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Posts Tagged ‘Woman at Point Zero

No. She didn’t win the Nobel for literature

Egyptian writer and journalist Nawal Alsaadawi

The TV announced that a Belarusian woman author got it instead.

I don’t mind that critical political messages be attached to an award: (Dictator) Belarus President elected for 5th term

Though I think Egypt political system has been going through tougher times than Belaru to be considered as a timely

But Nawal could as well vie for the peace award

It has been half a century since a writer working primarily in non-fiction won the Nobel – and Alsaadawi is the first journalist to win the award.

Svetlana Alexievich

Image copyright

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Nawal El Saadawi, the great Egyptian feminist and writer, lives on the 26th floor of a biscuit-coloured Cairo tower block about half an hour by car from Tahrir Square.

Built in the 1990s, it seems much older, its forbidding brutalist exterior sprayed with wonky satellite dishes and precarious air conditioning units, its stifling lift threatening at every floor to judder permanently to a halt.

“No, I am not rich,” she notes, waving an arm in the gloom of her book-lined sitting room, which is shuttered against the noonday heat.

But then, since when were dissident writers in it for the money, especially in Eygpt, where copyright is, to put it mildly, tricky to enforce? “Publishers have always taken from me!” she says, her voice rising indignantly.

“But still, I am privileged even though I’m poor. I am in the 5%. I have an apartment and air conditioning. Some people in Egypt live in graves, and they’re the lucky ones. Some don’t even have a grave.”

Besides, she has come to love this spot. She has a view, her two children live close by, and here in Shubra, her neighbours are mostly Copts, a community she adores.

She feels safe for the first time in many years. The revolution has, she believes, protected writers like her, who in 2011 found themselves a focus for opposition.

“I’m surrounded by young people, day and night. Thousands of them. The government is afraid of the young, and they won’t touch me because they know I have the power of the young people behind me.”

Like many of the older leftists and intellectuals who joined the crowds in Tahrir Square in 2011, she simply can’t agree that General Sisi, who came to power on the back of a coup in 2013, is ruling as a counter-revolutionary, just as Mohamed Morsi did before him (it is an awkward fact that state killings and the numbers of government opponents languishing in prison are both dramatically on the rise).

“Not at all,” she says, stubbornly. “There is a world of difference between Mubarak and Sisi. He has got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that never happened with Mubarak, or with Sadat before him.”

Yes, she wanted rid of Mubarak. But she did not regard the elections that followed his spectacular fall as free and fair: in her view, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood bribed and deceived their way to power encouraged, she insists, by Washington and London.

(An unreconstructed Marxist, El Saadawi views pretty much everything through the prism of imperialism).

“No, I am not happy that Morsi is in prison,” she says. “I’m against prison. But I am happy that the Egyptian people, with the help of the army, got him out. We found him and his followers to be mad. As for Sisi, how he does now depends on the people. I don’t believe in individuals. He is only temporary. The people decide whether he works for them or not, and if he behaves like Mubarak, he is out.”

And counter-revolution or not, her profile has never been higher. In Egypt, her supporters have established a Nawal El Saadawi forum, which holds regular meetings in Cairo and elsewhere at which her books – she has published more than 50 titles in Arabic – are discussed at some length.

The international awards continue to pile up – at this point there are too many to count – and so, too, do the invitations to speak.

Later this month, for instance, she will be in the UK, promoting new English editions of several of her most important books, among them the novel Woman at Point Zero, which tells the story of Firdaus, a victim of sexual abuse who now awaits execution in a Cairo prison cell, and The Hidden Face of Eve, her classic analysis of female oppression in the Arab world (among its pages is a taboo-breaking description of El Saadawi’s circumcision at the age of six, an operation that was performed on the floor of the family bathroom while her mother looked on, laughing and smiling).

Her opinion is much in demand. Everyone wants to know what she makes of Isis and the radicalised girls who join it; of the veil, against which she has campaigned all her life; of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

And if she sometimes sounds rather old-fashioned and autocratic – query her obsession with colonialism at your peril – she is also entirely fearless, striding where others still fear to tread.

