Laila Said, one of those driving, self-possessed women who, in the Arab world, only Egypt seems to produce, has written a sad and often beautiful story about alienation in her memoir "A Bridge Through Time." It is not at all clear she meant to do this, but this is the overpowering sensation for anyone who has ever spent time in her homeland, better known there as "Mother Earth."
On the face of it, her book tells in often intimate terms of one Arab woman's struggle to free herself from a family-arranged marriage in order to become a famous personage -- the first female stage director -- in the politically stifled world of the Egyptian theater. No westerner can help but be moved by her uphill and often lonely struggle to break through the taboos of Egypt's male-dominated society, one in which the woman is legally a second-class citizen.
It is against this world that Laila Said fought all her life, first for herself and later for all Egyptian women, whose plight, far worse than her own, she belatedly discovers toward the end of her personal voyage through time and Egypt.
"Dr. Laila," as her countrymen call her, is at her very best as a writer when she describes her emotions as tragedy and adversity befall her, as they do time and time again. Her description of dealing with her family and friends after the accidental death of her younger sister Asma is extraordinarily powerful, as is that of watching the ceremonial circumcision of a young Egyptian girl.
What is missing and disturbing throughout her moving account, however, is any appreciation of her own special privileged position in Egypt's upper class. Nor does she show much understanding of the all-consuming role of politics after the 1952 revolution by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers, which was aimed at turning Egypt's class-crusted society upside down.
Dr. Laila was hardly a deprived street child of Egypt. She came from the Christian Coptic upper class, by definition a minority within a minority in a Moslem-dominated country where the vast mass of the population is dirt poor.
Her parents were wealthy enough to send her to the United States, first for her master of arts degree at the University of Chicago and later for a PhD in theater from the University of Illinois. And they were liberal enough to allow her to return there alone after she was married, against her husband's wishes. They also approved of her getting an abortion so she could devote all her time to the theater.
In terms of Egyptian society and its mores, Dr. Laila was extremely unusual in being allowed to do any of these things. Yet throughout her account she shows little awareness of her special status and privileges. Indeed, she seems thrice alienated -- first as a Copt in a Moslem world, then as an upper-class Egyptian in a poverty-ridden country and finally as a woman in a male-dominated Arab society.
Dr. Laila never comes to terms with her alienation or seriously analyzes it.
She is constantly shocked by the heavy hand of politics and official censorship that came to stifle the Egyptian theater after the revolution. Imbued with the values of her American education and experience, the author assumes "the artist" should be able to do, say or produce on stage whatever he or she likes.
"You stage an antireligious play during Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, you stage it almost defiantly in the densest mosque area of Cairo and you ridicule religion at the worst times of sectarian strife and you don't expect a hassle?" remarks her friend Fouad at one point.
"Fouad, I'm an artist," she replies in despair.
Only at the end of her book does Dr. Laila really begin to get into her own society, going back to the harsh realities of her family's old village in upper Egypt, where, as she notes, "the revolution had not reached . . . and nobody seemed to care."
The book concludes with a plea for women's solidarity across the frontiers of culture and for a western-style radicalization of the role of Egyptian women, both of which appear increasingly difficult, if not impossible.