Book review: “The Heart Always Wins”, romance novel? nationalist allegory? Or a feminist tale?

Ahram Online , Thursday 28 Jan 2021

Eman El-Emary tells a timeless love story. One would argue it is a political tale. Others would see it through the feminist lens as the classical male gaze is reversed. Nevertheless, it is heart-warming and a good read

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Al-Qalb Yantasser Dae’man, (The Heart Always Wins), Eman El-Emary, (Cairo: Dar Cleapatra), 2020.

In her new novel, Al-Qalb Yantasser Dae’man or ‘The Heart Always Wins’, Eman El-Emary tells a timeless love story, but there are stories within the story. One would argue it is a political tale. Others would see it through the feminist lens as the classical male gaze is reversed. Nevertheless, it is heart-warming and a good read with stolen kisses and a charming prince on a horse.

The Love Story

Dana, the protagonist, is a lonely young lady surrounded by a group of girlfriends. She had a dream, which was looking after the estate of her family. The father is dead; and the uncle, who had a monopoly over the estate later on, passed away. The inheritance of the estate goes to Dana, her cousins, and the two sons of their fathers' deceased partner.

These shareholders decided to sell the entire estate. Dana is forced to do the same against her will. On the day of the sale, Dana meets Seif, this charming son of the late family’s partner. It is a meeting that changes everything. Seif and Dana want to keep the estate. But his own brother Mahmoud and Dana cousins picks a fight with them. The reason: the buyer is a rich Arab prince who would pay a lot.

This is not the first time that a rich Arab prince has broken Seif's dream. Seif’s ex fiancée left him for a rich Arab prince too.

In the background of the heated love story between Seif and Dana, the war over the land gets heated. Social media is used, along with Seif’s own ties with British firms, to force the Arab prince to let go of his plans. 

The Arab prince comes to visit them and apologises, and Mahmoud, Seif’s brother, ends up being shot dead.

Seif eventually asks for Dana’s hand in marriage.

The Other Love Story

But this tale also tells the store of the love of an abandoned old family estate and the fight to revive its former glory.

El-Emary draws an Egypt around this estate in the shadow of its former glory. The story evolves into a romantic resistance against those who are willing to sell the land to foreigners.

However, we notice that the name of the location of the story is not mentioned. We don’t know where Dana or her entourage live. It may be clear that it’s an Egyptian town and that the country estate is somewhere near El-Qanater, but the geographical location is not specifically indicated either.

That only thing we do know is that Seif’s grandfather lived here 2 generations ago. We don’t, however, know the age of any of the characters.

The dates and era are also far from being precise. We can just guess that the events are taking place vaguely in recent times when we see the mention of social media and text messages.

This recurrent omitting of information is clearly an editorial choice that would give a writer more freedom. Besides, an anonymous setting can convey a sense of universality to the story and make it timeless.

This Egyptian battle could be anyone's own struggle, anyone's story. Anyone would easily identify with either the protagonists or the secondary characters or maybe even the villagers in the background. It’s a timeless story of Egypt. 

Mothering the Nation and That Enemy Within

In this novel, the name of Seif’s mother is also anonymous. Although, she was the daughter of a ‘Big Pasha’ and was very determined to keep the farm and the manor against the will of her husband and her son Mahmoud. Only Seif shared this passion with his mum. 

This imagery of mother and son guardians is rooted in Egyptian mythology and has been passed on through history. From the Pharaonic religious figure Isis, mother of Horus, who passed it on to Mary of Jesus, who passed it later on to the Muslim Sayidah Zaynab.

Even in more recent times and outside the religious halo, Egypt remained a lady called Bahiya. She probably looks like that lady standing by the sphinx, not far from Cairo University, overlooking the Nile River.

One thing survived throughout history, Masr (Egypt), Um Al-Dunya (Mother Of The World) has always been a woman.

No wonder Seif insists on passing the prestigious manor from his mother to Dana. He also hires her to farm the land, since Dana has a degree in Agriculture.

However, Mahmoud, is probably a symbol of another Egypt. He is that ‘enemy within’. That evil brother, who pushed his successful brother into ‘exile’ in the United Kingdom. 

No one reading the scene where the thugs attack the farm overnight cannot avoid seeing it as a symbol of Egypt being attacked but protected by the local farmers. 

This idea of the enemy within, the bad citizen vs the good citizen is also displayed when Mahmoud tries to rape Hana’a, a hired help in the mansion. Hana’a was saved by Seif. No one can argue that this rape scene is a symbol of Egypt’s honour being violated by her own bad son and saved by the other good son.

We notice the absence of all religious and political figures as well. Again, this just keeps on making the story as timeless as the story of a nation being attacked and defended relentlessly.

Women, Bearers of the Look

Laura Mulvey is a feminist film theorist from Britain. In her best-known essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', published in 1975, she explained that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly (…)”

Traditionally in media and cinema, women are gazed at by men protagonists as well as by the readers or the spectators. These women are usually beautiful and sexualised.

This is not, however, the case of Dana. We hardly know anything about how she looks like. Dana didn’t look in the mirror once. She didn’t try to make herself pretty for Seif’s eyes. 

On the other hand, we read into details on how Dana felt standing before Seif's tall and large body. The narrator also described how she liked his tanned skin and the colour of his eyes. The narrator kept track of Seif's lengthy conversation with his own heart. This is clearly the opposite of the traditional gaze as described by Mulvey. 

El-Emary, although still shy in the physical details, has reversed that male gaze. Seif fell under both Dana's gaze as well as the narrator’s.

This feminist approach seems well in line with the dedication of the novel itself. El-Emary dedicated her book exclusively to women. To the closest ones to her heart and probably in a respectful age order: her grandmother, her mother, her sister, her niece, her teacher, her older female neighbour, and two childhood neighbours who are also girls. 

Like this dedication, the story unfolds with an absence of patriarchal figures of all sorts. The father is dead, the uncle too, the cousins are girls. Even the brief appearance of the paternal uncle towards the end looks purely cosmetic.

No one can argue that such dedication is an empowering statement for women on its own.

The author herself, has been a journalist for 25 years at the first feminist newspaper in Cairo if not the Middle East — Hawa’a (Eve). Hawa’a was founded in 1954 by Egyptian Feminist Amina El-Said.

El-Emary has previously published The Battle Of Love in 2009, The Jasmine Tree in 2011, and Will Not Say Goodbye, My Love in 2012. 

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