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Betraying Behita: Superstition and the Paralysis of Blackness in Out el Kouloub's Zanouba

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2022

Taylor M. Moore*
Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Cambridge, MA, USA


At the climax of Egyptian author Out el Kouloub's novel, Zanouba, the reader is witness to a crime. We find ourselves in Matariyya, a village north of Cairo, in a somber bedchamber with a blind shaykh. It is the room where only a week before Zanouba, the novel's titular character, suffered a forced miscarriage in the final month of her pregnancy and lost her long-coveted male child. The women of the household are lined up in front of the shaykh—all except for Zanouba, who is still bedridden, and her co-wife, Mashallah, who is exempt from participating because she is menstruating. They prepare to swear on the Qurʾan their innocence in the matter of the miscarriage, as Zanouba's husband, Abdel Meguid, and her mother-in-law suspect foul play.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Kouloub, Out el, Zanouba, trans. Atiya, Nayra (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., 109–11.

3 Ibid., 116.

4 Marisa Fuentes develops this method for reading archival fragments “to eke out extinguished and invisible but no less historically important lives.” See Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 7–8.

5 Earle H. Waugh provides a comprehensive historical ethnography of the Demirdashiyya al-Khalwatiyya order from the 16th to the 21st century, including a chapter on Out el Kouloub, in Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya al-Khalwatiya in Cairo (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008).

6 Although Out el Kouloub published eight novels in French and held a popular literary salon in her Cairo home, much of her life remains a mystery. Most of what is known (and debated) about her life can be found in Nayra Atiya's introductions to her English translations of Zanouba, Three Tales of Love and Death (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), and Ramza (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994). See also Sonia Rezk Ghattas, “Visages de Femmes Égyptiennes: Étude Socio-Linguistic de l'Oeuvre de Out-El-Kouloub” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 1979); and Kenneth Eric Seigneurie, “Space and the Colonial Encounter in Lawrence Durell, Out El-Kouloub and Naguib Mahfouz” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1995), 65–68.

7 Waugh, Visionaries of Silence, 106–10.

8 For an example of this literature see Abdel Rahman Ismail, Kitab Tibb Al-Rukka, vols. 1 and 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Bahiyya, 1892). Concerns regarding the ignorant “old wife” were prevalent throughout the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. See, for instance, Gülhan Balsoy's discussion of the ihtiyar acuze (old crone) in The Politics of Reproduction in Ottoman Society, 1838–1900 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

9 See Taylor M. Moore, “Superstitious Women: Race, Magic, and Medicine in Egypt (1875–1950)” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 2020).

10 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, xiv.

11 For an introduction to these histories see Hill, Richard Leslie, Egypt in the Sudan, 1820–1881 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)Google Scholar; Daly, Martin W., Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 1898–1934 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; and Sharkey, Heather J., Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Both Zanouba's uncle and Abdel Meguid's brother-in-law served in missions to Sudan under Khedive ʿAbbas II (r. 1892–1914).

13 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 57. Ehud Toledano uses a police report from the Egyptian National Archives to shed light on the lives of enslaved Circassian women in Egypt in “Shemsigul: A Circassian Slave in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Cairo,” in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, ed. Edmund Burke III and David N. Yaghoubian (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 48–63. For the history of the enslavement of Circassians in the late Ottoman Empire more broadly see Y. Hakan Erdem, Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and Its Demise, 1800–1909 (New York: MacMillan, 1996); and, more recently, for the curious legal implications of Caucasian expulsion for Ottoman slavery, see Karamürsel, Ceyda, “Transplanted Slavery, Contested Freedom, and Vernacularization of Rights in the Reform Era Ottoman Empire,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 3 (2017): 690714CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 There is a sick irony in this point. Saʾid (r.1854–63) issued several bans during his reign demanding the end the slave trade in Sudan and Abyssinia. Yet, the purchase and presence in the household of Narguiss was proof that these bans were not successful. For information on Saʾid's attempts to curb the slave trade see Baer, Gabriel, “Slavery in Nineteenth Century Egypt,” Journal of African History 8, no. 3 (1967): 430–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kozma, Liat, Policing Egyptian Women: Sex, Law, and Medicine in Khedival Egypt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011), 6566Google Scholar.

