Book Review: Fanning the winds of change in Egypt

In this groundbreaking book, the life of one young woman mirrors political changes in Egypt.
Updated 30 October 2017
0

Book Review: Fanning the winds of change in Egypt

“The Open Door” by Latifa Al-Zayyat is an incredible novel that follows the lives of the Sulayman family during the 1940s and 1950s in Egypt. At a time of Egypt’s political emergence as a completely sovereign nation, Al-Zayyat’s book follows the lives of ordinary Egyptian citizens who navigate through political and social changes as the Suez Crisis looms, their lives intertwined with the politics that will change their futures and shape their fates.
Al-Zayyat died in 1996, but is known as a transformative writer and a revolutionary for social and political change. “The Open Door,” which was originally published in 1960 in Arabic, is considered her magnum opus and was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 1996. The book was later translated into English by Marilyn Booth in 2000 and a new edition was printed this year by Hoopoe Press.
The reader is first introduced to the scene of an unusual morning in Cairo in 1946. A demonstration of 40,000 has just taken place in Ismailiya Square and the streets are buzzing. Egyptians want the English gone and they are not afraid to show it. As one passerby on the street says to another, “this is a new stage of national consciousness.”
But in the home of Mohammed Effendi Sulayman, they are not talking about the demonstration. He sits in his chair reading the Qur’an and waiting for his son, Mahmoud, to return. Layla is 11-years-old at the time and is also waiting for her brother, who joined the demonstration despite his father’s disapproval, to return.
Once Mahmoud returns, wounded and bleeding, Layla runs to school to tell her friends. “The English got him. They hit him because he is a nationalist. Because he is a hero,” she tells them.
She is the envy of every girl that morning, but that soon fades, as does everything with time.
The reader follows Layla as her growth and transformation takes place alongside Egypt’s. Both are struggling for sovereignty. Despite her dreams of ridding the country of the English herself, of carrying a gun and going out to fight with the boys, her mother and father have other ideas, as does Egyptian society.
Once Layla hits puberty, her life changes. While once she was allowed to do and say anything, she is not anymore. She is told how to sit, how to speak, how to act and how to compose herself. While her brother grows into a man and is allowed his own freedom and space to make decisions, Layla loses her ability to do so completely. “She grew to the realization that to reach womanhood was to enter a prison where the confines of one’s life were clearly and decisively fixed.” Yet, despite her confines, she feels stronger than ever, her mind and body growing to embolden herself.
As Layla’s life moves forward, she dabbles in emotions such as love and encounters her first relationship. The reader follows her life at university and the way she is molded by her friends, the university’s climate, political change and her brother’s life. Through all of this, her demeanor changes. Her outlook on life teeters between optimism and misery and settles there. She resides herself to a life of unhappiness when she realizes that her life will always be controlled by someone or something other than herself. She finds out that real life “was so empty of poetry.”
Al-Zayyat’s book feels timeless, yet it is specific about the political timeframe. The way she writes about society and women is relevant today as women continue to struggle in the world.
The momentum of the book builds steadily as Egypt and Layla come to a moment in time that is theirs to grasp or give away. Soon the reader discovers that the winds of change are not fanned by nature but by the mouths of Egyptian citizens who know the control of their country is in their hands.
Al-Zayyat’s book is profound. It consistently brings into question the idea that women are taught to submit to society and then challenged to be their own person within their confines. It shows how repression can ruin lives and steal away courage and strength. It reveals that Egypt and Layla are one and the same, that abuse and influence treat any and everything the same.
Al-Zayyat dissects what it is to be a woman in the world. Her main character is every girl, across countries and cultures. She has finally exposed society’s experiment on women. However, it is not just an experiment on women, it is an experiment on imperialism and the results of resistance. Like Layla, Egypt is growing into its own, constantly changing and evolving with the people who involve themselves with it. It is influenced, strengthened and sometimes left helpless by the people who abuse it.
Immediately, there are visible parallels with the Arab Spring and with stories of its impact on Egyptians, such as in Basma Abdel Aziz’s “The Queue” and Bassem Youssef’s “Revolution for Dummies.” The scenes of political oppression and the pushback of the people are one and the same.
With the publication of “The Open Door,” Al-Zayyat was recognized as a revolutionary for social change and for women’s liberation. At the time her book was published, there were a host of women from whom she could draw inspiration, but to write about societal freedoms for women in a controlled patriarchal society and to write of female characters coming into their own by fighting social and political repression by finding their voices and joining conversations about the future of their country had not been done before.
Al-Zayyat herself lived through the crisis and, therefore, it is speculated that the book is the result of what she observed with her very own eyes. She was an activist for human rights and freedom of expression and lived during a time of great change in Egypt. She dug her feet into the sand to document the change and managed to stay standing until the end, as an Egyptian and as a woman with a voice equal to any other citizen.


What We Are Reading Today: How Plants Work

Updated 22 September 2018
0

What We Are Reading Today: How Plants Work

  • Each section of the book focuses on a specific part of the plant — such as roots, stems and trunks, leaves, cones and flowers, and seeds and fruits

Author: Stephen Blackmore

All the plants around us today are descended from simple algae that emerged more than 500 million years ago. While new plant species are still being discovered, it is thought that there are around 400,000 species in existence.
From towering redwood trees and diminutive mosses to plants that have stinging hairs and poisons, the diverse range of plant life is extraordinary. How Plants Work is a fascinating inquiry into, and celebration of, the complex plant kingdom, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.
With an extended introduction explaining the basics of plant morphology — the study of plant structures and their functions — this book moves beyond mere classification and anatomy by emphasizing the relationship between a plant and its environment.
It provides evolutionary context drawn from the fossil record and information about the habitats in which species evolved and argues for the major influence of predation on plant form.
Each section of the book focuses on a specific part of the plant — such as roots, stems and trunks, leaves, cones and flowers, and seeds and fruits — and how these manifest in distinct species, climates, and regions. The conclusion examines the ways humans rely on plant life and have harnessed their capacity for adaptation through selection and domestication.
Abundantly illustrated with 400 color images documenting a wide range of examples, How Plants Work is a highly informative account about an integral part of our natural world.