The Symbolism of Political Action in the Writings of Latifa al-Zayyat

By 
Scott C. Lesko
Latifa al-Zayyat by Zareh.


In Latifa al-Zayyat’s “The Search: Personal Papers,” the author guides the reader on an internal psychological journey of mythological proportions. This self-exploration on the part of al-Zayyat is a personal quest for authenticity and enlightenment.

The narrative structure of al-Zayyat’s text is more than the historical sum of her life as a feminist, political activist, and prominent author. It is an attempt to reflect on the past events of her life in order to render them into a coherent unified whole.

The text begins in March 1973, with al-Zayyat confronting the imminent death of her brother, Abdel Fattah, due to cancer. She begins to reflect on her childhood growing up in Dumyat, Egypt, describing memories of her family and the old house, which was significant on several levels, most importantly as a symbolic link to traditional Egyptian society.  It was a place where al-Zayyat felt secure against the chaos of the world. “The image of our old house,” she says, “is still etched on my memory and the smell of its decadence fills my being,” noting that the patriarchal society of the monarchy is in sharp decline.

Al-Zayyat recounts her grandmother’s stories about the house and her father: “It is hard for me to reconcile the life my grandmother paints of the old house with the life I know, and it is impossible for me to reconcile my father, whose utter silence dictates silence to all who are in the house, with the handsome devil in love with life who looks out at me from my grandmother’s stories, eager for fortune and filled with a yearning desire which he races against time.”

Within the stories, there is a direct correlation to Egyptian society. The house itself is symbolic of the Egyptian society of her youth. Economically, al-Zayyat’s family represented upper-middle class society at large. Her grandfather mocked her grandmother’s family because they owned the local textile mill, dismissing it as a mere novelty. This inability to visualize the economic future would not only lead to the downfall of her family, but of the country as well.

There are other metaphors. The garden and the barren guava tree represent her struggles throughout life. “Every year my father would dig the garden over with manure and wait,” she writes, “and every year the tree would blossom but not bear fruit.” The concept of gardening is a metaphor for political activism. Sometimes all the planning and hard work do not result in the intended outcome: guavas/political change. “Perhaps after I grew up, I discovered that it was not a garden at all but a pasture of weeds for little garden snakes, and perhaps, the decline in material circumstance had reached a point where it became impossible to sustain the attempt to keep things, even superficially, the way they were in the old house,” she continues. The garden/Egyptian society is filled with little garden snakes/corrupt Egyptian officials or the British, and this is seen as the cause for the widespread economic hardships of the people.

Yet another dimension of the metaphor of the snake is as a phallic symbol. Sexuality is something that al-Zayyat will continually deny up to the time of her second marriage. This is perhaps a direct result of living in a society where female sexuality is frowned upon. It is not a subject that is easily discussed in Egyptian society or in Islamic societies as a whole. Al-Zayyat remembers the fear she experienced every day she had to pass through the El-Khan area on her way to school. This was a place where sailors and prostitutes frequented. In describing their suffering from syphilis and elephantiasis, it is revealed that exploring one’s sexuality is a dangerous undertaking. Al-Zayyat’s own fear led her to run past this neighborhood, fleeing the misery and suffering. This denial of her own feminine desire and sexuality would be a direct cause of her marriage to her second husband, the first intimate relationship in which she could embrace her own sexuality in a safe environment.

When al-Zayyat was seven years old, she had a mystical experience that would be important to the formation of her character. Next to her home lived a well-known poet named al-Hamshari, and she would sit spellbound, watching the handsome young poet writing in his notebook. In this action, there is a mystical quality that transcends the mundane world. “A moment of contemplation,” she writes, “which sometimes used to end in a unique experience that took me beyond the confines of my body, of time and space, and severed my connection to everything relative, so that I no longer knew who I was or where I came from, or to whom I belonged, or where I was going.” At this moment, al-Zayyat becomes one with what the poet represents – absolute beauty and perfection. It is her first embrace with the divine universal will, beyond the prison of the intellect.

As a child, her mother told the story of Rayya and Sakina, two of the most bloodthirsty killers in Egypt. Although they were eventually caught by the authorities, the story instilled in al-Zayyat a sense of fear that could only be vanquished by her mother’s loving arms. By her 11th birthday, however, al-Zayyat would confront a similar type of fear face-to-face:

“I find no refuge from the sense of powerlessness, of distress, of oppression that shakes me as the police shoot down 24 demonstrators that day, as I scream at my inability to do anything, to go down into the street and stop the bullets flying from black guns. I abandon the child in me and the girl comes of age before her time, weighed down with the knowledge wider than the limits of the house, a knowledge that includes the entire nation. My future course in life was then determined. I was destined to enter the door of commitment to the nation by the harshest and most violent door.”

