This is a story about Egypt. The Egypt that seldom comes to mind when we think of Egypt. The awkward Egypt that won a nominal independence from a fading Ottoman Empire and finds itself ruled by the British. The Egypt in the 1900s and, a hundred years later, the Egypt on the cusp of the Millennium.
This is a scathing commentary about the relationship of East and West where the West is accused of holding one system of values dear to themselves while denying it to their fellows in the East; of foreign intervention; of emasculated natives accused in turn of being unfit to rule themselves; of world powers playing nations and people like chess pieces and waging dishonest wars.
This is about three intelligent women across time, the family that connects them, the men they love, and how they love differently. This is a story written with, and about, beautiful words: “‘Hubb’ is love,
‘ishq’ is love that entwines two people together,
‘shaghaf’ is love that nests in the chambers of the heart,
‘hayam’ is love that wanders the earth,
‘teeh’ is love in which you lose yourself,
‘walah’ is love that carries sorrow within it,
‘sababah’ is love that exudes from your pores,
‘hawa’ is love that shares its name with ‘air’ and with ‘falling’,
‘gharam’ is love that is willing to pay the price.”
But categorizing this as a romance novel would be to miss the point. This is very much a political novel, and Ahdaf Soueif is a gift to those who recognize the power of fiction to embody the intricacies of politics, history, and ethics as painstakingly as a work of nonfiction. Then again, love is a political act. Maybe we can call it a love story, too.