“This crush (stampede) in Saudia Arabia!” she says, referring to the recent deaths at Mecca. “They talk about changing the way it [the hajj] is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil.”

Her voice is full of disdain. “Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this.

The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticise religion?” Perhaps, I say, people worry they’ll be seen as racist.

“Well, religion is the embodiment of racism. All gods are jealous. People get killed because they are not praying to the right god.

She let go of God long ago, and never looked back. “These girls [who join Isis]. There is a lot of misery among young people. They can’t get work, they are poor and unemployed. But the nonsense they read about Islam and all that… I had to get educated, I had to divorce three husbands, and there they are: ignorant, brainwashed, reading about the [so-called] equality between men and women in Islam.”

She waggles a finger at me, today’s representative of the lily-livered media. “This refusal to criticise religion,” she says, sombrely. “This is not liberalism. This is censorship.”

Who is Nawal El Saadawi?

Her story has an epic quality, as if it were one of her own novels or one of those old and overblown Egyptian films.

She was born in 1931, in the village of Kafr Tahla, just north of Cairo, the second of nine children in what she describes as a more than usually “complicated” family. Yes, she was cut as a child.

But she was also encouraged to study. “I was brought up in two different classes: the poor peasant class of my father [a government official] and the upper bourgeois class of my mother, who went to French schools and wanted to ride horses and play the piano. My father came from the village. His mother went hungry to pay for his education, and it was his education and his ambition that enabled him to marry my mother. He was 30, she was 15.

Of course, my parents preferred my older brother. But he was spoilt, and he didn’t study, and was always failing, while I was good in school. So they began to support me. They wanted to marry me when I was 10, but when I rebelled, my mother stood with me.” She was, she thinks now, lucky to be a girl: “It was a handicap that pushed me.”

Her first dream was to be a dancer; she loved music, and she was beautiful.

But her father could not afford to buy a piano, so she turned her attention instead to reading and writing.

“I hated doctors, and didn’t want to be one,” she says. “But I was top of my class at high school, which meant that it was [almost automatic] that I would study medicine. I got a scholarship.”

She graduated from the University of Cairo in 1955, specialising in psychiatry, and returned to Kafr Tahla to work as a doctor, over the years becoming increasingly prominent.

In 1963, she was appointed the director general for public health education. However, her political activities were now beginning to work against her.

In 1972, she published Women and Sex, the first of a series of books in which she attacked the aggressions carried out against women’s bodies: not just female circumcision, but also the brutal rituals associated with society’s fixation with virginity (the same dayas [midwives] who circumcised children were often required to prove a girl’s hymen was intact on her wedding night). Soon after this, she lost her job, and al-Sihha [Health], the magazine she had founded three years previously, was closed down.

Was she allowed to marry for love?

“No, no, that’s the problem. My first husband was a great man, my colleague in the medical college. He was fascinating, and he was the father of my daughter. My father didn’t want me to marry him because he had gone to Suez to fight the British. But then [after Suez] the guerrilla fighters were betrayed, many of them imprisoned. This crisis broke him, and he became an addict. I was told that if I married him, he might stop his addictions, but he didn’t. He tried to kill me, so I left him.”

And husband number two? “He was a man of law, very patriarchal.” A snort. “I’m telling you frankly: I am not really fit for the role of a wife, you must be sure of that.” She divorced again.

My third husband [Sherif Hatata], the father of my son, was a very free man, a Marxist who’d been imprisoned. I lived with him for 43 years, and I told everyone: this is the only feminist man on earth.

And then I had to divorce him, too. He was a liar. He was having relations with other women.

Oh, the complexity of the patriarchal character. He wrote books about gender equality, and then he betrayed his wife. Ninety-five per cent of men are like that, I’m sure.”

Is it hard to be a divorced woman in Egypt? “If you are an ordinary woman, it is. But I’m very extraordinary. People expect everything of me.” She laughs heartily, her nimbus of white hair bouncing up and down in time to her breath.

