Mohammed Hussein Haikal



Zainab, a name which aptly reflects the beauty of this tale’s protagonist is also the
title of the first modern Egyptian novel written in native vernacular. Crafted in 1910
by a privileged member of society and a student at the time living in Paris, Mohamed
Hassein Heikal later rose through the ranks of Egyptian politics and media. The writer,
journalist and politician also holds a number of written works to his name, including The
House of Revelation (1939) and Thus was I Created (1955).

Heikal successfully humanises and contextualises Egypt’s societal issues without
too reproachful a voice. As the great poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm said, ‘it is better to
wake your child up through laugher, rather than shouting at him’. Heikal expresses his
sympathies with the fellah of Egypt, who despite the apparent reverence with which
they are looked upon by society are still obliged to bear extreme difficulties, which they
do so with great dignity. Their suffering remains unchallenged as they are routinely
exploited by their employers, the state, ‘religious leaders’ and cheated out of education
which results in the demise of their mental and physical wellbeing. Illnesses may be
treated as a metaphysical phenomenon, rather than with a trip to the doctor, whilst
depression is treated as a headache

Zainab, a hardworking farmer girl, is to be married to a son of the landowner despite
her love for another named Ibrahim. Heikal is highly critical of this traditional marriage
practice, where young men and women are picked off by families and pushed
together into marriage to suit the requirements of the parents over the needs of the
young couple. This message is clear throughout the book, but appears most starkly
in an open letter from Heikal to the public, guised as a note written by the character
Hamid to his own father. Hamid states, “To this day I consider the institution of
marriage defective, on account of the conditions that are attached to it. Indeed I
believe a marriage which is not based on love and does not progress with love to be

As Heikal wrote in his room in Paris he was undoubtedly influenced by his nostalgia,
describing scenes in Egypt in a way that only an Egyptian could. He is a man who
has succeeded in writing for the woman, and his critiques of society are logical and
empathetic. Few are painted as evil in Zainab but the writer warns that as with most of
society’s ills, our failures are the consequence of apathy, silence and the desire to fulfil
what is expected of us through convention, culture and our own ignorance.

Additional information






Publication Date

1st May 2017