15 September 2016

Library Limelights 115

Ahdaf Soueif. The Map of Love. UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.
Someone ‒ who? ‒ recommended this novel and what a quiet tour de force it is in the "family saga" genre! Anna Winterbourne's story takes place in pre-First World War Egypt; that of Amal Hanim and and her cousin Isabel Parkman is 100 years later, just before the recent millennium. Their lives intersect as the cousins are mesmerized by Anna's journals and letters, long buried in an old trunk. Anna marries into a notable (fictional) Cairo family to the dismay of her English peers who occupy and oversee the beleaguered country as Ottoman influence fades. The love of her life is the brother of her friend Layla, Sharif Basha al-Barudi who mingles with every real historical figure of the era and behind-the-scenes politics. His personality is not lost on the generations that follow. Meanwhile in "real" time, Isabel has fallen in love with Amal's brother, the acclaimed symphony conductor, Omar Ghamrawi.

The dual love stories unfold in intriguing segments, beautifully integrated from different perspectives — the novel's construction and development is a marvel. This is Egypt as we would rarely see or hear of it, a struggling nation brimming with vitality and affection and amazing detail of ordinary life. A plain pedigree chart and a glossary assist the reader with relationships and terminology. The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (1999); the author is a well-known journalist and political commentator living in London and Cairo.

[Anna] And imperceptibly, a conviction must have grown in my mind that if a creature of such little significance as myself can be said to have a destiny, that destiny bore, somehow, a connection to Egypt. (101)
[Amal] Across a century and across two continents, this trunk has found me. (104)
[Sharif] British brains and Arab hands is Cromer's recipe for Egypt. (262)

I had not even known that Isabel existed. And now here she is, in Cairo. And in love ― although she has not said so ― with my brother. When we sit and talk on my balcony we are ― if I let myself be fanciful ― soothing the wounds of our ancestors. But I still want the story. I empty the trunk , carefully, slowly, item by item, and there, among the tissue paper, the fabrics, the glass, is a small blue book. (104)

Isabel goes to the home village with Amal:
She throws back the linen sheet and sits up in Layla al-Ghamrawi's big brass four-poster. Through the fine gauze of the mosquito netting she can see, on the wall, facing her, the portrait of Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. Now she can make it out only dimly, but she has studied it well. From the heavy gilt frame he looks down at her, the fez set squarely above the high forehead, the eyebrows broad and black, almost meeting above the straight nose. The thick moustache covers the upper lip; the lower lip is firm in a strong, square chin. And all the arrogance of the face is perfectly focused in the eyes: proud, aloof and yet, if you look carefully, sad also. ... And it is in that face, more than in the face of his father out in the hall, that Isabel sees Omar el-Ghamrawi. (178)

"Problems? What problems? Every problem has a solution." 
Zeinab Hanim sits back, her eyes still wide and fixed on her son. 
"She — you know her. I am thinking of Lady Anna." 
"Lady Anna? The Englishwoman?" 
He nods, watching her. 
She lowers her eyes and lets out a long breath. When she lifts them to his they are full of concern. "You don't have enough problems already?" 
"I told you." 
"She is English." 
"I know." 
"And she is the one you want?" 
"It would seem so." He smiles. (279)


Could we have lived our lives ignoring politics? The Occupation determined the crops that the fallah planted, it stood in the face of every industrial project, it prevented us from establishing our own financial institutions, it hampered our wishes for education,it censored what could be published, it deprived us of a voice in the Ottoman parliament, it dictated what jobs our men could hold and it held back the emancipation of our women. It put each one of us in the position of a minor and forbade us to grow up. And with every year that passed we saw our place in the train of modern nations receding, the distance we would have to make up growing ever longer and more difficult. It sowed distrust amid our people and pushed the best among them either to fanatical actions or to despair. (472)

John Sandford. The Devil's Code. NY: GP Putnam's Sons, 2000.
Prolific Sandford ... another great character from his pen: Kidd (known only by his surname) is an artist, a burglar, and a computer hacker. Yes, quite a skill set. When his colleague Jack is killed in a suspicious scenario, his sister Lane asks Kidd to investigate. Kidd's sometime partner-in-crime, crackerjack thief LuEllen, decides to hang with them. Immediately they are plunged into a whirlwind of internet and corporate conspiracies. Their reliable clandestine fellow hacker Bobby is almost arrested in the blame for a global DoS attack on government systems and Kidd too is being hunted even as he closes in on the killers. It's all believable. Depend on Sandford to provide non-stop excitement and smart dialogue.

Word: azimuth - a horizontal angle of incredibly precise measurement that I don't need to know about.

