Reading Egypt

Ever since my journey to Egypt–nay, before, in preparation too–I have been reading books about Egypt, books about people who’ve visited Egypt, books about people who love Egypt, books about fictional lives in Egypt and of course, books by Egyptians.

Now, I’ve just (finally) finished The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, whom, synchronistically I believe I happened to see interviewed on Aljazeera during the recent Egyptian revolution. She was talking about having been down in Tahrir Square and some young relatives were down there–reading her work, I can see why she’d be part of it and encourage young relatives.

The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, a worthy achievement  for an Egyptian writing in English– Wiki  refers to her as an Anglo-Egyptian who studied for a PhD in linguistics at University of Lancaster. Translated into at least 21 languages it’s sold over a million copies. It’s sent me to search for her debut novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1993). I won’t describe its plot or style — it’s a great read on all fronts and hope you get to read it. It informed me about aspects of Egypt I had no idea, reminded me about some I had forgotten and especially useful, gave me an ‘insider’s view’ about the complex early process of the Palestinian Problem as seen by the Palestine-linked characters.

One might be tempted to say it’s almost like returning from the sublime to the…less sublime…when I say that before The Map of Love I finally managed to read  Margaret George’s very thick popular novel: The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1997). However, in fact, Memoirs is a bloody good read too and Margaret George is an aficionado/lover of is pointed out on the first page, she “first visited Egypt when she was nine years old and wrote her earliest version of Cleopatra’s story as a school project in 1956.”

Of course, before these two fictional works about Egypt, I had read Amelia Edwards’ [1831-1892] travelogue A Thousand Miles Up the Nile and (on the Nile itself) Florence Nightingale’s [1820-1910] Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, as well as of course Lucie Duff Gordon’s [1821-1869) particularly well-know Letters from Egypt. I discussed these earlier in the year on this site: “Isis Unveiled: Letters from Egypt, The Freedom March & the Shared Pain of Revolution (Feb 2011)” as well as Margot Badran’s study of the life of Egyptian feminist Huda Sharaawi: “Remembering the 1919 Revolution” (February 2011)

In between I read (having fortuitously found them as I exited the British Museum’s “Book of the Dead Exhibition”) the renowned Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouzthree early historical novels  Khufu’s Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes At War. I look forward to reading a selection (if not all) of his more contemporary-set novels. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and suffered seriously (including an assassination attempt) for his willingness to tell it as he saw it. More on Mahfouz when I have tred his world more thoroughly.

There are others and more to come, being on an Egyptian role as it is, and I hope to continue over into other North African and Gulf and Middle Eastern fictional and non fictional worlds–with a special focus on women writers. I have also picked  up a copy of: The Goddess: Power, Sexuality and the Feminine Divine by Shahrukh Husain [1950-] of Pakistani origin living in London.

Maybe you can see where I am going with this–picking up from where long ago I read Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi. There’s a first class video clip featuring her in a Guardian article from April 2010:

There are a lot of older feminists still out there, still “holding up half the sky” and younger ones (some may not call themselves that or know they are, but they stand on our shoulders as we stand on others’). The battle is a very long one, as long as humankind’s story. Nawal points the finger at religion as the major source of the problem, in particular the patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam–which is where she started out in her long fight, with resisting the mutilation of young girls (and boys for that matter) based on religious practice.

And so my Journey to and through Egypt, the Great Motherland of Civilisation (mmmm…..)  continues…

PS: I also recommend Anthony Sattin’s The Pharoah’s Shadow: Travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt.

PPS: Ahdaf Soueif’s first novel In the Eye of the Sun is certainly worth a read-it gives a picture of the author as much as it does the heroine Asya as one suspects the work is quite autobiographical (although I can’t prove it!). The tortuous coming of age of a freedom loving Egyptian girl-woman is charted with great detail and verve, thus it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but one thing is certain, its picture of Egypt is strikingly authentic as well as the English-Egyptian cultural multilogue...


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2 Responses to Reading Egypt

  1. Valerie Proctor says:

    Have you read Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger, 2009. Neo-Victorian fiction/novel written from the point of view of Lucie Duff Gordon’s servant, Sally Naldrett.

  2. Leona Graham says:

    Hi Valerie…yes, read Pullinger’s book…interesting angle…sounds like we are on similar tracks but sadly, since I was there, am less optimistic about Egypt’s future..

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