Jamal Mahjoub interviews Ahdaf Soueif

In Guernica:

Soueif2-300 Soueif has written about Egypt for decades. Arguably the foremost Arab author writing in English today, her work has won her critical acclaim and a wide audience around the world. Edward Said described her as “one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing.” Her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1991), described as a masterpiece by the Sunday Telegraph’s Anthony Thwaite, rapidly became a modern classic. It recounts the liberation of Asya, a young Egyptian woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, who gains the confidence needed to break free while studying in England. The novel intersperses the story with vignettes describing current political events in Egypt. It is this combination of the actual and the fictitious which gives her work its solid grounding, setting the lives of her characters within a framework of historical developments. Soueif’s second novel, The Map of Love, consolidated her success. Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1999, the book has been translated into sixteen languages, including Arabic, and has sold over half a million copies in English alone. The Map of Love switches between past and present, describing events in the nineteenth century with as much clarity as it does the contemporary world, both in Egypt and New York.

In recent years Soueif’s fiction has come under pressure from the author’s increasing role as a political commentator. A collection of essays, Mezzaterra, published in 2004 underlined this new trajectory. In 2007, she launched PalFest, a literary festival aimed at breaking the deadlock in the Middle East and providing a cultural platform for dialogue between Palestine and the West. Adopting as its motto Said’s remark championing “the power of culture over the culture of power,” PalFest engages with Palestinian writers and cultural centers in promoting a dialogue between East and West, taking well-known writers like Michael Palin, Henning Mankell, Roddy Doyle, or Claire Messud, to experience the situation on the ground first-hand.

More here.