Opening doors

Heba Sharobeem , Tuesday 25 Jul 2023

On the centenary of Latifa Al-Zayyat, Heba Sharobeem, a student and friend, remembers a figure who paved the way to generations of Arab women



On 8 August 2023 we celebrate the centenary of Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996), the Egyptian writer, critic, university professor and activist, all at the same time and with the same enduring excellence. The year she was born, 1923, was a very special year in the history of modern Egypt and the feminist movement; it saw the issuing of the renowned 1923 constitution and the birth of the Egyptian Feminist Union at the hands of Hoda Shaarawi.  Zayyat’s birth took place four years after the outbreak of the great 1919 Revolution; in a testimony about herself she wrote: “When I go back to my formative years, I could visualise the atmosphere of the 1919 Revolution… for I was born four years after it, the year in which the constitution was issued. The songs that we used to sing were revolutionary ones, and the celebrations held yearly for the memorial of Saad [Zaghloul] used to take place next to our house in Damietta.”

As a writer, Zayyat made an indelible mark on the history of modern Egyptian novel, especially as written by women. This is due to her excellent debut novel, The Open Door, which came out in 1960 and was made into a film starring by the renowned actress Faten Hamama, together with Saleh Selim and the great actor Mahmoud Morsi. The novel brings into focus the story of a woman and links her life with Egypt’s national struggle for freedom and independence. Not only was Zayyat daring in her themes, she was also bold in her use of colloquial Arabic for dialogue, something Abbas Al-Akkad, who insisted on using classical Arabic in literary composition, took issue with.   

The novel is autobiographical though Zayyat denied this for years. She also denied being a feminist. Yet, I always saw her in Laila, the heroine of the novel. In his paper “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” published in 1907, Freud dealt with artistic creations in much the same way as dreams; he regarded literary work as a form of wish fulfilment. While writing the novel, Zayyat was trapped in a marriage that stood at the opposite end of her ideological beliefs and political stands. It is no coincidence that Laila should break off her engagement to Ramzi, the hypocritical male chauvinist university professor. Zayyat was married to someone just like him. The heroine of The Open Door would go to Port Said to join the fight against the British occupation, reflecting the fighting spirit of her creator, who prior to her second marriage had a long history of political activism. It was no surprise that a few years after the publication of the novel, she managed, like Laila, to regain her freedom through divorce.

In almost all of her literary works, there are traces of her life, which became evident when she finally spoke openly about it in her untraditional autobiography, The Search: Personal Papers (published in Arabic in 1992, and in English in 1996). I had the honour to be the first scholar to write a PhD thesis on Zayyat and her autobiography in 1999. Although it is supposed to be a work documenting her personal life, she interweaves it with the history of Egypt. The text strongly reflects her collective identity: “paradoxically, one can only find one’s self by initially losing it to a much wider issue than one’s own subjectivity, into a reality bigger than one’s own.” The title is inspired by the search campaign of her cell while she was held at Al-Qanater prison in 1981. The ward search, conducted against her will, inspires a much deeper self-search, encouraging her to extract her personal papers from their secret hiding place and put them in order. This inward search leads to self-reconciliation and self-liberation, making her imprisonment a moment of triumph. She remarks, “the political activity which had led me to prison was the real and healthy sum of my life in the face of an oppressive, hostile reality, which one must strive to change.”

Zayyat recalls her childhood, adulthood and university years in the English department of Cairo University from 1942 until 1946; two important years in modern Egypt. The first coincided with the famous February incident when British tanks surrounded the Royal Palace in Cairo, increasing public hostility towards the occupation. In 1946 Zayyat was elected general secretary of the National Committee of Students and Workers, and as such became part of the famous Abbas Bridge demonstration taking place in the same year. Her political activism led to her transformation. She notes: “It was during those years that the timid girl, who had carried her plump body as if it were a sin, developed into a group leader: daring, confronting, arguing, making rapid decisions, and thriving with pride in her abilities.”

