Ideally, you wouldn’t read the A.B. As-Safi translation of Taha Hussein’s masterwork, The Call of the Curlew, published by Palm Press in 1997. The edition (pictured) is riddled with typos and the English is sometimes stilted, other times confusing.
Hussein (1889-1973), “the dean of Arabic letters,” was surprisingly interested in women’s lives. His The Tree of Misery focuses on both men and women, but seems to reserve most of its care for the misery of its female characters. The Call of the Curlew is narrated entirely by Amna/Soad, a peasant and servant girl who later marries a wealthy man, a bit in the manner of a Jane Austen narrative. But Amna’s is not a happy ending.
Amna’s life story is, in a sense, quite gentle. True, her sister is murdered by their uncle near the book’s opening, and she and her mother tramp around, aimlessly, looking for work. But the world is not so hard on them: They are not raped, or robbed. People are generally good—outside, you know, of murdering women who have premarital sex.
Amna/Soad also is, in some ways, able to take control of her life—unlike the women in The Tree of Misery. So while this may not be a happy book, it is not a hopeless one.
The book’s structure is complex: it begins by repeating a scene from the end, and switches between first- and third-person narration, depending on how much distance Amna/Soad needs from herself. It also repeats, turns back in on itself, contemplates itself. But the book is always a page-turner, as Amna is continually in trouble. And Amna is a charming, jealous, bright, greedy, wonderful protagonist.
She is also insightful:
“We told each other of our pains and misfortunes, each discovering in the other a depth of secret sadness beneath the exterior which other people know; each feeling sorry for the other or using this feeling as a way of pity for herself [a way of pitying herself?].”
In any case, read it. Even in inadequate translation, this is a vivid and interesting take on Egyptians’ lives during a time of great social change.