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al-Nawafith al-Maftouha (The Open Windows)
A Memoir by Sherif Hetata
Published by Dar Merit, Cairo, 2006, Pbk, 680pp, Arabic edition. ISBN: 977-351-251-7
A Window into the Life of Sherif Hetata
Egyptian writer and intellectual Sherif Hetata has not received the recognition he truly deserves. His three-volume collection of memoirs The Open Windows (680 pages) were published in Arabic (1993, 1995 and 1997), and the three works were subsequently collected into one volume and re-published in 2006. Taken together, The Open Windows comprise one of the most fascinating autobiographies in modern Arabic literature.
Indeed, Hetata has lived a long and successful life. A physician, political activist and novelist, he spent some thirteen years behind bars for his political beliefs, and another two years were spent living in exile. Born in Britain in 1923 while his Egyptian father was living and studying in England, the family returned to its feudal roots in Egypt after his father completed his studies in the UK. Although Hetata’s mother was British, his father moved the family back to the Egyptian village of his paternal grandparents, where the family owns half of the town, acres of land, numerous farms, and large manses full of servants and domestics.
His career as a novelist began in 1967 and since then, Hetata has produced several works of very fine Arabic literature. His lengthy autobiography is a reflection of his life and times, but it is also a relevant document and witness to some one hundred years of Egyptian history, culture, and social and political changes.
The author begins his memoirs with remarkably detailed remembrances from his childhood, including vivid stories about his estranged relationship with his mother, who relocated to Egypt and lived in the village of her husband. Leaving behind her family and her homeland in the 1920s, Hetata’s mother encountered a vastly different culture and traditions, and a completely new way of life. She grew unhappy when her husband neglected and ignored her. Hetata’s father did not appreciate or understand the personal sacrifices she had made by moving to an isolated and remote Egyptian village, forcibly immersed into a community with a totally different culture from her own. His father spent his days outside the house gambling and womanizing, and his mother grew to feel betrayed, thus living unhappily. She became cold and remote towards her own son, Sherif Hetata, and eventually, she turned her hatred for her husband against her own child. She was lonely and abandoned, and never overcame the difficulties that she was faced with in Egypt. As a result, the author turned to other family members for warmth and love, developing a close relationship with his aunt, the sister of his mother.
In a remarkable public admission of guilt, the author reveals in The Open Windows that he assaulted a maidservant during his young adulthood while she was cleaning his room. He writes that the memory of the rape has stayed with him until this day, as he has had to live with his actions and the fact that he took advantage of a poor, oppressed Egyptian peasant (and got away with it) simply because he was the son of a powerful and rich landowner.
After graduating from medical school in 1946, Hetata joined a secret national and socialist political movement, which was working against the British colonizers and then-Egyptian King Farouk, who was supported by the British. As a result, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. After serving three years, he managed to escape from the prison, hiding inside a cargo ship to France. Possessing neither a birth certificate nor a passport, he lived in exile, meeting an Algerian woman in France who later became his first wife. The French authorities eventually arrested him due to his lack of legal documents, imprisoning him for more than a month. He writes in detail about his experiences with prison life in France, including lengthy explanations about the pimps and prostitution, and various connections between them, the police, and the government officials. The author delves into his personal experiences with French pimps, who tried to recruit him, and their connections to drug dealers, weapons, and murder. This was his exposure to the France of the late 1940s, through the lens of a jail cell. The author also writes about his mistreatment in prison at the hands of other prisoners, who cursed and humiliated him repeatedly.