LuEllen was unimpressed by pain; her own or anyone else's. (69)
Paranoia is good for you, if you're a crook; but it doesn't make life any easier. (86)
CNN had a story, but like a lot of CNN stuff, most of it seems to have been garbled by a mentally challenged paranoiac. (111)

LuEllen's recent resumé:
"I've been working pretty hard. I did a hundred and seventy thousand in Miami a couple of months ago, scared myself brainless."  
"Come close?"
"Not to getting caught, but the people ... bunch of peckerwood meth manufacturers. If they'd figured me out, they would've cut me up with a chainsaw, and I shit you not." (69)

Killing Time:
An hour out of Washington, with nothing to do, I got out the tarot deck and did a couple of spreads. LuEllen watched with mixed skepticism and nervousness, and finally said, "Well?" 
"Just bullshit," I said. "Confusion." 
"Let me cut the deck." I gave the deck a light shuffle, and let her cut it. She cut out the devil card. The devil represents a force of evil, but not usually from the outside, not a standard bad guy. The devil is usually inside. He sits on top of you, controlling you, without your even being aware of it. 
"That's bad," she said. "I can tell by your face." (102)

Modern times:
Once upon a time, agency operatives could tap any phone call or radio transmission in the world; they could put Mao Tse-tung's private words on the president's desk an hour after the Maximum Leader spoke them in to his office phone; they could provide real-time intercepts to the special ops people in the military. 
No more. The world was rife with unbreakable codes—any good university math department could whip one up in a matter of days. Just as bad, the most critical diplomatic and military traffic had come out of the air and gone underground, into fiber-optic cable. Even if a special forces team managed to get at a cable, messages were routinely encoded with ultrastrong encryption routines. 
The NSA was going deaf. And the word was, they didn't know what to do about it. They'd become a bin full of aging bureaucrats worried about their jobs, and sinning further and further out of the Washington intelligence center. (104)

Zoë Ferraris. City of Veils. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
My reading often veers to an Arab-centric world because I find its many cultures fascinating, because we should know more about Islam and its diverse manifestations, and because the literature is not that abundant here: grab it when you can. Ferraris makes an even more complex mystery than her previous Night of the Miraj (Finding Nouf in some editions) and proves her authentic knowledge of religious and social life in Saudi Arabia. The most difficult ― and for us, the least comprehensible ― are the fundamentalist restrictions on men and women from developing healthy relationships. Nayir, the desert guide, and Katya, the medical forensic assistant, are still trying to sort out their feelings for each other, Nayir being a pious Muslim and Katya rather more liberal in attitude. Awkward and stilted describes most of their interactions.

The two are involved again in a Jeddah police case being investigated by inspector Osama. To her gratification, Osama begins to rely on Katya's help with witness interviews. In this way, the author scrutinizes daily practices and problems in several households; sometimes seen through the eyes of Miriam, a western woman, whose husband has suspiciously disappeared after the murder of a young Saudi woman. Stolen Quranic documents generate some scholarly discussion. The scariest sandstorm ever! Entertaining, educational and highly recommended.

Word: hierophantic - interpreting religious rites and mysteries

"There's an old Islamic saying," he went on, "that heaven is crowded with beggars, and hell is overflowing with women." (13)
She had come to Saudi expecting―half hoping, half fearing―that the intensity of this country would finally turn him off, but in fact his affection for it had only grown stronger. (15)
Yes, Katya can have her "friend" over for dinner, but she won't be allowed to see him. (127)

Airport Customs and Immigration:
Getting into line for what promised to be an interminable wait, Miriam adjusted her attire―a floor-length cloak, a headscarf to cover her hair, and a burqa,[*] a rectangular piece of black fabric to cover her face. The burqa fastened at the back of her head with a simple piece of Velcro, but somehow hers never stayed on. ... Some women wore their gear with innate ease. They swanned through the streets, happily at rhythm with the swing of their fabric, swishing along. ... 

And then there are the women like me, Miriam thought, the ones who seemed to get stuck in their cloaks like like plastic dolls in Saran Wrap on a hot summer day. Always fussing and adjusting, yanking, tripping, catching their headscarves before they could slide to the ground. (17)
* [In Saudi Arabia, unlike most Moslem countries, the burqa is the headpiece, not the entire body cloak.]

Miriam's impertinent questions:
"So I thought there wasn't really any dating in this country," she said. 
He looked at her then. "It's improper, yes. But some people do it." 
"Just not you." 
"It's improper." He was beginning to feel foolish. How could he explain? 
"So when can you see her?" she asked. 
"We work together, sometimes." 
"But you said you weren't with the police." 
"She asks for my help sometimes." (251)

Away from it all:
The mountains seemed to cut out half the sky. Because of these mountains, Saudi was mostly desert. They kept the monsoon rains from reaching the rest of the country. They always felt like a gateway one had to pass to reach the true goal: the wide, barren, unforgiving Empty Quarter. 
... At a roadside market he stocked up on food and water. The vendor had a camel-driven sesame oil press, and Nayir went to greet the beast, but it made an ugly gurgling noise in the back of its throat, and he backed away. After performing his ablutions in the parking lot with a bottle of water and kneeling by the side of his car to pray, he ate a quick meal of canned fava beans and set off. 
Only when he began to see the camel-crossing signs did his heart open in his chest, his worries left, and his body seemed to start breathing again. (314-5)

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