There is a scene early in Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon (2008) — ably and smoothly translated by Emily Danby (2012) — where Aliyah, on her flight from her employers’ home, draws out a copy of A Thousand and One Nights:
“Aliyah had never forgotten the name in all the years she had spent in her mistress’s service. She had stolen the book by stealth, after she had been forbidden to enter the library; from it she had learnt how to draw the stories in pictures.”
This copy of a Thousand and One Nights is not mentioned again, and it might have been a throw-away comment, for all it contributes to the plot. Yet it powerfully calls to mind Taha Hussein’s دعاء الكروان, translated into English as Call of the Curlew. That book’s servant-protagonist, Amna, also sneaks around and gets a copy of A Thousand and One Nights:
“The book is now in my hands; it is ugly, miserable-looking, its paper is of poor quality and the print is bad, it is true, but it is called A Thousand and One Nights. I read, I read more, I forget myself, I lose all sense of time and space.”*
Both Hussein’s Amna and Yazbek’s Aliyah are born into poverty; both are courageous and intelligent; both must, at some point, carry around their few possessions in search of a new life. Both are live-in maids and are torn between two identities. Both of their lives are marred by sexual violence.
But Yazbek’s book, published 74 years after Hussein’s, is far more bleak, aggressive, and sensual in its portrayal of the lives of women. Suffocating social mores affect women of both the social classes portrayed: the dirt-poor Aliyah as well as her filthy rich mistress (and lover), Hanan al-Hashimi.
We never see Aliyah’s copy of A Thousand and One Nights again because, ultimately, Aliyah’s self-education means nothing. Indeed, more emphasis is laid on the pair of high heels Aliyah has accidentally taken from al-Hashimi’s villa. The book will not help her here on the street; not one whit. She may find delight in books, but Aliyah finds manipulation, sexual knowledge, and a knife far more useful. She is also different from Amna in her use of her physical powers: It is difficult to imagine any of Hussein’s characters leaping on the back of a boy and biting him, furiously, until she is pulled loose, or knifing a boy who was raping her paralyzed sister.
In Yazbek’s book, there are no real male characters — yes, there are. Aliya has a violent father and Hanan al-Hashimi is married. Young Aliyah is having sex with the husband as the book opens. But “the old crocodile” is largely a shell, animated only late in the book, and important only in that he sparks Hanan’s jealousy and causes a rift between the two women.
Both books have a cinematic feel to them (Hussein’s has been made into an acclaimed movie) and both are page-turners, but Cinnamon will be much more uncomfortable for many contemporary readers, particularly as it becomes slowly clear exactly how young Aliyah was when she entered into a sexual relationship with Hanan — younger even than Lolita.
It’s a shame I can’t find my copy of Hussein’s book at the moment; the two texts would make for an interesting long conversation about the lives of women, about desire, about social class, about suffering.
*Translation Abdul Baki As-Safi, published in translation by Palm Press.