An Egyptian Childhood (Shajarah al-Bu’s) by Taha Hussein: A Detailed Analysis


“An Egyptian Childhood” (Shajarah al-Bu’s) is a poignant and insightful autobiographical work by Taha Hussein, one of the most influential literary figures in the Arab world. Published in 1929, this book is the first volume of Hussein’s autobiography, providing a detailed and moving account of his early years in a rural Egyptian village. Through this work, Hussein not only narrates the story of his childhood but also offers a vivid portrayal of Egyptian society, culture, and traditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Background of Taha Hussein

Taha Hussein was born in 1889 in Izbet el Kilo, a small village in Egypt. Despite losing his sight at a young age due to a medical mishap, he pursued education with unwavering determination. Hussein’s life journey from a rural village to becoming one of Egypt’s most revered writers and intellectuals is a testament to his resilience, intellect, and passion for knowledge. His literary works often reflect his advocacy for modernization, educational reform, and social justice.

Plot Overview

“An Egyptian Childhood” offers a rich and detailed narrative of Taha Hussein’s early life, focusing on his experiences growing up in a traditional Egyptian village. The book is divided into three parts, each detailing different aspects of his childhood and early education.

Early Life in the Village

The book begins with Hussein’s vivid descriptions of his family, the village, and the customs and traditions that shaped his early years. He paints a picture of a close-knit community bound by shared values and practices. His early life is marked by the warmth of familial bonds, the simplicity of rural life, and the joy of childhood exploration.

Education and Challenges

As the narrative progresses, Hussein describes his initial encounters with education. Despite his blindness, his family, particularly his mother, is determined to provide him with the best possible education. He attends the local kuttab (traditional Quranic school) where he memorizes the Quran and begins to develop a love for learning. However, his journey is fraught with challenges, including the physical and emotional hardships of navigating a world without sight.

Journey to Cairo

The third part of the book details Hussein’s journey to Cairo to pursue higher education. This move marks a significant turning point in his life, exposing him to new ideas and broader horizons. In Cairo, he faces numerous challenges but also finds opportunities to expand his knowledge and intellectual pursuits.

Themes in “An Egyptian Childhood”

Perseverance and Resilience

One of the central themes in “An Egyptian Childhood” is perseverance and resilience. Hussein’s determination to overcome the obstacles posed by his blindness and pursue education is a testament to his inner strength and unwavering resolve. His story is an inspiring example of the power of human spirit to triumph over adversity.

Education and Intellectual Curiosity

Education plays a pivotal role in Hussein’s life and is a recurring theme throughout the book. His journey from a rural kuttab to the bustling intellectual life of Cairo underscores the transformative power of education. Hussein’s insatiable curiosity and love for learning drive him to seek knowledge despite the many challenges he faces.

Tradition and Modernity

The book also explores the tension between tradition and modernity. Hussein’s early life in the village is steeped in traditional values and practices, while his move to Cairo exposes him to modern ideas and progressive thinking. This juxtaposition reflects the broader societal changes occurring in Egypt during Hussein’s lifetime.

Social Justice and Reform

Hussein’s narrative often touches upon issues of social justice and the need for reform. His observations of the inequities and injustices in rural Egyptian society highlight his commitment to advocating for social change. Hussein’s own experiences with disability and marginalization inform his broader calls for educational and social reform.

Literary Style

Taha Hussein’s literary style in “An Egyptian Childhood” is characterized by its eloquence, emotional depth, and vivid imagery. His prose is both accessible and richly evocative, drawing readers into the world of his childhood and the experiences that shaped his life.

Use of Language

Hussein’s command of the Arabic language is masterful. His use of language is precise and poetic, enhancing the emotional resonance of the narrative. The dialogue is natural and authentic, reflecting the vernacular speech patterns of rural and urban Egyptians.

Narrative Technique

The book employs a first-person narrative, allowing Hussein to provide a deeply personal and introspective account of his childhood. This narrative technique enables a profound exploration of themes and emotions, offering readers a nuanced understanding of Hussein’s motivations and struggles.

Symbolism and Metaphor

Hussein uses symbolism and metaphor to enrich the narrative and convey deeper meanings. The “tree of misery” (Shajarah al-Bu’s) symbolizes the hardships and challenges Hussein faces throughout his childhood. His journey from the village to Cairo serves as a metaphor for the broader quest for knowledge and self-discovery.

Character Analysis

Taha Hussein

As the protagonist and narrator, Taha Hussein’s character is central to the narrative. His journey from a rural village to the intellectual life of Cairo is a testament to his resilience, intellect, and passion for knowledge. Hussein’s character embodies the themes of perseverance, education, and social justice, reflecting his own experiences and observations.

Hussein’s Family

Hussein’s family, particularly his mother and father, play significant roles in his early life. His mother’s determination to ensure he receives an education despite his blindness and his father’s support and guidance are pivotal in shaping his character and aspirations.

Teachers and Mentors

The teachers and mentors Hussein encounters throughout his education also play crucial roles in his development. Their guidance and encouragement help him navigate the challenges of his blindness and foster his intellectual curiosity.

Social and Cultural Context

“An Egyptian Childhood” is set against the backdrop of late 19th and early 20th-century Egypt, a period marked by significant social, economic, and cultural changes. The book reflects the tensions and challenges of this transformative era, particularly the impact of urbanization and the evolving roles of education and intellectualism in society.

Rural Life and Traditions

Hussein’s descriptions of rural life provide a detailed and nuanced portrayal of Egyptian village culture. The customs, traditions, and daily routines of village life are depicted with warmth and authenticity, offering readers a glimpse into a world that is both idyllic and challenging.

Urbanization and Modernity

The move from the village to Cairo represents the broader social and economic changes occurring in Egypt during this period. Hussein’s experiences in the city highlight the opportunities and challenges of urban life and the transformative power of education and intellectual pursuits.

Critical Reception

“An Egyptian Childhood” received widespread acclaim upon its publication and remains a significant work in Arabic literature. Critics praised the book for its emotional depth, vivid storytelling, and insightful social commentary. The book’s exploration of themes such as perseverance, education, and social justice continues to resonate with readers, making it a timeless and influential work.

Influence on Arabic Literature

Taha Hussein is often referred to as the “Dean of Arabic Literature,” and “An Egyptian Childhood” is a testament to his literary and intellectual legacy. The book has inspired generations of writers and intellectuals, encouraging them to explore themes of social justice, education, and personal resilience. Hussein’s eloquent and introspective style set a new standard for Arabic prose fiction.

Social and Cultural Impact

“An Egyptian Childhood” has also had a significant social and cultural impact. The book’s portrayal of Hussein’s struggles and triumphs resonated with many readers, particularly those who had experienced similar challenges. Hussein’s advocacy for educational reform and social justice contributed to broader debates about the future of Arab societies and the role of literature in shaping cultural and social change.


“An Egyptian Childhood” (Shajarah al-Bu’s) by Taha Hussein is a poignant and insightful exploration of resilience, education, and social justice. Through the narrative of his early life, Hussein offers a powerful and moving account of his journey from a rural village to the intellectual life of Cairo. The book’s emotional depth, vivid storytelling, and eloquent prose make it a timeless and influential work in Arabic literature.

Hussein’s legacy as a writer, scholar, and reformer is firmly cemented in the annals of Arabic intellectual history. “An Egyptian Childhood” remains a powerful testament to the enduring power of education, the resilience of the human spirit, and the importance of advocating for social justice and reform. The book’s themes and insights continue to resonate with readers around the world, making it a vital contribution to the global literary canon.

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