In 1950 al-Zayyat was incarcerated in the city prison in Alexandria because of her political affiliation with the Communists. Her stay in solitary confinement led her to write a book about the experience called “In the Women’s Prison.” In the final chapter, entitled “My Friends,” she writes that her fellow inmates made a horrible situation bearable. “In prison, we became an indivisible unit shaped by thought, opinion, and sentiment,” she writes.

Al-Zayyat’s second marriage constituted a critical phase of her life because it represented a break, momentarily, from her true self. The marriage could be described as extremely courteous and civilized in all circumstances, even when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Her inability to express jealousy, anger, and hatred was detrimental to her core being. “For years I was paralyzed by the terrible chasm between what I believed and what I was living, between the vision and the reality, between the dream and the truth. Now that I have almost recovered, fearing that my newborn entity would go back to the womb and that he would turn around and say: But I made you.” In marrying her second husband, al-Zayyat had returned to the old house. Only her brother Abdel Fattah was able to support her and ease her pain.

Al-Zayyat’s memoirs now begin to focus on her 1963 book entitled “The Open Door.” According to al-Zayyat, “The story is that of an individual in decline, who flourishes in the beginning and who is imprisoned in a cage at the end.” This book is autobiographical in nature, focusing on her life during the second marriage, which she sees as both a metaphorical and actual imprisonment. By denying her true self, al-Zayyat becomes complacent with the expectations of Egyptian society. She notes: “By writing ‘The Open Door’ she was breathing life into the girl so deeply involved in student political activities against the British, breathing life into the woman so deeply involved in the clandestine activities, after she graduated in 1946.”

Dealing with the illness of her brother, al-Zayyat is suffering from clinical depression. Only the war of October 1973 awakens the sleeping activist. It was a period engulfed by death both personally and throughout society. The text examines the death of one of al-Zayyat’s colleagues, Taha Hussein, an activist back in the 1940s and 50s. Hussein’s death is considered an end of an era, bringing to a close a time when secularists questioned all aspects of society, and when intellectuals actively sought the liberation of politics and the ending of violence and oppression.

It is September 1981; al-Zayyat has just been arrested along with 1,500 other dissidents who had opposed Egypt’s peace overtures toward Israel. Sitting in a military truck, al-Zayyat begins to describe the soldiers around her. In her eyes they are transformed metaphorically: “The soldiers’ faces with their tin helmets, for they seemed to be turned from some half-world, between the world of the living and the world of the dead.” In her conversation with one of the soldiers, there is a sense of isolation which seeps into her conscious mind. On this physical and psychological journey to al-Qanater prison, Al-Zayyat has an epiphany: “I am complete, in harmony with the whole. Is it back in my seat, filled with exultation as I realized that I behold my freedom, entire and undiminished at the end of the road.”

While in al-Qanater, al-Zayyat begins to contemplate the apricot tree in the courtyard. At last, al-Zayyat sees the tree not only as an extension of herself but of political activism. The clarity of the moment is captured. “I know now that one has to water the tree to make it turn green, without waiting for it to turn green,” she writes. Finally she accepts the consequences of her actions without expectation of the results.

Another realization occurs to al-Zayyat in al-Qanater. When she was 26 and about to be sent into the city prison at Alexandria, al-Zayyat believed that she was prepared for what lay ahead. In retrospect, she finally understands that no one can be truly prepared for such an experience. “I know people’s ability to think was always the target and that imprisonment, exile, threats, pursuit and torture are only ways of robbing people of their ability to think and criticize.” Al-Zayyat’s suffering throughout life is not seen as defeat, because she emerges triumphant in preserving her dignity and humanity.

In examining her life, from childhood to university, marriage to imprisonment, al-Zayyat attempts to find the unifying line between all the different women she has been in order to create a composite whole.

The text concludes with the story of a search in al-Qanater Prison on November 13, 1981, that was transformed by al-Zayyat and her fellow inmates into a platform for protest against the dehumanizing act. The search included a complete body examination of the naked women in front of the warden and other male guards. As a symbol of protest, five Muslim girls refused to remove their veils during the procedure. Throughout the humiliating process, al-Zayyat came to a stark realization: “Yesterday, the dividing line in my mind between oppression inflicted by those in authority and oppression inflicted by a gang of killers and thieves disappeared.”

During the search through the prisoners’ personal belongings, the five young girls ran into the lavatory and hid from the guards. Al-Zayyat tried to bring the girls their clothing, even though she herself was completely naked. In this active resistance, she came to understand something: “I know now that yesterday I was the young woman settling an old account with the killers and the thieves, an account she did not settle herself the day the police bullets felled fourteen people dead, right in front of her eyes, and she did nothing, was not able to do anything.” In her own mind, she had come full circle, completing a personal mythological journey towards enlightenment.

This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998.

© Copyright 1998, 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE