`I long for Egypt. I feel that I am in this place but not of it'

Muslim novelist Ahdaf Soueif is torn between two cultures: banned in Egypt and dismissed in Britain as `exotic'. Now her appearance on the Booker shortlist has changed all that.
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I had vaguely heard of the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif before I met her. I knew she was "exotic" and that she was married to Ian Hamilton, the prominent biographer, poet and cultural guru who has written a touching biography of Gazza. It must be irksome to know that who your husband is is all that many people think they need to know about you. Soueif, 48, is too civilised to complain but she does say that over the years there have been a number of inexplicable invitations to lunch by literary folk who wanted to get to know Ian a bit better.

In some ways this is a metaphor for the relationship between two countries. Like her homeland Egypt, Soueif was not seen for herself but in terms of how Britain defines her, and these descriptions in turn can only focus on images of the romantic Egypt which gave us Peter O'Toole's TE Lawrence and Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, not to mention all the loot in the British Museum and plastic Tutankhamuns which are these days actually made mostly in China.

Suddenly, and entirely unexpectedly, this has changed. Soueif has beaten Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and other "predicted" writers to end up in the final six novelists shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. This striking woman, with voluminous black hair and sooty, animated eyes, has made history already by being the first Arab/Muslim woman ever to get to this position. What's more, reliable rumour has it that her book was a unanimous choice.

When I meet her at a party she has arranged for Edward Said, she is obviously still keeping the news at a safe distance from herself. After writing for 20 years (something she did at night because she is the full-time director of an Islamic cultural centre) she is delighted, but determined to be temperate about this recent upsurge of interest in her work.

And who can blame her? She has known serious praise before - from renowned critics such as Frank Kermode, Edward Said and Anthony Thwaite, who all thought that her last novel, The Eye of the Sun, was brilliant - but this was not enough to get her the wider attention she so deserved. Now the phone won't stop ringing. Her own country, which originally banned her last book because of the sexual descriptions in it, is today celebrating the author. Even American publishers, who all rejected her books before, are now eagerly trying to make amends for their lack of faith.

And so they should. Her ambitious and gripping novel Map of Love has been declared by Penelope Lively a "triumphant achievement". It is a family saga built around two "cross-cultural fallings-in-love" that are separated by a century. Anna Winterbourne travels to Egypt in 1900 and falls for a dashing Byronic Pasha, as you do if you are a bored lady of means. Sharif Pasha al-Barudi is an Egyptian nationalist and their lives thereafter are recorded by Anna, who after her death leaves behind a memory chest containing diaries, letters and objects including a shawl with pink rosebuds and a baby's smock.

In 1997, Isabel Parkman, an American who is herself becoming infatuated with a suave cosmopolitan Egyptian abroad, finds this chest in her mother's attic and begins a long journey of self discovery.

These are all cliched devices (remember Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala?) which Soueif knowingly uses, transforming them with her own profundity. The book is a moving exploration of how love is, in the end, a political act, especially when individuals come from different worlds. As Sharif asks in the book: "Could we have lived our lives ignoring politics - and what space would have been left for our lives to occupy?"

Many of us recognise how the act of loving someone who is from the ruling power implicates you in the undermining of all that you are - your family, your nation, your personal and political past. Soueif's grandfather was a self-made businessman and her grandmother a feminist and freedom fighter who took part in the revolution against the British in 1919. At the age of 18, her father translated Aristotle's Poetics while serving a prison sentence for anti-British activities. Her parents were brilliant scholars who were denied the right to teach in university by the British because they were only Egyptians. In 1954 they came to Britain so her mother could complete her doctorate. Egypt was being bombed at the time.

Soueif has never forgotten that period: "I think the complexity of things was bred into me at this stage: I am taken to anti-war demonstrations in Trafalgar Square; I lose the different locations of my childhood - I lose my grandfather's shop and the teeming market smells. But I learn how to read in English and that soon becomes an escape into a more spacious world."

As she gets older, Soueif yearns for the old ways, partly because she so fears that the strong living traditions of Egypt are dying under Pax Americana. Maybe she just wants to escape from the constant arguments raging in her own head. She hates the way the West romanticises Old Testament Egypt, and recalls with anger how Dodi Fayed was treated by the British media before and after his death. She is constantly dealing with the guilt and subversive pleasure of writing in the language of imperialism ("When is speaking the same language an obstacle to true communication?" she asks). And though she is fearlessly critical of Islamic extremists, she never wants to become so detached from her background that she can no longer understand why there is such anger among many Muslims around the world.

Most of all she fears that because she lives and works in Britain she will be regarded as an outsider by Egyptians, who will then question her authenticity and motives when she writes. (But you only have to compare her books to, say, The English Patient to see that excellent research is no substitute for a lived Arab sensibility.)

So why did she choose to make her life here? She met Hamilton one month before she was due to go back home in 1979 and fell in love. Ever since, she has been exploring the effects of that momentous meeting: "I think 15 years ago I might have said I was both Egyptian and English. Now I long for Egypt. I feel an anxiety that I am not in Egypt more often; that I am in this place and not of it." In Map of Love, Isabel asks Omar, her lover, what he is. Omar says he is Egyptian, Palestinian and American, adding: "I have no problem with identity" She thinks he is lucky. He begs to differ.

Soueif adores her two sons, Omar Robert and Ismail Richard, and says that she did not write for years after they were born because she found motherhood so exhilarating: "I just fell in love again and it was all- consuming." She takes them to Egypt each year, when they learn about the joint responsibilities and joys of an extended family. "One aunt's food is the most delicious, another can embroider initials on your uniform. They learn that when they get good grades they make 20 people happy. I don't want to burden them or force them into identities - I want them to feel comfortable here - but they must know the truth about Egypt and to value that part of who they are."

Soueif is careful to say that she does not mean to sound at all ungrateful. "I would never want to dump on all that I have got. That would tempt God to take it away."

Hamilton, she says, is a tough man, but it is a tremendous privilege to have him there to read everything she writes, especially as he understands how important it is to know the real, chaotic, impressively political country that Egypt is. But this is precisely the Egypt that the West loathes and wilfully misrepresents - a fact that, in turn, causes Soueif to stay up night after night, smoking and writing. She is exhausted, but seems to sense that after this, there is likely to be a just a little more acceptance - not only of her talents but of her beloved Egypt too.

`Map of Love' is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 16.99