The Open Door by Latifah al-Zayyat
Reviewed by Nahla Samaha
The take-off point of the story happens when Layla gets her first period, which to her father is humiliating and shameful enough to bring tears to his eyes. This moment comes to define the rest of her life as her father begins placing tough restrictions on her life and arranges for her to marry her cousin.
The father, a symbol of an older generation unable to come to terms with the social and political changes unfamiliar to it, is also representative of a zombified middle class with no adaptable or innovative vision for the country’s future.
Layla is a symbol of the new generation who was able to develop a different sense of self apart from the one stipulated by her conservative upbringing.
One of the female characters in The Open Door describes her generation’s dilemma by saying, “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 it’s 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.”
What begins to empower Layla is her participation in anti-British protests, “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.” She soon comes into her own, leaves her betrothed, and falls in love with a fellow revolutionary in Port Said, against the backdrop of the war on the Suez Canal in 1956.
This pioneering work delved into exploring the symbiotic relationship between nationalism and feminism. Al-Zayyat tackled a timeless hot topic that continues to regenerate itself among Arab women.
A few years ago, al-Zayyat said that writing The Open Door today would be “an impossibility”, she said, “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.”
Although The Open Door tells a story set in a specific time period, it was also ahead of its time in many ways. Layla’s journey is far from an outdated one, her experiences, heart-wrenching disappointments, love, betrayal, and political persona, all come together to create one of the most complex and profound works of contemporary feminist literature.