About the Author
Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and in England. She lives in Cairo and London and is a political commentator who writes about the Arab world and the upheavals it is going through. Most of her stories deal with the problems of cultural adjustments characters whose lives straddle Europe and the Arab World face. The story Sandpiper is from a collection baring that name.
The setting is the resort town of Alexandria though the city is only mentioned. Action, such as it is, is limited to a beach house or a residence close to a beach. The background to the story to the story is the failing marriage of the European narrator and her Egyptian husband. The story covers just couple of hours of a summer afternoon.
The narrator is caught between two cultures, her husband has drifted from her, yet she is passive though unhappy. There are touches of the neurotic in her. She is in Egypt for summer, Alexandria in fact, but the rest of the time she lives in her “northern land”. But being in familiar environment does not seem to ease things. Her passivity is surprising. She walks without disturbing the sand on the path. Though she has been married for eight years and has come to Alexandria for that many years, she has not learned the language and feels ill at ease. To be sure there is much conflict in the two vastly differing cultures. Women in upper class families did no work in Egypt but she is used to being independent in her country. There is a hint of the husband straying – “On that swirl of amazed and wounded anger when, knowing him as I did, I first sensed that he was pulling away from me, I should have gone”. She is now waiting only for her daughter Lucy to “grow away from me”. Lucy was born in Egypt and is at home there. The narrator senses that Lucy’s need for her is lessening and soon she will be able to make a break.
Themes (major and minor)
The major theme is cross cultural crisis and poor adjustment which is common in cross cultural marriages. Existing independent of the multicultural situation is the marital discord. The narrator and her husband come to Egypt only in summer every year. The discord exists even in the northern land that the narrator calls home. There are customs which have no significance to the author, like the mirrors in the house being covered to prevent a baby from looking into them. His sister said, “They say if a baby looks in the mirror she will see her own grave”.
The story barely occupies an entire afternoon. The narrator who belongs to Europe (“northern land”), her husband, with whom relations are strained, and their daughter are in Alexandria to spend summer with his family. While the rest are at the beach, the narrator ponders over the state of her marriage now and the quality of the early years of her marriage when they were deeply in love. She is staying on only for her daughter to become less dependent on her to pull away.
The narrator who is a European is married to an Egyptian. The initial years of marriage were blissfully happy. But the strain of carrying on a cross cultural relationship (summer in Alexandria, the rest of the year in the northern land) is telling on the marriage. The narrator cannot break away as her daughter is still young but once the child becomes independent, she can consider moving away.
It is obvious where the author’s sympathies lie. The narrator is passive and does not want to disturb the even pattern of the marriage which is now dysfunctional. The marriage had started off as a very happy one but the transition from happiness to indifference seems to have been rapid. The narrator’s perception is that her husband was impatient with her inability to remember names (probably of his family members or friends) or follow the intricacies of local politics and her “struggles with his language, my need to be protected from the sun, the mosquitoes, the salads, the drinking water”. In the northern land these issues did not exist. It now appears as though he needs “someone he could be at home with”. The only thing that keeps her in this marriage is Lucy, her daughter, who is still a child.
The way she walks on the path trying not to disturb even a grain of sand symbolizes her desire to be passive and not disturb the even keel of life, at least for the time being. The narrator’s mind is like the deep ocean that contains startling depths. So close to the ocean are the hot sands of the desert that spread for miles beyond.
Important vocabulary and expression
The marriage between the narrator and her husband is empty but she stays on for the sake of her daughter, “My Lucy, Lucia, Lambah” Lucy is a treasure as well as trap. The narrator is trapped in this loveless marriage because of Lucy.
Literary devices used with examples
The narrator speaks in 1st person giving the story immediacy and a raw edge to her thoughts. The story moves between past and present seamlessly – the contrast is in the emotions. Blissful love has given place to rancor and disappointment. “My second summer here was the sixth summer of our love – and the last of our happiness”. It is clear that it was coming to Alexandria that put strain on the marriage.