The name Ahdaf Soueif may be unfamiliar to most, but activists may recognise her for previously being arrested for participating in protests against the treatment of Egyptian prisoners during the Covid-19 outbreak.1
I always admire a firm woman in her activism. Before that protest, she was a trustee at The British Museum board but resigned when the organisation accepted sponsorship from an oil cooperation. She claimed that the museum did not prioritise people who came from minority communities or underprivileged backgrounds, and the museum’s “core” beliefs are performative at best.2 As a person of colour, I understand writers who wish to create a collective space for culture to thrive.
Beyond her activism, Soueif crafts a beautiful love story in Map of Love using French, Arabic and English to set different tones and explore themes of cultural tension and language barriers between the characters. When she writes in Arabic and English, she portrays how foreign the language is to the two non-speakers, while French is the common language used between them as their language of love because it’s the language they both share.
Set in early 1900s Egypt, The Map of Love follows Isabel, a young American woman, who travels to Egypt to translate Arabic documents, journals, and letters that she inherited from her great-grandmother, Anna, who had also travelled to Egypt in her youth. While there, Isabel meets and falls in love with her friend Amal’s brother, Sharif, a recent divorcee. Amal attempts to explain the tone and history behind the letters and Sharif and Anna express that “having to speak through an artificially adopted language is a kind of liberation.”3
Sharif does not speak English well, and Anna does not speak Arabic well, but we still see them manoeuvre through this barrier, and the novel explores all the nuances of language and how a language can express a culture. Think of how you manoeuvre through a language when you initially start to learn it, using the rules of the language you know to try and understand a different mode of communication.
Other than shifting between languages, Soueif also shifts between periods. She contrasts the different political struggles that Anna and Sharif find themselves in, while manoeuvring conflicting feelings of love. One contrast that interested me was the theme of war. Soueif illustrated the PTSD faced by soldiers when they come back from war through Anna’s husband, Edward. The two struggled to find love and intimacy after he came back home from war. This is in contrast with Sharif, who had grown up in conflict but still gave her the love she sought in Edward and happiness in her child, Nur.
Studies around PTSD faced a lot of stigma coming out of WWI in particular, when nationalism was high and recruiting soldiers was the primary drive for most Western Countries. Leaders wanted to win, and funding studies that told the public that even if their brothers, or fathers or sons came back they would come back traumatised, some unable to function in their previous lives without significant help was opposed to most of the pro-war propaganda that was so common at the time.
Traumatic events can have a major impact on interpersonal relationships, where the traumatic experience can become embedded in the memory structure of the individuals and seemingly innocuous situations and relationships can become triggers.4 Pre-traumatic coping mechanisms can be altered by the traumatic experience, so new pathways must be formed, and common treatment includes cognitive behavioural therapy. Talking about the trauma and creating new patterns and coping mechanisms is a core aspect of CBT.5
This context of war and relationships intersecting throughout Map of Love is perhaps why Soueif places such an emphasis on language, on talking and communication even through language and cultural barriers. The joined effort towards empathy and communication is whatframes Sharif’s and Anna’s relationship and the lack of it dooms her relationship with her English husband, Edward.
Soueif, an activist, a rebel, a woman with a cause, explores intersecting themes around love and war and politics and trauma with the added cultural difficulty and stigma of both an interracial and interreligious love story. Her writing has a way of transporting readers, be they American, African, Arabic or even French, to another era. In my opinion, Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love could give romance writer Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook a run for its money.
“English PEN Calls for Release of Ahdaf Soueif after Coronavirus Protest Arrest | the Bookseller.” Www.thebookseller.com, www.thebookseller.com/news/english-pen-calls-release-ahdaf-soueif-after-coronavirus-protest-arrest-1196207.Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.
Soueif, Ahdaf. “Ahdaf Soueif | on Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees · LRB 15 July 2019.” LRB Blog,15 July 2019,www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2019/july/on-resigning-from-the-british-museum-s-board-of-trustees.
“Guardian Book Club: The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif.” The Guardian, 15 Nov. 2008, www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/15/the-map-of-love-ahdaf-soueif.
Alexander C. McFarlane and Clara Bookless, “The Effect of PTSD on Interpersonal Relationships: Issues for Emergency Service Workers,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy 16, no. 3 (August 2001): 261–67, https://doi.org/10.1080/14681990124457.