All the while, she continued to write – Woman at Point Zero was published in 1973, and The Hidden Face of Eve in 1977 – and the state continued to make her life difficult. It was inevitable that they would one day come for her, and eventually they did.

“It was 6 September, 1981. I was in my old apartment in Giza, alone. The children were with the father in the village. I was writing a novel when I heard a knock on the door, and then the words: ‘Open up! Didn’t you hear the president’s speech last night? We are the police.’”

Sadat, it seemed, had announced that 1,000 dissidents would be arrested, that they would be “smashed”. El Saadawi tried to stay calm. “I was frightened, my heart was beating wildly, but I’m very obstinate. I asked them if they had a warrant, and when they told me they did not, I replied that I could not open the door. They disappeared for half an hour. I put on my shoes, and I got my key and bag, and I was ready. When they came back, they broke down the door: 30 of them, very savage. They pushed me out into the street, where there were 10 police cars. I could see my neighbours peeping out of their windows, all very frightened.”

At the prison, she shared a cell with 12 other women: some were Marxists, others was Islamists. “They were crying all day and night because they thought Sadat was going to kill them. But I was sure of myself. Every morning, I did my gymnastics. I danced, I sang. One of the prostitutes who came with our jailer to bring our breakfast smuggled an eye pencil to me, and I wrote my memoirs with it on toilet paper.”

She had a feeling that everything would be all right – and so it proved.

On 6 October, Sadat was assassinated. “We knew this had happened, because we had smuggled in a small transistor. When we heard, the Marxists all knelt and prayed, and the fanatical Islamic women who considered dancing a taboo took off their veils and danced. But we had to pretend we didn’t know [to the guards]. We had to act normal, to hide our happiness.”

Four weeks ticked by. Eventually, she was taken to see the new president.

“Suddenly, I was in front of Mubarak. He invited some of us to his palace: he chose 20, of which two were women. I was one, the other was a religious woman. I thought I was being taken to another prison. They didn’t tell me I was going to be released. He sat with us for two hours, and then he told us we could go home. But I was angry. I said I was going to sue the government. You can’t hold someone for three months who hasn’t committed a crime, who doesn’t know what has happened to her husband and children, and keep her in conditions that even animals wouldn’t live under, and then just say: go home. No! You must be accountable. I was the only prisoner who sued the government, and I won my case and millions of dollars, though I never saw them.”

What happened after this? She shrugs. “I went on as before. I wrote exactly what I wanted.”

This time, the government took a different approach. She was allowed to live at home, but she was effectively isolated.

Her work was censored, threats were made against her life. She was included on a “death list” that was published in a Saudi newspaper.

One evening, she even heard her name during the call to prayer: “Nawal El Saadawi should be killed,” said the muezzin. Mubarak sent guards to her house, ostensibly to protect her. But she knew better than to take this at face value. People like her were often murdered by their so-called guards. “My husband said: you have to leave, and I am coming with you. So, we went into exile.” For the next few years, she taught at universities in Europe and the US.

But she couldn’t stay away for ever, and in 1996, she returned. “Mubarak was still insisting Egypt was a democracy. But I could see the situation. He paid people to stand against him. It was a facade. So [in 2004] I decided to stand against him.

The government was frightened because I was very popular, and they sent the police to my village, where I was having meetings, and they went to every home and they made threats: if you are a teacher, they said, you’ll be dismissed if you support her; even prison was threatened. So then I declared I was boycotting the election.”

She moved to her current flat in 2009, and from the moment she arrived, she sensed things were going to change sooner rather than later. “It was always filled with young people who’d read my work. Small demonstrations started, against Mubarak’s son at first, this idea that the presidency could be inherited. Slowly, slowly, the idea of revolution was propagated until… we moved to Tahrir Square.”

We’ve already talked about the revolution, and the coup that followed it. But how does she believe that it, and connected events elsewhere, have affected the position of women in the Arab world?

The Hidden Face of Eve, published almost 40 years ago, was shot through with an optimism for the future that seems misplaced now (she saw the revolution in Iran, the Marxist government in South Yemen and the struggle of the Palestinians as agents for the liberation for women).

