Call me Leila by N. G. Hanna is an engrossing and often unsettling look at the lives of two Egyptian women, set against the backdrop of their nation’s often turbulent history over the past six decades. I was given a copy by the author in exchange for this review.
The story opens in early 2011 during the Arab Spring as crowds of demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for what would become known as the January 25 Revolution. Among the people in the square, who come from different backgrounds, religions and stations in Egyptian society, there is an awakening of hope: for freedom, for democracy, for justice.
The hope of Galeila, who flees to the square to escape her abusive husband, is that somehow among the sea of demonstrators she will find the father she has never met. But as Galeila and her mother, Meshmesha — whose story is told in the early chapters — know too well, the flip side of hope is despair, and there is plenty of that for these two women.
Born to a poor farming family in a northern city, after her mother’s death Meshmesha is sent away at her stepmother’s insistence to earn money as the servant for a well-to-do family in Cairo, where she is given a worn mattress to sleep atop on the kitchen floor:
“This is a step up for someone like her,” her mistress explained. “In her village, they sleep in dirt and live a life not much better than their livestock. She and the buffalo are no different” …
— Hanna, N.G. (2013-11-27). Call Me Leila (Kindle Locations 218-219). Kindle Edition.
Illiterate and cut off from what little family she may have left on the farm, the tenuous nature of Meshmesha’s existence is frighteningly revealed when she loses her job due to a misunderstanding. Where can she go? Who will help her? Who can stop those who want to take advantage of her? Sadly, not many years later these same questions will be asked by Galeila when Meshmesha dies suddenly.
They live in a culture centered around family, in which gender roles are more defined and males predominant. Marriages are arranged to suit economic or personal needs, not romance. Interestingly, Galeila and Meshmesha are also Copts, the largest Christian group in predominantly Muslim Egypt and while different groups may mix at higher economic levels, the poor are isolated from and fearful of those outside their religion. During the revolution Galeila crosses these lines, setting into motion a chain of events that may eventually get her what she wants.
Another reviewer stated Call Me Leila is not a page-turner, and I would agree with that assessment, but I also encourage readers who may chafe at the pace to stick with it. Meshmesha and Galeila’s story may resemble a fairy tale, but there are no magic godmothers or handsome princes to save the day. As the author told me in an email: “As for Galeila, there are many women like her who strive for a better life only to find themselves caught in a game which is not theirs.” This means any gains achieved by these women must be hard-won, and are therefore more satisfying.
Although I enjoyed Call Me Leila, this is not a book I would normally pick up for myself. But one of the perks of being an amateur book reviewer is getting offered the opportunity to explore different genres, and some of the better reads I’ve had in the past few years have been books such as this which I would likely skip otherwise.