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 one of Asya’s friends—run off and take a second wife without telling her.
Asya’s family approves of Saif, but suggests a delay before marriage; it’s best if Asya gets her degree first. Asya’s friends do not have marriages arranged for them, though it is hinted that it is desirable to marry a cousin. But there are severe constraints on their choice of husband; if the family does not approve, a daughter may find herself cut off, isolated, and that is a hard fate to bear when family life is so warm and sustaining. The girls are romantics, they think they are making love matches; later they will lose their illusions, and realize—as their mothers did before them—that happiness is not a right, that there are more important things than personal fulfillment. Who wants to know that, at eighteen?
However, though Asya and her friends may be just as starry-eyed and silly as their Western contemporaries, they are better acquainted with the principle of deferred gratification. There is no God but Allah—but, if there were a second, it would be called Thesis, or perhaps Viva. The Great Examiner governs all. Asya is expected to do as her mother did: take a degree, take a higher degree, lecture at a university, and then become a professor. Education is the key to earning power and family security, and Asya’s family and people like them believe it to be almost as important for their daughters as for their sons. One of the outstanding images of the novel is that of Asya’s mother standing over her (by this stage) emotionally and physically battered daughter, coaxing and bullying her into sorting the index cards and shuffling the papers which contain the raw material for her Ph.D. thesis. It is expected that women will go on working after marriage. The extended family and a network of old retainers take care of any children, though there is no pressure to have a baby soon after marriage; if it happens that you are so blessed, you hitch your offspring on your hip and carry on as before. It is taken for granted that the pursuit of a higher degree and a good career may lead to long separations for married couples. So again, what happens to your love match? You must put duty first.
Two hundred pages into Ahdaf Soueif’s very long novel, the reader is thoroughly inducted into conflicts mental and physical, inner and outer, and is crouching over the text with a frozen and helpless prescience. This is a novel of enormous ambition, and one of its virtues is that it gives us a sense of continuity, of family and national life stretching out before and behind the action chronicled; the time, the place, the people are fully realized on the page, warmly and affectionately depicted. In the early stages of the book, Soueif does not simply use events on the world stage as a backdrop, but attempts a parallel structure, so that high politics and domestic minutiae are juxtaposed; it seems that war and terrorism and political dissidence will be as much part of the novel as the search for “the perfect pair of satin court shoes in dusty pink.”
Unfortunately, Ahdaf Soueif has not found an attractive or even an acceptable way to integrate the public and private elements of the story. The weakness is in her technique of conveying information. Sometimes it is offered to the reader in big brutal slabs:
Secretary-General U Thant meets with the UNEF Advisory Committee and decides to “comply with (Egypt’s) demand” and remove UNEF from Egyptian territory.
U Thant sends instructions to the UNEF Commander in the Sinai.
There are walk-on parts for the famous:
Enter Nasser looking pale and concerned.
Soueif’s other way of telling us what is going on in the world is to allow her characters to discuss it. This would be fine if her dialogue were slick, neat, pointed; but these are not its attributes. Here is Asya in 1979, about to return to Cairo after a long absence, discussing the state of her nation with family and friends:
“Your generation was brought up on ‘Abd el-Nasser’s speeches; on ‘Non-Alignment’ and ‘Socialism’—“
“Yes,” Asya agrees. “And ‘Arab Unity’ and ‘The Palestinian Cause’—“
“So they find it difficult to accept the open-door economic policy and begging for US AID and bilateral peace with Israel—“
“The worst thing,” says Asya, “is this terrible rift between us and the rest of the Arab world.”
“There you are, you see. Because you were brought up believing in Egypt’s position—its role in the Arab world—“
“And meanwhile there’s real economic hardship at home,” Nadia says.
There is a lot of this kind of dialogue, inherently improbable and deeply fatiguing. Other aspects of the writing reinforce the impression of a pervasive authorial clumsiness. The narrative is written in the historic present: a good technique if you want immediacy, or to shake up the reader’s expectations once in a while. But because any fragment of the narrative is likely to scuttle backward from its starting point—Soueif seems to think it is too simple to write in a straight line—some very contorted grammar is needed; when we should be engaged with the story, and with the characters, we are wandering around in Pluperfect Park. The uncontrolled proliferation of flashbacks suggests that the novel is out of the author’s control, a mechanism with its own mad laws.
The book’s close focus and attention to detail is one of its potential strengths, but Soueif does not distinguish between telling detail and the other kind. There is a section, for instance, in which Asya, before her marriage, goes off to Beirut to a secret rendezvous with Saif. She is in a state of emotional and sexual tension as she arrives at the pensione where they have arranged to meet. But as she is being shown around, the action stops, and for a page and a half, the reader is told about the family bathroom in Asya’s home in Cairo; only then can we get onto a description of the bathroom that is now before us. (You will not have read so much about bathrooms since A.S. Byatt’s Possession.) Digressions like this make the book slow going, and the story loses impetus as the reader’s attention is shuttled backward and forward between peripheral characters; action stops again while their life stories are sketched in and the thoughts of their hearts laid bare. And from the dense, cluttered narrative, the main character herself seems curiously absent. Asya is observed, she is commented upon, but it is not until a late stage that she seems to inhabit the novel that tells the story of her own journey to adulthood and self-realization.
