“Everyone was in tune with everyone else, just as if we were members of a society and knew and agreed on its tiniest regulations, or the gears of a clock moving at exactly the same pace and in the same direction, all the time, one direction that everyone knows, clear, logical, in sequence.”
There is a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (reviewed here), that perhaps best illustrates his unique approach towards social realism through the novel. Encouraged by her children, the progatonist, Amina, has overcome a lifetime of conditioning in patriarchal households (first of her father, and then of her husband) to leave her home by herself, and venture out into the world – all the way to a sufi shrine at the other end of the street. Mahfouz describes the moment when she is poised at the threshold of a new world with its newly broken boundaries:
“She stopped for a moment before plunging into the alley. She turned to look at her latticed balcony. She could make out the shadows of her two daughters behind one panel. Another panel was raised to reveal the smiling faces of Fahmy and Yasin.”
The two daughters behind one, closed panel, only visible as shadows. The two sons behind the other, raised and open to the world, smiling. In this way, without saying anything, Mahfouz paints a powerful picture of the repressed and patriarchal society – more powerful than words.
But if Mahfouz’s approach is the scalpel, leaving its impact by subtle suggestion and lingering allusions, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, set in Cairo during more or less the same period as Palace Walk (1946 – 1956, before and leading up to Nasser’s revolution and the nationalisation of the Canal), is a blunt hammer, driving home its point with repeated, unambiguous force.
Like Palace Walk, The Open Door is a book about a family, navigating their way through the tumultuous political backdrop in 1950s Egypt. It tells the story of Layla, a girl growing up in a middle-class Cairo household, along with a galaxy of sometimes recognisable characters: a conservative father, a softer (repressed) mother, a brother (Mahmud) who is a fiery political activist, a more circumspect cousin (Isam) who falls in love with her, and cousin (Gamila) with an ever-calculating mother determined to marry her upwards, and a pose of friends and relatives. As with Mahfouz’s novel, the family is faced with rapidly changing times, a world in which traditions are being questioned as never before, where iconoclasm is met with an even fiercer backlash, and where the clarion call – “Obey the fundamentals, and life will have no suffering” – can no longer hold the imagination as it once did.
But there the similarities end. Palace Walk is polyvocal, often detached account, relying upon detail in description, and sharp allusions for its impact. The Open Door, on the other hand, is like an autobiography in third person – an autobiography of the protagonist Layla, as she goes through school and university, falls in love and has her heart broken, rebels and capitulates, all the way up to the brink of a disastrous, imposed marriage – all the while in the backdrop of Egypt’s political turmoil – the anti-imperialist struggles against the British, the protest marches, Nasser’s revolution, and the three-pronged attack after the nationalisation of the Canal. I say “third-person autobiography” because of a substantial amount of interior dialogue: we see the world through Layla’s eyes – through the eyes of a women at the threshold of adulthood, whose view of the world is shaped before our eyes by events, whose understanding of injustice is felt rather than reasoned, whose anger is unconstrained by dissimulation, and above all, who is free with her thoughts.
The risk with such an approach to the novel is, of course, the risk of descending into political polemic, and/or caricaturing your characters. Indeed, there are moments when Layla’s judgements seem too pat, and the book’s political message too divorced from the story that it is telling. When, for instance, her brother, Mahmud, fails to replicate his political liberalism from the protest march in his conduct towards his own sister within the home, her thoughts flow:
“He knew what was wrong, what was right, she understood that – but he knew it on paper. Yes, on paper.”
One might think that this is unnecessary, and too intense a belabouring of a point already made. A couple of reviews that I read criticised The Open Door for being too blatantly allegorical, for writing Layla as if she is the embodiment and symbolisation of Egypt on the cusp of Revolution.
I think, though, that the criticisms are unfounded. There are two reasons why The Open Door is saved from the mediocrity of the kitsch “political art” that Milan Kundera ridicules in his novels. The first is al-Zayyat’s extraordinary sensitivity towards the uncertain glories and perilous uncertainties of youth. Layla’s longing for stability after a fiery relationship crashes and burns is described in the following, wonderful way:
“For that was a space where one lived in perpetual fever. You never knew exactly where you stood; you saw things not as they really were; you felt a strength you did not really possess, a beauty you could not really claim, and a happiness bigger than one person could acquire. For the threat that connected one to the sky was fragile; it might break suddenly, and you would tumble to earth and shatter.”
Layla’s falling in love, being broken, and healing, are portrayed with an empathy and an understanding that would resonate with every reader, and make it difficult not to be passionately rooting for her by the end of the story. Her revolt and her suffocation are perhaps dated, but never alien. Her dreams are the dreams we have all dreamt, and her disillusionment is painfully familiar. Along with all the other characters, but more than them, she feels alive.
The second is an equal sensitivity towards image and metaphor. Whenever the interior monologue runs the risk of becoming too overtly political or dreary, al-Zayyat punctuates it with delicate, almost gossamer imagery. She describes the first, hesitant sliver of feeling between Layla and Isam in this manner:
“The glimmer ran from her lips, from her face and body to Isam; it settled in the space between then, a gaze that remained incomplete, a touch that was not quite there, sentences that had no periods. The light cocooned them, a single image, apart form all around them.”
And the domineering nature of al-Ramzi, the University teacher who insidiously attempts to bend Layla to his will, paving the ground for a future engagement and a suffocating marriage:
“He was a sculptor playing his chisel, now delicately, now almost violently, and always with studied care. Here a light touch, here a deep furrow, here a chunk that must be dislodged entirely, and here a segment that required only refining and polishing. The lineaments of the statue emerged gradually, notch after notch, dent by dent, cut away by the artist’s will.”
The Open Door has been called the first feminist Arab novel. It is an easy – and true – characterisation. The protagonist is a woman, the dominant theme is (as was said about Llosa) the “cartography of power, and the individual’s resistance” against patriarchy. But I think it is much more than that: it is a delightful exploration of the tragedy of being young in a society that is like a chrysalis: where an alternative future can be imagined, where it is on the cusp of coming into being, and yet is farther away than eternity.
The Open Door is available from the website of the publishers here.
And from Amazon, here.