Samira Kawar reviews

The Girl with Braided Hair

by Rasha Adly

Translated by Sarah Enany

Published by Hoopoe Fiction, Cairo, 2020

ISBN 978-9-7741-6987-8. 336pp. Pbk £13.69/$17.95. Kindle £10.44/$13.72



Napoleon’s Campaign and the Roots of Orientalism



The winner of the 2021 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation – The Girl with Braided Hair, authored by Rasha Adly and superbly translated by Sarah Enany – is an absorbing tale of two women living parallel lives over 200 years apart, their narratives connected by a painting.

The original Arabic version of the novel, entitled Shaghaf (Passion) in Arabic, was published in 2017, longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018, and is a dextrous amalgamation of historical facts and fiction.

A young Egyptian woman, art historian Yasmine, is restoring an unsigned portrait of a beautiful unknown Egyptian girl from the Napoleonic era, and becomes fascinated, even obsessed, with finding out more about the girl. As she works on uncovering the painting’s provenance, she discovers that the artist has embedded a lock of hair into the painting. Captivated by the painting and its mysterious origin, Yasmine goes about trying to discover the story behind the painting.

As Yasmine’s research of historical material and diaries progresses, the story unfolds of Zeinab Bakri, the sixteen-year-old subject of the painting, bringing to life the events of 1798 during Napoleon’s presence in Egypt. The story of Yasmine’s own life in contemporary Cairo and her romantic involvement with Sherif becomes intertwined with Zeinab’s as Adly skilfully weaves the two narratives together. But the two women are not mirror images of one another. Yasmine is an empowered professional young woman, emotionally crippled by the loss of her mother in childhood, but otherwise having full agency over the events in her life. Zeinab, by contrast, is a naïve teenager with very little exposure to her wider environment, let alone the wider world. She has no power to alter the life course that society has mapped out for her and is imposing on her, or to deviate from it without compromising her very existence. But Zeinab, the daughter of a prominent Azharite Sheikh, is rebellious at heart, and views the confined future that awaits her – illustrated by her own mother’s life and behaviour – as a fate she fervently wishes to avoid.

Aware of her own striking beauty, Zeinab believes that her opportunity to enter a fairytale world of power, elegance and opulence is being offered to her when Napoleon spots her and requests her presence. Her power hungry and unscrupulous father, currying favour with the French occupiers to advance his own interests and position, propels his daughter in Napoleon’s direction, justifying this by allowing himself to think that Napoleon will marry her. The narrative illustrates Napoleon’s own attempts to cast himself as sympathetic to Islam in a ploy to forge loyalty amongst Egyptians and suggests this may have encouraged Zeinab’s father to believe Napoleon would marry his daughter. Zeinab is initially dazzled by French customs, culture and costumes, and embarks on a perilous path that has the potential to estrange her from her own culture and society.

In much the same way as later European colonialists acted, Napoleon seeks to portray his presence in Egypt as a civilising mission that would improve the lives of the brutish natives and rid them of their uncivilised ways. But the brutality with which French soldiers crush an Egyptian revolt against Napoleon’s rule puts paid to such illusions, and the novel shines a light on the atrocities committed by the French occupation.

The narrative also tackles the emergence of European orientalism, and Adly says that her interest in exploring the origins of orientalism is one of the main factors that informs her narrative. The novel highlights the fact that the Napoleonic campaign included artists and chroniclers who not only sought to record Napoleon’s battles and undertakings in a heroic light, but also to depict Egyptian culture and people condescendingly and unfavourably. The orientalist attitudes of the French towards Egypt and Egyptians described in the novel demonstrates how art, culture and scholarly work can be weaponised to justify invasion, occupation and repression – the historical equivalent of modern propaganda. 

One of the novel’s major messages, according to Adly, is to highlight the increasingly strong role of orientalists in shaping Western attitudes towards the Arab World and relations with it. In that sense, the novel establishes the Napoleonic conquest and rule of Egypt as the beginning of a European age of colonialism in the Middle East.

Alton Germain, a French artist who is coerced into joining the Napoleonic campaign at the last minute, bucks the emerging orientalist trend, refusing to adopt the haughty superior French attitude towards Egyptians that colours the perspective of his fellow artists and scholars. He sees Egyptians and depicts them as real human beings, and his manner of genuine and respectful interaction with them as equal human beings lead him to fall in love with Zeinab, putting him in direct competition with Napoleon.

The author draws on existing historical narratives to create her own fictionalised version of events. Zeinab is an actual historical figure, and some accounts assume she became Napoleon’s mistress, while others make no mention of this. Adly depicts Zeinab as an innocent, naïve and unwitting victim of Napoleon’s lust and wish to conquer Egypt in every way. The author explained to the online literary celebration of the 2021 winner (17 February 2022), that one of her aims in writing it was to clear Zeinab’s name.

The modern love story that unfolds between Yasmine and Sherif in parallel with the historical one is less absorbing and not as powerful, and some of its aspects bring to mind modern romantic bestsellers. Solving the mystery of the painting and uncovering the story of its alluring subject, Zeinab, allows Yasmine to break out of the fetters of her own childhood trauma so that she is able to overcome the emotionally crippling memories that prevent her from having a normal relationship with Sherif.

Sherif’s own emotional development is also affected by a historical experience. Sufism saves him from the fast but meaningless and materialistic life that he has been leading before becoming involved with Yasmine. But having fulfilled that function, Sufism all but drops out of the novel, and the reader is left with a feeling that the narrative could have been further enriched by its inclusion, since Sufism is also a deeply rooted tradition in the rich tapestry of Egypt’s history.




Published in Banipal 73 – Fiction Past and Present (Spring 2022)


About Samira Kawar

About the 2021 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize


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