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The Open Door

The Open Door

Latifa al-Zayyat
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    The Open Door
    Book Description:

    The Open Door is a landmark of women’s writing in Arabic. Published in 1960, it was very bold for its time in exploring a middle-class Egyptian girl’s coming of sexual and political age, in the context of the Egyptian nationalist movement preceding the 1952 revolution. The novel traces the pressures on young women and young men of that time and class as they seek to free themselves of family control and social expectations. Young Layla and her brother become involved in the student activism of the 1940s and early 1950s and in the popular resistance to continued imperialist rule; the story culminates in the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal led to a British, French, and Israeli invasion. Not only daring in her themes, Latifa al-Zayyat was also bold in her use of colloquial Arabic, and the novel contains some of the liveliest dialogue in modern Arabic literature. ‘’Not only a great novel, but a literary landmark that shaped our consciousness.’’ — Abdel Moneim Tallima ‘’A great anticolonialist work in a feminist key.’’ — Ferial Ghazoul ‘’Latifa al-Zayyat greatly helped all of us Egyptian writers in our early writing careers.’’— Naguib Mahfouz

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-153-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Translator’s Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Translator’s Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    When Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal for Egypt on July 26, 1956, the Arab world heralded him as a hero, and globally he became a celebrated symbol of resistance to the European imperialist march that had for so long forcibly shaped the lives of so many. The moment marked a period of consolidation and triumph for ‘Abd al-Nasser’s regime, and it ended a decade of turbulent political activity in an Egypt that was trying to free itself of both British oversight and the political system of the past. As much as it was a decade of struggle, of...

  4. Chapter One
    (pp. 27-50)

    February 21, 1946. Seven o’clock in the evening: the tranquil sky bore a pleasant coolness, and there was a clean purity to the air as if the heavens had poured down rain and washed the earth. Yet Cairo was not its normal, brightly lit self; its main streets were not choked with the usual crowds streaming through the cinema houses, shops, and cafes, or congregating at bus and tramway stops. The cinema houses were on strike, and so were other businesses, and no buses or trams were running. Police cars and vans slunk along streets packed with rifle-bearing soldiers. The...

  5. Chapter Two
    (pp. 51-70)

    At seventeen Layla had filled out into a bronze-skinned, moderately tall young woman. Her face was pleasantly round, her features fine and regular under a wide brow. Her eyes were a rich hazel, deep and tapered with an intense sparkle, narrowing to shimmering slits when her rosy cheeks lifted in a smile. She could break into confident laughter that absorbed her entire face, transforming her lips, eyes, and even her nose. When a conversation sparked her interest she would tilt her head, immersed as the words tumbled from her ears straight into her heart; and if someone said something that...

  6. Chapter Three
    (pp. 71-86)

    The next morning Layla was late getting to school. The bell was already ringing as she arrived. Passing through the main entrance, her demeanor stiffened, as if she were in wary anticipation of some particular event. As she glanced round, though, her features relaxed and she took off at a run. The bell was still ringing, but the pupils had not yet formed themselves into the usual line. Girls were scattered in small knots across the courtyard, and she began to flit from one group to another in some confusion, without knowing why she did so. The words that flew...

  7. Chapter Four
    (pp. 87-104)

    Four days passed before Isam made an appearance. Layla waited for him from noon on the first day into the late afternoon, and on into the evening, and then into the second day, and the day following that. But still Isam did not appear.

    At first she made all sorts of excuses for him. Perhaps he was ill. Or he had had an argument with Mahmud. But she knew that he was neither sick nor at odds with her brother, and that sooner or later she would have to confront the fact she had been trying to avoid. She understood...

  8. Chapter Five
    (pp. 105-120)

    The doorbell rang. Nabawiya ran to the door. As the maid opened it, they heard footsteps in the hall and Layla’s mother raised her eyes uneasily. But her tense features loosened immediately, for Isam stood hesitantly on the threshold, an embarrassed smile on his face.

    “Come on in, Isam,” said Layla’s mother.

    “Um—Mahmud isn’t back yet?”

    “He’ll be here any time. Come in.”

    Isam sat down opposite Layla and her mother. Layla hid her face in the book and pretended to read.

    “Congratulations. May you be as lucky as Gamila,” said her mother, and went back to work. They...

