I did not read these books. I inhaled the force of these books — in big and small gasps, and by the end of the third, I could not part with her. I do not think I can ever part with her. You would want to acquire her strength through osmosis!
She is my writer. Belonging to that rare breed who, even when writing about their lives, call attention to matters beyond themselves. Her words insist that you come out of her books knowing more about yourself, about the world.
Indeed, there are authors whose lives are as intense as their books. Nawal El Saadawi is one of them. Writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist, her eventful life consists of losing her job as Director of Public Health Education due to political pressure, being imprisoned as a vocal critic of President Anwar Sadat and released only a month after his assassination, running for the Egyptian presidency in 2004, appearing on an Islamic fundamentalist death list, and being a potential Nobel laureate in literature until her death in March this year.
When it is Doris Lessing herself who says this is something we should all be reading, what is there left for me to say?
Woman at Point Zero & God Dies by the Nile
Two books undiluted in their scathing criticism of religious hypocrisy among men and leaders, corruption, and the brutal treatment of women.
Both stories are based on real lives, and these are not to be read if you would rather prevent yourself from seething.
Written in 1973 and 1976, these stories and themes should have already become irrelevant at this point in history.
That they still aren’t is the tragedy.
A Nawal El Saadawi work of fiction is an art film; one where nuanced cinematography captures the reflection of the sun on a window pane and which slowly pans toward the distress coursing through a woman’s veins; one that disquiets with its honesty; one with an unbroken tension that does not resolve, but bleeds into a thousand provoking questions as the end credits fade into darkness.
The Fall of the Imam
In a culture where a buffalo has more worth than a woman, where love and marriage are usually two different things, where there is a disconnect between religious devotion and actions, where a man has the freedom to sin but where a woman can get stoned for being a victim, Nawal treads dangerously with her words.
She throws difficult questions at religion and those who are in power, beats us out of complacency and privilege, and prods us to be angry at injustice and inequality.
This is not the book I would recommend to someone who is new to her writings, but a seasoned Nawal reader would probably consider this an epitome of her literary prowess.
Prose-wise, it is the most ornate. Content-wise, it is the most potent. Form-wise, it is her most sophisticated. And wading through all of that is not so easy.
Different narrators for each chapter can get disorienting; the victims narrate, the criminals narrate, so do the dead, and oftentimes about the same incident. When it comes to the women, one can get confused trying to identify whether it is the mother speaking, or the daughter, or the new wife, or the first wife, or the mistress, or the sister. But I realize the intention: It is to emphasize the fact that they are women, and because they are women they suffer all the same.
“Like in The Thousand and One Nights, the beginning of each tale merged with the end of the one which had preceded it, like the night merges with the day…” And then she draws us away from Scheherazade to a lesser-viewed aspect of this literary heritage and culture, and points the spotlight at the hypocrisy of King Shahryar.
Through it all, the question that seems to reverberate loudest in my mind is this: What can we do if the leaders, those who are in power, the ones assigned to mete out judgment, are the perpetrators of the crime?
Because at times, they are. Not only in some culture foreign to us. But in ours, too.
The Hidden Face of Eve
The best of Nawal El Saadawi’s books are nonfiction: They reveal the devastating truth that her works of fiction are, in fact, nonfiction.
A vital textbook for the study of women in the Arab world, The Hidden Face of Eve has a more academic structure compared to A Daughter of Isis, Walking through Fire, and her numerous memoirs that are deeply personal. But all her writings perfectly demonstrate how the personal is political, and there is not a hint of the tedium that we might encounter in textbooks.
The delicate preface alone is worth mulling over and digesting; and the book, thorough in the history and status of women in Arab society from pre-Islam days until the present, often enlightening or enraging, should be read in its entirety. Whether one agrees or disagrees with any of her views, no one will close this book without having learned anything substantial. Reading this showed me what a shallow understanding I have of the matter despite years of delving in books from Islamic nations.
Nawal does not launch into an angry tirade against religion, however, but against those who use religion “as an instrument in the hands of economic and political forces,” those who use religion to deprive women of knowledge and suppress the search for truth by intimidation and obscurantism, and those who misinterpret religion and utilize it as an instrument of oppression and exploitation. She challenges that religion, if authentic in the principles it stands for, “aims at truth, equality, justice, love, and a healthy wholesome life for all people, whether men or women.”
She criticizes feminism that is merely an instrument of a specific class, or a feminism that is fanatical and superficial, stressing that fanaticism of any form should be opposed, whether it be religion, political, or social. Interestingly, she even remarks on the “modern” woman, “who thinks that progress is manifested by a tendency to show more and more of her thighs,” but remains mentally and emotionally suppressed under the surface.
She therefore makes a stand for the education of the female child, the strengthening of the mind, a free mind, and a heightened level of consciousness, pointing out that a girl who has lost her personality through the throttling of her mind will lose the capacity “to think independently and to use her own mind,” and “will do what others have told her and will become a toy in their hands and a victim of their decisions.” Thus, “the emancipation of Arab women can only result from the struggle of the Arab women themselves, once they become an effective political force.” As we all know, this does not merely apply to Arab women. There is also the acknowledgement that “progress for women, and an improvement of their status, can never be attained unless the whole of society moves forward.”
Can you see why I wished to greet Women’s History Month by reading someone like Nawal El Saadawi? But because there is no one like Nawal El Saadawi, I read her.
“…with liberation they stand to lose nothing else but their chains…”