The Call of the Curlew (Du’a al-Karawan) by Taha Hussein: An In-Depth Exploration


“The Call of the Curlew” (Du’a al-Karawan) is a celebrated novel by Taha Hussein, one of the most influential figures in modern Arabic literature. Published in 1934, this work stands out for its profound emotional depth, vivid storytelling, and poignant exploration of themes such as love, revenge, honor, and social injustice. Through the narrative of two sisters navigating a harsh and unforgiving world, Hussein offers a powerful critique of societal norms and the treatment of women in early 20th-century Egypt.

Background of Taha Hussein

Taha Hussein was born in 1889 in the village of Izbet el Kilo in Egypt. Despite losing his sight at a young age due to a medical mishap, he pursued education with unwavering determination, eventually becoming one of Egypt’s most revered writers, critics, and scholars. Hussein’s works often reflect his advocacy for modernization, educational reform, and social justice. His literary output, characterized by its eloquence and depth, has left an indelible mark on Arabic literature.

Plot Overview

“The Call of the Curlew” is a tragic and moving tale centered around two sisters, Amna and Hanadi, who are thrust into a world of hardship and suffering following a family scandal. The novel is set in a rural Egyptian village, capturing the beauty and brutality of village life while exploring themes of love, betrayal, and redemption.

The Family Tragedy

The story begins with a tragic event that upends the lives of Amna and Hanadi. Their father is accused of an affair and is subsequently murdered in a fit of rage by their uncle, who views the alleged indiscretion as a stain on the family’s honor. This act of violence sets the stage for the sisters’ journey into a harsh and unforgiving world.

The Journey to the City

After their father’s death, the sisters are forced to leave their village and seek a new life in the city. Their journey is fraught with difficulties, reflecting the broader social and economic challenges faced by rural Egyptians migrating to urban centers. In the city, they encounter new forms of exploitation and injustice, underscoring the harsh realities of their existence.

Hanadi’s Tragic Fate

Hanadi, the more beautiful of the two sisters, attracts the attention of a predatory and unscrupulous man. Despite her efforts to resist, she falls victim to his advances and is eventually abandoned, leading to her tragic downfall. Hanadi’s fate serves as a stark commentary on the vulnerability and exploitation of women in a patriarchal society.

Amna’s Quest for Revenge

The novel’s climax centers on Amna’s quest for revenge against the man who ruined her sister’s life. Driven by a sense of duty and honor, Amna navigates the moral complexities of vengeance and justice. Her journey is one of self-discovery and empowerment, as she confronts her own fears and insecurities to seek retribution for her sister’s suffering.

Themes in “The Call of the Curlew”

Social Injustice

One of the central themes in “The Call of the Curlew” is social injustice, particularly the systemic oppression of women. Through the tragic fate of Hanadi and the struggles of Amna, Hussein critiques the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms that perpetuate gender inequality and exploitation.

Honor and Revenge

The novel explores the concepts of honor and revenge in a deeply personal and emotional context. Amna’s quest for vengeance is driven by a desire to restore her family’s honor, reflecting the societal pressures and expectations surrounding honor in traditional Egyptian culture. The moral ambiguities of revenge are also examined, highlighting the complexities of justice and retribution.

Love and Sacrifice

Love and sacrifice are recurring motifs in the novel. The bond between the sisters, characterized by deep love and loyalty, is a central pillar of the narrative. Their sacrifices for each other underscore the strength of familial ties and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Rural vs. Urban Life

Hussein contrasts rural and urban life, depicting the idyllic yet harsh realities of village existence alongside the complexities and challenges of urban migration. This dichotomy reflects broader social and economic changes in early 20th-century Egypt, as rural populations moved to cities in search of better opportunities.

Literary Style

Taha Hussein’s literary style in “The Call of the Curlew” is marked by its eloquence, emotional depth, and vivid imagery. His prose is both accessible and richly evocative, drawing readers into the world of the characters and their experiences.

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 novel employs a third-person omniscient narrative, allowing Hussein to provide a comprehensive view of the characters’ inner lives and the broader social context. This narrative technique enables a deep exploration of themes and emotions, offering readers a nuanced understanding of the characters’ motivations and struggles.

Symbolism and Metaphor

Hussein uses symbolism and metaphor to enrich the narrative and convey deeper meanings. The curlew’s call, which haunts the characters throughout the novel, symbolizes loss, longing, and the inexorable passage of time. The journey from the village to the city serves as a metaphor for the broader societal transitions and the quest for a better life.

Character Analysis


Amna is the protagonist of the novel, representing strength, resilience, and the quest for justice. Her journey from a vulnerable and traumatized young woman to a determined and empowered individual is a central arc of the narrative. Amna’s character embodies the struggle against social injustice and the pursuit of personal and familial honor.


Hanadi, Amna’s sister, is a tragic figure whose beauty and vulnerability make her a target for exploitation. Her fate serves as a poignant commentary on the vulnerability of women in a patriarchal society. Despite her tragic end, Hanadi’s character highlights the themes of love, sacrifice, and the human cost of social injustice.

Supporting Characters

  • The Uncle: The uncle’s act of violence sets the tragic events of the novel in motion. His character represents the rigid and destructive adherence to traditional notions of honor.
  • The Predatory Man: The man who exploits Hanadi symbolizes the broader societal exploitation of vulnerable individuals. His actions serve as a catalyst for Amna’s quest for revenge and justice.

Social and Cultural Context

“The Call of the Curlew” is set against the backdrop of early 20th-century Egypt, a period marked by significant social, economic, and cultural changes. The novel reflects the tensions and challenges of this transformative era, particularly the impact of urbanization and the evolving roles of women in society.

The Role of Women

The novel’s portrayal of Amna and Hanadi highlights the precarious position of women in a patriarchal society. Hussein’s critique of gender inequality and social injustice reflects broader debates about the role of women and the need for reform in Egyptian society.

Urbanization and Social Change

The migration of rural populations to urban centers is a significant theme in the novel. This movement reflects broader social and economic changes in Egypt, as traditional rural life gave way to the complexities and opportunities of urban existence. Hussein captures the hopes and hardships of this transition, offering a nuanced portrayal of the challenges faced by rural migrants.

Critical Reception

“The Call of the Curlew” received widespread acclaim upon its publication and remains a significant work in Arabic literature. Critics praised the novel for its emotional depth, vivid storytelling, and powerful social critique. The novel’s exploration of themes such as social injustice, honor, and revenge 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 “The Call of the Curlew” is a testament to his literary and intellectual legacy. The novel has inspired generations of writers and intellectuals, encouraging them to explore themes of social justice, gender equality, and the human condition. Hussein’s eloquent and introspective style set a new standard for Arabic prose fiction.

Social and Cultural Impact

“The Call of the Curlew” has also had a significant social and cultural impact. The novel’s critique of social injustice and the treatment of women resonated with many readers, particularly those who had experienced similar struggles. Hussein’s advocacy for social reform and gender equality contributed to broader debates about the future of Arab societies and the role of literature in shaping cultural and social change.


“The Call of the Curlew” (Du’a al-Karawan) by Taha Hussein is a profound and moving exploration of social injustice, honor, love, and sacrifice. Through the tragic story of Amna and Hanadi, Hussein offers a powerful critique of patriarchal norms and the exploitation of women in early 20th-century Egypt. The novel’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. “The Call of the Curlew” remains a powerful testament to the enduring power of literature to illuminate social issues, challenge injustice, and inspire change. The novel’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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