  9. Chapter Six
    (pp. 121-132)

    It rushes forth, a clear, bubbling spring. The bogs, though, have done their best to block its passage. Intent on sucking that lovely running water dry, they try to absorb it into themselves, to consume it completely, to transform it with their sluggishness into a stagnant pond. The spring is still young, nevertheless, buoyant with life, excitable, and deep; and the bogs are ancient, sedimented over their many years of existence, crouching in quiet defiance across the land of Egypt. Confident that their stag nation speaks of calm strength, the dark-green surfaces glint under the sun’s reys.

    But beneath that...

  10. Chapter Seven
    (pp. 133-146)

    Layla began to keep the mailbox under tight surveillance—on her way to school, on her way home, as the usual mail delivery time approached, and also when it was not even close. Her life had come to center on that inconspicuous wooden box. For Mahmud’s letters never failed to send a tremor through her—a prolonged shiver of pride and affection.

    He wrote to her twice a week, and sometimes three times. As she read his letters she felt as if he were sitting across from her in his room, recounting everything. In her mind’s eye she could envision...

  11. Chapter Eight
    (pp. 147-164)

    For the next fifteen days Layla felt as though she was trying to live at the vortex of a whirlwind, or as if she could not emerge from an intensely disturbing dream. But everything that conspired to keep her in this state of extreme nervous tension ended. All of it—thank God.

    For the whole period leading up to Gamila’s engagement party, Isam acted like a madman, and Layla felt nothing but fear and terror toward him. On the eve of the party his insanity reached new heights; and then he stayed away from her for five entire days.


  12. Chapter Nine
    (pp. 165-182)

    He had changed enormously. His father noticed the transformation as they sat down to lunch. He gazed at his son in awed alarm for a few moments but said nothing. His mother filled his plate with helping after helping over his protests, as if he had fasted throughout his time at the Canal.

    He tried to start a conversation; he asked the usual questions, about everyone’s health, about his aunt and Isam and Gamila; about his cousin’s wedding plans. He learned that she would be married within the week. But periods of silence between one sentence and the next were...

  13. Chapter Ten
    (pp. 183-192)

    July 23, 1952. Morning. The army had shaken Egypt to the core. Awe, disbelief, a belligerent joy and pride; as news of the revolution spread, new sentiments trembled on millions of lips and shone through the tears in people’s eyes. New words sobbed from throats choked with emotion. Egyptians poured from their homes to fervently clasp the hands of the soldiers, hearts sheltered in their cupped and shaking palms.

    Muhammad Effendi Sulayman sat at home, riveted to the radio, listening again and again to the declaration of the Revolutionary Leadership. He was petrified by the conviction that something would intervene...

  14. Chapter Eleven
    (pp. 193-206)

    Husayn perched on a chair in the sitting room of Muhammad Effendi Sulayman’s home listening to Mahmud’s mother, feelings of bitterness knotting his chest. This was his first visit to Mahmud’s home since their release; he had been in the apartment for about an hour, but there had been no sign of Layla. Mahmud was putting on his outside clothes so that they could leave the house together, and there seemed no hope that he would see her today. Perhape he would never see her again.

    A shy smile played dimly on Mahmud’s face giving it even more sweetness. Husayn...

  15. Chapter Twelve
    (pp. 207-222)

    For a space of fifteen days Layla’s tearful eyes chased Husayn. Each day’s passing brought him nearer to his day of departure for Germany, now set, and intensified his feeling that he was abandoning Layla at a time when she was most in need of his aid. Her eyes summoned him, clung to him, until one day he found himself sitting in the train heading for Ras al-Barr.

    He leaned his head back against the seat, feeling deeply peaceful, as if he had just emerged from a long struggle, finally released. He had offered his love to her; when she...

  16. Chapter Thirteen
    (pp. 223-230)

    In the days that followed Husayn’s departure, Layla felt nothing. It was as if her senses had been numbed. Whenever he came to mind she shrugged him out of her thoughts unconcernedly and went about whatever she was doing in the cabin, or picked up whatever book she was reading. She went about her life for two weeks, until there came a day when she was stretched out in a recliner on the veranda, reading the morning paper. Her brother stood at the wall gazing at the sea, extending as far as one could see. He stretched and turned to...

  17. Chapter Fourteen
    (pp. 231-244)

    All three of them—Layla, Sanaa, and Adila—enrolled in the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Letters, Cairo University. From the start they comprised a little clique; hardly ever were they apart at the college. They mixed with the other students, of course, women and men, but within limits that were well understood by all, so that they remained always a clearly defined little group. If a student wanted to approach one of them, he must approach them all; if one among the three made him uncomfortable, he would have to avoid them all. If he wanted to talk to...

