In the Eye of the Sun

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this voluminous and detail-heavy novel, the Egyptian-born writer Ahdaf Soueif charts the life and loves of her heroine, Aysa Ulama, against a background of Egyptian and Middle East politics from 1967 to 1980. The book opens in London in 1979. Its succeeding chapters move chronologically through Aysa’s student days in Cairo and London, with briefer episodes in Perugia and New York. They detail Aysa’s interaction with the two principal men in her life, her husband Saif Mahdi and her English lover Gerald Stone, as well as with women, including her best friend Chrissie, her mother, and her aunt. The book ends with an epilogue in which Aysa, by then installed in London, revisits an Egypt much changed since the late 1960’s under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. Aysa is a member of the financially and culturally privileged class in Cairo, and she grows up in what is presented as the end of an era of cultural flowering. Even her name indicates her background, since it means literally “Asia of the learned clerics.” Her wealthy family is comfortably cosmopolitan, their household a mixture of European and Egyptian and their lifestyle defined by products of international luxury, from their cigarettes to their clothing. Though they are Muslim, their adherence to the strictures of Islam seems as comfortably loose as the nominal Christianity of many households in the West. Aysa’s family is well educated, especially the women: An aunt is a doctor, and her mother is a university professor. Their closest connection with the vast peasantry of whom most of the Egyptian populace is composed is through a servant, whose nuptial history is rather abruptly interjected into the narrative. The point seems to be precisely, in fact, that this life of cultured ease was at one point taken for granted in some Egyptian circles and required no justification. Indeed, Aysa’s is a story that could be set anywhere in the somewhat sterilized world of airport duty-free luxury. Aysa fits in as well in England as she does in Egypt; in both places she is treated with respect by professors and fellow students as well as by ordinary people. Nor is there much postcolonial rancor to be found in this book; anti-imperialist sentiment is expressed only in attenuated form and in isolated references. The reading room in the British cultural center, for example, is the former ballroom of the British Embassy, left over—Aysa explains—from when such things were useful. In later years, she interjects in flash- forward, this very room would be used for visa interviews, situations in which the British were to exercise the last shreds of their dominance over a native population. When Aysa has a lengthy affair with Gerald Stone, an Englishman who seems as insensitive to her needs as her husband had been, she asks whether his attraction to her is that of the Westerner to the exotic female held in the bondage of concubinage. No, he says, he is her slave, not the reverse. The topic is dropped. In Aysa’s cultured household, her love of literature is encouraged. Soueif describes in exhaustive detail her heroine’s intense interest in the great names of world literature whom she begins studying at Cairo University—where there were, as Aysa remarks, still some standards. One hears at length about one professor who stalks into his classroom and grills the petrified students on the nature of poetry, concluding—before stalking out—only that poetry merely is. The story is told from Aysa’s breathlessly admiring point of view, with no authorial comment or distancing. To be sure, the author is not completely oblivious of the world outside of the one through which Aysa moves so confidently. Aysa’s mother, for example, comes to chide her in England when she is in the throes of abandoning her coursework. Aysa has received a British Council fellowship for two years, her mother reminds her angrily, and then two years of Egyptian government money on top of that—the latter being badly needed hard currency that the government could have used for other things. Still, Aysa drops her studies, and the question of her relation to a larger society is not further explored. It is in such moments of friction between Aysa’s world and that of others, however slight and fleeting, that most of the book’s interest lies. At the end of the book—and in the opening chapters, which serve as a temporal frame for the story of her maturation in Egypt-Aysa has found a job writing birth-control tracts in Arabic that are to be distributed to peasant women back in Egypt. The description of her attempts to write something that is so contrary to the mentality of the simple women who are the intended audience and to make it square with Islam, which defines their lives more than hers, is one of the book’s most interesting passages. Aysa realizes that the average Egyptian male farmer will not countenance the notion of birth control. Furthermore, there is no way to reconcile the secular government’s...

(The entire section is 2016 words.)