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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 8 May 2008
Egyptian author Mansoura Ez-Eldin has won praise for her 'fearlessness'
Egyptian author Mansoura Ez-Eldin has won praise for her ‘fearlessness’
Camden books | review of Egyptian Mansoura Ez-Edin's new novel | Maryam's Maze |
Arab writing

Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s new novel, which challenges deeply held views about Middle-Eastern women, is a far cry from chick-lit, writes Mohammad Al-Urdun
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WRITING this novel left Egyp­­­tian author Man­soura Ez-Eldin wracked by doubts.

Not just because it was her first novel, but because in it she challenges some deeply held views about women.
Readers in the Middle East, she feared, weren’t completely at ease with such an unconventional novel from a woman – even in Egypt with one of the most progressive literary scenes in the region. There were still taboos.
Over the past few years Ez-Eldin has made a name for her bold, experimental writing. Since moving to Cairo from a village by the Nile, she’s been feted as one of Egypt’s fastest-­rising thirtysomething women writers. It is no surprise she’s caught the eye of several international publishers.
Yet Ez-Eldin still frets that she may have gone a step too far with Maryam’s Maze.
“Arab readers aren’t used to this style from an Arab writer – especially from a woman,” she says. “I felt like I’d committed a crime.”
As things turned out, Maryam’s Maze was praised for being “avant-garde” and “eerily gothic” and Ez-Eldin for her “fearlessness” in testing new ground.
She’s one of the women writers who have pushed themselves to the forefront in Egypt, a country rocked by western and Islamist forces, and by conflicts in Iraq and Palestine. So when they grapple with gender, sex, family and everyday life, what they produce is far from glossy chick-lit.
That’s not to say Ez-Eldin writes in overt political tones. She produces a style of her own. In Maryam’s Maze she has created a smoke-and-mirrors
psychological thriller with an eerie twist.
Maryam is a young woman who wakes to find her life turned upside down, her lover vanished and her closest friend disappeared.
Every little thing seems slightly out of place until it dawns on her that all she has left are fragments of memory to piece back to together amid a rising terror that she has gone completely mad. Whether she has remains an open question. Ez-Eldin trails a series of clues and tosses in some confounding questions: is Maryam mad, the victim of a terrifying altered re­ality or is she perhaps dead and returned as some kind of ghost to walk the streets? The questions are never quite answered.
“I love to take risks by trusting the reader to make up their own mind,” says Ez-Eldin.
The secret, she finally let on, is in the Egyptian mythology she learned at her grandmother’s knee in a tiny village by the Nile. In Maryam’s Maze she conjures a spirit-­double (known as a Qarin in Islamic folklore) which lives in the shadows of Maryam’s life, hellbent on usurping her.
She uses this device to explore metaphorically the issues of identity and memories she feels are at the heart of Middle Eastern politics in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, where young people are torn between the West and traditional, often Islamic influences.
The cohesion and optimism of post-colonial Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s has given way to cynicism with the pro-American government of Hosni Mubarak and an identity crisis that has left people searching for a new way.
“When I began to write I was totally occupied with questions of identity, memory, the human condition and insanity,” says Ez-Eldin. “I was trying to understand how the dreams of the Nasser era became so meaningless to the new generations.”
The novel is set against the background of the patriarchal society that presses on Egyptian women. Maryam’s Maze also asks some awkward questions of the nature of the oppression.
“On many levels oppression begins in ourself. We can be our own worst oppressors,” says Ez-Eldin who insists she is not a feminist.
“To be honest, I was much more interested in human beings in general,” she says. “In many ways Maryam could be from any part of the world.”
Nonetheless, it’s the special Egyptian twist which makes this such an intriguing story and Ez-Eldin such a hot prospect.
• Maryam’s Maze.
By Mansoura Ez-Eldin. American University in Cairo Press £10.95.

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