The Days (Al-Ayyam) by Taha Hussein: An In-depth Exploration


“The Days” (Al-Ayyam) is an autobiographical trilogy written by Taha Hussein, one of the most influential and prominent figures in modern Arabic literature. This monumental work is not only a poignant personal memoir but also a critical social commentary on the cultural and intellectual milieu of early 20th-century Egypt. Through the lens of his own life, Hussein offers readers an intimate glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of a blind boy from a rural Egyptian village who rises to become a leading intellectual and reformer.

Background of Taha Hussein

Taha Hussein was born in 1889 in the village of Izbet el Kilo in Egypt. He lost his eyesight at the age of three due to a medical mishap, a tragedy that profoundly shaped his life and works. Despite his blindness, Hussein was determined to pursue education, overcoming numerous obstacles to become one of Egypt’s most revered writers, critics, and scholars. He earned a doctorate from the University of Montpellier in France and later became a professor at Cairo University. His works are celebrated for their deep insight, eloquence, and advocacy for modernization and reform in the Arab world.

Structure of “The Days”

“The Days” is divided into three parts, each chronicling different phases of Hussein’s life:

  1. The First Part: Childhood
  2. The Second Part: University Years in Cairo
  3. The Third Part: Studies in France

The First Part: Childhood

The first part of “The Days” delves into Hussein’s early years in his village. This section is a vivid portrayal of rural Egyptian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through his rich and evocative narrative, Hussein paints a detailed picture of his family, the village customs, and the simple yet challenging life of the rural poor.

The Family and Village Life

Hussein’s family was large, with numerous siblings and a strict but loving father who was deeply religious. His mother, on the other hand, is depicted as a nurturing and compassionate figure who played a crucial role in his early development. The village itself is described in loving detail, with its winding streets, modest homes, and the omnipresent Nile River, which was the lifeblood of the community.

Early Education and Blindness

One of the most poignant aspects of the first part is Hussein’s struggle with blindness. He describes the initial shock and despair of losing his sight, followed by the gradual adaptation to his new reality. His family, particularly his mother, played a crucial role in supporting him during this difficult period. Hussein’s early education took place at a local kuttab, a traditional Quranic school, where he memorized the Quran and developed a love for learning.

Cultural and Religious Influences

The first part of “The Days” also explores the cultural and religious influences that shaped Hussein’s early life. The village was deeply rooted in Islamic traditions, and Hussein’s father was a staunch adherent to these customs. However, Hussein himself began to question some of these traditions, setting the stage for his later advocacy for reform and modernization.

The Second Part: University Years in Cairo

The second part of “The Days” chronicles Hussein’s move to Cairo to pursue higher education at Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious Islamic institution in the Arab world. This section is a vivid depiction of Hussein’s intellectual and personal growth as he navigates the challenges of university life in a bustling metropolis.

Life at Al-Azhar

Al-Azhar University, with its rich history and rigorous curriculum, was a significant step up from Hussein’s humble beginnings. However, he soon became disillusioned with the conservative and dogmatic approach to education at Al-Azhar. Hussein found the curriculum outdated and the teaching methods rigid, which stifled intellectual curiosity and critical thinking.

Intellectual Awakening

Hussein’s intellectual awakening began when he started attending lectures outside Al-Azhar, particularly those at the newly established secular university in Cairo. Here, he was exposed to a broader range of subjects, including philosophy, literature, and science. These new perspectives broadened his horizons and fueled his desire for reform in the Arab world.

Personal Struggles and Triumphs

The second part of “The Days” also delves into Hussein’s personal struggles and triumphs during his university years. Despite his blindness, he excelled academically, earning the respect and admiration of his peers and professors. He also faced numerous challenges, including financial difficulties and social isolation, but his determination and resilience saw him through these hardships.

The Third Part: Studies in France

The third and final part of “The Days” covers Hussein’s time in France, where he pursued advanced studies at the University of Montpellier and later the Sorbonne in Paris. This period was crucial in shaping Hussein’s intellectual and ideological outlook.

The French Experience

Hussein’s time in France was a transformative experience. He was exposed to Western philosophies and methodologies, which significantly influenced his thinking. The French educational system, with its emphasis on critical thinking and empirical evidence, was a stark contrast to the rote learning and dogma he encountered at Al-Azhar.

Academic and Personal Growth

In France, Hussein earned a doctorate in literature, focusing on the works of the classical Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi. His academic achievements in a foreign land, despite his blindness, were a testament to his extraordinary intellect and perseverance. During this period, he also formed lasting friendships and connections with other scholars and intellectuals, further enriching his worldview.

