Narrating England and Egypt: The Hybrid Fiction of Ahdaf Soueif

Article excerpt

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). …