Novelist Ahdaf Soueif put creative writing on hold in the wake of 9/11.
Now, she tells Mandy Garner, she is ready to return to fiction - but not until she has dissected the War on Terror for an Oxford Amnesty lecture
Ahdaf Soueif loves literature. Books ooze out of every available space in her living room, books from all corners of the world, from the Greek classics to a history of Cleopatra and a book on Che Guevara. Her furniture is an eclectic mix of styles and cultures - when we meet she is having a Turkish chandelier installed. Every table and chair seems to have a story to tell.
Soueif's mother was a professor of English literature, and she herself taught literature and creative writing in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She has written two novels and two collections of short stories and translated the work of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti. The late Edward Said described her as "one of the most extraordinary chroniclers of sexual politics now writing".
Yet it is seven years since the publication of her last novel, The Map of Love , for which she was nominated for the Booker prize. The reason? As she tries to clear space in her mind for literature, world events keep crashing in. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, her writing has mainly focused on journalism, including an impassioned series of articles on everyday life in Palestine. "Over the past four years or so, it has been incredible," she says. "However much you try to clear space, there are some things you feel you must do."
One of those things is this year's Oxford Amnesty lectures, which The Times Higher is sponsoring. The theme of the series is the War on Terror. Soueif plans to deconstruct the term and "show how false it is". "If you look at the things it is supposed to be protecting - like democracy, human rights and freedom of speech - and see where they are now, it cannot be said that the War on Terror has done anything good. In fact, it has eroded these things," she says. "Terrorism is always a description given to people by their opponents. It is vague and to be treated with suspicion. If we look at the dictionary definition of terrorism as using brute force for political change, then it becomes questionable as to who is using terrorism now."
She adds that the discourse in society has changed so much that even to question terms such as "terrorism" makes you look like an apologist for it.
In her book of essays Mezzaterra , Soueif remarks on how the War on Terror has forced people to take sides, forced them to choose whether they are "for us or against us", and has sullied the name of human rights. She speaks of how Egyptian human rights groups, for example, have found themselves in the invidious position of being offered money by US organisations on the premise that they support US policies in the Middle East. They either accept much-needed funds and become discredited in the eyes of those they work for or get "bracketed as [being] 'for the terrorists'" by the US. In this way, the middle ground and civil society get squeezed out.
For someone who straddles the Arab and Western world, having lived in both (Soueif briefly went to school in Putney, southwest London, did her PhD at Lancaster University and both her sons grew up in the UK, with summers spent in Cairo), she has been affected more than most. She says in her preface to Mezzaterra that since 9/11, "I have seen my space shrink and felt the ground beneath my feet tremble." She sees her work as an attempt to defend that middle ground and, as such, has given talks and lectures in Arab and in Western universities. She has just accepted an invitation to lecture to the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, and in September she met freshmen at Georgetown University in Washington. All the freshmen have to study an international novel, and the author spends a day discussing it with them. The Map of Love , the story of two Western-Arab love affairs over the space of the last century, was chosen.
Despite concerns about the influence of right-wing pro-Israel organisations such as Campus Watch on US campuses, the opportunity to reach thousands of young people who might one day have an influence in Washington was too much to pass up, but Soueif was anticipating quite a negative response. However, when she handled two questions that "felt quite hostile" in a forthright way, she was greeted by spontaneous applause from the students. She takes this as a positive sign, given her general distrust of the way the Arab world is portrayed in a Western media that tends to "consolidate divides"
and focus on negative stereotypes. For this reason, she is wary of what she says about the Arab world and has been berated by some for not being critical enough.
Another positive sign is her children, who feel "totally at home in London and Cairo". Soueif thinks the increasing number of children growing up "bicultural" can only help to counter the negative impact of the War on Terror because such children will know through experience that there are a variety of different approaches to life.
Although she dreams and "lives in Arabic", Soueif writes in English, probably, she says, because she studied English literature as a child and this is her "literary language". Friends have commented on how her English sentences have an Arabic cadence. Like her mother, she taught English literature in Cairo in the early 1980s and then, after the birth of her first son, at King Saud University in Riyadh from 1987 to 1989. She says she enjoyed teaching but "dreaded every single lecture" and hated walking into a room and addressing people. But once the initial nerves had gone and she started talking, she says, it was OK. She speaks of the frustrations of teaching at Cairo University, of classes crammed with students in the wake of Anwar Sadat's pro-US market reforms, of students who wanted to learn English language only to help them get jobs rather than because they were interested in the 17th-century poetry that she was teaching. "It was pretty disheartening. They were good kids who wanted to get a degree, but they were being taught something they were not interested in." She says her friends tell her that this continues to be a problem and that "everyone is complaining about standards", something that will have a resonance for British academics.
At King Saud University, however, she had a different experience. She was teaching women on a programme that her mother had set up. Although most of her students also wanted to learn English language, they were more motivated to learn because of the hurdles they had faced to get as far as university in the first place. They all needed male escorts to campus and had to have strong family support. "I taught translation and creative writing. Translation was what they were really interested in, but it was in creative writing that I really got under the surface," she says. "It was really rewarding to see. Saudi traditions of writing are very rhetorical, and we had to get over that." She got them writing descriptive passages and told them they had to remove any opinions from the pieces. "They had to come to grips with using language to concretise things."
Unlike in Egypt, Soueif had to deal with classes of only about 25 students and had time to give them individual attention. Her students varied in age.
Many were married with children. Some wanted to teach or set up businesses, but most wanted to be able to help fathers or husbands with their businesses. "I became very fond of them," she says.
She is unlikely to go back to teaching, though. Despite the pull of contemporary events, Soueif, 55, says she has drifted away from the public world of teaching and "more and more towards the private". "There is so much I want to write, and time is at such a premium," she comments. "If it takes me around ten years for each novel, how many more ten years do I have?"
She is certainly a determined writer when she has the time and space to do it. Most of her writing until now has been in the small hours of the night - fitted around caring for her children, one of whom is now at university.
When she was writing The Map of Love , her youngest son made a nest of blankets and slept beside her while she wrote. She has an idea for her next novel and hopes to have at least two months after the Oxford Amnesty lecture to start it. It will be her first work of fiction written "in the current climate", and this will certainly have an impact. But she thinks she might need to disconnect entirely from what is going on outside, from the media and e-mail, to concentrate on the novel. "I need an area of stillness in which to write," she says. "I cannot be buffeted around all the time. I get into a rage at some of the media coverage. I am trying to reach for something which is more real and permanent."
Ahdaf Soueif will give her Oxford Amnesty lecture on February 9. The series, sponsored by The Times Higher , begins on February 8 with a lecture by Joanna Bourke. An edited version will appear in The Times Higher next week.