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Zainab (1913) – torn between tradition and passion

Mohammed Hussein Haikal’s first publication criticises the still-debated subject of arranged marriage. The protagonist, who the book is titled after, is forced to ignore her heart’s content, and enter a marriage based on tradition, not passion.

The author was born in 1888. Just 22 years later, Haikal wrote Zainab whilst studying law in Paris. Perhaps his exposure to a more liberal, European culture awakened his critique of Egyptian society. The novel was first published in 1913 by Egyptian newspaper al-Jarida, and was labelled as the ‘first Egyptian novel’ because of its consistent use of the local vernacular. Due to its controversial theme, Haikal published it under the name of ‘Misri Fallah’.

Zainab is a farm worker in the Egyptian countryside who lives in a tight-knit community. As her adolescence fades and womanhood dawns, she is forced into a marriage with Hassan. Despite his good nature, Ibrahim is the only man who truly captures Zainab’s heart. But due to tight social restrictions, their time together is limited and their passion is never expressed beyond hidden confinements. Zainab’s cousin Hamid also falls victim to her irresistible warmth, however, her marriage to Hassan and love to Ibrahim makes her unattainable.

In Darf’s 1989 publication, translator John Mohammed Grinsted said:

“The often beautiful descriptions of nature help the narrative to flow at a natural pace and gives the reader the feeling that he or she is actually experiencing some of the day to day events with which the story is inextricably interwoven.”

Grinsted’s observation is highlighted by the story’s shift through the seasons, coinciding with Zainab’s own turbulent battle with emotions. As the cotton and corn fields turn bleak in autumn, Zainab health begins to decline as a result of heartache. Haikal articulately challenges the idea of arranged marriage by portraying tradition as the oppressor of true love. Whilst overwhelmed with emotion and rejection by Zainab, Hamid writes a letter to his family explaining his reasons for leaving the village. This particular passage is key to Haikal’s critique:

“Turning my attention to the age-old custom of marriage, I was struck by the way our society regards any relationship between a man and woman, outside of marriage or the family, as vile and despicable. Whether it be pure love, or mutual friendship or admiration, it is considered to be something evil. Any display of intimacy is seen to express our animal nature; a crime against the unborn child, conceived as a result of physical lust. I myself grew up to despise the idea of sexual relations between unmarried men and women… then the thought occurred to me that people only pursue marriage in order to satisfy their carnal desires and I applied this theory to the circumstances in which we live.”

Should marriage be determined by emotion, or is tradition too strong a force to deny? Whether or not one agrees with Haikal’s critique, ‘Zainab’ undoubtedly offers a touching perspective on the matter. The significance of the book’s underlying message does not overshadow its impeccable literary achievement. We witness Zainab’s transition from a life of innocence and beauty to one of sufferance and anguish. Haikal’s first novel deserves admiration for its relevance to an issue that remains potent, as well as being ‘The First Egyptian Novel’.