A mixed bag of political essays, journalism, book reviews and occasional pieces on aspects of life in the Middle East—a region that, novelist and translator Soueif writes, the Western media persistently misunderstand and misinterpret.
Refreshingly, Soueif opens by urging that, rather than be the actors in a clash of civilizations, the West and the Arab world can find some middle ground—a mezzaterra, in Italian, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean—on which to meet and perhaps even wage peace. “Growing up Egyptian in the 60s,” she writes, “meant growing up Muslim/Christian/Egyptian/Arab/African/Mediterranean/non-aligned/socialist but happy with small-scale capitalism.” Alas, hearts and minds have hardened since then, such that her energies have had to go not into planning the details of this middle ground but into proving that it once existed at all. Soueif’s literary and cultural essays are the strongest part of the collection. In one, she does a nice job of gently lampooning the foreign travelers who come to Egypt expecting a kind of Disneyland with pyramids, where tourists dress in “brilliant Arabian Nights pantaloons” while hotel doormen turn away real Arabs who might ruin the atmosphere with reminders of modern reality. In another, she examines the Palestinian literary community and the mezzaterranean possibilities it offers to the region. Soueif reminds readers that Arab society is not monolithic nor motivated entirely and specifically by religion, even though the Western press “attributes simple and immediate motivation to Arabs and Muslims as though they were all single-celled creatures.” Against these, however, work Soueif’s insistent assertions that Israel is the root of all evil in the region, though she still scores points: “It looks as though the parent will be taught by the child: airborne attacks on civilian populations, illegal detentions, use of torture in interrogation, targeted assassinations worldwide, these have been the stock-in-trade of the Israeli state for fifty years and now America looks to follow suit.”
“Fragments” marred by inconsistencies.