Remembering Latifa al-Zayyat

Amal Amireh

Arab cultural circles have recently mourned the loss of the prominent Egyptian intellectual Latifa al-Zayyat, who died of cancer in Cairo on September 10, 1996. She was 73 years old. Her death came soon after she had received Egypt ’s highest State Prize for literature. While the state’s acknowledgment of her achievements was long overdue, al-Zayyat had much popular and collegial support throughout her often difficult life-journey.

This journey began on August 8, 1923. Born in Dumyat, Egypt to an established middle-class family, al-Zayyat benefited from her class’ interest in educating women. Between 1942 and 1946 she attended Cairo University , where she also received a Ph.D. in English literature in 1957. She then became a professor of English in the women’s college there and was the head of the English department between 1976-1983.

Al-Zayyat came of age as a woman, artist, and intellectual through living some of the most defining moments in her country’s modern history. She was shaped by events and she helped shape events, emerging in the process as a new model for Arab womanhood.

A Moment of Transformation

In 1934, an 11-year old girl stood on the balcony of her Al-Mansoura house looking at the street below. A battle was raging: on one side were fellow Egyptians protesting the British presence in their country and a corrupt palace complicit with imperial powers, on the other was the armed police. Open-eyed, the girl watched, and 60 years later, al-Zayyat described how she felt on that blood-stained day: “I trembled with feelings of powerlessness, of misery, of oppression, as the bullets of the police killed fourteen demonstrators that day. I screamed for my inability to act, I screamed for my inability to go down to the street to stop the bullets from coming out of the black guns. I shed the child in me and the young woman came of age — prematurely — for I encountered knowledge that went beyond the home to include all of the homeland. My future fate was decided at that moment...”

Not long after, as a secondary school-student, al-Zayyat took to the streets herself, joining in the anti-British demonstrations. Her political activities would only intensify with time. As an undergraduate at Cairo University, she became involved with leftist groups on campus and in 1946 was elected secretary of The Students’ and Workers’ National Committee, which led Egypt ’s independence struggle during that period. The fact that the students and workers should choose a young woman to lead them attests both to the progressive nature of the national movement at the time and to the remarkable abilities of al-Zayyat herself.

This early involvement in the national struggle affected al-Zayyat deeply and transformed the polite middle-class woman into a fighter. In al-Zayyat’s words, “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.”

And for preferring the fiery speeches of the barricade to the polite conversations of the living room, al-Zayyat paid a price. She was imprisoned twice at the age of 26 and received a three year suspended jail sentence. But it was worth it. For her early political experience enabled her to form a sense of self that would guide her throughout the rest of her life. She discovered that through activist work, “the personal self dissolved only to be enriched by the collective one.” Al-Zayyat described the effects of this dynamic relation between the individual and the group: “I was rendered an active responsible human being, open to my country and my people, and preoccupied with their concerns.” She insisted that “paradoxically, one can only find one’s self by initially losing it into a much wider issue than one’s own subjectivity, into a reality bigger than one’s own.”

By developing a self that was, in her words, “liberated from the prisonhouse of the self,” al-Zayyat attempted to balance the personal and the political, the individual and the group. In fighting against the British, she was also rebelling “against the authority which charges all the psychological and mental faculties of the human being.” Al-Zayyat continued throughout her life to believe in the intertwining of the private sphere and the public sphere, and always resisted considering one in isolation from the other.

The Open Door to a Glorious Future

"Al-Bab al-Maftooh" (The Open Door , 1960), al-Zayyat’s first (and for a long time only) novel, deals with the multiple layers of experience. While not strictly autobiographical, the author revisits her university days and creates a heroine after her own heart. The novel tells the story of Layla, a young woman from the Cairean middle class. Layla’s psychological, social, and political growth takes place in the context of the years from 1946 to 1956 — years that witnessed the revolt against the British and the Palace, the Free Officer’s Revolution of 1952, Jamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the Israeli-British-French attack that followed.

Layla’s personal travails begin when she menstruates for the first time, an event which brings tears of humiliation and distress to her father’s eyes. Determined to guard his honor against any future stains, he restricts his daughter’s movement and arranges for her to marry her cousin.

