Must-read Classics by Women: Latifa al-Zayyat’s ‘The Open Door’

An excerpt
Hoopoe Fiction has an excerpt from the novel on their website. Instead, Layla begins as a strong character, is ground down, and then must put herself back together again. When I get bigger I’ll show those Englishmen! She used non-literary language not just in the book’s dialogue, but also in interior monologues and indirect speech. Notably, her brother Mahmud wants to go fight with the resistance in Port Said. “Me, too! The novel was translated into English by Booth and published by AUC Press in 2000. This year, Hoopoe Fiction re-released Latifa al-Zayyat’s classic feminist novel   The Open Door,   in Marilyn Booth’s compelling translation. Also from the Bookwitty review:
If a reader puts their nose right up against the glass, peering in at the lives of Cairo’s European-aspiring bourgeoisie of the 1940s and 1950s, then things have indeed changed. How can a young person resist the interlocking cages of parental and societal expectations? The Open Door was belatedly given the inaugural Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 1996, just a few months after al-Zayyat died of cancer. And what about patronizing, mansplaining academics? We meet our protagonist, Layla, as a young girl experiencing her first menstrual cycle. If The Open Door were a play, it could certainly be re-staged in 2017 Cairo or Chicago. Is it possible to get out from the long shadow of relationship violence? You can also watch the classic film version online — and show it to students:


Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Badriyah Albeshr’s ‘Thursday’s Visitors’: A New Translation by Sawad HussainCategories: #WITMonth, Egypt Layla knows exactly what she thinks about his anger: “No, Isam, that isn’t love. His sister knelt hastily to retrieve it; as her head bobbed up, level with Mahmud’s, she paused in mid-movement, her eyes flashing as if an extraordinary thought had just popped into her head. Instead, the Arabic book most commonly associated with Egyptian feminism is Nawal El Saadawi’s Hidden Face of Eve, a book that was, significantly, re-written for its English translation to contain less anti-imperialism and more anti-FGM. Now, seventeen years later, it’s been re-issued in a new paperback edition from Hoopoe Fiction. The Open Door is not an ignorance-to-knowledge coming-of-age story. As a young middle-schooler, Layla has a powerful, effervescent sense of self. The justification? This wasn’t because other writers didn’t recognize her novel’s worth. Yet Al-Zayyat’s linguistic and stylistic innovations, her explorations of toxic masculinity and collective-resistance feminism, remain vivid and relatable. In an afterword to The Open Door’s new 2017 edition, translator Marilyn Booth describes how the award nomination was “upheld by a unanimous vote of the state-appointed committee, according to al-Zayyat.” Yet The Open Door, which is set during Egypt’s anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s and 1950s, didn’t receive the award. This has not aged well. And how, in this world of injustices, does one productively resist? Call it anything you want, but not love.”
Yet as her relationship with Isam develops, Layla’s judgment is clouded. Her father was entering the room. As Ismail Fayed wrote over at   Mada Masr   earlier this year, “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.”
Fayed continues: “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.”
A   review by ArabLit’s MLQ that ran on Bookwitty earlier this year   looks at   The Open Door’s   reception in Egypt. Yet pull back a little, and the book’s core obsessions remain as potent in 2017 as they were in 1960. Al-Zayyat’s “immoderate” use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic. Your father works to the bone and sweats and perseveres so that your Excellency can become a full human being.”
The review ends with a pitch for reading   The Open Door   in 2017:
In 2017, The Open Door still makes a thrilling romantic read about finding a feminist lover in an anti-feminist world, while also asking: How does one find the rediscover one’s authentic childhood self as an adult? The novel is not only about Layla. For Women in Translation Month, ArabLit revisits the 1960 novel:
The feminist novel remains not just relevant but prescient, giving us a glimpse of a possible shared feminist future. In its time, al-Zayyat’s literary debut was under-celebrated. Now, we have internet dating and mobile phones. When I grow up.”
“Could there be any doubt?” laughed Isam, as Layla rose to her full height quickly and wheeled around to go out, with the measured bounce of the demonstrators, waving her right hand up and down, intoning, “Weapons, weapons, we want weapons. Weapons, wea–” She stopped dead, her arm dropped to her side and the words stalled on her lips. From the opening of the book, where Layla is going to show them all:

“So what do you have to say now about that beating you got?” Mahmud kicked Isam and let the necklace drop to the floor. How does The Open Door hold up? This spoken language, still considered “vulgar” by a number of critics, was particularly well-suited to al-Zayyat’s project: exploring a middle-class woman’s coming-of-age, her relationships, and the possibilities of her activism. Critic and author ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad (1889-1964) apparently intervened, threatening to resign his government post unless the prize was rescinded. The others of her generation are also struggling to make their way in life. In essence, the book asks: Is it possible to do the right thing by oneself, and one’s community, when it’s so easy to please others? I’ll carry a gun, I really will, and I’ll shoot them all. Al-Zayyat’s questions are our questions: How do we write “ordinary” women’s lives into history? She loses sight of herself and is oriented instead to the values of her parents, her boyfriend Isam, Professor Ramzi, and her friend Adila. The trope of a young woman getting bored in a cold relationship, and thus seeking sex elsewhere, is not as surprising for us as it was for readers in 1960. Also, the UK is no longer a central antagonist in Egypt’s struggle for justice. A classic film

The novel was   adapted into a popular 1964 film by Henry Barakat starring megastar Faten Hamama,   as well as to theatre, including a 2012 staging at Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina. By and large, parents don’t arrange the marriages of their university-age daughters without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, The Open Door was put forward for a major literary prize. Readers, too, have changed. The Open Door’s initial English release didn’t reach a wide audience. When she falls in love for the first time, the boy becomes jealous and possessive. His father could be a father of any era:
“Why my son? Why precisely mine, not the children of other people?”
“What if everyone forbade his children to go and so no one went at all?”
“And your studies?”
“They can wait.”
“Of course—what do you care?