LITERATURE MEZZATERRA By AHDAF SOUEIF [Bloomsbury, London, 338pp, 2004]

THE NOVEL The Map of Love by Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif is no doubt one of the most beautiful and subtle transcultural narratives I’ve read in the past few years. Not only because of the strong personal identification I felt with the main protagonist Anna – a young British woman who finds in Egypt the sense of belonging she lacked in her homeland, as well as the love of her life. Soueif ‘s graceful prose, profound character building, captivating plotting, and the natural visual allure of the Egyptian setting all combine to make the novel a treasure of cultural insight and sensitivity. The general ambiguity of fictional representation and Soueif ‘s linguistic subtlety allow for a multi-facetted representation of, and commentary on, the social and political realities, which, in the novel, evolve in symbiosis with the several storylines.

Journalistic writing, as the author herself admits in the introduction to her collection of political and cultural essays Mezzaterra, does not allow for the crystallization of experience into multi-layered representation, and thus lacks fiction’s subtlety. The journalist, however, can compensate this lack of time and space by sharp and comprehensive argumentation and a clear-headed approach to the topic. As I will argue, the powerful sentiments and human insights, which make Soueif ‘s novels such inspiring reading, do not suffice to lift her to the same level as a social and political analyst: Nonetheless, they do at times, make for some profoundly moving and thought-provoking passages.

The term “Mezzaterra,” or the common ground, which the writer presents us with in her introduction, indicates a theoretically constructed space where cultures and ideas meet and overlap, and which is inhabited by people who recognize their shared humanity and unity of conscience. Soueif primarily associates this common ground with the Cairo of the 60s, in which she grew up. This era represents for her a time when her people’s revolt against political domination did not exclude admiration for, and adoption of, the cultural and scientific achievements of the West.

Soueif marks the onset of the degeneration of the common ground somewhere along the track of human suffering left by the U.S. and Israel’s joint rampage through the post-colonial Arab world, leaving in its wake a dispossessed and disillusioned Arab people who now realize that what the West said of its own enlightenment was all a big self-serving lie. As she has seen her Mezzaterra crumble, the writer’s primary goal has become its defense; a defense she wants to mount primarily through tackling the misrepresentation of the Arab world in the Western media and literature by emphasizing shared human sentiments. This then is the consistent theme running through both her political, as well as her cultural, essays from the 80s until the present.

One can question whether this particular humanistic approach, with its broad categories and lack of cultural relativism, can be a workable paradigm for political analysis. A reading of the political essays in Mezzaterra tells me it is not. The singular focus on the destructive influence of the neo-colonial politics of the U.S. and its handmaidens Israel and the Arab dictatorships, coupled with a notable lack of self-criticism, do not make for a very balanced impression of what has gone wrong with the world. Understandably, Soueif is angry and frustrated about the consistent misrepresentation of the Arab World in the Western media. However, by carrying these strong sentiments into her political discourse, she compromises the objectivity of her arguments: Israel is the singular cause of discord between the Arab World and the U.S.; America’s support of Arab dictatorships is the primary cause of the abject poverty many Arabs live in; and Islamic radicalization is a direct consequence of both of these factors. Claims which do not lack validity, but present a somewhat lopsided perspective when the internal dynamics of the Arab world are not subjected to a similarly critical analysis.

The writer’s idealization of the Arab world begins in the introduction with the glorification of the Egyptian common ground of the 60s. The view that the political and the cultural can somehow be separated in the appropriation of ideas rooted in a different, and in this case dominating, civilization is seriously flawed. The cultural and scientific products of Western modernity necessarily share in the fundamental (epistemological) axioms inherent in modernity itself, such as secularism, materialism, and rationalism; values fundamentally different from the political, social and religious fabric of pre-colonial and, to a great extent, post-colonial Arab-Islamic civilization. Similarly, broad concepts like justice and equality, which, according to Soueif, Arabs felt they shared with the West, in themselves, mean very little when not contextualized into a particular cultural context and praxis, after which they can mean radically different and sometimes opposing things.

