Book Review: 'Consequences of Circumstances in Words and Deeds': Taymour

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 28 Dec 2013

Egyptian Aisha Taymour (1840 – 1902) is deemed as one of avant-garde writers who promoted women's awareness during 19th century Egypt

Aicha Taymour
Rare Photo of Aicha Taymour (1840 - 1902)

Nata'ig Al-'Ahwal fi Al-Aqwal wa Alaf'al (Consequences of Circumstances in Words and Deeds) by Aisha Taymour, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Cairo, 2013. pp.275

"Female Pioneers of the Arabic Novel" is a new series published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation, releasing seven works so far written by Egyptian authoresses who lived between the second half of the nineteenth century until early twentieth century. The latest release in the series is a novel penned by Aisha Taymour titled "Consequences of Circumstances in Words and Deeds," which was published in 1886.

This series deserves praise, as research and inquiry for the works of Egyptian female pioneers of the Arabic novel did not catch the attention of many critics and researchers. All the efforts exerted in this field were scattered, individual forays.

From another perspective, many researchers and scholars debated the date of the first Arabic novel. It is almost established that the first Arabic novel is "Zeinab" written by Mohammed Hussein Haikal and published in 1913. However, modern studies assert that the first attempts at writing a novel were made by female rather than male authors. There is a long list of works, or accurately novelistic endeavours, preceding "Zeinab" which acquired attention and fame as being the first Arabic novel. For instance, there is a novel titled "The Virtues of Love" by the Lebanese writer Labiba Hashim, who moved with her family to Cairo and later published her novel in 1898. Another among the list is Zeinab Fawwaz's novel "Good Consequences," which was published in 1899 and praised by Sheikh Mohammed Abduh.

What the aforementioned series revealed is that there is a text that predates all the previous novels. This text is entitled "Consequences of Circumstances in Words and Deeds" was written by Aisha Taymour and published in 1886. Taymour was born in 1840 to a mother of Circassian origin. She started by learning embroidery, as was the custom of all great families at the time. However, she was inclined to reading and writing; thus, her father arranged for private tutors to teach her the Holy Qur'an, Islamic Jurisprudence and Arabic calligraphy and grammar. Indeed, she memorised the Holy Qur'an and read all the Arabic literature in her father's library. She was married at age 14, as was customary, to one of the prominent figures at the time, Mohammed Tawfiq Zada.

Some critics see Aisha Taymour (1840 – 1902) as one of the avant-garde writers who emphasised women's awareness. She wrote poetry in Arabic, the language of the country she lived in; in Turkish, the language of her ancestors; and in Farsi, the language of the elite at the time. She published three books of poetry in all three languages in addition to two other books of prose.

Critics consider the works of Taymour as the earliest writings of the female Arab writers in modern times. Her significance is highlighted by her opening the door for more women to express themselves, although she used the language of Maqamat, with its traditional aesthetics based on rhymed prose and metonymies.

In the "Consequences of Circumstances," she displayed her two main influences, the forms of popular literature, especially in "One Thousand and One Nights," and the old Arabic heritage as shown in the language of Maqamat. The setting of "One Thousand" is strongly evident within the novel; through the use of excessive imagination mixed with a tendency to create fictional stories or narratives from which several minor stories developed.

Taymour did not return to reality nor did she engage with it because the novel takes place outside of it. The novel revolves around a main event, which is the failure of a just king and his vizier to educate his son, prince Mamdouh, to prepare him to be fit to rule. The prince was corrupted by the Finance Minister and Weapons Minister so that they could usurp the throne. When the king becomes ill and dies suddenly, the two conniving ministers jump on the opportunity to get rid of the prince who survives the plot on his life.

After, the prince starts another journey to discover himself and to eliminate the bad habits he acquired through the ministers. Following a series of adventures, he regains his throne and becomes just among his subjects. Naturally, the moral significance represented in condemnation of evil and injustice occupied the attention of Taymour. At the same time, the aesthetics of the novel were not on the agenda of the writer. She tried to imitate the prevalent methods of narration in the popular literature known at the time, such as "One Thousand and One Nights" and "Kalila wa Dimna." Taymour was also committed to offering moral advices to the reader in a direct and maybe blunt way.

Whatever the shortcomings of this text to be described as a novel may be, "Consequences of Circumstances" is the first work in Arabic – until now – aspired unprecedentedly to found a new literary form. Hence, this work bears the merits and demerits of the first work. Aisha Taymour was the first to trek this path, which afterwards witnessed works that surely deserved to be recognised as novels. 

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