Taha Hussein: دعاء الكروان (The Call of the Curlew)
Amina is a young Bedouin woman. She lives in a village with her father, her mother, Zahra, and her sister, Hanadi. The father is an inveterate womaniser. One day he is caught and killed. There are no authorities in the village and no-one to help. Indeed, it is considered by the family that he has brought shame on them, so much so that the three women are driven out of the village.
They set off on a journey and eventually find a small town, where they are welcomed, lodged and fed. The owner tells them that there are plenty of jobs in the town, with people looking for reliable servants and all three soon find jobs as servants in different places. Amina works for the sub-prefect, looking after his daughter, Khadija. Initially, her role is merely as a servant but the two become close and the parents accept that Amina can study at school with their daughter and join in playing with her. Amina learns to read and enjoys doing so.
Zahra and Hanida also have reasonable jobs, Zahra with a civil servant and Hanida working for an engineer. The three spend the week at the house of their employers but the weekend in their small room, so they can be together. One day, Zahra suddenly announces that they are leaving. Amian is not even allowed to tells her employers or say goodbye to Khadija. She is most reluctant to leave but her mother insists, so off they go.
It soon becomes apparent that something has happened between Hanida and her (unmarried) employer. Hanida is in a terrible state but will not tell her sister what has happened. Zahra insists that they cannot go home but they cannot work elsewhere without the protection of a man. They stop off in a shelter where they meet three other women. Zannuba is the local gossip, police spy (she knows everything and everybody) and busybody. However, despite her abrasive manner, she has a kind heart. Khazar is the local wheeler-dealer, buying things cheaply from Cairo and selling them expensively to the local women. Nafisa is the fortune-teller. They question the mother and daughters but are also helpful to them.
Soon afterwards, Nasir, the uncle of Hanida and Amina, arrives. He seems to have some business with the owner of the shelter but, at the same time, says he will take the three women back home. On the way back, he stops in the gloom, in the middle of nowhere, makes them dismount and then stabs Hanadi. We learn that she had been seduced by the engineer and this has brought further shame on the family. Zahra and Hanadi are horrified but can do nothing. As a result, Amina falls seriously ill and takes some time to recover. When she does, she vows her revenge on the engineer.
She heads back to the town where she was previously employed. She returns to her previous employers who are surprised but, because Khadija has missed her so much, welcome her back. However, she thinks to herself that she is not the same Amina. She makes friends with the engineer’s gardener to find out what the engineer is doing. She learns to her horror that he is planning to get married and that his intended bride is Khadija. She feels that she has no choice but to tell her employers what happened to her sister, which she does, and the marriage is called off. However, she feels that she can no longer remain with them and resigns. They move away and she gets job with her mother’s former employer.
The engineer has hired another woman, Sukkayna, so Amina has somehow got to get her fired, get herself fired form her current employer and then get the job with the engineer.
Hussein’s style is very poetical so this is not told as a matter-of-fact story. It is clearly feminist, in that it shows the ill-treatment of women and the fact that women do need the protection of a good man if they are to survive in the Egypt of the period. Hussein is in no doubt where his sympathy lies. Nasir and the engineer are seen as wicked, the three women as victims. While they certainly get some help from men, those that offer them shelter and the employers of Amina and Zahra, it is women that offer them most assistance. Above all, however, this novel points out the double standards, with women being punished for the faults of men and Hussein tells this story very well.
First published in 1934 by Dār al-Maʻārif
First English translation in 1980 by E.J. Brill