  18. Chapter Fifteen
    (pp. 245-252)

    A stern face confronted Layla. Her lips pressed together, Adila dragged her by the hand to an empty niche under the stairs.

    “What was the letter that came for you?”

    Layla stared at her in astonishment.

    “I could have beaten Miss Eyebrows to a pulp. I go into the room, asking if anyone has seen you, and she says—in front of twenty girls—she says, ‘Your friend got a letter in a blue envelope, and ran out in a complete tizzy.’”

    Layla swung her face away with a little gasp, as if she had just been slapped in the...

  19. Chapter Sixteen
    (pp. 253-266)

    Dr. Ramzi’s campaign to distress Layla continued in class and outside the lecture hall as well. He pressed so hard that, alone with her friends, she would cry out in desperation, “What does that man want from me? That’s all I want to know—what does he want from me?”

    As each term ended she hoped from her heart that she would not be re-assigned to his classes, but her hope was continually dashed. He taught her regularly through her years at the university. If it was not one subject, it was another. She felt as if he were drinking...

  20. Chapter Seventeen
    (pp. 267-276)

    From that day, Layla’s association with Dr. Ramzi acquired a newly personal tone. Meeting her by chance in the corridor, he would give her a special smile, one that he reserved for her, a smile that singled her out and made her feel superior to her classmates. At the end of the school year he loaned her some books from his personal library to read during the summer vacation. As she embarked on her third year at the university he began asking regularly to see her papers, initiating private discussions on their weaknesses and strengths. As firm as he was...

  21. Chapter Eighteen
    (pp. 277-286)

    The battle between Dr. Ramzi and Layla’s mother began early, even if it wasn’t a conflict in the usual sense of the word. Layla’s mother did not dare even to speak in front of her daughter’s betrothed.

    When the subject of the engagement party came up for discussion, Dr. Ramzi gave his opinion simply, swiftly, and concisely. He thought it should be “on a small scale”; moreover, the ceremony of the contract signing and the actual wedding should be collapsed into one, scheduled for the summer vacation following Layla’s graduation. Her father concurred. Her mother opened her mouth to say...

  22. Chapter Nineteen
    (pp. 287-304)

    Layla sat in the car between her father and her fiancé, on the way to Gamila’s home. Her father sat stiffly upright. Ramzi had shrunk into himself as if afraid that his body might touch hers. Layla felt a cold shiver brush her despite the July evening. She tried to think of something to say, to dispel the embarrassment that seemed to dominate all three of them. She turned toward Ramzi.

    “Is the dress nice?”

    Her father looked at her disapprovingly. Ramzi suppressed a smile, and spoke as if humoring a little girl. “It’s just fine.”

    Neither the smile nor...

  23. Chapter Twenty
    (pp. 305-316)

    Mahmud was appointed as a staff physician to the government hospital in Port Said. A few weeks after he had taken up his position he visited Cairo. Sitting at the Friday afternoon meal with his family, he raised his head from the plate.

    “By the way, I’m getting married.”

    Layla’s heart beat fast as she observed one reaction follow another rapidly across her father’s face. Stiff and still at first, as if he had not understood Mahmud’s words, that face seemed to collapse. Both corners of his mouth hung down and a deep sadness came over his eyes, then his...

  24. Chapter Twenty-One
    (pp. 317-322)

    That night, lying in bed, Layla wished she could die. She longed to close her eyes and sleep; morning would arrive and she would not open them. She would go away, leave, escape whole and in peace—no problems, no roughness, no quarrels. But that is not how people die. They do not simply close their eyes and die. There has to be a cause of death. Illness? How about typhoid, for instance? Yes, typhoid was an easy sickness to have, a pleasant, lovely illness that anesthetized you. She could go to sleep, lose consciousness gradually, day after day, slipping...

  25. Chapter Twenty-Two
    (pp. 323-332)

    Time passed. And time blunts the sharp edges of our experiences, and attenuates the threads that bind us to them, day by day, so that the most wounding of events becomes ordinary, indistinguishable almost, part of what defines daily life, to be embraced rather than pushed away.

    Layla did not do as she wanted; she did not kill herself. Nor did she flee as she had been so determined to do, nor did she blow up in Ramzi’s face as she had feared she might. She no longer even cried in bed every night. She did not run through mental...

