Portrait

Ahdaf Soueif: Developing a Euro-Arab Literature

Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who made it big in Great Britain. As a nominee for the Booker Prize she is among the growing number of authors who are developing a so-called "Euro-Arab Literature", writes Yafa Shanneik.

photo: Goldmann Publishers, Germany
Adhaf Soueif

​​The Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif is one of a number of Arab authors who emigrated to Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century and who, from their adopted homes, attempt to describe their encounters with cultural otherness.

They base their narratives in their foreign homes as well as in their countries of origin and, through the themes, content and literary style of their work, they present their characters' unique experiences in both locations and in the "space in between".

Literature as a beacon for social integration

This immigrant literature trend can for instance be observed in Germany. Here, Arab authors write stories which illustrate the conflict between their own cultural identity and that of the new country and which deal with the inner struggle between the old and the new cultural identities using new literary forms that stem from Arab tradition.

In the context of today's globalized literature, these authors are making an important contribution to the process of observing and comparing cultural differences: They see it as an opportunity to develop an intercultural "Euro-Arab literature" which can help make a dialogue between the cultures easier and assist in the integration of immigrants into the societies that receive them.

Intellectual Muslim background

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo in 1950, the daughter of an intellectual Muslim family. She studied English Literature at Egyptian and British universities and served for two years as an instructor at a Saudi Arabian university. Since 1981, she has been dividing her time between London and Cairo.

Soueif's literary career began in 1983, when she published her collection of short stories, Aischa. This was followed by the novel In the Eye of the Sun (1992), the short story collection Sandpiper (1996) and her second novel The Map of Love.

She translated some of her literary works into Arabic and in 1996, she was awarded the Cairo Book Fair Award for the Best Short Stories of the Year for her collection Zimat al-Hayat wa Qisas Ukhra, Sandpiper, or literally, The Beauty of Life and Other Stories.

Egyptian Booker Prize nominee

In 1999, her novel The Map of Love was nominated for the acclaimed Booker Prize. Numerous magazines and newspapers – including The Times Literary Supplement, Cosmopolitan, the London Review of Books and al-Ahram Weekly – regularly review her work and publish her critical treatises.

Soueif's literary works focus on the portrayal of Arab-Muslim society and its striving for modernization in a globalized world. She formulates this objective in the context of a specific understanding of culture, cultural identity and intercultural relationships.

Culture as a dynamic concept

For her, culture is a dynamic concept which embraces all of a society's activities in their historical context and thus lends its identity a form which is distinct, yet still able to communicate and learn.

Soueif incorporates this understanding into her work by portraying her characters' experiences both in the various stages of Egyptian society's historical development as well as during their stays in Great Britain.

In her novel, The Map of Love, Soueif describes the political, socioeconomic and cultural conditions that dominated Egyptian society at the beginning of the 20th century and follows their development through the changing viewpoints, experiences and feelings of the character Anna, an Englishwoman living in Egypt.

Through this learning process, we observe the way that Anna on the one hand and her Egyptian neighbors on the other maintain their respective cultural identities and, at the same time, enter into a conflict-ridden, yet fruitful dialogue.

Writing about modern Egyptian women

In the novel, The Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif presents a different view of the common Western cliché of the oppressed Arab woman, deprived of her rights and her voice. She follows the development of the main character, Asya al-Ulama's cultural identity as she becomes an emancipated Egyptian woman who nevertheless insists on maintaining that cultural identity.

In doing so, Soueif uses time and space, fiction and reality in the context of history and politics to paint this picture in different epochs and in different places. She is helped here by well-founded information and research which challenge the oversimplified, stereotyped portrayal of Egyptian women in English literature.

In an interview with the author of this article, Ahdaf Soueif points to the positive reception of this process among her readers: "I think it has already changed misconceptions among my readers judging by the letters I get. I do like to play with these preconceptions and twirl them round a bit; like standing the Western concept of the 'harem' on its head as I do in The Map of Love by representing the domestic life of a harem."

The aesthetics of writing

The special quality of Soueif's writing style lies in its artistic construction, which is based on a fusion of Arab and English settings, characters and manners of speaking, lending a unique aesthetic character to her works.

Cultural characteristics of Egyptian people – such as Arab names, expressions, metaphors, greetings and forms of address – flow seamlessly into her English-language dialogues.

"English is an extremely hospitable language"

Literary critic Polly Pattolo wrote that Soueif's literary style consisted of thinking out her dialogues in Arabic and writing them in English. In her interview with me, Soueif pointed to the literary advantages that this style provides for the English-speaking reader: "I think this is the base, really, of the sometimes 'different' English I write. That I need to fashion an English that will express an Arab reality.

I have found English an extremely hospitable and wonderful language. The interesting thing also is that often my bilingual (Arabic/English) readers tell me that when they read my characters' dialogues in English they can hear it in their heads – in Arabic."

In Soueif's work, the intercultural quality literature appears in the unprejudiced intercultural relationships, such as that between the Englishwoman Anna and the Egyptian Sharif (The Map of Love) or between the Egyptian Asya and the Englishman Gerald (In the Eye of the Sun). The development of the characters of both Anna and Asya and the transformation of their traditional cultural values (British and Egyptian, respectively) demonstrate a tendency in the direction of modern, universal values.

In Germany, too, both German and Arab writers have intensified their efforts to support an intercultural dialogue in recent years. Examples of this trend can be seen in the works of the Arab immigrants Jusuf Naoum, Suleman Taufiq and Rafik Schami.

With the intensive support of German, British and Arab authors, these literary products could be developed into a Euro-Arabic literature. This literary genre could provide a forum for encouraging dialogue between the cultures and accelerating integration into the societies of immigration.

Yafa Shanneik, © Qantara.de 2004

Yafa Shanneik is working on her doctoral thesis on the topic "Transculturalism, transformation processes and gender research. The image of the Arab-Muslim woman in German and English-language 'transcultural literature'."

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

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