As a campaigner against the veil, it must dishearten her that more women are covered now than in the middle of the last century. “Well, the veil is a political symbol,” she says. “It’s also a fashion. Some women who wear it, they wear tight jeans, they show their thighs and their breasts and their stomachs.” But then she can contain herself no longer. A wail goes up.

“Something has happened over the last 45 years. The brains of women and men have been ruined, ruined! Doctors, even university professors, are veiled.” What about FGM [female genital mutilation]?

When she wrote her book, 90% of girls in Egypt were cut. But the government made the practice illegal in 2008. Is that number now beginning to fall?

“No, it has stayed the same. You can’t change such a deep-rooted habit by passing a law. You need education. The law was passed to satisfy the west. They wanted to cover that disgrace, not to eradicate the practice itself. You have to change the minds of the mothers and fathers and even of the girls themselves, who have been brainwashed to accept it.”

How long will it take to change attitudes? “It depends on the courage of writers. But it will come.

Fifty years ago, when I opened my mouth, you couldn’t speak against it. Now you can.

Even some religious figures are saying it is against Islam.”

Not that she thinks the west can afford to be smug. For one thing, she believes religious fundamentalism is on the rise in all faiths, everywhere. For another, she regards nakedness and veiling as two sides of the same coin.

“No one criticises a woman who is half-naked. This is so-called freedom, too. The problem is our conception of freedom. Men are encouraged neither to be half-naked, nor veiled. Why?” She gives me a fierce look.

“Liberate yourself before you liberate me! This is the problem. I had to quarrel with many American feminists – Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan – because I noticed that many of them were oppressed by their husbands, and then they came here to liberate me!”

She contemplates me, beadily. “Do you feel you are liberated?” Tentatively, I nod my head.

“Well, I feel I am not.” Another look. “The problem, by the way, is not Egyptian men. I have Egyptian female friends who married British and American men, and they lived in hell. Maybe your husband is very good, but theirs weren’t. Egyptian men are not violent relative to American men. They’ve been conquered by colonialism, so they’re not so full of machismo.” She sighs. “Well… It’s a battle, but we shouldn’t be miserable. Now, please, eat a biscuit.”

A silence opens up between us. The air conditioning unit beeps and falls quiet, and there follow a few moments of drama as, alarmed, she tries to get it working again. Then she turns her attention to returning me to my hotel.

In the two hours since my arrival, the lift has packed up. It’s all quite complicated. Having summoned a young man by telephone, she entrusts me to his care, and he leads me up one flight of stairs and through a dark service corridor which takes us into an adjoining tower, in which, one floor down, there is an operational lift.

When we get to the bottom, he walks me to the Corniche, flags a cab, and hands his mobile to its driver. The driver listens silently, before passing it to me. On the line is – I can hear her before I put it to my ear – El Saadawi. “I’ve told him how much you are paying, and I have taken his number, and if there is any problem, he will be in trouble!” she shouts. “Please ring me when you get to your hotel so I know you have arrived.” And then she hangs up, abandoning both of us – the driver, admonished before he has even begun, and me, feeling like a small child – to the endless honking traffic.

Her best-known works in English translation

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960, 1980; translated by Catherine Cobham, 1989)
  • Searching (1968; translated by Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • The Death of the Only Man in the World (1974; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1985) Published in English under the title God Dies by the Nile
  • Woman at Point Zero (1975; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1983)
  • The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977; transl. by Sherif Hetata, 1980)
  • The Circling Song (1978; transl. by Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Death of an Ex-Minister (1980; transl. by Shirley Eber, 1987)
  • She Has No Place in Paradise (1979; transl. by Shirley Eber)

The book caused controversy and outrage when it was first published in Egypt, where reviewers called it a “slanderous piece of fantasy” and part of a “hysterical chorus of Fe-men attacks”.

Nawal has also been critical of her home country’s government, leading to a period of persecution – in which her telephone was bugged and she was banned from making public appearances.





December 2022

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