“Eh heya el osoul?” But what are these traditions and customs that we’re always told we need to abide by, Laila often demands of her mother in frustration. Lateefa El Zayat’s voice reaches us through Laila’s, and echoes with all of us to this day, over fifty years later.
Laila is a middle-class Egyptian living in the 1940s and 50s. More importantly though, Laila is a girl – something that defines and constrains her more than anything else in her life. From the moment she reaches puberty and becomes “a woman”, she is constantly reprimanded by her mother for breaking one tradition or the other; she just can’t keep track anymore. She has to close her legs in public, nod, smile and indulge the older (nosy) tantes, and gush over dresses and marriage. Her parents frown at her brother for encouraging her interest in politics and humoring her discussions.
As Laila grows up, so does her derision for el osoul. She’s fed up with her mother’s comments, her aunt’s and even her cousin’s and friends’. Her dream isn’t to find a nice boy and get married. She’s not happy with being confined within the boundaries society has decided for her. With sparkling eyes, Laila has rebellion written all over her face, and it’s part of her charm. There is only one person who seems to see and appreciate the power and appeal of that charm.
Laila isn’t immune to society’s pressures, though. Like the best of us, she often wonders if she’s right, if it’s worth it, if maybe things would be easier if she did them her mother’s way. She goes through heartbreak and shuts herself away from everything. Society gets the better of her and she starts to conform; her light is put out and it dulls her. Not only is the laughter in her eyes gone, but so is the inner character that had once pushed her to dream and to hope. It becomes a concern: will Laila be able to follow (no spoilers!) advice, break out and find an open door to walk through, or has society broken her beyond repair?
Unraveling against a backdrop of fiery Egyptian politics and anti-colonial resistance, Laila’s story is about more than a girl growing up. It’s about more than the crushes and the heartbreak, the socialization and the struggle to find herself. It is, first and foremost, the story of a country fighting for liberation and a people willing to die if need be. It is the efforts of Egyptians from all walks of life, united by a common goal. The book is Lateefa El Zayat weighing in on that critical era of Egyptian politics and the importance of women to overcome it. A revolutionary and student activist and labor advocate herself, it’s her way of telling us we need to push the boundaries as much as we can if we are to ever change them.
El Bab El Maftouh resonates with us because we’ve all been or seen Laila. Laila is us. She is our sister, our mother and our friend (I’m looking at you, ladies). More importantly, she is our hope for the future. We also all want a him in our lives, someone who is not intimidated by a driven woman, and believes enough in her power to push her to her potential and beyond it. Brilliantly written, El Bab El Maftouh is emotional, rebellious, hopeful and relatable. It is revolutionary, in terms of both its historical period and its views.