A story can start from the oddest things: a magic lamp, a conversation overheard, a shadow moving on a wall."
- Ahdat Soueif, The Map of Love
Back to the British Museum last night for a public "conversation" with a pair of contemporary novelists, the Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif (The Map of Love) and the Sudanese-British Jamal Mahjoub (Travelling with Djinns). Their books explore travel and identity and liminal spaces, and are said to contain echoes of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, described by the Director of the British Museum, in his introduction, as "the oldest surviving travel literature".
Ahdaf Soueif had some interesting comments about how, after the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the idea of Ma'at (truth, justice, fairness) was revived and "re-articulated" in Egypt. This produced a passionate statement of the need for social justice in an early Middle Kingdom text known as the Eloquent Peasant, which has come down to us intact because it was copied and re-copied over many centuries. Ma'at was personified as a goddess wearing the feather against which the heart of the deceased is weighed in athe Hall of Truth; if the heart, burdened by guilt and darkness, drags down its side of the scale, the soul is consigned to a hybrid monster known as the Devourer.
Out of the wreckage of an ancient Egyptain regime came the luminous description of the Negative Confession, in which the deceased person, in the presence of 42 assessor gods, must swear that he has not committed a long list of crimes or infractions, not only of the order of "I have not killed" but extending to "I have not caused tears" and "I have not obstructed water when it should flow". While it's clear from the surviving texts that plenty of Egyptians approaching the afterlife hoped to get around some of these provisions by loopholes, deals and magical spells, a vision of a last judgment "based on behavior, not belief" (as Ahdaf noted) has a modern and very progressive ring.
Naturally much of the discussion last night focused on the current state of affairs in Egypt and the less-publicized coming partition of Sudan. The novelists, correctly, did not purport to be social prophets. Ahdaf Soueif, who has been journaling her days and nights with the protesters in Tahrir Square, said of the Mubarak regime, "They've been messing with the soul of the country" and held out the hope of a coming order - informed by openness, diversity and the characteritic Egyptian sense of humor - where Ma'at will reign.