On Ahdaf Soueif and What’s Possible in Writing

By Yasmin Elbaradie

Ahdaf Soueif’s In The Eye of the Sun changed what I thought possible in writing. I walked away from that doorstop of a novel feeling that the protagonist, Asya al-Ulama, was a new friend. I knew how long it took for her to fix her hair (three hours). Part of that was the way the protagonist opened her world to readers, but part of it was the particular world she was describing. There are not many books written in English about Cairo and the Middle East; fewer still are good.

English is my literary language, and I don’t understand Arabic novels in the way they deserve. So Eye of the Sun was a revelation. I found myself nodding as I read, thinking, “this is the Cairo I know” at the way she perfectly captured the nuances of life in Egypt. Here is the woman discussing how sex on her wedding night was so painful as to be impossible. Here are the class dynamics that I see but was never able to articulate. Here’s the friend with the obscenely strict parents.

Soueif manages, when you read her English-language dialogue, to let you know clearly what the characters are saying in Arabic. Although this effect would be lost on non-Arabic speakers, it’s a wonderful (and tricky to pull off) additional layer for speakers. As someone trying their hand at writing stories populated by Arabic-speaking characters, even kol sana winta tayib presents challenges. It’s just “happy birthday” in some contexts, but an incitement to tip in others.

Growing up, I heard of Ahdaf Soueif and had seen The Map of Love on my mother’s bookshelf. I cracked it open once but found it off-putting and thought it too stuffy. I dismissed Soueif’s work as overly-hyped.

Many years later, a friend, knowing I had writerly ambitions, thoughtfully gifted me with In the Eye of the Sun. I thanked him but put it on the shelf undisturbed. When I moved to the US, I took it along, thinking, Maybe one day. That day came a few months ago when I found myself cooped up at home with a painful shoulder injury. Coursing over the bookshelf, there it was. I gave it another chance and discovered just how wrong I had been in my initial assessment.

Chances are, as a reader of this blog you’re already a devoted Soueif fan. If not, you shouldn’t wait as long as I did to get around to reading it.

More on Ahdaf Soueif and the negotiation between languages:

Ahdaf Soueif on ‘Truer’ Translation

Yasmine Elbaradie is an emerging writer who lives in Seattle, USA, and has aspirations of starting an book club for Arabic books in translation.



Categories: review, translation

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6 replies

  1. “Soueif manages, when you read her English-language dialogue, to let you know clearly what the characters are saying in Arabic.” I totally agree with you!! Some of her dialogues would have easily one that are spoken from the mouths of my in-laws. I have the same feeling when I read “The Map of Love”.

  2. What you say is interesting Yasmina. I, like you, have English as my literary language, and The Eye of the Sun, did not do for me what it did for you and for the other commentator. Is it because I’m not Egyptian but Lebanese, so although those lovely Egyptianisms and descriptions of Cairo, did not hit me as viscerally? What I DID relate to very well, however, was the part of the story that took place in England. That, I thought was spot on (is it because I lived there for 3 years as an impressionable and angst-ridden teenager? Even now these thirty-five years later, I say never again!). I found the book overly long, and it got tedious in that I was ploughing through it rather than turning pages impatiently. I am hoping I will like Map of Love better.

  3. I absolutely loved In The Eye of the Sun, but am so glad to hear that people from Cairo and who speak Arabic also love her books. I never know if it is ‘true to experience’ or not as I can only read it as an English speaking Canadian. But yes, I am a huge fan of this book and want to read more.

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