The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat tr. Marilyn Booth #WITMonth

I’m glad The Open Door was brought back into publication, it was a landmark work in woman’s writing in Arabic when it was first published in 1960, an important commentary on the challenges women and girls in so many societies face, a consequence of patriarchy; an effect that is being busted wide open today, forcing transparency, offering support, healing and with hope, gradual change in many countries today. It seems timely to revisit this, or to read it for the first time, as will likely be the case for many.

As Sherif Abdel Samad said in the introduction to his article linked below:

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.”

The Open Door provides its unique view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of both the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her. It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived, judged, which in their course cause her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when really she wants to be able to express herself or explode.

It’s a novel about Layla, her brother Mahmoud, their friends, parents and the Aunt and cousins living upstairs, all of whom have differing opinions and ways of dealing with life, their beliefs on how it should be lived and how one should behave, that make it a riveting read and insight into the debates this novel provoked at the time it was first published.

The Film starring Faten Hamama

Here is Layla’s mother reprimanding her for being outspoken and speaking her mind:

‘How could you say those ridiculous things to Samia Hanim?’

‘I just said what came to mind, and that’s that!’

‘What came to mind? If everyone said whatever was on their the mind, the world would have gone up in flames long ago.’

‘Or whatever they feel – that’s what they should say.’

‘Whatever they feel! That’s for your own private self, not for saying in front of people.’

‘So people should just lie, you mean?’

‘That’s not lying – that’s being courteous. One has to make people feel good. Flatter them.’

‘Even when you don’t like them?’

‘Even when you don’t like them.’

In addition to the turmoil Layla goes through, the advance and retreat, so too does Egypt confront her own coming of age, with the advance of independence from British rule, the inner rebellion against the monarchy and the final agitation that brought about the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

While it’s not an overly politically involved novel, the history of the nation over a ten year period, deftly matches the progress of the young woman as she tries to forge a path for herself, realising how tied to social codes she is, both complies and considers busting out of those expectations, to live life more on her own terms. Her dilemma is adeptly encapsulated in the quote below:

On this solid foundation she stood, after her experience with Isam, and within the bounds of those rules. There she existed, fortifying herself against life, so fearful; and suppressing all the well-springs of spontaneity and lively inquisitiveness that were in her nature. She faced life with a cold face and a colder heart, with chilled feelings, with a studied behaviour the consequences of which she always knew in advance. She constructed a shell of emotional serenity from her certainty that she was acting correctly, that she was perfectly self-sufficient, and that no one could harm her or cause her pain.

Then Husayn passed through her existence and a vibrant current touched her, setting off the sort of animated reactions that anyone who followed the rules and was clever at reckoning consequences would hardly dream of. Layla paused on the bank, observing life’s current as it pushed forward, and something in her heart rebelled. Something was willing her to join the current. Yet something in her mind pulled her back, enveloped her to imprison her on shore. And there she remained.

The men in her life symbolise different models of those options, and they too make choices that will have far reaching consequences, whether they meet societal expectations or choose a path true to their hearts. It can seem simplistic as a reader to see the preferred path, but the reality of lives and the strong influence of parents to raise the family status, often sees young people used as pawns in their determination. This adds to the novel’s intrigue, there is an undercurrent of concern on the part of the reader for Layla’s future welfare, making the book compelling reading, for she doesn’t make decisions the way one might expect.

The final section sees Layla not exactly make her own decisions, but find a way to at least explore her thoughts and desires without the oppression of others opinions, it coincides with a period of war, adding to the perceived danger, now the challenge is survival and participation in the struggle offers her a way through the chaos.

The ending felt a little rushed, and was less coherent as a whole than the rest of the book, it made me wonder if the author had trouble bringing the novel to its conclusion, although that chaotic feeling it generated could also be said to fit with the events that were happening at the time, which were in disarray and dangerous.

Overall, I thought it was excellent, engaging and thought-provoking, particularly by putting a young woman and her confusion in the act of becoming a woman at the centre and demonstrating through the other women, her family and friends around her, the pressures that disrupt that development, that question it, mould it and can sometimes even destroy it.

I hope it gets more widely read and discussed, particularly given the continued struggle that exists everywhere today and to get an inside view from within another culture, to see and understand the universality of these themes.

Latifa Al-Zayyat

Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was an Egyptian writer and political activist born in Damyat. She was a professor of English literature and criticism at the Girls’ College at Ain Shams University from 1952 until her death.

