The common ground of these essays which span twenty–five years of journalism is the ground where Arabs and non–Arabs co–exist. The author of several novels, including ‘The Map of Love’, which was a Booker Prize finalist, wrote these articles from 1981–2004. She says that they “are the direct product of the interaction between myself and the condition of living in the UK.”.
She is keenly aware that the UK and western media present a twisted and biased view of the Arab and Middle Eastern world. She writes that, “It was impossible – apart from a few notable exceptions – to find in the media of the West coherent interpretations of all this that did justice to the people of the region and their history.” Yet she says that the view of the West in the Arab media focuses on policies, technology and art, particularly those that connect to the Arab world. So the reader can feel her frustration and find a remedy in her many articles that reflect her interests and involvement; the stories range in locale from Morocco to Palestine to Iran; many of her subjects are women, the half of a population pretty much ignored by western media and writers.
She writes a good review of Fatima Mernissi’s latest, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, (which I will now track down) which addresses two issues, important in Islamic society; who can govern and how, and do women have any right to govern. Mernissi relates the history of a number of little known women who ruled in Islamic countries and Soueif, like Mernissi, regrets the loss of such leadership.
There is much criticism in this collection, not only of outsiders trying to write about and interpret another culture, but also of insiders who have glorified themselves at the expense of history and other people. Her review of a collection of Palestinian stories is pretty harsh, even though she recognizes the effort to reflect the rich culture of this nation struggling to just survive. In fact, my first contact with Soueif was not as a novelist, but as the translator of Mourid Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah (reviewed in this list), she comes down hard on bad translations and inaccurate use of Arabic – which is completely understandable in light of its importance in world affairs as well as cultural understanding. She is enough of an outsider, a visitor to the common ground to view her birth culture with a somewhat detached view but at the same time with intimate knowledge and sensitivity.
The essay on the veil, a symbol for the West of Islamic women, points out that fashion in clothing is in every culture, the veil of Islam is different in every country and not always worn by every Islamic woman. She sees the attention given to it in the West as a fearful obsession of this concrete symbol of difference. The veil has become political in many instances as hostility towards Western modernism grows in many countries. (After reading her essay on USA military torture of Iraqi prisoners, one can understand why.) Today’s world is all about image and the veil is a powerful image of identity for millions.
This is a rich and varied collection with many insights and glimpses into a world little known to us, I recommend it to all those interested in the richness of another culture. I end with a few words from her tribute to Edward Said, the great Palestinian intellectual (who lived and taught in the USA, which I can never understand, but I admired him also.) She described him, “in the most private conversation, as well as in public, he was always human, always fair, always inclusive. ‘What is the matter with these people?’ he asked after a recent debate. ‘Why does no one mention truth, or justice anymore?’ He believed that ordinary people all over the world still cared about truth and justice. My life and many others’ are desolate without him.” A heartfelt tribute to a major thinker and a fine person. She says it well.