  26. Chapter Twenty-Three
    (pp. 333-338)

    Sanaa had settled in Cairo so that she could take her final exams. After each one she and Layla headed for their old corner behind the library. On the grass, in the shade of the big tree, they sat. Suddenly, everything was as it had been so long ago: everything was good. Layla was the fun-loving girl, laughing from deep in her heart, until tears would spring from her eyes.

    Abruptly Sanaa would ask, “And how’s Ramzi?”

    Still laughing, Layla would say, “He’s crushed half the world and has the other half still ahead of him.”

    Sanaa gazed into the...

  27. Chapter Twenty-Four
    (pp. 339-348)

    At her desk, Layla rested her head in her palms. Her eyes were bright, gazing into the distance; her ribs could barely contain that astonishing fire that, so long absent, she had thought would never return. She had been pacing the room, pacing, pacing, yet the flames still burned, the embers glowed, still called her to cry, laugh, scream, jump; to kiss someone, anyone, to talk with someone, with anyone and everyone she could find.

    She heard a murmur that grew until it was like the crashing of waves at the shore. She ran to the window and flung it...

  28. Chapter Twenty-Five
    (pp. 349-354)

    It gushes forth, a storming cataract. The bogs, though, have done their best to block its course. Intent on sucking its waters dry, they try to consume it within themselves, to transform it with their sluggishness into a stagnant pond. But the cataract’s depths are recalcitrant, colossal, raging, and deep. And the bogs are ancient, sedimented over their many years of existence, crouching in quiet defiance over the land of Egypt. Confident that their stagnation speaks rather of calm strength, the dark-green surfaces glint under the sun’s rays.

    And beneath the glittering surface lies the swirled mud.

    The cataract sweeps...

  29. Chapter Twenty-Six
    (pp. 355-366)

    Eleven a.m. on November 5, 1956. Heavy clouds clung to the air, thick and dusty. The sun penetrated from behind the clouds, cleaving blue gaps laced with white. The clouds wrapped an ash-gray, dusty sash around Manzala Lake, and on the lake’s surface black shadows trembled: boats, little and big, boats fuller than they should be and others not yet filled; and people, crossing the dock toward the boats, burdened with their belongings. Other shadows threw themselves down on shore and buried their faces in the water, quenching a thirst that could not be satisfied; and there were the unmoving...

  30. Chapter Twenty-Seven
    (pp. 367-372)

    From behind the tombs heads rose, and hands settled in wary readiness onto rifles and machine guns. But the signal had not yet come. The airplanes released more parachutists behind the wall of the airport, and the parachutes ballooned, one after another, white, like abscesses full of pus.

    In their defense positions at al-Gabbana the forces fidgeted, hands shaking with impatient rage on the guns. But still the signal did not come. Hundreds of anxious eyes moved between the commander and the opening parachutes spread across the air. The commander sensed the heavy anxiety around him; he could almost hear...

  31. Chapter Twenty-Eight
    (pp. 373-376)

    Layla’s wound was not serious. It was just a surface wound, and as soon as the shards that had gone into her right shoulder were removed she began to get better. At first the pain seemed to submerge all of her senses. It was a pain that had no harshness, no violence in it, but it was constant and hard, imposing itself so that she felt nothing else and thought about nothing else. The physician at the hospital tried to inject a painkiller but she refused, as if she had to get through this stage of pain on her own....

  32. Chapter Twenty-Nine
    (pp. 377-382)

    With the English and French occupation of Port Said the resistance had become very active. Every day it broadened, as more and more women and men joined. Under organized leadership the units scattered, concealing themselves in homes and clinics, in shops, in every corner of Port Said. In an old house in Abbadi Street, inside the apartment of an Egyptian resident, stood five youths studying enemy concentrations and the roads leading to their deployments on an immense map of Port Said. They belonged to the engineers’ unit of the Fourth Squadron, the ground troops that had protected the withdrawal of...

  33. Chapter Thirty
    (pp. 383-387)

    The streets of Port Said were packed with people, colliding waves, as if all its homes had emptied themselves, tossing the inhabitants into the street, wave after wave, to blend into a turbulent human sea. People laughed, or wept without knowing what sort of tears these were. Were they tears of joy at their rescue? Or tears of the painful memories that suddenly came to the surface on evacuation day? Or tears that gazed into a better future?

    People carried victory banners, some were calling out, others danced alone. People clapped, hearts full of the exhilaration of victory, eyes full...

  34. Back Matter
    (pp. 388-389)