She was Director of the Arts Academy and a member of the Supreme Council for Arts and Humanities, publishing many works on politics, literary criticism, as well as novels, short stories, memoir, and drama. She was also an activist and imprisoned more than once for her intellectual and political stance, her criticism of society and desire to break down taboos. Her literary legacy is important in light of the tireless campaigning she was so active in, that in part perhaps paved the way for those following in her footsteps.

About her novel, she had this to say:

“in the novel, I aimed at crystallizing three levels of significance. The first one deals with the development of the female protagonist, and its related to the second which deals with developments in Egypt at that period. As for the third level, it incorporates a commentary on the values of the middle class and its practices and how they prevent the country from a take off.”

It has been an inspiration for a large number of women who seek to challenge the status quo for women in the Arab world and achieve change. Her novel won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and she was awarded an International Award of Recognition in Literature in 1996 shortly before death that same year.

Further Reading

Review: Literary Gems – Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door  by Ismail Fayed

Al Jadid Article: Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat By Amal Amireh

Article on the 20th Anniversary of her Death: Dauntless to the End by Sherif Abdel Samad

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Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr.Sherif Hetata #WITMonth

Author Nawal El Saadawi

Author Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. Born outside Cairo, Egypt in 1931, she has published nearly 50 plays, novels and short story collections, translated into over 40 languages worldwide. Many of her works are taught in universities around the world.

While practising as a psychiatrist in the 1970’s she had the opportunity while conducting research into the causes of women suffering from neurosis, to meet with a woman who had been imprisoned for killing a man, a woman who was due to be executed. The woman had refused to speak to anyone until that point, and she had also refused to sign an appeal by the prison Doctor to the President so that her sentence might be commuted to life imprisonment.

The idea of ‘prison’ had always exercised a special attraction for me. I often wondered what prison life was like, especially for women. Perhaps this was because I lived in a country where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences’. My husband had been imprisoned for thirteen years as a ‘political detainee’.

After days of refusal, just as El Saadawi was leaving the prison for the last time, the Doctor told her the woman had agreed to meet her. They spent as many hours as were left of that day together, the woman recounting her the story of her life that had led to that moment.

El Saadawi left at the end of that day, never to see her again. She would be executed by hanging, her story absorbed by El Saadawi who would eventually put it to paper, in this telling of Firdaus or Woman at Point Zero, originally published in 1973.

FirdausFrom her early days, Firdaus was a child who was noticed, though rarely looked out for, instances of cruelty and neglect made up the patchwork of her childhood. “Rescued” by an Uncle who’d already crossed filial boundaries, her one respite was to have been sent by him to school, his new wife further insisting she live there, perhaps the only paradisiacal period of her life, the one time she was left alone to flourish, to evolve, gaining her secondary school certificate, her sole prized possession.

Finding no place for her in her Uncle’s home on leaving school, still a teenager she is forced to marry the more than 60-year-old Uncle of her Aunt, eventually runs from him and is taken in by another only to suffer worse abuse, a fate she seems destined to continue to live through until she meets Sharifa, who takes her in and teaches her how to recognise and extract her value, a turning point in her awareness which will change her fate.

‘How is it possible to live? Life is so hard?’
‘You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’
‘But you are not hard, Sharifa, so how do you manage to live?’
‘I am hard, terribly hard, Firdaus.’
‘No, you are gentle and soft.’
‘My skin is soft, but my heart is cruel, and my bite deadly.’
‘Like a snake?’
‘Yes, exactly like a snake. Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realises you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’

She would learn the value of her flesh, of her person and how to ensure she was rewarded for it, she would find a measure of independence, and wished never to be beholden to man. She became an employee and discovered a world where women were held in even lower esteem, in many ways more a slave than a prostitute.

At various moments in her life, she experienced a feeling that might have been love, experienced like a poetic symptom, ‘two circles of intense black surrounded by two rings of pure white, expanding before my eyes’ but each time it fades to illusion, leaving a dark shadow on her heart.

But I expected something from love. With love I began to imagine I had become a human being…In love, I gave all: my capabilities, my efforts, my feelings, my deepest emotions. Like a saint, I gave everything I had without ever counting the cost. I wanted nothing, nothing at all, except perhaps one thing. To be saved through love from it all. To find myself again, to recover the self I had lost.To become a human being who was not looked upon with scorn, or despised, but respected, and cherished and made to feel whole.

Her story and those moments are narrated in spell-binding, lyrical prose with a compassionate sensitivity that underpins a tale of one woman’s life long oppression and desire to lift herself out of it, to put a stop to the cause of that injustice, to face the truth without fear, which she ultimately did so, through her fearlessness of death, in her absolute refusal to live.

Highly Recommended, a must read.

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