocabulary of love in some languages, there are many more ways to describe love in the Arabic language, take this for instance on page 386,

‘Hubb’ is love, ‘ishq’ is love that entwines two people together, ‘shaghaf’ is love that nests in the chambers of the heart, ‘hayam’ is love that wanders the earth, ‘teeh’ is love in which you lose yourself, ‘walah’ is love that carries sorrow within it, ‘sababah’ is love that exudes from your pores, ‘hawa’ is love that shares its name with ‘air’ and with ‘falling’, ‘gharam’ is love that is willing to pay the price.

Which kind of love do you possess?

Rating: 4/5 

This is a book about the political landscape of Egypt rather than a love saga. As a result, the multi-cultural marriage is remarkably free of conflict. There is no gap of language and misunderstanding. In terms of being a political novel, it is an eye-opener; in terms of being a romantic novel (the presumed main premise of the book), it is all rosy and politically correct. It isn’t that this novel is not romantic, it has its moment and romantic passages, but the romanticism of it get washed away very quickly by heavy political talk.

If you read this with the purpose of getting to know Egypt colonial past and present day, you will be enchanted; if you read this with the hope of being swept away by the notion of romantic love and perhaps shed a moving tear, you will be disappointed.

As I started this book purely to fulfil my one book reading requirement for Arabic Summer Reading Challenge, my needs are fulfilled and I am contented. Ramadhan karim everyone. 😉

Paperback. [Bloomsbury 1999],[516 pages – it’s a chunky one!][British occupied Egypt, Egypt 1997],[Library Loot],[Finished reading on August 2010]

About the author:

Ahdaf Soueif (Arabic: أهداف سويف‎) (born March 23, 1950) is an Egyptian novelist and political and cultural commentator.

Soueif was born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England. She studied for a PhD in linguistics at the University of Lancaster. ‎ Her debut novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1993), set in Egypt and England, recounts the maturing of Asya, a beautiful Egyptian who, by her own admission, “feels more comfortable with art than with life.” Her second novel The Map of Love (1999) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies. She has also published two works of short stories, Aisha (1983) and Sandpiper(1996) – a selection from which was combined in the collection I Think Of You in 2007.

Soueif writes primarily in English, but her Arabic-speaking readers say they can hear the Arabic through the English. She translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (with a foreword by Edward Said) from Arabic into English.

Along with in-depth and sensitive readings of Egyptian history and politics, Soueif also writes about Palestinians in her fiction and non-fiction. A shorter version of “Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey” was originally published in The Guardian and then printed in full in Soueif’s recent collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (2004) and she wrote the introduction to the NYRB’s reprint of Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love. In 2008 she initiated the first Palestine Festival of Literature.


  • 1983 Guardian Fiction Prize (shortlist) Aisha
  • 1996 Cairo International Book Fair Best Collection of Short Stories Sandpiper
  • 1999 Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) The Map of Love
  • 2010 Inaugural Mahmoud Darwish Award

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


5 thoughts on “The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think you brought more to the book than I could and that helped your reading experience. Maybe I need to try it again at a later time.

    Posted by aroundtheworldin80books | August 24, 2010, 5:30 am
  2. we thank the author Ahdaf souief for her great novel, you learn many thing during reading and analyzing this novel.

    Posted by zakaria Almahasees | May 14, 2011, 4:05 pm
  3. I agree, “The Map of Love” is one of the greatest novels I ever read!
    Actually, you have wonderfully succeeded in capturing most of the ideas behind the novel. Despite that, I think that you have misunderstood some points. You said that the novel has “one or two drastic turns of events”. With all respect, I believe that you have failed to see that these are not “drastic” turns. Rather, what Soueif does here is to present to the reader a clear perspective of what really happened in Egypt. Her aim is to present a history that is untainted by the hands of colonialists who have written the history of Egypt themselves. That is to say, the history of Egypt is best seen by the Egyptians!
    The novel also has more implications than that. It is a feminist novel, aiming to give voice to the “third world women” who are always marginalized. Amongst persuing the rights of women, it was neglected that “third world women” have different demands and aspirations than “first world women”. Thus, all were placed under the same paradigm. Soueif, being a woman of the “third world” (Egypt) aims to give a voice to her peers. She does so by letting an outsider (Anna and also partly Isabel) see in the eyes of the insiders (the Egyptians). By living in Egypt, wearing a veil and marrying an Egyptain patriot, Anna could see in the eye of the Egyptians. That is why she accepts the customs of Egyptians that you said were “imposed” on her. Actually, customs are not “imposed” on you. Rather, it is polite to adopt the customs of the country you are in as not to stay a stranger.

    Posted by Truth Seeker | November 8, 2011, 8:24 am


  1. Pingback: And the Winner Is…. « Arabic Literature (in English) - August 21, 2010

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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