Book Review - Love and Silence: An incomplete novel

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Sunday 6 Oct 2019

Enayat El-Zayat’s first and only novel, recently republished, was set in 1950, preserving a snapshot of the early development of feminist thought in the Arab world

Love and Silence
Love and Silence by: Enayat El-Zayat

Al-Hop wal Samt (Love and Silence), by Enayat El-Zayat, (Dar El Mahrousa), 2019.

In her only novel, Enayat El-Zayat, a young writer who committed suicide in 1963 in her thirties (date of birth unknown), explored high society before the 1952 revolution. The tragic end of the writer’s life gave the novel a mystical taste when reading it.

The reason for her death was not finding a publisher for her novel. In 1967, a limited edition was published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation and went unnoticed. Recently the novel was republished by Dar El-Mahrousa. The writer’s life and tragic death shed light on the difficulty of being a woman in the culture world then, and probably now as well.

The novel was set in 1950 and ended in 1952 with the revolution of 23 July.

The main plot is a love story between a girl, Nadia, coming from an aristocratic family that is apparently close to the circles of power, and a young writer coming from a humble background. Around that love story we see the gender discrimination in upper class society between the young lady and her brother; we see how the ruling class looks at the rest of the population and eventually the revolutionary ideas of feminism that were modern for that time. The brother passes away early in the novel, in a sports accident while practicing gymnastics in a country club, falling from the parallel bars and breaking his neck.

Choosing gymnastics to be the sport of choice of Hisham (the brother) was symbolic, selected intelligently by the writer to neutralise the reader towards the character's tragic death and evaluate his life objectively. He was loved by the whole family; his early death somehow halted all happiness in the house and took away the family's future. Gymnastics is an individual sport, does not involve any teamwork or caring for team mates, or anyone else for that matter. You only have to concentrate on yourself if you want to get ahead.

In brief, we eventually realise that the brother was a selfish, shallow individual who happened to be funny and kind to his sister. On the other hand, while not appreciated, or having her efforts recognised by a strict father (he never hugged his daughter until she was 19 years old), and a mother with a pale personality who has no involvement in her daughter’s life, she was hard working in her studies and became her own person after her brother’s death, to the point of asking to get a job in a publishing house — a revolutionary step. Working girls in the 1950s belonged to the lower classes not hers; yet after very polite conversation with her unemotional father, her request was accepted.

Nadia’s story really begins in interacting with the real world. In spite of going to work with her personal chauffeur (ladies from her class should not be driving themselves or taking public transportation), she was able to observe how other people live. Reading and meeting the writer Ahmed helped Nadia’s character to develop into a person who cares about others.

She saw the lives of the poor peasants who work in her family farm with different eyes. The happiness that showed on their faces when she visited, even if real, did not reflect the life of poverty and lack of basics of a decent life, such as electricity and running water, or education, they led. Ahmed's ideas about the injustices of society and the ruling class and how they are oppressing the majority while cooperating with British occupation forces led her to rebel internally against her class, manifested in her refusing to get married to a friend of her deceased brother who had started a job in the diplomatic corps and wanted a trophy wife.

While she fit the required standards, whether on family background or femininity that was described in various places in the novel as attractive and alluring, she simply was not that girl anymore. She couldn’t be a trophy wife, like her mother was.

The love story with the struggling, semi-rebellious writer can be categorised in the platonic section. There was no specific stress on physical attraction that certainly should have existed between the two. It was the holding hand type of love, looking in the eyes and understanding feelings; admiration for his ideas by Nadia’s innocent heart and virgin mind.

The writer was light years ahead when she introduced feminist ideas in her character’s words. Attacking the concept of equality between men and women as long as the women are looked at as an object of pleasure for men, hiding her name in our daily life and referring to her in general as the mother of the first born, and pointing out that every man’s dream is to live in the “One thousand nights” era where he is surrounded by slave women, and actually working to reach that goal through laws and maintaining old traditions when it suits male society. These were some of the ideas that were presented by the heroine. Maybe the feminist leanings was the reason of not finding a publisher in the 1960s.

The writer used clean, simple, non-portentous language in describing love emotions, the ideas she believed in, regarding the society of the half percent of the ruling class, as it was described then, and was able to keep the reader interested until the end, even if the conclusion is abrupt. It would have been interesting to see how this aristocratic lady would cope with the political and societal changes that occurred after the 1952 revolution.

The other matter that can be noticed in the novel and its writing style is the youth of the writer. It becomes obvious after a few pages that we are reading an inexperienced writer that is still is looking for depth in describing her characters, involving them more in the novel’s events, and giving them a life of their own to add value to the story. Unfortunately, this writer left nothing to tell us about the development of Nadia’s character. But certainly this novel deserves a shining place in Egyptian women’s literature. 

Short link: