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 our 1989 publication of Zainab, 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.”