Nawal El Saadawi

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Miriam Cooke (review date spring 1986)

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SOURCE: Cooke, Miriam. Review of Two Women in One, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 356-57.

[In the following review, Cooke examines the oppression faced by Bahiah, the protagonist of Two Women in One.]

The theme of Nawal el-Saadawi's at once powerful and programmatically feminist novel/text [Two Women in One] is contained in its dedication to young people, and particularly to young women. They must resist like roses, whose tender petals become “sharp protruding thorns [so that] they can survive among hungry bees.”

The reader meets Bahiah Shaheen as she is beginning to realize that her body, and the name it bears, contains two women: a docile, conforming medical student and a revolutionary artist. Whenever she hears someone say “Bahiah Shaheen,” she does not at once recognize the name as belonging to her but rather to her father, who “owned her just as he owned his underwear.” Ironically, Bahiah's liberation is made possible through a man. At an art exhibition that she arranged without her father's knowledge, she meets Saleem. Their ensuing relationship was the “only real thing in (her) life,” real because it was taboo. Involuntarily, she becomes politically engaged, and her father and uncle decide that she has had enough education. At a big family gathering “they sold her to a man for 300 Egyptian pounds.”

The wedding is surrounded by images of prison and death. Bahiah recognizes her parents' and husband's protection to be “the real danger: it was an assault on her reality, the usurpation of her will and of her very existence.” She runs away, but at the university her professor tries to take advantage of her confusion. Her rage signals a new level of awareness, and it is then that she is arrested.

Despite several passages of unmitigated ideology and frequent repetitions of descriptions and reflections, Two Women in One does try to expose the dynamics of a woman's relationship to a patriarchal society. Whereas Firdaus, in el-Saadawi's only other novel to be translated into English, A Woman at Point Zero (1975; see WLT 59:3, p. 483), comes to terms with what she has become—a prostitute who is ready to murder to assert herself against others' desires—Bahiah remains a middle-class woman who is prevented from freeing herself of some of the assumptions of her social and intellectual milieus. The only escape is from one form of patriarchal tyranny—her father's or husband's protection—to another: the police. The middle-class woman seems to have fewer options than her working-class sister.

Sara Terry (review date 5 September 1986)

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SOURCE: Terry, Sara. “Journey into the Heart of a Radical Arab Woman.” Christian Science Monitor (5 September 1986): B5.

[In the following review of Two Women in One, Terry expresses doubt concerning the liberating aspects of Bahiah's sexual awakening, but believes that the novella offers an insightful look into the life of a young Arab woman.]

The fifth and most recent volume in the Seal Press series “Women in Translation” (which includes already-published volumes of work by Danish and Norwegian female authors) comes from Nawal el-Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist, political activist, and author whose previous works include The Hidden Face of Eve, a nonfiction book on Arab women.

Her novella Two Women in One tells the story of Bahiah Shaheen, an 18-year-old Egyptian medical student and artist who rebels against the rigid social, sexual, and political standards imposed on her by the male-dominated world she lives in.

To all outward appearances, Bahiah is a well-behaved young woman, on her way to a career as a doctor and to a marriage planned for her by her family. Inwardly, however, she is beset...

(This entire section contains 480 words.)

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by contradictions and confusions as she comes to terms with womanhood. Her tentative, then absolute, rejection of the status quo leads her to an affair with a young medical student—a heretical act for an Arab woman—and into a campaign of political dissent that lands her in jail.

Two Women in One is, in some ways, a frustrating experience for the reader. The story is so subjectively told—hinging on Bahiah's often abstract musings about life and death and her sharply critical view of virtually everyone and everything around her—that a novice to the Arab world may be hard-pressed to find the context in which to view Bahiah's story with understanding or even compassion.

On the other hand, this book does offer interesting insights to both feminists and readers already acquainted with the restricted world of Arab women. This is an intensely told story, flecked with small revelations of what it means to be a woman struggling to break the bonds of a society's tradition and history. It's certainly not representative of all Arab women—particularly those who have turned to the conservative mores of Islamic fundamentalism—but it is an illuminating sojourn in the experience of a radical few.