For al-Zayyat, the father represents not only an older generation unable to cope with the realities of life, but also a rotten middle class with no future vision to guide the country. Layla, however, is the New Woman who, thanks to the education her class gave her, developed a different sense of self from the one prescribed by her conservative upbringing. One of the women characters describes her generation’s dilemma this way: “Our mothers knew their situation, whereas we are lost. We do not know if we are in a harem or not, or whether love is forbidden or allowed. Our parents say its forbidden, yet the government-run radio sings day and night about love. Books tell women they are free, and yet if a woman really believes that, a catastrophe will happen and her reputation will be blackened.”

Layla begins to feel empowered when she takes part in anti-British demonstrations: “She was fused in a whole, pushing her forward, embracing her and protecting her. She shouted anew in a voice different from hers, a voice which unified her being with a collective one.” Eventually, she becomes a school teacher in Port Said. When the Suez Canal war occurs in 1956 she participates and gains the courage that allows her to break up with her conventional fiancee and attach herself to a revolutionary colleague.

 "The Open Door" is a pioneering work on many levels. According to the critic Farida al-Naqash it “was an expression of a new wave in the Arabic novel, one that combines poetic realism with committed literature.” In probing the relationship between nationalism and feminism — in showing their interdependence — al-Zayyat dealt with a complex issue that is still a hot topic of debate among Arab feminists. The novel expresses the optimism of the post-revolutionary period, when a young generation of Egyptian men and women looked forward to a hopeful future.

The same novel is now “an impossibility,” al-Zayyat said a few years ago. When she wrote it she shared with her audience a common language and a common vision. But things have changed. According to her, “roads to salvation are blocked; the common ground of shared values seem to break down into multiple different sets of values according to the varied social strata; the common sensibility and its language is no more; people lacking national unity are divided and subdivided until each is turned into an insular island.” One Egyptian critic recently wrote that his female students don’t see themselves in the heroine of "The Open Door. They no longer believe that what Layla achieves by the end of the book is possible for them.

"The Open Door" was simultaneously a product of its time and ahead of it. This is perhaps why the cinematic version of the novel, directed by Henry Barakat and starring Fatin Hamama and Mahmoud Mursy, was a commercial failure when it was first released in 1962. Barakat attributes this failure to the audience’s opposition to the theme of women’s liberation (even though the film alters the ending by showing that the change in the heroine is brought about by the man with whom she falls in love). But the film is well-received now whenever it is shown on Egyptian television, which probably reflects the audience’s nostalgia for the by-gone time of high revolutionary tide.


Ironically, al-Zayyat wrote her most optimistic book at a very difficult period in her life, as if she were turning to the past for help. During her thirteen-year unhappy marriage to Dr. Rashad Rushdi, a right-wing critic with ideological and political views diametrically opposed to hers, she wrote little and left political work altogether.

In her autobiography, "Hamlat Tafteesh: Awraq Shakhseyyah" (Search Operation: Personal Papers, 1992) she dissects herself with brutal honesty, describing her condition as one of “paralysis,” in which she lost her ability to act. Such a state, she believes, was brought about by her desperate search for personal happiness, which led her to merge herself with her husband. But al-Zayyat discovers that happiness sought at the expense of the integrity and autonomy of the self is “illusionary happiness.” “I realize now,” she wrote in 1992, “that my love was a loss in the other and that this is an unforgivable crime because I was the one who committed it. For there is no worse crime than burying one’s self alive. My hands are stained with my own blood.” The marriage ended in 1965 with a painfully public divorce.

After the divorce, al-Zayyat resumed her suspended activities. Between 1965 and 1968 she contributed a column on women’s issues for Hawa (Eve) magazine, and in 1966 she wrote a three-act play called "Bay’ wa Shira" (Selling and Buying). This play did not see the light until 1994; al-Zayyat felt that its theme, love versus possession, was trivial next to the horrors of the 1967 Arab defeat against Israel.

In "Hamlat Tafteesh," al-Zayyat wrote that she felt personally responsible for that defeat. A few days after the war, during a meeting attended by 50 of Egypt ’s most prominent writers, she pointed an accusing finger at her audience and herself: “Each of us is responsible for this defeat,” she proclaimed. “If we had said “NO” every time a wrong was done, we would not have been defeated... If all the intellectuals said no, they would not have been able to jail us all.”

