The Tree of Misery. By Taha Hussein, trans. Mona El-Zayyat. The Palm Press: Cairo, 1997 (Arabic 1944). 137 pages.
I had thought of the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein (1889-1973) as a memoirist and a critic, not an author of gripping fiction. Indeed, I suppose I thought that I might find Hussein’s fiction learned and “interesting,” but not enjoyable.
Translator Mona El-Zayyat describes The Tree of Misery, in her foreword, as “the first attempt by an Arab writer to adopt the western style of following the history of a family for more than one generation.” The novel, written during World War II, traces the effects of life and social change in Egypt on the faces of Abu Khaled, his children, and his children’s children.
It thus shares the inter-generational architecture of Naguib Mahfouz’s well-known masterwork, The Cairo Trilogy, written 12 years after Hussein’s The Tree of Misery. Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street (El Sukkareyya) follow El-Sayyid Ahmad Abdel Gawad and his family through three successive generations. But while The Cairo Trilogy is most interested in the lives of its male characters—notably Kamal—Hussein’s work is most interested in the lives of its compelling, multifaceted women.
We get much of our information from the book’s male characters: from Abu Khaled, the old Sheikh, Abu Saleh, Khaled, and Selim. But the surprising moments, the moments of revelation, are when the female characters appear, and we must re-assess what we’d learned from the men.
Early on, we come to believe that the “tree of misery” has been planted in Abu Khaled’s house because of the ugliness of Khaled’s wife, Nefissa. We sympathize with Khaled because of his ugly, mentally unstable wife. We’re pleased when the sheikh insists he divorce her and marry again.
After all, Khaled is a good man. He deserves beauty and happiness.
But Selim’s wife Zebeida startles us out of this reverie, loudly scolding us, asking her husband (and the reader) about Nefissa’s fate.Why doesn’t Nefissa deserve better?
Nefissa’s daughter faces many of the same tribulations as her mother—although under altered social circumstances. And when the beautiful stepmother points to Nefissa’s daughter as the reason for their family’s troubles, for their “tree of misery,” her eldest daughter answers her angrily:
“I swear mother, I do not know! Perhaps it was I who did an injustice to myself when I took that which was not rightfully mine!”
The tree of misery is, in the end, not fertilized by the ugliness of women, but by the injustices we (men and women) do them. Critic Raga’ al-Naqqash has credited Egyptian writer Nawal al Saadawi with writing the first feminist novel in Arabic more than twenty years after The Tree of Misery appeared. But I wouldn’t hesitate to call this a feminist novel.
Mona El-Zayyat’s translation is decent, although stiff and sometimes awkwardly worded. For the book to receive the international audience it deserves—and why shouldn’t there be a new-found interest in Taha Hussein?—it will need a new one.
Now I fully appreciate what an idiotic move this would be: Taha Hussein’s /The Days/ to be Removed from School Curricula?
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