Perhaps this is deliberate, Asya is a student of English literature, and sees her own life as a narrative—though not necessarily one that she is writing. When, in England, she is unfaithful to Saif, she tells herself: “You’ve joined Anna and Emma and parted company for ever with Dorothea and Maggie.” Is life a narrative? Is it like a novel? Can we design our lives, take the kind of conscious decisions a novelist takes: change the pace, heighten the tension? These questions are intrinsic to the book, but they are not so much embedded in the narrative as stuck on top of it like broken glass on a brick wall.
Asya has in fact a dual existence. She is a type, an emblem; she is also a particular young woman having a hard time in all sorts of interesting ways. Her wedding night with Saif is a disaster. She finds herself in such pain that Saif cannot penetrate her, then or later. Nevertheless, his fumbling around makes her pregnant: she is suddenly transformed into that peculiar Christian icon, a pregnant woman with an intact hymen. She does not want the baby, but when she miscarries she feels wretchedly guilty. Saif will not discuss their difficulties and prefers to pretend that all is well; it is in a climate of coldness and estrangement that Asya goes to England to begin studying for her Ph.D.
She only knows London and Oxford; she expects cloisters and leather armchairs and mellow tutors, but what she gets is the cold and half-light and institutional discomfort of a bleak modern campus in the north of England. Soueif’s description of Asya’s first night in her hostile new environment is riveting—a highly effective, memorable piece of writing. We seem to live the night with Asya breath by breath; there are no digressions, no clutter, just a steady eye trained on a harsh situation; at last one feels that Soueif’s technique has come into its own. The following sections work well, as Asya’s panic and isolation deepen. She has chosen to research in that branch of linguistics called stylistics. The first reading lists given to her seem meaningless; the articles “read like eating gravel.” It is only after many months of grinding effort that she sets up a suitable project. Her chosen work is to study, categorize, and analyze metaphors: to reduce poems to formulas. It is dull, sterile, tedious—but it prevents her from thinking about wider issues in her life. She is beset by feelings of futility, of a spiritual deadness:
Can it be that she has no feelings any more? Only meta-feelings? Meta-feelings about her loss of feeling?
To her rescue—so it seems—comes Gerald Stone, a blond Englishman doing a master’s degree in marketing. Asya enjoys sex for the first time, but Gerald’s emotional incontinence proves harder to bear than Saif’s reserve, and Asya is soon wishing she were rid of him. She has persuaded herself that Saif would not care if she had an affair, but this proves an illusion. Saif turns up in England to discuss the problem, and his form of discussion involves bruised ribs and black eyes. Obsessively, he demands from Asya the most intimate details of her affair, those details most calculated to wound him. Gerald is a caricature, and does not hold the reader’s interest, but the scenes between the married couple are electrifying.
In the Eye of the Sun rewards the reader who has patience and stamina. In the last quarter of the novel, the tone settles and matures, and we are drawn deeply into Asya’s efforts to confront her failures and mistakes. Her mother points out to her that she has always made her own choices; Asya points out, and realizes for the first time, how narrow the options were. And what Gerald has said of her is true:
…All your ideas are secondhand; they’re derived from art—not life…. OK. You’re intelligent, you’re bright, you’re good at taking things to pieces, but you’re no good at putting them together again. You’re not clever enough for that.
Before Asya can really grow up, she must learn to see her life as a deliberate creative act; she must become her own writer. Ambiguities and conflicts of culture and language are now played out on the page. Her father sends her a letter in classical Arabic, with one sentence in English: “You are making a mess of your life.” In Arabic, these words can’t be said; there is no translation. What would have happened to Asya if she had chosen to study Arabic literature instead of English literature? In which language, which culture, can a woman’s voice be heard?
At the end of the book Asya returns to Cairo. She has been away for five years and changes have been rapid and for the worse. There is a vast parking lot where the opera house once stood, and balcony doors are closed against the roar of the traffic. At Cairo University, a new generation of female students has taken to wearing the veil: the Westernized excitements of Asya’s youth have vanished. Asya asks her students to write her a paragraph about why they want to study English. One of these veiled, silent presences writes: “I want to learn the language of my enemy.” Asya wants to challenge her, “to engage in dialogue, to ask whether she did not think there was a commonality of human experience beyond politics, beyond forms.” But the veiled head shakes silently. Another girl—this one unveiled—answers for her: “She cannot speak…because the voice of a woman is a ‘awra.’ ”
That is, it is like one of those parts of the female body which it is considered indecent to display in public. Asya feels that she has always known this in theory; now the theory is embodied, and sits before her. It is a frightening and moving scene, one of the best in a frustrating, occasionally brilliant book; Soueif’s triumph is to persuade the reader of the reality and importance of that “commonality of human experience.” A graceful and—against the odds—optimistic conclusion finds Asya brooding over the great stone figure of a long-buried idol: a woman with the smile of someone “who had always known who she was,” and who is “delivered back into the sunlight still in complete possession of herself.”
September 23, 1993