Funny enough, I’m not a big crier when it comes to storytelling. I can count on one hand the number of books and movies combined that have made me shed tears. It’s not that I don’t feel it, it’s just that internalize it.
When I was a sophomore in college, my English major self thought it’d be fun to take, as an elective, Politics of the Middle East. It was 2003 and gaining a deeper understanding of this region seemed like it’d also mean gaining a deeper understanding of own politics. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t “fun,” but it was fascinating and enlightening and more challenging than most classes.
Towards the end of the semester, after assigning textbook after article after essay after documentary, my professor assigned us—gasp!–a novel.
It was called The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif. It’s about an American journalist who falls in love with an Egyptian-American conductor right around the time she discovers letters that reveal her great-grandparents’ courtship in Egypt nearly 100 years earlier.
Our assignment was to read the novel and write a paper focusing on how it reflected the politics of the time and events like the British occupation of Egypt and the Zionist movement.
In the novel, Anna, an English widow, travels to Egypt and falls in love with Sharif, an Egyptian nationalist. It’s been 11 years since I read it, so I’m fuzzy on the details, but I can’t forget how this novel made me feel. It was everything a love story should be: every heartache, every longing, every blissful kiss felt absolutely real and true. Their dreams and happiness became mine.
Spoiler alert (I tried not to spoil it in previous drafts but it didn’t work out so well…): Anna and Sharif’s love story was not destined to be a happy one. I can still see Anna on the floor, her hand over her love’s heart, screaming for him not to die, not to leave her. And when he did, it just…completely wrecked me.
I was sitting on an oversized reading chair in my room at the time, bawling. Tears everywhere, deep, moaning sobs. You know the look: the ugly cry. I was mourning, you guys. I’d loved and lost along with these characters and I didn’t think I’d ever recover.
People say we read to escape, but if it were that simple, we’d only read happy stories. I think we read because empathy is what makes us human, and a well-written story adds more life to our own. If I’d never known the love between these two characters then I never would’ve cried at their heartbreak. I love a little harder, cherish those I hold close a little closer, because of books like these.
What’s the saddest love story you’ve ever read?
P.S. In case anyone’s wondering: that paper I had to write? I got a C on it. I was shocked and livid until I read my professor’s comments reminding me that this was supposed to be a politics paper, not an English paper. He did have a point…