15 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 184–90. The term zār refers to a pantheon of spirits who possess human hosts and the life-long reconciliation rituals necessary to pacify the afflicting spirits. Since the late 19th century, anthropologists have studied zār as a belief system and set of practices said to have spread to Egypt from Sub-Saharan Africa by way of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. See Hadidi, Hager El, Zar: Spirit Possession, Music, and Healing Rituals in Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 184.

17 After the abolition of slavery in Sudan in 1898, formerly enslaved women made money through the establishment of anadi or local bars that sold a boza-like fermented alcoholic beverage. These bars were generally connected with prostitution. See Omar D. Foda, “Grand Plans in Glass Bottles: The Economic, Social, and Technological History of Beer in Egypt, 1880–1970” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2015), 40–42. Similar connections between boza, prostitution, and zār were made in 19th- and 20th-century Egypt.

18 This was part and parcel of larger waves of urban migration happening in Egypt at the time. Hanan Hammad uses census information from the first half of the 20th century to show how urban migration coincided with an increase in activities like theft for subsistence. See Hanan Hammad, “Disreputable by Definition: Respectability and Theft by Poor Women in Urban Interwar Egypt,” in Crime, Poverty and Survival in the Middle East and North Africa: The “Dangerous Classes”since 1800, ed. Stephanie Cronin (London: I. B. Tauris, 2021), 65–77.

19 Powell, Eve M. Troutt, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), ch. 5Google Scholar; Elsaket, Ifdal, “Jungle Films in Egypt: Race, Anti-Blackness, and Empire,” Arab Studies Journal 25, no. 2 (2017): 833Google Scholar. See also Shafik, Viola, Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007), 6477CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for more on Nubians pushing back against Egyptians’ racist representations of them see Smith, Elizabeth, “Place, Class, and Race in the Barabra Café: Nubians in Egyptian Media,” in Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, ed. Singerman, Diane and Amar, Paul (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006), 399414Google Scholar.

20 Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 25–26, 73–74; Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 73–99.

21 For more on the development of medical and anthropological race science in 20th-century Egypt, see Omnia S. El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 55–88, on the development of racial anthropology in the colonial and nationalist periods; and Elise K. Burton, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021), 94–95,107–110, on racial sero-anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s.

22 Muhammad Hilmi Zayn al-Din, Riwayat Madar al-Zar (Cairo: Matba'at Diwan Umum al-Awqaf, 1903); Malak Hifni Nasif, “Tarbiyat al-Banat (fi al-Bayt wa-l-Madrasa),” in al-Nisa'iyat: Majmuʻat Maqalat Nushirat fi al-Jarida fi Mawduʻ al Mar'a al-Misriyya (Cairo: Matbaʻat al-Jarida, 1910), 18–21.

23 Nefertiti Takla, “Barbaric Women: Race and the Colonization of Gender in Interwar Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 53, no. 3 (2021), esp. 396–98. Takla also discusses how Upper Egypt becomes a liminal geographic space and Upper Egyptian a racialized category due to its proximity to Sudan, that is, sub-Saharan Africa.

24 Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema, 142–54.

25 See the “1880 Legal Procedures and Jurisdictions of Quarter Police Stations Commissioners Law,” in Filib Ibn Yusuf Jallad, Qamus al-Idara wa-l-Qada, vol. 3 (Alexandria: al-Matbaʻa al-Buhariyya, 1891), 1188. The flimsy notecard archive of British anthropologist Winifred Blackman's amulet collection at the Wellcome Library in London also indicates the presence of Black Africans providing occult objects and services in weekly markets across Cairo, Beni Suef, and Asyut. Take for example, a “stone for protection against qarina” that Blackman obtained from an “old Sudanese woman traveling about Egypt selling charms,” WA/HMM/CM/Col 12, box 360, 107702. For more on these occult economies, see Moore, “Superstitious Women,” ch. 3.

26 See for instance Leyla Saz, The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: Daily Life at the Çırağan Palace during the 19th Century: Memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanımefendi, trans. Landon Thomas (Istanbul: Peva, 1994); and Y. Hakan Erdem, “Magic, Theft, and Arson: The Life and Death of an Enslaved African Woman in Ottoman İzmit,” in Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in 19th-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Mediterranean, ed. Terence Walz and Kenneth M. Cuno (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 125–46.

