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.
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 (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.
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