In the Eye of the Sun
by Ahdaf Soueif
Pantheon, 791 pp., $25.00
Cairo, 1967: from their balconies, families enjoy the air of summer evenings, eating olives and cheese as the sky darkens; the TV serial Peyton Place, to which the whole city is addicted, is suddenly replaced by film footage of military parades. As her country moves to the brink of war with Israel, Asya Ulama is studying for her final school examinations, a jug of sherbet—sometimes strawberry, sometimes mango—at her elbow. She dreams of afterward—after the exams, not after the war; she will swim and lie in the sun, go to parties, and read novels. Perhaps, incidentally, she will learn to shoot. But it does not seem possible that an orderly and happy life will change, except in the directions she chooses. She is seventeen and very beautiful; her hair takes an hour and a half to dry, and she paints her toenails.
Asya’s mother and father are both professors at Cairo University. She belongs to the city’s elite, comfortable, secure, and Westernized; her parents and their friends are sophisticated people whose ideals run to a little mild socialism. More important in their lives than any parvenu creed is an acceptance and understanding of their duties and obligations—to their families, and to the wider society. It is Islam that defines these duties and obligations, but religious belief does not weigh heavy. There is nothing drab or dour about their view of life. The rules of conduct by which Asya and her friends live—don’t be seen in the street with a man your family doesn’t know, always be home by 7:30 PM—are more redolent of Victorian gentility than Koranic repression.
Asya is in love with Saif Madi, a young professional man with good looks and good prospects. He makes her feel “pretty oh so pretty and witty and bright.” He also makes her feel his intellectual inferior; sometimes she is almost struck dumb by her consciousness of his superiority. It is not until later that the reader will find out how narrow and unimaginative Saif really is, but from an early stage we see him manipulate Asya. There are copies of Playboy lying around in his room; when she is left alone she sneaks glances at the centerfold, ashamed of her own curiosity and miserable because the girls are so perfect. If this is the old-fashioned, ill-bred version of male chauvinism, Saif is expert in the newer kind: Asya observes naively that “he’s good with women: he treats them like friends, sort of junior friends.” In matters of sexual politics, Ahdaf Soueif is never less than shrewd. Asya is an Arab woman, but before that she is simply a woman; many a reader will find the machinations of the men in the novel uncomfortably recognizable and close to home. As the novel proceeds, though, one becomes aware that to over-identify is a mistake. The disaffected Western husband has many weapons in his armory, but can’t—like the husband of …