Nawal El Saadawi: The Fall of the Imam

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

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.

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet

On a flight not too long ago, my plane flew over a coastal region that shimmered in the dark. The sight gave me goosebumps, not from fear but from an inexplicable wonder. The captain soon announced that we were flying over Alexandria.

Alexandria. The city that, even from thousands of feet below, had impressed in me something ineffable; perhaps the tiniest psychic glimpse into why it has forever haunted the Cavafies, the Forsters, the Durrells, and the Acimans of the literary world.

Alexandria, where the legendary library once stood. Or should I say mouseion, as Lawrence Durrell does in Justine? This predecessor of the word museum, a space where the muses reside, the word which led me to ask; what do we keep in the museums of our mind?

The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea — “intended to be judged as a single work,” wrote the author.

Justine is introduced to us by our unnamed narrator, and through a book a former lover has written about her that the narrator is reading. (A subtle acknowledgement to the storytelling traditions of the region? In addition, it should not escape us that the narrator’s criticism of the book within the book has allowed Durrell to present Justine in two different ways. Genius!)

The city is introduced synchronously through Durrell’s inimitable writing — sensual, alive, with a soft texture, “like flesh,” as I imagine Marguerite Yourcenar would say. Even at this point, he already leaves you wondering how it is possible to scrutinize a city and simultaneously dissect relationships so breathtakingly and so profoundly.

The captivating stage is set. There is a rumor of a second World War, there are Jews, Copts, Arabs, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, Frenchmen, and Englishmen in a chaotic, amoral brew. 

Amid the muddle, Durrell reads your mind and puts your words into the nameless narrator’s mouth, “I tried to tell myself how stupid all this was — a banal story of an adultery which was among the cheapest commonplaces of the city: and how it did not deserve romantic or literary trappings. And yet, somewhere else, at a deeper level, I seemed to recognize that the experience upon which I had embarked would have the deathless finality of a lesson learned.”

You’d suspect Justine is a metaphor for Alexandria, “For she is truly Alexandrian… she cannot be justified or excused. She simply and magnificently is; we have to put up with her.” By the end of the first book, you would think you are well-acquainted with the characters and with the city.

But no, the rest of the Quartet is there to prove you wrong over and over again. Balthazar turns everything upside down. Mountolive, more so. Clea, even more. Balthazar and Mountolive are not sequels; they re-contextualize the same story. Only Clea is a true sequel, but the whole Quartet is meant to shatter you. Even the sympathy that clings to the characters are carefully and painfully peeled away. Indignant, you cannot help but ask, “Why? What for?”

Then you remember, these 20th century writers are psychoanalysts and philosophers. They never let you have it easy. They write to question a reader’s perceptions and assumptions. They are masters in geopolitics and they effortlessly weave its nuances into the places and the characters, and the people become an extension of the spirit of the city, of the age. They write to counter and re-examine memory.

Love? That is what everyone says of this body of work. What hasn’t been said about this elegiac Quartet? This is not an education on how to live or love — if anything, I personally think it is an education on how not to — but I have found that it is an education on the creative process, writing to a point where pain becomes art, a paean to the difficulty of writing about truth, the human heart’s selected fictions and affections, relationships, a city, a person, memory, and their multi-faceted prisms… the very things that we keep in the museums of our mind.

Nawal El Saadawi: Searching

He vanishes. After seasons of being together and meeting every Tuesday in that restaurant overlooking the Nile, Farid does not show up. This catapults Fouada into a period of searching.

“How had a man become her whole life? She didn’t know how it happened. She wasn’t the sort of woman who gives her life to anyone. Her life was too important to give to one man. Above all, her life was not her own but belonged to the world, which she wanted to change.”

And yet, here she was, searching; for him? or has his disappearance allowed her to seek out a purpose and a deeper meaning to life? What was she seeking, exactly?

A female chemist in Cairo’s patriarchal society, Fouada is intelligent and strong-willed. But our daring author impales a nerve here, an uncomfortable truth rarely dissected and examined — the existential torment and uncertainty that women of strong character endure.

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.

Nawal El Saadawi

November 2021

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

October 2021

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.

Searching

April 2022

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

August 2022

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

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.

Naguib Mahfouz: Arabian Days and Nights

February 22, 2021

Aladdin asked, “Who are the associates of devils?”
“A prince without learning, a scholar without virtue… the corruption of the world lies in their corruption.”

Twenty pages into this book and it already felt like I was reading Crime and Punishment instead of another variation of the Arabian Nights. Apparently, it is not a retelling of the Arabian Nights but a grim sequel drained of the amusement and is, instead, a disquieting political message and social commentary. It weighs heavily.

