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Author:
• Saturday, February 27th, 2016

Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1949, the second of four children, from a family that originated in Yemen. He spent the first years of his childhood in Cairo, Egypt, where his parents lived at the time, before returning to Beirut a few years later. He studied at the French Jesuit school, Collège Notre-Dame de Jamhour followed by the Université saint Joseph in Beirut where he read sociology and economics. His father, Ruchdi Maalouf, was a renowned writer, a journalist, a poet and a talented painter as well as the owner of a newspaper. From an early age Amin Maalouf wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Amin Maalouf became an editor for the leading Beirut daily newspaper, El Nahar International, and covered many events around the world, like the fall of the Ethiopian monarchy in September 1974, the last battle of Saigon in March and April 1975, as well as important events in Somalia, Yemen, India and Bangladesh among others.

In 1976, fourteen months after the Lebanese civil war, Maalouf flew to Paris with his wife and three young children, where he worked for the weekly, Jeune Afrique, and became editor in chief while resuming his trips and reporting from all over the world for his weekly. After the big success of his first novel, Leo The African in 1986, he dedicates himself to writing full-time. He still lives in Paris with his wife and three grown-up sons.

Maalouf ‘s mother tongue is Arabic but all his books are written in French. He has written fiction, non-fiction as well as opera librettos and his books have been translated into several languages. In 1993 Maalouf won the oldest and most famous French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Rock of Tanios published the same year. In 1998 he received the European prize of the Essay for In the Name of Identity and in 2010 the Prince of Asturias award of Letters for all his work. In 2011 he was the first Lebanese to become a member of the prestigious Académie française.

Maalouf has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, the University of Tarragona in Spain and the University of Evora in Portugal.

The Rock Of Tanios, based loosely on a true story, intertwines the Lebanese history of 1830 with a legend passed from one generation to another. A world where intrigues, conflicts and competition between the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, France and Britain end in battles on Mount Lebanon. All these factors among others help to forge the destiny of Tanios Kishk, a remarkable and mysterious character.

Tanios, whose hair grows white at an early age giving him the look of a wise man despite being naive, is a tortured soul looking for identity when he fortuitously discovers his illegitimate birth. He is an intelligent, rational teenager who challenges laws and established social conventions. His fate is similar to a Greek tragedy. He seems to inadvertently trigger family, clanic and regional conflicts, which changes everything in the whole area, including people’s lives. He also unexpectedly becomes a useful mediator between leaders, despite his young age.

The story is set in the small Lebanese village of Kfaryabda – the name is fictional but the village is real. The book’s title refers to a rock, shaped like a majestic throne, to which Tanios – when he becomes a mythical figure – ascends, sits on the rock for a short while before disappearing for ever in a mysterious way and, according to the local legend, not seen again. That is why the maleficent rock carries the name of Tanios. The only rock in the area that has a human name and the only rock that children are not allowed to climb for fear of the superstitious belief that they might disappear like Tanios if they sit on it.

The narrator obtained his story from two sources: the three historical, weighty “authentic” documents and his grandfather’s cousin, the ninety-six-year-old Gebrayel, a former history teacher who is passionate about the events of the nineteenth century that took place in his region.

The narrator, the characters and happenings are imaginary, as well as being based in varying degrees on real persons and real events.

Tanios is born in suspicious circumstances. Officially his father is Sheikh Gerios who is highly ranked, being Sheikh Francis’ intendant and yet servile in his attitude and his mother is the very beautiful, Lamia. There are rumours in the village that Tanios is the son of the powerful, patriarchal, feudal lord, the philanderer, Sheikh Francis, ruler of Kfaryabda, who never hesitates to use his “droit du seigneur” over the girls and women villagers.

The Rock Of Tanios is for Maalouf a truly nostalgic return to the roots of his beloved Lebanon in days of yore. Maalouf in his “Author’s Folder” titled: A Forgotten World, says about Lebanon that it’s: “A country of extreme gentleness and extreme violence, a bewildering country…A captivating and unforgettable country, undoubtedly”.

The book is an enchanting, fascinating, colourful, bitter-sweet tale from the nineteenth century, underlining the wisdom and madness of humans, with a background of real Lebanese history, legend, superstitions, rituals, tribalism, love and vengeance, the description of a feudal society based on loyalty. It’s poetically written, with passages like this one: “Fate comes and goes through us like the shoemaker’s needle goes through the leather he is shaping”.

In The Rock Of Tanios the characters are well depicted and moving; an array of appealing personalities contrasting with forceful and devious ones. The story is like one of the One Thousdand And One Night stories, with excentric characters like the strange hawker multeer, Nader who writes philosophical books and brings them to market in the hope of selling them to learned people.

The reader feels like going on an enchanting journey across time and place, similar to Maalouf’s other unforgettable, fascinating and beautifully written novel, Samarkand, which carries us to eleventh century Persia with the story revolving around the famous philosopher and poet Omar Khayyam.