27 Powell, Different Shade, 135–68.

28 For two foundational texts on this trope, see Heather J. Hicks, “Hoodoo Economics: White Men's Work and Black Men's Magic in Contemporary American Film,” Camera Obscura 18, no. 2 (2003): 27–55; and Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham, “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film,” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 2 (2009): 135–52. On the figure of the “mammy,” see Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2000), 69–96.

29 Behita is a gallicized version of Bakhita. Terence Walz, “Black Slavery in Egypt during the Nineteenth Century as Reflected in the Mahkama Archives of Cairo,” in Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa, vol. 2, The Servile Estate, ed. John Ralph Willis (London: Frank Cass, 1985), 141.

30 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 60.

31 Ibid., 61.

32 Kwasu D. Tembo argues that, for the trope of the Magical Negro to prove successful, the character in question must be disabled, both physically and in terms of agency, past, and character development in “Magical Negress: Re-Reading Agent 355 in Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man,” Open Cultural Studies 3 (2019): 165–66.

33 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 64.

34 Ibid., 63–64.

35 I read Out el Kouloub's choice to paralyze Behita as opposed to killing her character in light of Stephanie Hunt-Kennedy's recent study connecting the histories of chattel slavery and disability in the early modern Atlantic, where she argues that slavery was designed to keep the enslaved “alive but ‘in a state of injury,’ suspended between fitness and death.” See Stephanie Hunt-Kennedy, Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 12.

36 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 64.

37 Ibid., 64.

38 Ibid., 66.

39 Ibid.

40 See for example Baer, “Slavery in Nineteenth Century Egypt”; Ehud R. Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1997); Ehud R. Toledano, As If Silent and Absent Bonds: Of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Terence Walz and Kenneth M. Cuno, eds., “Introduction: The Study of Slavery in Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” in Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in 19th-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Mediterranean (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 1–17; Kozma, Policing Egyptian Women; and Madeline Zilfi, Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

41 Kozma, Policing Egyptian Women, 71–72.

42 Eve M. Troutt Powell, Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), ch. 4.

43 There is much literature on the use of marginalized people in the history of dissection and the history of medicine more generally. For a curated introduction, see Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006); Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017); and Hannah Murphy, “Re-Writing Race in Early Modern European Medicine,” History Compass 19, no. 11 (2021), 1–12.

44 Ottoman Archives (OA) İrade Dahiliye (İ.DH) 144.7419 no. 2 (6 Ca 1263/ 22 April 1847). See also Charles MacFarlane, Turkey and Its Destiny: The Result of Journeys Made in 1847 and 1848 to Examine into the State of That Country, vol. 2 (London: Lea and Blanchard, 1850), 165–66; and Esin Kahya, “Bizde Disseksiyon Ne Zaman ve Nasıl Başladı?” Belleten 42, no. 172 (1979): 739–59.

45 A.-B. Clot Bey, Mémoires de A.-B. Clot Bey (Le Caire: 1949), 72.

46 Ibid.; Emad Ahmed Helal, “Muhammad Ali's First Army: The Experiment in Building an Entirely Slave Army,” in Walz and Cuno, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, 17–42.

47 Clot Bey, Mémoires, 72–73.

48 Khaled Fahmy, In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018).

49 Kozma, Policing Egyptian Women, 50–78.

50 Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, Slaves into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996); Beth Baron, “Liberated Bodies and Saved Souls: Freed African Slave Girls and Missionaries,” in Christian Missions and Humanitarianism in the Middle East, 1850–1950 (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 41–61.

51 Out el Kouloub, Zanouba, 111; Eve M. Troutt Powell, “The Silence of the Slaves,” in The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam, ed. John Hunwick and Eve M. Troutt Powell (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2009), xxv–xxxvii.

52 Eve Troutt Powell, “Egyptians in Blackface: Nationalism and the Representation of the Sudan in Egypt, 1919,” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 2, no. 2 (1995): 31. See also Zavier Wingham's article on the “absented shadow” of the Arap Bacı in Ottoman history, “Arap Bacı’nın Ara Muhaveresi: Under the Shadow of the Ottoman Empire and Its Study,” YILLIK: Annual of Istanbul Studies 3 (2021): 133–41.

53 Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 5.

54 Ibid.

55 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14; Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives; Jennifer L. Morgan, “Accounting for ‘The Most Excruciating Torment’: Gender, Slavery, and Trans-Atlantic Passages,” History of the Present 6, no. 2 (2016): 184–207.