Right at the beginning it exposes the false piety and corruption of those who are in power when a man of good social standing commits a heinous crime and the poor are arrested, questioned, and accused, whilst the authorities “believe in mercy even when we are chopping necks and cropping heads.”

Characters of the Arabian Nights appear throughout the book, their lives intertwined, but the genies are not the type that fulfill wishes. Some play fateful pranks and some act like consciences, testing the human capacity for good and evil, or calling out the faults of those in power, “If you are called upon to do good, you claim you are incapable; and if you are called upon to do evil, you set about it in the name of duty.” And those in power justify their deeds by saying, “He who’s too decent goes hungry in this city.”

As Scheherazade intimates to Sultan Shahryar, “The fact that stories repeat themselves is an indication of their truth, Your Majesty.” True enough. We see these stories repeated outside of fiction and right smack in the middle of our lives. 

This novel is, indeed, a ratification of Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize.

“Wisdom is a difficult requirement — it is not inherited as a throne is.”

Naguib Mahfouz: Akhenaten

February 13, 2021

For its size, this book is surprisingly so many things at once! It is a subtle commentary on religion and faith aside from being an inquiry into the life of Egypt’s most controversial pharaoh who was persecuted and known as the “heretic pharaoh” for his monotheistic beliefs.

There is something so simple and elegant in the way Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz allows Akhenaten’s story to unfold through the fictional narrator’s quest for the truth as he interviews the pharaoh’s contemporaries. Each chapter is named after these characters and it is through them that the reader is shown conflicting opinions and theories about the pharaoh and his powerful and beautiful queen, Nefertiti.

“…to set off along the path of history in search of truth, a path that has no beginning and no end, for it will always be extended by those who have a passion for eternal truth.”

What gave me goosebumps after reading it was when I learned that, out of all the days, The Metropolitan Opera was also streaming the premiere staging of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten! It became a mesmerizing continuation to what I had just read.

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love

This is a story about Egypt. The Egypt that seldom comes to mind when we think of Egypt. The awkward Egypt that won a nominal independence from a fading Ottoman Empire and finds itself ruled by the British. The Egypt in the 1900s and, a hundred years later, the Egypt on the cusp of the Millennium.

This is a scathing commentary about the relationship of East and West where the West is accused of holding one system of values dear to themselves while denying it to their fellows in the East; of foreign intervention; of emasculated natives accused in turn of being unfit to rule themselves; of world powers playing nations and people like chess pieces and waging dishonest wars.

This is about three intelligent women across time, the family that connects them, the men they love, and how they love differently. This is a story written with, and about, beautiful words: “‘Hubb’ is love,
‘ishq’ is love that entwines two people together,
‘shaghaf’ is love that nests in the chambers of the heart,
‘hayam’ is love that wanders the earth,
‘teeh’ is love in which you lose yourself,
‘walah’ is love that carries sorrow within it,
‘sababah’ is love that exudes from your pores,
‘hawa’ is love that shares its name with ‘air’ and with ‘falling’,
‘gharam’ is love that is willing to pay the price.”

But categorizing this as a romance novel would be to miss the point. This is very much a political novel, and Ahdaf Soueif is a gift to those who recognize the power of fiction to embody the intricacies of politics, history, and ethics as painstakingly as a work of nonfiction. Then again, love is a political act. Maybe we can call it a love story, too.

Naguib Mahfouz: The Day the Leader Was Killed

When Naguib Mahfouz wrote this, he had not been awarded the Nobel yet, but his Adrift on the Nile had already been banned during the term of Anwar Sadat — the leader to whom the title refers. The story is set during Sadat’s Infitah, the policy that would incense Arabs to oppose him and one that would lead to his assassination.

Mahfouz had not known then that after Sadat there would be worse intellectual persecutors, and the future would find him stabbed in the neck in an attack that would tragically impair his writing hand.

Eleven years before the incident, this was published. One should not expect grandeur from this, or a sweeping account of Egypt’s history and politics. Here, Mahfouz intimates to us the lives of three common people, “redundant people,” as one narrator would describe.

The three narrators are Muhtashimi Zayed, the grandfather; Elwan, the grandson; and Randa, Elwan’s fiancée: Characters whose daily lives are affected by the Infitah.

The juxtaposition of their lives and the trajectory of their sentiments with the day the leader is killed is an intelligent tool. Because with momentous events such as the assassination, we think little of these lives, their loves, their troubles. The strength of this book is in the intimacy that Mahfouz beckons us to experience. I like how the title cleverly deceives us like a headline by a Western news network of news in the Middle East: We are tricked into thinking that we already know what the story is about, when in fact, we don’t.