The Search abounds in other important dates and major national events such as 1952 (the famous Cairo fire and the Free Officers’ Movement), the 1967 Naksa, the 1973 October War and 1981, the year that saw the notorious September arrests campaign (taking Zayyat to prison together with 1500 Egyptian figures of various political and religious affiliations) as well as Sadat’s assassination. Reading her testimony about all these events shows just how interrelated her life story is with her country’s history, which makes her narration of self a narration of nation and vice versa.  Besides, documenting these times in Egyptian history as well as her incarceration makes this work fit in the genre of prison literature and resistance literature, a term created by the renowned critic Barbara Harlow.

In The Search and in many of her works, the house plays an important role. Zayyat lived in many houses during her lifetime. A major one is the family house, or what she calls “the old house” in Damietta where she was born, lived for a few years, formed her early patriotic feelings for her country and kept going back after each major crisis in her life. This is what she says through her unnamed heroine who decides to leave her husband at the end of “Candlelight,” one of the short stories in her collection Old Age: “... the game is over, the woman has to stand up on her feet and to return to her people, herself, her own and her home after an absence of ten years.” With her first husband, they moved from one house to the other running away from the political police, yet an unforgettable one is the Sidi Bishr house where they were both arrested, and she was later sent to Al-Hadra Prison in Alexandria in 1949. The whole story of her escape and arrest is documented in her 1994 novel The Landlord.

Latifa Al-Zayyat will also be remembered as a remarkable critic and one of the early feminist writers though she refused to be labelled as such for the longest time. As a Marxist, she believed that siding with the cause of women was not compatible with seeking social justice for all classes. She remarked in her testimony of her life and work: “Louis Awad hosted me once on a television programme and asked me why I did not lead a women’s movement; he thought I was qualified for such  leadership. At that time, Egypt was fighting Israel which was occupying Sinai. I answered that there were always priorities, and the liberation of the country would come before that of the woman. In my opinion, the women’s cause is part of the whole.”

Similarly, she denied the gender dimension in her creative works and the issue of female emancipation, always referring to herself as a human being with no obvious gender identity. However, in 1990 in a “Testimony of a Creative Writer” delivered at the Fez conference in Morocco, she made it clear that she was afraid to be labelled “a feminist writer” and declared courageously: “I am a woman, and in my opinion this is an important element in my self-definition. Being a woman makes me perceive the limited space and the amount of physical and moral subjugation any woman is subject to… In my creative writings I am fully immersed with all my mental, sensual and emotional faculties. I could take off my name from a critical, cultural or political article and the reader would not be able to identify the writer as a man or a woman. But my creative writings carry my fingerprints as a woman…. In my creative writings, I discover and develop my own vision of life and take off my masks until I have nothing left but the bare face of reality… My creative writings know me and define me and the same applies to every creative Arab woman writer.”

Finally, as a university professor, Zayyat had a deep effect on her students; I was lucky and honoured to be one of them. I remember each and every one of her modern criticism classes: the rich discussions, her fascinating and comprehensive knowledge, her wit and her special laugh. I was often mesmerised; and despite our ideological differences, I admit that to this day I remain profoundly influenced by this fascinating woman and all that she represents. I was also lucky enough to be in her company on different occasions outside the lecture hall. I remember very well attending the opening of an event celebrating Arab women writers in Cairo in the early 1990s, and I saw all the renowned Arab women writers surrounding her, showering her with the love and respect she deserved. She was their true godmother, the one who opened the door to freedom and creativity to many of them.

No amount of writing can do justice to the achievements of the writer, critic, teacher and activist Zayyat was, but her resilient spirit will always endure: “And I lose my freedom every time I tell myself: ‘It has been a long journey and it is time to lie down,’” she wrote.

Truly, to quote the great Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher, “freedom and resistance” would always remain “the two wings of her heritage,” a legacy that will defy time and remain a source of inspiration for countless generations to come.


The writer is a senator and university professor.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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