When I was little, my father told me that if I said a prayer right after a nightingale had sung and the bird then sang again, it would be accepted and my wish would come true. According to a longstanding Egyptian tradition, every time the bird sings it says, “The universe is yours … yours … yours … creator of the universe.”
Taha Hussein finished his novel Doaa al-Karawan (The Nightingale’s Prayer, or The Call of the Curlew) in 1934 at the age of 45. It’s a tragic tale of vengeance told by Amna, a naïve and illiterate yet audacious young woman from a small village in Upper Egypt called Benni Warkan.
Hussein had been born in 1889 into a middle-class family in a village not so far away, Ezbet al-Kilo. He defied any traditional path and his progressive way of thinking took him to France, where he earned an MA, and then a PhD from the Sorbonne.
The Nightingale’s Prayer tackles the archaic set of beliefs whereby a man is valued by his ability to avenge and kill, and a woman’s chastity is more important than her life.
In the book, Amna, her older sister Hanady and their mother are forced to abandon their village to escape the shameful legacy of the father Khedr and his sexual escapades.
When they arrive in a nameless Upper Egyptian city, both sisters becomes housekeepers. Amna is assigned the house of the sheriff, while Hanady is sent to the irrigation officer — a good-looking aristocrat who pretends to be in love with her. In a closed society that measures a woman by her lack of premarital relations, Hanady is doomed.
Following the heartrending death of her sister, Amna promises the nightingale, who sang the night of her sister’s murder, that she will avenge the victim and kill the man who duped her. But as Amna weaves a web of seduction and deceit around “the Engineer,” she becomes prey to her own trap.
Filmmaker Henry Barakat turned Hussein’s novel into a widely-acclaimed, striking black-and-white film in 1959, when he was 47. As a novel, The Nightingale’s Prayer has minimal dialogue and depends solely on the protagonist’s monologues and promises to the bird. These are incorporated into the movie through Hamama’s calm voice. Yet Barakat and writer Youssef Gohar also created a poetic script that almost matches the novel’s genius.
Like the book, the movie starts from its middle, with Amna (Faten Hamama) lurking in the dark inside the house of the engineer (Ahmed Mazhar). She reminisces, and flashbacks show us the details of the family’s life — Hanady is played by Zahret al-Olla and their mother by Amina Rezk — up until that moment of waiting in the gloomy darkness. The second part of the movie is an unorthodox and almost sinister love story, set in the present.
The result isn’t just a great movie: it also put Barakat and Hamama on the joint path they would follow for around 20 years. From one movie to the next, sometimes more effectively than others, they focused on women’s liberation and the demolition of useless social norms in a subtle manner coated with a layer of Barakat’s signature romanticism.
The Nightingale’s Prayer does it well: showing the harsher realities of the Egyptian countryside in the early twentieth century. Illiteracy prevailed, men controlled families, and women were herds of followers in constant need of a shepherd. However, in large Upper Egyptian cities, society was slowly changing: some girls were home-schooled in French and piano, and art nouveau and art deco furniture entered upper-class houses (as in those of the sheriff and the engineer).
The choice of actresses in The Nightingale’s Prayer is generally interesting. Hamama, Olla and Rezk play the roles of three impoverished women from a small village in Upper Egypt. At the time, the careers of these three wonderful actors were skyrocketing; their strength in real-life matched the novel’s strong characters.
Another fantastic casting choice is Mimi Shakeeb as Zanouba, who runs the town’s housekeeping agency. Zanouba is a strong, wanton and kind woman, who’s a savant of the art of seduction; she conducts business, dances and smokes cigarettes in a society that won’t tolerate a woman who wears a fitted dress. Up until then, Shakeeb had been the aristocratic female villain of the silver screen — her fair complexion and blonde wavy hair made her perfect for such roles. In The Nightingale’s Prayer, Zanouba is a breath of fresh air in the midst of so much suffocating wretchedness. She stands out brilliantly.
One reason this movie was a success in the late 1950s and remains timeless is the music. Andre Rider, an originally Greek composer, worked on many Egyptian blockbusters including Al-Les wal Kelab (The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), Al-Ragol al-Thani (The Second Man, 1960), Al-Nazara al-Sawdaa (The Black Shades, 1963) and Nahr al-Hob (The River of Love, 1960). For The Nightingale’s Prayer, Rider created a dramatic soundtrack of morbid sadness played by delicate violins.