Writing in The Guardian in September 1999, Andrew Marr was shocked that "the superstars of contemporary English literature aren't English, and haven't been for years." He refers to the finalists for that year's Booker Prize, which included--among South Asian, Irish, and Scottish writers--the Egyptian-English author of The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif. Marr goes on to say that "the English, who virtually created the novel, are now being ventriloquised by others." The literary crisis he outlines is one that has been sounded before, especially as England sees writers from parts of the globe it formerly colonized (Egypt, India, Ireland, and elsewhere) now seemingly monopolize the cultural scene with their own particular, postcolonial brand of English.
These writers move between two worlds, infusing their Anglophone novels with the essence of their native languages and cultures. Ahdaf Soueif is a case in point: the Egyptian national spent many years of her childhood in England, and then returned for her PhD in linguistics. Her marriage to an Egyptian ended, and she later married English poet Ian Hamilton (from whom she eventually separated). She has been described as a "hybrid" writer, a tense and sometimes intellectually painful role to play; however, it is a suitable adjective: she blends Arabic rhythms and idioms into English; she writes regularly for England's The Guardianas well as for Egypt's prestigious newspaper, Al-Ahram; her two sons from Hamilton have combination Arab-English names, Omar Robbie and Ismail Ricki; she travels frequently between England and various parts of the Middle East. She writes in English because she feels more comfortable in it, but occasionally she gives readings in Arabic as if to satisfy those who think she has "forgotten" her roots (Wassef, "Unblushing Bourgeoisie"). Her lush style is described as exotic and foreign by her Western readers, while her sexual imagery and themes arouse the ire of some Egyptian readers who do not want to claim her as "one of their own."
Her literary corpus, usually described as consisting of "two short books" (the short story collections, Aisha and Sandpiper) and "two long books" (two novels, In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love), generally explores the misconceptions that exist in the spaces between East and West. Soueif is also a prolific essay writer and socio-political commentator, and has written discursive articles on themes ranging from the meaning of the veil in Islam to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her non-fiction shows her to be an astute and sensitive observer and chronicler of current world events and cultural, social, and political issues. Like her fiction, her non-fiction demonstrates that she both perceives herself and is perceived as an Englishwoman as much as an Egyptian one--the bane of the hybrid writer. For example, during a November 2001 trip to Egypt to document what ordinary Arabs thought of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Soueif seems to be among "her people" until she is asked by one Egyptian, "What does your chap think he's up to?" The comment is a reference to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the anecdote illustrates that, while Soueif is often regarded as a foreigner by the English, she is not received completely as an Egyptian in the land of her birth.
Is Soueif then an English writer or an Egyptian one? Is there room to be both in the current literary landscape? Despite being a culturally sandwiched artist, caught in the middle of an East-West face-off, she seems to have created a hybrid identity that, in turn, complements both her English and Egyptian roots. True to the meaning coined by Homi Bhabha, Ahdaf Soueif's "hybrid" work is intensely post-colonial in nature. Bhabha describes hybridity as
The name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminating identities that secure the "pure" and original identity of authority).... It unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of the power. (112)
Soueif subverts the colonizer/colonized hierarchy by presenting England a picture of its colonial past and postcolonial present, complete with all accompanying tensions, thus turning her Egyptian postcolonial gaze on England's eye of power. Her work gives the colonized a voice not only to be heard, but to influence the English/Arab literary landscape as she describes Arab women exposed to British culture and influence (and vice versa), who seek to find their own voices and take control of the narrative of their lives.
Marr's commentary on the Booker finalists raises an interesting question: Whose narrative is it anyway? The English invented the novel, but is it still English when it is written (and rewritten) so well by foreign Anglophone writers? Indeed, the notion of "narrative" is one of the overarching plot lines that encompasses the various themes of gender issues, orientalist cliches, postcolonial politics, and centuries-old tensions between East and West in Soueif's work. Her female characters have a tendency to attempt to express, control, or reclaim their narratives. "Narrative," insofar as I will use the term in this essay, means the articulation of one's hybridity achieved by overcoming the obstacles above. It is informed by both the famous and maligned legend of Scheherazade and by Fadwa Malti-Douglas' observation that
Woman's voice is more than a physiological faculty. It is the narrative instrument that permits her to be a literary medium, to vie with the male in the process of textual creation. To control the narrative process, however, is no small task. Shahrazad demonstrates to her literary cousins and descendants that an intimate relationship must be created between writing and the body. (5-6)
Many of Soueif's characters are pulled between the polar forces of East and West, but only achieve balance when they carve out a place for themselves in the midst of that cultural intersection.
THE SHORT BOOKS: AISHA AND SANDPIPER
Although they mine the same thematic ore as her epic-length novels, Soueif's short story collections are slim volumes. Published in 1983, Aisha is a collection of linked stories, all documenting the eponymous main character, a young Muslim Egyptian woman at different points in her life. (Aisha was also the name of the Prophet Muhammad's youngest and favorite wife, legendary for her intelligence, beauty and bravery; the very name of the character indicates that the Western reader will …