Writer, researcher, translator, critic



Mohammed Hussein Haikal, Zainab [Cairo; 1913]

Long considered the first Egyptian novel, Zainab (1913) is of more than merely historical curiosity (although given my predilections historical curiosity would be enough of a recommendation). This English translation was first published in the 1980s, and is newly in print in a poorly copy-edited edition which I am still grateful to be able to read. (When I first jotted it down as a book to look into, it had been out of print for decades.)

The novel's slow, meditative pace, close focus on the change of seasons in a small Egyptian farming village, and occasion eruption into philosophical discourse all point to a very different literary heritage than the European novel of the period: even though it was written by an Egyptian who was living in Paris and had certainly assimilated plenty of European influences, for stretches at a time it feels like it could have been the product of discursive, philosophical, rhapsodic poetry, which had been the primary Arabic literary form for centuries. I don't want to stress the point too much -- if there's a major literary tradition I am more than usually unqualified to talk about, it's the Arabic -- but it has also been a refreshing change of pace from the older, more decadent, or at least more cynical, novelistic traditions I've been immersed in.

Brief descriptions of the novel in world-lit encyclopedias had prepared me for a formless, sentimental, nationalistic text: but although Haikal is certainly for Egypt against British occupation he's also for education, modernization, female emancipation, and (to a degree at least) secularization: to the degree that the novel's plot is overdetermined, it's as a screed against arranged marriages. There's certainly sentiment (the heroine dies of a broken heart), but there's virtually no melodrama in it: as I read, I kept seeing the slow, patient long shots and the protracted, meaningful silences of modern Iranian cinema. And I experienced the formlessness as a strength: switching from viewpoint to viewpoint, with recurring events and even the same conversations repeated again, it feels almost diaristic, immersed in the quotidity of its largely inarticulate characters' lives.

September 28, 2017