On Latifa al-Zayyat Day: ‘Her Laughter Brought Me Up Short’

Latifa al Zayyat was a popular Egyptian activist, novelist, critic and academic who was born on this day in 1923:

Al Zayyat published three novels, a collection of short stories, a play, a memoir, and four critical works, in addition to numerous literary reviews, essays, and translations.

She was born in Damietta, Egypt to a middle-class family, four years after the 1919 revolution, at the moment Egypt was receiving a limited “independence” from England. She was in kindergarten when her father was transferred from Damietta to Mansour.

In her memoir, The Search: Personal Papersshe describes her childhood, including how the story of the serial killers Raya and Sakina deeply affected her, and how, at the age of 11, she stood out on the balcony and watched Egyptians protesting British imperial occupation. Both events were, to Al Zayyat’s later recollections, seminal moments. In Sophie Bennet’s translation, from the balcony:

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…

It was 1942 when Al Zayyat entered Cairo University. There, she met the painter, writer, and fellow activist Inji Aflatounand throughout the 1940s, Al Zayat was an active part of the student movement. Her best-known novel — The Open Door — opens on February 21, 1946, during a mass strike. In Marilyn Booth’s translation:

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 few civilians in sight walked slowly in the streets or stood at intersections, knots of two, three, or four engaged in conversation.

Al Zayyat was imprisoned for the first time in 1949, held in a solitary confinement that lasted four months.

After her release, she went back to organizing and writing and studying. She got married to a well-known conservative critic in 1952; nonetheless, she earned a PhD in English literature in 1957. She worked as a teacher and threw herself into writing The Open Door, which was published in 1960.

Although the novel was recognized in its time, it missed out on receiving a state prize. In an afterword to the The Open Door‘s English edition, translator Marilyn Booth describes how the award nomination was “upheld by a unanimous vote of the state-appointed committee, according to al-Zayyat.” Yet The Open Door, which is set during Egypt’s anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s and 1950s, didn’t receive the award. According to Booth, ‘Abbas al-‘Aqqad (1889-1964) intervened, threatening to resign his government post unless the prize was rescinded. Al-‘Aqqad reportedly objected to Al-Zayyat’s “immoderate” use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which she used not just in dialogue, but also in interior monologues and indirect speech.

Nonetheless, the book was a success, and it was adapted to film in 1963. Al-Zayyat later wrote of these years that, “At the time I seemed, to others, to be a successful woman by ordinary standards and, perhaps, if one considered the work I was doing and what I had achieved, more than simply successful. But at the same time, I was devastated on the inside, even if nobody but I was aware of a single dimension of this devastation.”

It was 1965 when Al Zayyat finally filed for divorce, freeing herself of a difficult marriage. In 1966, according to her memoir, she wrote a play called Buying and Selling that was never published. Like many Arab writers of her generation, she described the war of 1967 as something that “knocked me down and marked the dividing point between two phases, two lives.”

But Al Zayyat never stopped writing, organizing, teaching, and speaking her mind. She was back in prison again in September 1981, at the age of fifty-eight, for opposing Sadat’s warm relations with the Israeli state. The younger author-activist Radwa Ashour wrote about this time in the metafictional Spectres, and Ashour portrays a very different Latifa Al Zayyat from the one in the author’s own memoirs. Here, translated by trans. Barbara Romaine:

In my initial meetings with Latifa al-Zayyat, her laughter brought me up short. The woman was always surprising me with her continuous, sometimes abrupt, and loud laughter; and then she no longer surprised me — I got used to and grew to love both Latifa herself and her laughter. She was constantly laughing, but when she told me about her experience in prison, she laughed even more. … Latifa al-Zayyat would laugh at herself and at her comrades in the cell as she told the story, so that the whole subject seemed like a comic play — no, not black comedy, despite the darkness of the experience, but rather a marvelous comedy that redeems the tale of stark realities by cleansing it of the blemish of fear, of bitterness, of petty grudges. What remains is the lightness and transparency of the story, as well as the capacity of human beings to overcome adversity with humor.

Al Zayyat wrote her memoirs while in prison; after prison, she also published a short-story collection, a novella, and a novel. She did, in the end, get big literary prizes. A few months before her death in 1996, she received the State Literature Award and the inaugural Naguib Mahfouz Prize. She died of cancer.

In English:

The Search: Personal Papers, translated by Sophie Bennet

The Open Doortranslated by Marilyn Booth

The Owner of the House, translated by Sophie Bennet


In Mada Masr: Literary gems: Latifa al-Zayat’s The Open Door

The film adaptation: