” Here in Tawasi, I reflect on my English life and I find myself wondering if there is some sense in which this, Anna’s Egyptian life, will only be fully real to her once it has been linked with her older one . . . In Egypt she met a man she could love and married him, she had his child, she found a place within his family. She also found a cause. But she cannot speak her own language, cannot see her own people—and they cannot, or will not, see her. Does this cast a doubt over her life—make it seem provisional? ” (Ch.27, p.465)
Spanning three continents and the course of a century, The Map of Love on the surface is a cross-cultural love affair. But it goes deeper into how love works to bind people and places together and delves into politics that all too often destroys people. In 1900, a young English widow, Anna Winterbourne, intrigued with the country that killed her husband goes to Egypt for the first time. She chooses to deviate from the well-trodden path of expatriate life and comes to experience the true Egypt, most especially and vicariously through the family of the ardent, well-educated nationalist Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi. Their acquaintance originates from a less-than-plausible incident in which Sharif, bent on ending British Occupation in Egypt, has kidnapped the traveling Anna disguised as a man. Her story is fairly straight-forward, even traditional, in its romanticism. They fall in love and lead a simplistic life, even if overshadowed by roiling politics. It’s a story of her assimilation to Egyptian life.
And there are other divisions: people who would have tolerated the establishment of secular education, or the graduation disappearance of the veil, now fight these developments because they feel a need to hold on to their traditional values in the face of the Occupation. (Ch.23, p.384)
The modern-time story concerns Isabel Parkman, a divorced American journalist who falls in love with a gifted but difficult Egyptian-American conductor Omar. She inherits a trunk full of souvenirs from the past, journals and trinkets belonging to her great-grandmother, Anna Winterbourne. Omar suggests her to take the trunk to Cairo, to show his sister, Amal, who might be able to translate the papers and piece together the narratives. The axis for the twin wheels of the plot is Amal, a woman who escapes a broken marriage in England and returns to her homeland to take up the nationalist cause. She loses herself cathartically in the remnants of Anna’s life. The love affair between Anna and Sharif affects the empty-hearted Amal.
The Map of Love is redolent of history and politics. It’s fraught with political conflicts that plague Egypt during the first half of 20th century—from British Occupation to the Arabic-Israeli War in 1967. The legacies of British occupation percolate even to Amal’s generation. So too does the Zionist movement. Although the historical strands can be tendentious and tedious, the book does show how love can grow in the interstices between countries, even between different times. Love encompasses a far broader map than just romance.The narrative voice in the book switches constantly between Anna’s journal, Sharif’s sister’s journal, Anna’s inner musings and Amal’s third-person voice. This inconsistency marks the pace of the book and renders the writing rich. The only downside is the lack of a resolution.
528 pp. Anchor Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]