Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Maps of Our Lives

This story begins on a cold winter's day in the North West of England.

A young man walks through long corridors lined with books. It is quiet in this part of the library - most students tend to lurk around the sciences and management sections. This is the literature section, and there aren't that many takers for world literature. The department for literary studies is small, and other students save their lending tickets for course books; weighty tomes about critical theories and comparative studies.

All except the young man, of course.

Of all his precious library tickets, he saves one to use for bed time reading. When tiring of books dealing with advanced statistics, financial analysis and econometrics, he retires to a narrow single postgraduate student accommodation room bed, his dinky student laptop streaming the latest Napster download, to try to fall asleep whilst reading his latest fiction lending library selection. Over the past three months, he has read many books this way. Writers from all around the world have kept him company in this cold winter in the North West of England. He has made friends with Ariel Dorfman, Doris Lessing, John Ruskin, Amitav Ghosh, Ian McEwan.

Except tonight, he has a book by a writer he's not read before. 

The book is good enough. What foreign student wouldn't relate to a novel about a non-EU student who is trying to reconcile a childhood spent in heat and dust with time spent in a small rural community in a cold, dark corner of Lancashire? A narrative of reconciling different facets of one life, one human being split across different continents?

That was how I made friends with an Egyptian writer called Ahdaf Soueif. I started out reading In the Eye of the Sun. Discovering her to be an alumna of my university, I set out  to make the most of my enjoyment of her writing and my loyalty towards my alumni by trying to track down everything she'd written to read. Over the coming years, I was to read The Map of Love, her Booker-nominee novel, various short stories, and eventually her many articles in the Guardian. (Yes, even her writing for that rag did not diminish my appreciation for her). 

Eventually I was to discover her work in translating the amazing Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti's work describing his return to an exiled West Bank. Shortly followed by a read of her short stories, I Dream of You. By then, I had been to Egypt. I had walked through the dusty, smelly, magical streets of Cairo, fallen in love with the ageing, crumbling beauty of the city, drunk cocktails at the rooftop bar at the Ramses Hilton, had lunched by a slow Nile in the early April heat. 

I fell in love with Soueif's Cairo, her Al-Qahirah, a city whose mystique was matched only by Istanbul and my own precious Delhi. An ageing, crumbling city that felt as if it was, to quote Urdu poet Gulzar, in the pieces of its past life. A city that, unlike Delhi, had fallen into hard, sad times, overrun with the stench of tyranny. But a city that was eternally beautiful, despite its ugly architecture, its suppressed populace. Cairo revealed itself to me as a city that would not be broken. Damaged, yes, but not broken.

And then, in early 2011, the Egyptian revolution came to our doorsteps. As I sat in the UK, captivated by the visions brought to my screen via Twitter, Facebook and BBC News, I was overwhelmed with visions of the Arab Spring. These street battles in Midan el Tahrir were taking place through places in Cairo that I had visited and driven through. These were people I had seen in the cafes and restaurants in Zamalek, students I might have interacted with whilst they were studying in the UK, professionals I had worked with when we both were working in the banking institutions based in the City of London. And now they were changing their destiny. 

I was riveted.

So when the opportunity to mix these two experiences, by going to an English Pen event in Farringdon tonight, to listen to Ahdaf speak, as a revolutionary, a journalist, a troubadour and a raconteur, to hear her describe what she had seen on the streets of Cairo as an observer and a participant, was presented to me, there was really only one choice. Of course I was going to go.

I was slightly concerned, of course. So many times have I met people that I'd read and liked, but who had ended up having feet of clay in person, that I admit to maintaining a sense of trepidation. I was pleased, however, to be presented with a diminutive firebrand of a woman; smart, articulate, witty, and not without an ironic sense of self-depracation. But also someone who I heard speak, whom I asked a question of, who sounded in person exactly like she sounds in her writing. 

And so it was not without a sense of karmic completeness that I am pleased to report that I managed to connect with - in person - that lonely foreign student who wrote about being a lonely foreign student and whose work gave succour to another lonely foreign student. Because perhaps at some point, some place, in some instant, all the maps of our lives coincide. For a small, infinitesimal instant, but nevertheless connect us to our fellow humans.

And all we have to do is live that moment. As I hope I did tonight.