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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Professor Hanaa

Reem Bassiouney

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To purchase Professor Hanaa

Title: Professor Hanaa
Author: Reem Bassiouney
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Professor Hanaa - US
Professor Hanaa - UK
Professor Hanaa - Canada
Professor Hanaa - India
  • Arabic title: الدكتورة هناء
  • Translated by Laila Helmi

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Our Assessment:

B : odd mix of romance, melodrama, and social critique, with too many extremes -- but intriguing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Professor Hanaa is an odd mix of a novel. Fundamentally a romance, its intriguing premise and polarized protagonists also allow for a much broader social critique of contemporary Egypt -- even as the melodramatic back and forth between extremes distracts from it.
       The main character is the eponymous Professor Hanaa Saad, and the novel begins when she reaches her fortieth birthday. She has racked up quite a few achievements and is a successful academic, but she has essentially no personal life; she's also not particularly approachable: as a student sums up, she's: "finicky, complex, and out of touch with the real world". But now she finds herself disgusted that: "She would turn forty while still a virgin."

One single idea possessed her: today, she had to lose her virginity -- fast
       A practical-minded and determined woman, she knows how to get what she wants, and Professor Hanaa is not a tale of what she has to go through to achieve these ends: she sets her sights on a target, has a plan, and soon enough it's: wham, bang, thank you man. Except, of course, that Professor Hanaa isn't really the grateful sort.
       Sex, of course, complicates matters, and between Professor Hanaa's aloofness and her refusal to bow or bend to anyone, much less this society's expectations -- extramarital sex is a no-no, and a man has certain obligations -- the situation gets rather sticky. Professor Hanaa is a control-freak -- one reason that she chose as her victim her dutiful but traditional-value-upholding student, Khaled -- but there's a part of her that also wants to be the woman, and the wife. She demands Khaled marry her -- but also that they keep the marriage secret. Not allowing him the traditional role of protector and provider -- and ordering him around, remaining more in the role of his teacher and supervisor, rather than partner --, Khaled unsurprisingly finds himself somewhat frustrated by the arrangement.
       This is not your typical marriage: after a brief honeymoon of sorts, they (for the most parts) return to their previous roles, so that to all outward appearances they are just student and teacher, not man and wife. Not quite sure what she wants, Professor Hanaa veers wildly between wanting Khaled close to her and refusing to have anything to do with him, making for the bumpiest of romances. But there's passion underneath it all -- despite all their differences, they do fit together somehow.
       Much of the novel has to do with this study in contrasts, less of their personalities than what they represent. Professor Hanaa detests the petty corruption found at every level of Egyptian society. Devoted to the university, she doesn't like playing along the games of favoritism and deception that everyone else accepts as a matter of course -- which, once she gets a more important position, becomes more problematic. Khaled, meanwhile, has other ideas -- explaining to her:
You wanted justice and equality to reign, but that is impossible. I tried many times to make it clear to you that it would be better not to change the system but rather help those who need help. We are a country that loves corruption, conceit, favouritism and especially doing favours for relatives and neighbours -- but you don't get it.
       This corruption -- and Khaled's tolerance of it ("A small degree of corruption is desirable and only human", he argues) -- frustrate Professor Hanaa. But it's her unwillingness to accept that this is the way this world works that have so often left her the odd (wo)man out; Khaled -- though devout and dutiful, mindful of his obligations to family and society -- is much more at ease in playing a bit fast and loose.
       Professor Hanaa's sister has entirely different family problems: now fifty, her husband has left her for a younger, more attractive woman. Professor Hanaa is hardly sympathetic -- "It was only natural for Adel to tire of his wife and to throw her out", she thinks -- but this as well as her sister's reaction and then the kind of life she chooses in the hope of finding meaning also offer little by way of example for Professor Hanaa: there's too much flawed in the conventional and traditional for her to be able to embrace it. But if she sticks to her own strict standards, survival -- or even just finding a hold -- is also difficult.
       The novel does boil down to the questions Professor Hanaa askes herself:
     Egypt ! Where are you heading ? Where will you escape from me this time ? Will I find you once again ? Whose country are you ? Khaled's or Professor Hanaa's ?
       Bassiouney offers a roller-coaster ride in the novel, the back and forth -- will they, won't they -- buffeting Professor Hanaa and Khaled (and the reader) so hard it's surprising everyone doesn't end up with whiplash. If that element strays dangerously into the melodramatic too often, the novel nevertheless manages to offer an interesting look at contemporary Egyptian society, in academia and beyond. Bassiouney's writing is uneven -- much proceeds much too hastily, as she rushes through scenes -- but some of the details and phrasings are inspired. And while Professor Hanaa can seem too extreme a character, especially in her domineering state, she is certainly a captivating one, with the unlikely Khaled serving as a good contrast and foil.
       Professor Hanaa is an odd and sometimes strained novel, but it offers an intriguing clash of characters and standards.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 December 2011

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Professor Hanaa: Reem Bassiouney: Other books by Reem Bassiouney under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Reem Bassiouney (ريم بسيوني) was born in Egypt in 1973. She currently teaches at the American University in Cairo.

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