Overwhelmed with feelings of anger and guilt, al-Zayyat the artist stopped writing. “After the 1967 defeat, I hated words and, consequently, literature. I confined my readings to history and economics, and I wrote that a single bullet against the enemy was more significant than all the words in the world...”

New Beginnings

But for someone who views life as “a sequence of beginnings and responses to new beginnings punctuated by struggle ... a continuity akin to that of breathing,” silence and defeat cannot last for long.

Al-Zayyat continued her public work. She was head of the Dramatic Criticism Section in the Higher Institute of the Arts from 1970-1972 and director of the Egyptian Academy of the Arts from 1972-1973. She was a member of numerous organizations such as the International Peace Council and the Union of Palestinian Writers. She represented Egypt at United Nations women’s conferences and in several organizations including the Union of Arab writers and the Palestine National Council.

As a university professor, al-Zayyat was a mentor to a whole generation of women writers who are now making their mark on the Egyptian cultural scene. In her relationship with her students, she was both a rigorous teacher and a warm friend. In the words of Itidal Uthman, she did not teach “from the position of paternalism, but from the position of equality.”

She published nine critical books on Anglo-American literature, including studies of Hemingway, Hume, Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence . She also published, in Arabic, "Naguib Mahfouz: the Image and the Ideal" (1989); "Images of Women in the Arabic Novel" (1989); and "Lights: Critical Essays" (1994). Her criticism was influenced by the New Criticism movement in literature (embraced by her former husband) and by Marxist literary theories. She helped introduce both movements to Arab readers through her translation of T. S. Eliot’s "Critical Essays" in 1962 and "About Art: a Marxist View" in 1995.

One of al-Zayyat’s most important political activities was forming and heading the Committee for the Defense of National Culture, which spearheaded the efforts against the normalization of cultural relations with Israel. In 1981, along with 1,500 other Egyptians including her brother, al-Zayyat was thrown in jail by Sadat. There she learned that her house had been under surveillance for the previous three years. She also found that prison can be a rich experience, “provided one manages to discover her inherent human potential, and to hold to this with all the pride of a human being capable of adapting to all circumstances and also capable of surmounting all circumstances... this experience reveals that person’s fundamental nature, either as clay (lacking in form and will), or alternately as ceramic revealing the human ability to shape the self and to create beauty.”

Prison seems to have rejuvenated al-Zayyat’s creativity. She wrote her memoirs while incarcerated. Later, she published a collection of short stories called "al-Shaykhukha wa qisas ukhra" (Old Age and Other Stories, 1986), the novella "Al-Rajul al-lathi ‘Arifa Tuhmatuh" (The Man Who Knew His Charge, 1995), and the novel "Sahib el-Beit" (The House Owner, 1995 — the English translation of this book is currently in press). Her autobiography is forthcoming in French, German, and English translations. But for now, the only work available by her in English is the short story “The Picture.”

In her work, al-Zayyat used a dramatic language that reflects tensions and contradictions and that is free from cliches. The theme of liberation from oppression, whether institutional or personal, is central to all her writing. According to Dr. Ameena Rasheed, al-Zayyat “does not separate general oppression from one’s oppression of the self or from others’ oppression of the defeatist self.”

“I don’t have any regrets,” al-Zayyat responded when asked to evaluate her life and achievements. She went on to say: “Perhaps it would have been possible for me to be a better writer, or a better fighter, or a better professor if I had confined myself to one role. But my languages are multiple. And it is through my use of these many languages that I have enriched myself and others.”

Many are grateful for Latifa al-Zayyat for having spoken. Her words will be remembered.

References used in this feature include: Akhbar al-Adab (June 28, 1996. 7-13), Al Hayat (September 20, 1996), Ferial J. Ghazoul and Barbara Harlow, “The View From Within: Writers and Critics on Contemporary Arabic Literature” (Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press, 1994. 165-170), Joseph T. Zeidan, “Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond” (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995. 246-260). I’m also grateful to the members of the Adabiyat internet list for their helpful responses to my questions.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 12, October 1996.

Copyright © 1996 AL JADID MAGAZINE