Long hailed as one of the first feminist Arab novels, Latifa al-Zayat’s Al-Bab al-Maftouh (The Open Door, 1960) remains a surprising read more than five decades after it was published. Written when its author was 37 years old, three years after she completed a PhD in English literature at Cairo University, Zayat’s debut novel is re-issued this month in English — with Marilyn Booth’s translation from 2000 — under AUC Press’s Hoopoe imprint.
Running from 1946 to the Tripartite Aggression of 1956, one of Egypt’s most pivotal decades, The Open Door reflects its author’s biography — she joined anti-British demonstrations as a secondary-school student, was elected secretary of The Students and Workers National Committee as an undergraduate in 1946, and was arrested for political reasons in 1949 and 1981. Due to its psychological insight, imaginative suppleness and keen awareness of its characters’ fallibility, but also because it binds the struggle of ambitious women to the fight for national independence, and equates British occupation with oppressive patriarchal norms, a potentially run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story about a frustrated young woman becomes a literary triumph.
The book opens on February 21, 1946, a day when Mahmoud Soleiman gets a British bullet to the leg in Ismailiya Square, and a few days before 11-year-old Laila Soleiman gets her first period. Living in Sayeda Zeinab, Laila’s father is a pious middle-class civil servant, her mother is a housewife and her brother Mahmoud — the family’s pride and joy — is a politically active medical student.
Laila is not exceptionally beautiful, and in giving her a harsh voice and a rash personality, Zayat highlights her shortcomings (softened somewhat in Booth’s translation). But Laila has an inquisitive mind and an independent personality. From the outset, she questions everything and cannot fathom why men treat her the way they do, or why she is unable to be like them. From the simple questioning of an 11-year-old to the lofty ambitions of a 16-year-old, Laila is taught that the most a woman can aspire to is to preserve the honor of her father and then her future husband, bear children and keep a home. When Laila gets her period, her father responds by wailing and bitterly calling her “walyya,” Egyptian slang to indicate the burden and shame of having to be a woman’s guardian. It’s an extremely painful scene. Zayat never explicitly uses the word patriarchy, but she makes its claustrophobia and injustice jump from every one of the novel’s 360 pages.
Some passages from The Open Door feel as if they are of the here and now. Reflecting Zayat’s Marxist ideological affiliation, the characters’ internal and personal lives are paired with crucial historical events, raising questions that still resonate. What kind of society do we envision living in? What is the price of colonialism? Why do people embrace a corrupt political authority, even when it only manages to sustain a mere modicum of stability? As Laila’s father’s political affiliations are at odds with anything remotely progressive or emancipatory, the novel relentlessly critiques the complicity and regressive apathy of the petty bourgeoisie and the older generation.
But even more relevant are the many debates her characters have on the possibility of politics in the absence of any popular support, specifically during times of resistance. We read of people becoming tired of politics, and of the savagery of different governments’ oppression. The protagonists lose hope and withdraw into themselves, losing interest not just in politics but in anything related to a public sphere. The personal is tied to the political, and even though historical details are often glossed over — and Zayat remains silent about injustices under then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser — we can trace the rise and fall of the nationalist movement through the ebb and flow of the characters’ sense of being in the world. As Laila’s lover tells her:
You were trapped in the circle where most members of our class are trapped, the circle of the ego. The circle of caution and stagnation. The circle of norms, the same norms that made Esam cheat on you, and made Mahmoud feel isolated in the Battle of the Canal. The norms that made our class stand for a long time, facing the nationalist movement, as a spectator. The same norms that you and I hate, and that everyone that aspires to a better future to our people and our nation hates.
No Egyptian novelist had captured this personal-public connection with such sensitivity: Naguib Mahfouz — although he always had a panoramic view, God looking on to his mortal subjects, and always in a style that is less personal, more transcendental or mystical — and Ihsan Abdel Qudous, in La Tutfie al-Shams (Don’t Turn off the Sun, 1960) despite his usual sensationalist eroticism, come close, but of course neither give a woman’s perspective on women’s roles in the world.
But The Open Door is not just about creating an empowered, questioning female protagonist: Zayat goes as far as re-imagining gender dynamics in modern Egyptian society and the kind of relationships men and women should have. She creates a male protagonist whose gentleness and generosity are almost impossible to replicate. Hussein is a thoughtful man who loves Laila for who she is. In a passage that has often been quoted, he writes a letter to Laila that sums up Zayat’s vision of that ideal dynamic:
Go forth my love, open the door wide and leave it open, and on the open road you will find me my love, waiting for you, because I trust you and trust your ability to soar, and because there is nothing I can do but wait … wait for you.
In 1960, Zayat’s feat was to create a literary universe where we can imagine the kind of progressive relationship a woman can have with a man that guarantees her emancipation. She did this with openness and grace, making us believe that it can be created, and that such generosity of character and emotion can exist. But Laila does not reach this stage without trials, or without two suitable future husbands for a well-bred, middle-class girl being catalogued. Laila confronts the double standards of her cousin and her college professor as both try to morally and psychologically crush her and make her doubt herself and her desires. Hussein’s confident gentleness, in contrast, allows Laila the space and emotional serenity to be who she wants.
Zayat’s style is eclectic. It reflects the 19th-century realism of the Russian masters and their almost transparent quality in conveying a story as it is imagined, but this is interrupted with stream-of-consciousness inner monologues, echoing feminist precursors from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, to show the psychological anguish women go through in a society at odds with their agency and sexuality. Although not as deliberately shocking as the slightly younger Nawal Saadawi, Zayat also throws a wrench into bourgeois respectability by exposing Egyptian middle-class hypocrisy around female sexuality, pointing out the devastating effects it has on relationships, whether through the exploitation of women of lesser socio-economic backgrounds, or denying women of higher social standing from sexual expression.
Zayat embraced the mid-century trend of incorporating vernacular Arabic (which still endures today) and makes bold use of it, a feature that has to do with democratizing culture and breaking the binary of classical vs. colloquial. Consisting of about 30 to 40 percent vernacular, the novel has a sense of immediacy and is naturally divided into scenes. This made it easy to adapt for cinema, which it duly was, in 1963, by Henry Barakat. Faten Hamama was miscast as Laila, her elegant, refined media personality and do-gooder persona could never do justice to the brash, not very pretty character, and it is not very faithful to the book — the part where Laila joins the armed resistance is cut, for example. But that cinematic quality made the transition to film nearly inevitable.
Marxist thinking and political activism are reflected throughout the novel, and it is clear that Zayat’s loyalty lies with the people, but The Open Door is a literary experiment that is not framed by the struggle of proletariats against bourgeoisie. A girl starts by wondering why her brother is celebrated for his activism when she maligned, and ends by taking up arms. Even by today’s standards, Zayat’s novel is radical, and it has an optimism that Zayat later in life acknowledged was no longer possible. The book was not a hit, but it was appreciated by certain circles and appreciation grew over time. Zayat would wait another 26 years before she wrote anything else, and in total she just wrote two novels, two short story collections, one play and one autobiography.