During his time in France, a group of Egyptian army officers overthrew and ousted King Farouk in 1952. A new era began, with Egypt becoming a republic under the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Following the revolution, the author decided to return secretly to Egypt, and so he left France and travelled to his family’s village where he resumed his subversive political activities. Soon after his arrival back in Egypt, he was arrested by the new revolutionary regime and accused of joining the communist movement, whose goal was to topple the new revolutionary regime. Sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labor, he was sent first to a military prison, and ultimately dispatched to a prison deep in the Egyptian desert bordering on Sudan. This time, he spent ten long years in prison, and his autobiography includes detailed depictions of his torture and sufferings at the hands of his Egyptian jailors. Writing about his time in prison, Hetata reveals his yearning for a woman and his experiences with masturbation. He witnessed assault and prison rape, and he writes clearly and in agonizing detail about the lives of Egyptian prisoners in the 1950s, including excerpts and examples of daily life in prison. Despite his trials and tribulations while in prison for ten years under Nasser, Hetata still considers the former Egyptian president the best Arab leader in modern times. He made this surprising remark during an interview that aired on Egyptian television in 2014.
After his release from prison, Hetata travelled to Cairo and tried to reconnect with the world. To his surprise and dismay, he found that his wife had drastically changed, and he writes in detail about her rejection of him. He reveals his sorrow and sadness, and his lack of understanding about his wife’s rejection, which left deep marks in his psyche and which continue to this day to cause him feelings of gloom and defeat.
Some years later, Hetata was given a low-ranking position as a medical doctor in the Ministry of Health. Here, he met the well-known writer Nawal El Sadaawi, and their relationship led to marriage. They had two children, but the marriage ultimately ended in divorce. It was Nawal El Sadaawi, however, who encouraged him to write novels, and he writes in detail in his memoirs about her positive role in his life and her persistent encouragement, which ultimately transformed him into novelist. Previously, his works had included non-fiction works about travel, politics, and health, but after 1967 he devoted himself to writing novels and translating his own works into English, as well as translating some of El Sadaawi’s.
The author shares frank and open revelations about events that occurred to him over the course of his lifetime, and one could even say that his writings are exceptionally honest and courageous. The autobiography covers years of his personal life, but intertwined with the personal narrative is information about decades of social, political and cultural history in Egypt and the Arab world, as well as historical periods in modern Arab history and crises of Arab society, including the Arab defeat of 1967. This happened during the rule of Nasser, who promised Egypt and the Arabs an easy victory against Israel. The bitter defeat ironically led to increased censorship and persecution of literary, artistic and intellectual figures. Thus, he also writes about the fragmentation and ultimate defeat of Arab unity.
The author also writes about corruption during the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, the independent and sovereign Arab states have always been fragile, and following the departure of Western armies from the region during the last century, the newly independent Arab states did not change. He laments that the Arab national governments continued to stagger under the control of foreign powers, as he personally witnessed European domination followed by the Americans. Following the 1952 revolution in Egypt, it became common practice for the rulers of Egypt and the Arab world to exploit nationalism as a tool to mobilize the population against internal opposition and unwanted external pressures. Therefore, Arab leaders have always been isolated and disconnected from the people they govern.
The reader learns about the growing disappearance of the Arab middle class, a process that has accelerated during his lifetime. Arab society now comprises, in essence, just two classes – a ruling class that owns the majority of society’s wealth, and a popular class that owns almost nothing.
The author poses many questions that he does not answer, and perhaps cannot be answered at the present time. Still, he succeeds in layering and questioning the existence of many cultural and societal problems – as if he were documenting history.
Ultimately, Sherif Hetata’s memoir is rich, important and a major contribution to modern Arabic literature. I strongly recommend it to students and scholars of the Middle East and Egypt in many fields, including literature, history, anthropology, cultural studies, media studies, and Middle East studies. The Open Windows captures both the soul of the author and the spirit and essence of the age in which he has lived and continues to live.
In conclusion, this autobiography is a captivating prose narrative, written in an elegant and readable style; it goes well beyond Sherif Hetata’s personal life by capturing and depicting major events, regime change, wars and defeats, ills and corruptions of the social and political systems in Arab society.
This autobiography is a welcome contribution to modern Arab literature and culture. It is a beautiful and useful read, and also a document of history.
Published in Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories