Two New Releases of Classic Egyptian Novels about Women
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For most of the literary relationship between Arabic and English, books were translated into English several hundred years after they were written. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, an early-twelfth-century book, made waves in English in the seventeenth century. The fifteenth-century collection Thousand and One Nights didn’t arrive in English until the eighteenth century. It’s only in recent years that English readers became interested in living Arab authors.
For that reason, many great Arabic books have fallen through the cracks, either not translated or poorly circulated.
This year, two classics of the twentieth-century Egyptian canon have been re-released. The first is Muhammad Hussein Haykal’s Zainab (1914), often touted as the “first Arabic novel.” The second is Latifa al-Zayyat’s gripping feminist classic The Open Door, listed by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 105 novels of the twentieth century. Both books were made into popular films and continue to have cultural resonance and power.
In its time, al-Zayyat’s literary debut was under-celebrated. This wasn’t because other writers didn’t recognize her novel’s worth. Indeed, The Open Door was put forward for a major literary prize.
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.
Critic and author 'Abbas al-'Aqqad (1889-1964) apparently intervened, threatening to resign his government post unless the prize was rescinded. The justification? Al-Zayyat's "immoderate" use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic. She used non-literary language not just in the book’s dialogue, but also in interior monologues and indirect speech. 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.
The Open Door was belatedly given the inaugural Naguib Mahfouz Prize in 1996, just a few months after al-Zayyat died of cancer. The novel was translated into English by Booth and published by AUC Press in 2000. Now, seventeen years later, it’s been re-issued in a new paperback edition from Hoopoe Fiction.
How does The Open Door hold up?
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. By and large, parents don’t arrange the marriages of their university-age daughters without their knowledge or consent. Now, we have internet dating and mobile phones. Also, the UK is no longer a central antagonist in Egypt’s struggle for justice.
Readers, too, have changed. 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.
Yet pull back a little, and the book’s core obsessions remain as potent in 2017 as they were in 1960.
Yet pull back a little, and the book’s core obsessions remain as potent in 2017 as they were in 1960. Al-Zayyat’s questions are our questions: How do we write “ordinary” women’s lives into history? How can a young person resist the interlocking cages of parental and societal expectations? Is it possible to get out from the long shadow of relationship violence? And what about patronizing, mansplaining academics?
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? If The Open Door were a play, it could certainly be re-staged in 2017 Cairo or Chicago.
The Open Door’s initial English release didn’t reach a wide audience. 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. This has not aged well. Yet Al-Zayyat’s linguistic and stylistic innovations, her explorations of toxic masculinity and collective-resistance feminism, remain vivid and relatable.
We meet our protagonist, Layla, as a young girl experiencing her first menstrual cycle. As a young middle-schooler, Layla has a powerful, effervescent sense of self. When she falls in love for the first time, the boy becomes jealous and possessive. Layla knows exactly what she thinks about his anger: "No, Isam, that isn't love. Call it anything you want, but not love."
Yet as her relationship with Isam develops, Layla’s judgment is clouded. 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 Open Door is not an ignorance-to-knowledge coming-of-age story. Instead, Layla begins as a strong character, is ground down, and then must put herself back together again.
The novel is not only about Layla. The others of her generation are also struggling to make their way in life. Notably, her brother Mahmud wants to go fight with the resistance in Port Said. 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? Your father works to the bone and sweats and perseveres so that your Excellency can become a full human being."
Part of the reason for the novel’s “immoderate” use of colloquial language is the prominence of dialogue, as opposed to the long descriptive passages found in many other early-to-mid-twentieth-century Arabic novels, including Muhammad Hussein Haykal’s recently re-issued Zainab (1914).
Zainab: The first Arabic novel?
Zainab is a farm worker in the Egyptian countryside living in a tight-knit community. As womanhood nears, she is forced into an arranged marriage with someone she does not love. The subject of arranged marriages is oft debated today, and Haykal chose to criticize it in this first publication of his in 1914. But as scholar Elliott Colla notes in his “How Zaynab Became the First Arabic Novel,” Haykal’s book wasn’t the first to call itself an Arabic novel. Nor was it particularly original in its style, form, or content. Moreover, it’s a strange framing to celebrate a “first Arabic novel” rather than looking at how the 1,500-year Arabic literary tradition ingested European novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, adapting and folding the form into an ongoing literary conversation.
In its time, Zainab wasn’t recognized as special.
But it was adapted into a popular film in 1952, the year of Egypt’s independence from Britain. Around the time that Al-Zayyat was writing The Open Door, Haykal’s novel was being lauded as a “first.” Its placement in an Egyptian and Egyptianized canon was consolidated in the 1960s, according to Colla.
Zainab is dense with the physical descriptions that The Open Door eschews. Indeed, Zainab has many of the long-winded digressions of the sort young Layla decries, when she tells Isam that books really should get to the point.
Booth's afterword suggests The Open Door’s “intensely melodramatic quality” might temper its power in this new millennium. But it's surely Zainab that’s a bit slow for contemporary readers who could, after all, forgo a book for a Netflix binge.
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? And how, in this world of injustices, does one productively resist?