CLEOPATRA: Last Queen of Egypt

cleopatraBy Joyce Tyldesley
Basic Books. 304 pages. $27.50.
Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Shakespeare immortalized the notorious Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, in his play (circa 1607), “Antony & Cleopatra.” Through the centuries, other writers and artists took up similar themes in numerous works of literature and art, including film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who directed the 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” People today might be forgiven if Elizabeth Taylor comes to mind when they think of Cleopatra. Long considered the immoral and blood-thirsty Egyptian paramour of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the legendary Cleopatra gets a new public relations agent, as it were, in British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley’s “Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt.”

With the goal of putting “Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context,” Tyldesley traces Cleopatra’s Ptolemy family tree and the convoluted relationships therein. She confirms Cleopatra’s romantic liaisons with Roman rulers and conquerors, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, who appear in the book in detail. In Egyptian culture of the time, Cleopatra may well have thought she was married to these two men, a lawful wife. Archaeological and documentary evidence portray an entirely different Cleopatra from the one vilified in propaganda spewed by her contemporary Octavian and other powerful Romans. “The Romans, who looked long and hard at Cleopatra, never saw a wife. They saw an unnatural, immodest woman who preyed on other women’s husbands.” Unlike Greek and Roman women of the time, many Egyptian women lived free, intellectual lives. In this fact perhaps lay the seed of the rumors and back-stabbing behind Cleopatra’s legacy centuries after her suicide.

Tyldesley provides many scholarly tools for readers to use as she excavates Cleopatra’s life story from the many layers of Roman innuendo. Family trees, photographs of archaeological finds and statues, and maps help to make sense of the political intrigue characterizing Cleopatra’s times. Quotations from Plutarch round out details of Cleopatra’s palace life: “Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that … having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded … to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. … [He] saw … eight wild boars a-roasting,” for only twelve diners.

A solid piece of scholarship, Tyldesley’s revisionist “Cleopatra” examines the whole arc of Cleopatra’s life and her cultural milieu. The power struggles between Rome and Egypt predominate. And the city of Alexandria merits its own chapter, as it was an important center for the Ptolemies, their seat of intellectual and political power.

Tyldesley rebukes many academic accounts of Cleopatra’s life, a number of which “have been unable to cast aside Shakespeare’s vision and have been seduced into quoting Shakespeare as if he were a primary historical source.” Ironically, Arab historians, with access to Egypt’s oral history, preserved much of Cleopatra’s real story.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 2, 2008.


Dreamers of the Day

Originally published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, May 25, 2008. © 2008 C. Bertelsen

By Maria Doria Russell

Random House. 253 pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a writer living in Blacksburg.

In one of his post-9/11 communiqués, Osama bin Laden stated that he sought revenge for the “catastrophe of eighty years ago.” Author Maria Doria Russell—the highly praised author of the science fiction novels Sparrow and Children of God, as well as Threads of Grace, a World War II-era novel—did a mental double-take when she heard bin Laden’s comments, thinking “What happened in 1921?”

As Russell indicated in a recent interview, she began looking for an answer. “And there it was: the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. The catastrophe that Arabs remember but we in the West have largely forgotten.” British government representatives Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, Colonel T. E. Lawrence, Lady Gertrude Bell, and others, including Sir Percy Cox, discussed the British Mandates of Iraq and Palestine. Churchill jokingly referred to the forty attendees as the “forty thieves.” In setting the boundaries of modern-day Iraq, they also constructed the modern Middle East.

And set the stage for Maria Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day, which takes its title from T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”: “ … the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”

After the end of the Great War and the deaths of several family members in the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, frizzy-haired Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old spinster schoolteacher from Ohio and the narrator of this astute novel, escapes to Egypt and the Holy Land on her inheritance money, seeking some closure by visiting the places that her sister Lillian loved so much. Serving as a missionary in the Holy Land, Lillian had befriended T. E. Lawrence before he was famous. A chance meeting with Lawrence in her Cairo hotel lands Agnes and her endearing dachshund Rosie in the thick of things. The heretofore straitlaced Agnes falls for a suave German spy named Karl Weilbacher as she picnics and rides camels with portly Winston Churchill, caustic Gertrude Bell, and charming T. E. Lawrence. She innocently relays their conversations to Karl as the “forty thieves” create the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan over a three-day period at Cairo’s Semiramis Hotel. Joining Churchill and the other on a train trip to Palestine, Agnes sees firsthand strong Arab support for the legendary Lawrence and festering antagonisms plaguing the region to this day. She learns many lessons about herself and others, which she sums up in the odd final chapter of this griping and ardent novel. Rich in detail, right down to the saddle sores that result from riding a camel for the first time, the taste of the brackish water of the Nile River, and the fervor of the Cairiene streets, Dreamers of the Day is a spellbinding read, best begun with a large open window of available time and no other compelling obligations.

At times Russell takes literary license and inserts traces of her first love, science fiction, into the story, but that’s OK, because as Agnes says, right off the bat: “I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: My little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”

Letters from Cairo

By Pauline Kaldas

Syracuse University Press. 167 pages. $19.95.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

As the West struggles daily to comprehend the modern Middle East, books like Pauline Kaldas’s “Letters from Cairo” are very welcome.

Kaldas, born in Egypt and currently an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Hollins University, came to the United States with her parents at the age of eight. Given the opportunity just after 9/11 to teach at Cairo University, Kaldas’s husband, T. J. Anderson, also a professor at Hollins, took her and their two young daughters, Yasmine and Celine to Egypt for six months. “Letters from Cairo” is the literary result of those Egyptian days and nights.

Combining several genres—travel literature, memoir, multicultural literature, art, and Egyptian recipes, “Letters from Cairo” consists of letters and journal entries written by Kaldas, as well as drawings and sporadic e-mails sent by her daughters and occasional comments made by her husband. The work is a reflective collage, the unifying thread Kaldas’s musings on her past and her present identity as neither fully Egyptian nor fully American. By sharing stories and portraying the Egyptians she meets or reconnects with, Kaldas comes to understand the immigrant experience more fully as it affected her life and the lives of others who emigrate. She says, “Immigration changes the body, the way you move, the way you dress, your facial gestures, and the tone of your complexion.” Immigration also deeply ruptures the lives of those left behind. A sense of loss never fully disappears, neither for those who leave nor for those who stay behind.

“Letters from Cairo” also tosses out tidbits about Egyptian and Arab culture and history, insights into the Arab system of naming that provides the named with a sense of their familial history and identity, and the role of food in fostering community and family connections. Food is so important that Kaldas includes several recipes, including Baklava, [Stuffed] Grape Leaves, and Ful (the national dish of Egypt). The detailed Table of Contents leads straight to the recipes.

Reading “Letters from Cairo” is like reading a friend’s personal journal. Some parts provoke more interest than do others—Kaldas’s children’s drawings and e-mails don’t add much to the book and some passages pall, particularly those detailing her Egyptian extended family’s comings and goings. But Kaldas’s periodic reflections on her own immigrant experience provide much to consider at a time when immigration issues dominate political discourse. And her attempt to explain the cultural fissures between Arabs and the West is a worthy addition to the literature. While “Letters from Cairo” isn’t written with the mellifluous prose of Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Crescent,” Kalda’s translation of Arab culture—through the prism of Egypt—opens the way to understanding a people we simply must know better.

Originally published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, September 2, 2007. © 2008 C. Bertelsen