Laila Said, A Bridge Through Time: A Memoir (New York: Summit, 1985).
This memoir by Laila Said — Egyptian artist, drama producer, stage director, filmmaker, writer and feminist — is unique for several reasons. First, the genre itself has not been tackled by many Arab women writers; I can think of only Fadhma Ait Mansour Amrouche’s Histoire de ma vie. Here too, for the first time, an Arab woman talks frankly and openly about her life: her ups and downs, her love affairs, her disappointments and her dreams, her feeling of being trapped between Eastern and Western power games when she desperately tries to remain an individual, her struggle between her personal life and her career. Said’s strong and compelling emotional voice effectively mixes a historical account of Egypt under Nasser and Sadat with a sound appreciation of the importance of her own work and life.
The book operates on many levels, just as the author’s doctoral thesis (which she describes here) contains more than the words on its pages:
My neatly typed manuscript lay on the table. I had devoted such scholarly attention to Rihani and the other muchakhastiya (personalities) of Egyptian theater, but now I wondered if I had managed to capture their spirit in this academic study. I tried to look composed as I sat opposite my professors…. Yet I wanted to tell them that four years of my life were in that manuscript — a broken marriage, an abortion, a love affair. (p. 65)
Among the most moving passages are the gripping descriptions of her father’s and sister’s deaths. The book is dedicated to her father (“Nessim, who gave me his spirit”), who encouraged her to pursue a career and who helped her face the Egyptian bureaucracy and other petty humiliations. His death leaves her with pain, despair and loneliness. For a woman in Egypt, trying to make it alone in her profession is almost impossible.
Her sister’s death — in a car accident — inspires her to do her first film, “Where is my freedom?”, a documentary on Egyptian women’s struggles for self-realization. From this, Said’s feminist consciousness steadily grows. She discovers a support network in New York and meets Gloria Steinem. She goes to Tehran with a feminist delegation to plead on behalf of Iranian women imprisoned for protesting the obligatory wearing of the veil; she does another film on women in her village, including a segment on the practice of excision. And she retains her hope: “I am not disheartened as I finish these pages. One cannot lose heart in the middle of the fight. I am tired, but I am filled with hope that somehow these pages will bring Western women closer to their sisters in the Middle East and the Third World. I also hope that they will help Arab women understand the importance of fighting and continuing to fight for their rights.” (p.280) This moving narrative is indeed a strong enticement to go on.