“Have I not sought beyond the legend, the truth? and when I believed to have reached the truth, it was made of legend”. Very succintly put by Amin Maalouf to describe the quintessence of the whole story behind The Rock Of Tanios.

Author:
• Saturday, January 31st, 2015

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1950. She is the eldest of three children from a father who was professor of psychology and a mother, professor emeritus of English literature at Cairo University, who later translated some of her daughter’s literary works. Ahdaf Soueif was educated in England and Egypt, where she obtained a BA degree in English Literature in 1971 from Cairo University and in 1973 an MA in English Literature from the American University in Cairo. In England she received a Ph.D in linguistics from the University of Lancaster in 1978.

Ahdaf Soueif worked as an associate lecturer from 1971 to 1979 and then a lecturer from 1979 to 1984 at Cairo University and later as an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh from 1987 to 1989. Back to London in 1989 she found employment at Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. She is a novelist and also a political and cultural commentator. She writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper in London and has a weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shorouk. She writes mainly in English but also in Arabic.

Ahdaf Soueif received the Cavafy award in 2011 and the Mahmoud Darwish Award in 2010. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999 for her fourth novel, The Map Of Love, which became a best seller and was translated into several languages. She was also awarded for Sandpiper by the Cairo International Book Fair Best Collection of Short Stories in 1996 and was shortlisted in 1983 for the Guardian Fiction Prize for her novel, Aisha.

Ahdaf Soueif wrote and published Aisha in 1983, In The Eye Of The Sun in 1992, Sandpiper in 1996 and The Map Of Love in 1999. In 2003 her translation from Arabic to English of I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti was published; then in 2004, Mezzaterra followed by I Think Of You in 2007 and Cairo My City, Our Revolution in 2012.

Ahdaf Soueif was married and has two sons from the late Ian Hamilton, the British literary critic, reviewer, biographer, poet, magazine editor and publisher. She lives between Cairo and London.

The Map Of Love, despite its unfortunate and misleading title, is a political, historical story sprinkled with romanticism, written originally in English and endearingly dotted with Egyptian colloquialisms. The story begins at the end of the 19th century and continues throughout the 20th. The events take place in London, Cairo and New York, where the past connects with the present and when history tends to repeat itself.

It’s the story of the complex history of Egypt during a whole turbulent century of its awakening, its aspirations, revolts and resistance to adversities. The author mentions names of several Egyptian heroes such as the nationalist colonel, Ahmed Orabi, the loyalist, Mustafa Kamel Pasha, the patriot Mohammed Farid and many others who were all fighting, each in his own way, to free their beloved country from the weakened Ottoman rulers who had occupied Egypt for centuries and had been superseded by the colonialist British Empire from 1882 to 1956.

One of the main characters is the newly widowed, Anna Winterbourne who leaves England for Egypt in 1900. Anna falls in love with Egypt as well as with the Egyptian nationalist, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. She doesn’t know then that nearly a century later, her great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman, the young American divorced journalist living in New York, will fall in love with the handsome world-renowned, half Egyptian half Palestinian, pianist and conductor, Omar-al-Ghamrawi.

Although, nearly a century apart, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi as well as his great grand nephew, Omar-al-Ghamrawi, have four things in common: they share the same blood, they are both charismatic well-known figures, both in love with western women and they both fight strongly for their political beliefs. Sharif Basha wants to free Egypt from the British occupation and a century later Omar is fighting for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. The depiction of Sharif and Anna’s love mirrored many decades later by Omar and Isabel’s is intentional by the author, as a proof that love transcends time, place and culture.

When in 1997 Isabel discovers an old trunk in her dying mother’s home containing Anna’s diary and letters written in English and Layla’s diary written in Arabic, she informs Omar, in order to get him interested in her and win his attention. Omar is much older than Isabel and has a difficult character. He is divorced and has two children and advises her to see his sister Amal in Cairo who might be willing to translate the Arabic diary and papers for her.

Isabel goes to Cairo. Amal accepts the task and while working to unravel the history of Anna and Layla through the written material and trinkets in hand, Amal discovers that she has common ancestry with Isabel. The story of Anna unfolds gradually but at the same time is intercepted by other stories that are happening a hundred years later. The past and the present run in a harmonious parallel throughout this family saga.

The Map Of Love is compassionately written with an Egyptian spirit, wit and sensibility, the author showing a good historical knowledge and a strong political opinion. The novel provides rich insights into Egyptian political, cultural and social life during all of the twentieth century including some history of the Palestinian and Israeli problem.

In one in her interviews, Ahdaf Soueif says: “The genre I work in is the ‘realistic’ novel. So my characters live in a specific time and a specific place in our real world. And in that time and place things happen – political things or public things, if you like. And they affect the characters and the characters in turn strive to affect them.”

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