Return to Egypt

Upon his return to Egypt, Hussein was determined to implement the ideas and reforms he had encountered in France. He became a professor at Cairo University and later the Minister of Education, advocating for educational reform and modernization. His experiences abroad reinforced his belief in the need for a more progressive and inclusive approach to education in the Arab world.

Themes in “The Days”

“The Days” is rich with themes that resonate deeply with readers. Some of the key themes include:

Overcoming Adversity

Hussein’s life story is a powerful testament to overcoming adversity. Despite his blindness and the numerous obstacles he faced, he persevered and achieved remarkable success. His journey is an inspiration to anyone facing challenges in their own lives.

The Quest for Knowledge

Hussein’s insatiable thirst for knowledge is a central theme in “The Days.” His journey from a rural village to the halls of prestigious universities underscores the transformative power of education and the importance of intellectual curiosity.

Cultural and Social Critique

Through his personal narrative, Hussein offers a critique of the cultural and social norms of his time. He challenges the rigidity and dogma of traditional education and advocates for a more progressive and open-minded approach. His call for reform is a recurring theme in his works and reflects his broader vision for the Arab world.

Identity and Belonging

Hussein’s struggle with his identity and sense of belonging is another prominent theme. His blindness isolated him from his peers, and his intellectual pursuits set him apart from the traditionalists in his community. His time in France further complicated his sense of identity, as he navigated between his Egyptian roots and his admiration for Western ideals.

Literary Style

Taha Hussein’s literary style in “The Days” is characterized by its eloquence, clarity, and emotional depth. He employs a straightforward yet evocative prose that draws readers into his world. His use of vivid imagery and descriptive language brings the scenes and characters to life, making the narrative both engaging and immersive.

Use of Language

Hussein’s command of the Arabic language is masterful. He uses language not just as a means of communication but as a tool for expressing complex ideas and emotions. His prose is lyrical and poetic, reflecting his deep appreciation for the beauty of the Arabic language.

Narrative Technique

“The Days” is written in the third person, which allows Hussein to maintain a degree of detachment and objectivity in his storytelling. This narrative technique also enables him to provide a broader social and cultural context for his personal experiences. The use of the third person gives the narrative a universal quality, making Hussein’s story relatable to a wider audience.

Symbolism and Metaphor

Hussein employs symbolism and metaphor to enrich his narrative and convey deeper meanings. For example, his blindness is not just a physical condition but also a metaphor for the intellectual blindness and rigidity he encountered in traditional education. Similarly, his journey from a rural village to the universities of France symbolizes the broader journey of the Arab world towards modernization and enlightenment.

Impact and Legacy

“The Days” has had a profound impact on Arabic literature and continues to be a seminal work in the Arab world. Its significance lies not only in its literary merits but also in its social and cultural critique.

Influence on Arabic Literature

Taha Hussein is often referred to as the “Dean of Arabic Literature,” and “The Days” is a cornerstone of his literary legacy. The book has inspired generations of writers and intellectuals, encouraging them to explore themes of personal struggle, intellectual freedom, and social reform. Hussein’s eloquent and introspective style set a new standard for autobiographical writing in Arabic literature.

Social and Cultural Impact

“The Days” has also had a significant social and cultural impact. By sharing his personal story, Hussein shed light on the challenges faced by people with disabilities and the importance of education in overcoming social and economic barriers. His advocacy for educational reform and modernization resonated with many and contributed to the broader intellectual and cultural awakening in the Arab world during the 20th century.

Educational Reforms

As Minister of Education, Hussein implemented many of the ideas and reforms he championed in “The Days.” He advocated for a more inclusive and progressive education system that emphasized critical thinking and intellectual freedom. His reforms aimed to modernize the curriculum, improve teacher training, and increase access to education for all segments of society.


“The Days” (Al-Ayyam) by Taha Hussein is a timeless and profound work that transcends its autobiographical roots to offer a rich and nuanced exploration of personal and social transformation. Through his eloquent prose and poignant storytelling, Hussein provides a window into the cultural and intellectual landscape of early 20th-century Egypt. His story of overcoming adversity, pursuing knowledge, and advocating for reform continues to inspire and resonate with readers around the world.

Hussein’s legacy as a writer, scholar, and reformer is firmly cemented in the annals of Arabic literature and intellectual history. “The Days” remains a testament to the enduring power of education, the resilience of the human spirit, and the importance of challenging the status quo in the pursuit of a better and more enlightened society.

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