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Competing Cultures In a Search for Self

AHDAF SOUEIF'S novel "In the Eye of the Sun," a stunning American debut by an Egyptian woman, is the story of the writer's fictional alter ego, Asya al-Ulama, and her search for an authentic identity.

Caught in a web of family duties in Cairo, academic studies in England, an unhappy long-distance marriage to her Anglophile husband, Saif, and a lingering infidelity with Gerald, Asya tries to see the way clear of everyone else's demands and learn simply to be her own person.

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Soueif's bipolar plotting between England and Egypt and the sights of Saif and Gerald exposing Asya's raw Arab nerves in the cozy north country cottage where much of the story unfolds create an atmosphere both familiar and exotic. Asya loves English literature, yet English is the language of her chief tormentors, as it is of the foreign powers that tormented her country.

While in London, she sees the grand facades of Whitehall and is racked by what they symbolize. "Built of course on Egyptian cotton and debt ... on centuries of adventure and exploitation ending in the division of the Arab World and the creation of the state of Israel etc. etc. etc. Why then does she not find it in her heart to feel resentment or bitterness or anything but admiration for and pleasure in the beauty, the graciousness, the harmony of this scene? Is it because ... this magnificence is only a - monument, rather like the great temples of Abu Simbel and Deir Bahari?"

This mix of feminist complaint and anticolonial critique, filtered through Asya's highly self-conscious use of English as a second language, gives her story its special resonance. But Soueif is too honest and, teasingly, perhaps too autobiographical to pin all responsibility for her heroine's unhappiness on the other sex or the other country.

Asya too is at fault, partly for her willfully intellectual responses to the very things that once made her giddy with uncensored enthusiasm and partly for a stubborn need to prove other people wrong in their assumptions about her.

The author makes effective use of verite-style editing techniques, splicing external texts into her narrative as a kind of real life counterpoint to a fictional world.

News items lifted from Arab papers during the Six-Day War, Black September, and Camp David - showing in retrospect the deceit and duplicity of presidents, prime ministers, and kings - parallel the moments Asya is treated badly by the men in her life. In one scene, Asya plays an ironic Egyptian protest song for some smug British friends and provides a verse-by-verse translation from Arabic into English but finds it difficult to explain the veiled meaning beneath the simple lyrics.

Asya's story is a kind of self-excavation in which she seeks for herself what she finds in the face of a recently unearthed pharaonic statue she stumbles upon in Egypt: "[t]he composure, the serenity ... [telling] of someone who had known who she was ... delivered back into the sunlight still in complete possession of herself - of her pride, and of her small, subtle smile."

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