Forbidden Endearment: Using Marxist Sources to Understand ‘The Map of Love’

A heartily revered guerrilla fighter by the name of Ernesto Guevara once said: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.” This sentiment is intended to express militant disdain for imperialism in a manner not dissimilar to, albeit slightly less subtle than The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. The story details the strife between British imperialists and Egyptian nationalists, utilizing a cross-cultural romance as a means of resisting the imperialism wrought about by the British. In order to salvage a supplementary assimilation of historical relevance, it is imperative for readers both casual and close to understand imperialism and its inherited criticisms on a level that goes deeper than simply scratching the surface. Throughout this composition will be discussions about the definition of imperialism, further clarification utilizing Leninist thought and Marxian terminology that calls attention to aspects of imperialism and resistance to its gloomy impedimenta.

Before investigating the novel, it might be prudent to define and concisely detail the concept of imperialism. One could typically define imperialism as a precarious political system in which a centralized force governs colonized entities tantamount to the way a greedy, malicious CEO governs a company. In his archetypal publication, Imperialism, the Highest of Capitalism, Vladimir Lenin describes what he believes to be the five standard features of this authoritarian means of governing:

[First] the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves; and [lastly] the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. (Lenin 10)

The above excerpt relates to The Map of Love in that it is essentially a relevant skeletal outlining of the British administration in Egypt throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain found Egypt in somewhat of a sorry state and thus seized the opportunity to garrison soldiers there in the late 1800s, essentially bleeding the Egyptians dry in the process. Renowned sociologists such as Karl Marx would associate the terminology of the bourgeoisie and proletariat to the situation between Egypt and Britain. In the instance of The Map of Love, Britain would naturally be playing the role of the bourgeoisie, ergo the capitalist class with its greedy hands choking life out of the means of production and capital. Egypt is conversely left to succumb unfairly to the destitute, downtrodden existence of the proletariat submissive.

Enter Anna Winterbourne, an articulate British widow who travels to Egypt intent on relieving her grief. Throughout the story, she maintains somewhat of a journal and also corresponds with her father-in-law, a gentleman by the name of Sir Charles. Sir Charles is a scathing critic of the British occupation in Egypt and this is noted within the story by way of a letter that describes him as saying “…that it was a sad day for England when a man…resigns from the Leadership because of the conversion of the Party to Jingo Imperialism” (Soueif 27). A little digging through an online version of the Random House Dictionary found that the word “jingo” is a dated, derogatory term that refers to “a person who professes his or her patriotism loudly and excessively, favoring vigilant preparedness for war and an aggressive foreign policy; bellicose chauvinist.” This passage readily asserts that Sir Charles harbors much disdain for imperialism and the people who perpetuate it. Perhaps Soueif includes him as a character to insinuate that not all British folk were onboard with the idea of conservative, capitalistic conquest. One could likely even draw parallels between jingoism and the voracious pursuits of our current, conniving Republican administration, though such a debate is likely best saved for another essay.

Further into the story, we find Anna Winterbourne kidnapped by a band of nationalists whilst gallivanting about Egypt. She is taken to the home of the al-Baroudis where she meets Sharif. The two venture to Sinai and, in the name of consolidation, wind up falling in love. What strikes me as interesting about this segment is how Soueif elects to use a kidnapping as the means of introducing two lovers. One might be able to ascertain that such storytelling is utilized to give the nationalists an intimidating aura of fiery bravado. Though it could also be interpreted, in a slightly more abstract manner, as a means of saying that while British imperialists were hell-bent on conquering the land, an Egyptian nationalist was to conquer the heart of a British woman. While Anna’s original intent was to return to England, Sharif writes to her and pours out his soul with the spirited intensity of blistering hot coffee on a cold, hyperborean morning: “I am in love with you. There. It is said…you yourself, Anna, with your violet eyes, your slender wrists…” (Soueif 249). This element of the story is perhaps its most pronounced instance of resistance to imperialism.

If the romance between Sharif al-Baroudi and Anna Winterbourne is not a poetic act of rebellion against the grueling concept of imperialism, then it is unclear what is. What Adhaf Soueif does so exquisitely throughout The Map of Love is paint a portrait of intransigence to imperialism with the bombastic hues of vehement characters such as Sir Charles alongside the slightly more pastel, picturesque palette that is the relationship between Anna and Sharif. These starkly contrasted displays of contempt serve both close and casual readers well as their inclusion does well to present a complex and controversial topic such as imperialism in a manner that is eloquent and easy to grasp. Seeing as imperialism is such dense topic of discussion and debate, or merely scratching the surface, is not enough to fully understand its thematic application throughout various literary works. One should explore its history and criticisms as well as its associated sociological phraseology in order to harness profound knowledge of the subject.

Works Cited

“Jingo”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 22 Apr. 2017.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Sydney: Resistance, 1999. Print.

Soueif, Ahdaf. The Map of Love. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.