The Arab world adopted the cultural and technological manifestations of Western modernity, but without the transformation of the fundamental principles that preceded this process in the West. Thus, the Arab world compromised its ability to develop a modern cultural identity and indigenous economic paradigm on its own terms, rather than in reaction to a dominant Western power, which justified its rule through alleged Arab cultural and technological backwardness. Any analysis of the current state of the Arab world cannot be complete without considering these factors. Blaming American and Israeli political and economic aggression for all the misery of the Middle East simply ignores the internal dynamics of the region.

Other examples of Soueif ‘s lack of self-criticism can be found scattered throughout her essays. Claims that the Arab media does not portray the West as a monolithic entity and that Muslims cannot possibly hate Christians because of their acceptance of Jesus as a prophet, simply do not stand the test of peeking into your average Cairene bookshop or listening to the Friday sermons at many a local mosque, where simplistic anti-Christian/Jewish rhetoric is certainly not a marginal phenomenon. Surely, as Soueif argues, the origin of these sentiments should be sought in political discontent rather than in scripture, but to be apologetic about or deny the popularity of this kind of “religious” discourse does little to explain the importance of Islam as a vehicle of social and political commentary and the antagonizing role an exclusivist brand of politicized Islam can play within the Arab world as well as in relation to inter-cultural dialogue and representation.

In spite of its weaknesses, Mezzaterra is certainly not all bad. Where on the level of macro-politics Soueif has the tendency to generalize and simplify, her more localized accounts are, at times, treasures of subtlety and emphatic perceptivity: Attributes that have improved with time. These qualities are most obvious in her experiences of the places she knows best – Egypt and Palestine.

“Many Flights into Egypt” gives a colorful and at times hilarious impression of the different foreign Orientalists and adventurers who come to Egypt to seek spiritual and historical nourishment. From the young Burtonesque aristocrat who falls in love with the desert and keeps falcons on his Cairo balcony, to the rich American women who are drawn by the sugar-sweet wooing and exotic looks of the Arab Romeo’s, Soueif ‘s sharp and witty portrayals paint a poignant mirror image to Western complaints of immigration. They show the kind of eccentricities Egyptians have had to deal with courtesy of Egypt’s legendary historical appeal. The power and wit of these kinds of micro-level accounts to an extent balance out the generalizations in the first part of the book.

In “Under the Gun” and “The Waiting Game,” based on the author’s visits to Israel and Palestine in 2000 and 2003 respectively, Soueif ‘s energetic exploration of different towns, communities, and individuals, presents us with a kaleidoscopic window on the ways in which occupation and its ramifications is penetrating into the most intimate corners of people’s lives. In doing this, she does not shun encounters with her opponents. She visits an illegal Jewish settlement and there, cool-headedly, interviews a radical Zionist. She criticizes the radicalization of the Intifada and gives portrayals of sincere Jewish Palestinian-Rights campaigners, as well as Palestinians making money off selling their compatriot’s property. All this while invariably drawing our attention to the daily individual dramas faced by the occupied: from the loss of loved ones, the inability to get to school on time because of checkpoints and curfews, to Israeli soldiers urinating into the courtyard of one’s house.

When Soueif visits the Palestinian farming community of Jayyus, whose sheep are starving because their pastures have become the buffer zone between the security barrier and the Palestinian territories, an exasperated farmer asks her, “Can somebody intervene here? . . . When birds get stuck in oil slicks, everybody rushes to help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated, but the world could help the sheep. That should be simple.”

It is these kinds of harrowing illustrations of the direct impact of the occupation on individual lives and fortunes which make these personal accounts such a powerful appeal to universal human sympathy. The “common ground” can be found and defended only there where what exactly is meant by “justice” and “equality” and what exactly is needed to achieve these in a particular context is defined and negotiated by the actual players of the game. It is on this level that misrepresentation can be challenged, what we share can become more apparent and solutions to differences can be sought: not on the level of a broad political discourse that is mounted to accuse and defend rather than to challenge the domination of the West as well as to question how the Arab world could be so easily submitted to this domination.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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