Some Western readers who lived through and became disenchanted with the sexual revolution of the 1960s might argue that the path of physicality Bahiah pursues in her search for self-definition, for the second woman within her, leads ultimately to another form of bondage—a different definition of womanhood, to be sure, but one still based on sexual terms.

Despite the legitimacy of such a critique, however, Two Women in One needs to be taken for what it is—a valuable opportunity to understand more clearly the currents of thought regarding women in a culture vastly different from the West.

Miriam Cooke (review date winter 1990)

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SOURCE: Cooke, Miriam. Review of The Circling Song, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 64, no. 1 (winter 1990): 187.

[In the following review of The Circling Song, Cooke notes El Saadawi's examination of gender roles and the oppressive power of men in the book.]

Nawal El Saadawi wrote the original Arabic version of The Circling Song in 1973, published it two years later in Beirut (she was on the Egyptian government's blacklist at the time), and has now had it translated anonymously and published in the United Kingdom and the United States. From the dedication to the closing section, which is a two-page verbatim repetition of the opening, El Saadawi's preoccupations reflect those of many contemporary Egyptian writers: children born out of wedlock and abandoned out of terror; children without childhoods; social obsessions with women's nubility and, above all, virginity. For readers familiar with the author's writings, there are many intertextual references: little girls raped by their fathers (cf. The Fall of the Imam, 1988); resourceless women pursued and persecuted by thugs in officials' clothing who finally use their bodies to survive (cf. A Woman at Point Zero, 1983; see WLT 59:3, p. 483).

The title of the book renders more precisely its genre. The Circling Song is not so much a novel as it is a lyric meditation, a violent song about conflicting notions of self. El Saadawi analyzes gender by hypothesizing gender ambiguity. Bodies undergo transformations at all levels: the male twin Hamido may find himself genitally deprived, as the female twin Hamida may find herself endowed; the twins become each other with a fluidity of identity boundaries that suggests the possible interchangeability of animal and human, dead and living, man (father/brother) and woman (mother/sister), master and servant. El Saadawi subverts a static notion of socialization: gender and class identity are never fixed but are in constant flux; they are continually in the process of becoming.

The style of the whole is circular. Whenever the illusion of linearity is created, the line curls around to close the circle with, for example, a refrain from the beginning. This focus on circles and dots can also be seen in the writings of other Arab women, particularly the Beirut Decembrists. The language is imbued with sexuality and brutality. Particularly striking is the recurrent description of men as having a sharp/hard/rigid/erect implement/killing tool hanging down along their thighs. This phallic appendage is not biological but social. Again, gender identity is destabilized. The Circling Song, which El Saadawi claims as her favorite novel, is a powerful example of the kind of anger and desperation to which Arab women writers are beginning to give vent.

Louis Werner (essay date 25 June 1990)

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SOURCE: Werner, Louis. “Arab Feminist Pens Powerful Prose.” Christian Science Monitor 82, no. 146 (25 June 1990): 14.

[In the following essay, Werner evaluates El Saadawi's She Has No Place in Paradise, The Fall of the Imam, and Death of an Ex-Minister, asserting that integral to these works is a recurring theme of power abuse and oppression, especially in male/female relationships.]

The Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi is a remarkable and courageous woman. Successfully balancing vocations in literature, social criticism, and medicine, she has broken a path that most of her countrywomen can only hope one day to follow.

And for taking as her primary subject the injustices of patriarchal Arab society and the neo-imperialist West, she has been jailed under President Sadat's “Law of Shame,” dropped by her Egyptian publisher, fired from her position in the ministry of health, and labeled as a radical feminist whose blind ideology too often gets in the way of her art.

Nothing is further from the truth, and recent translations of a novel and two collections of short stories (published in Britain), joining some seven other titles already in English, confirm the broad range and sophistication of her literary voice.

But her purely technical gifts would be wasted if not built on personal experience of sexual and economic oppression. The fact that an earlier book, The Hidden Face of Eve, begins with an account of her own circumcision, forced upon her at the age of eight, testifies to her bravery in serving as an example for others.

Yet El Saadawi's philosophy is not based on the same modern secular ideas that might comfort Western liberals. In fact, she believes that Islam must be reformed and strengthened vis-a-vis the West in order for Muslim women to be treated justly both as women and as Muslims. Unlike Egypt's first generation of feminists, El Saadawi is secure in her own culture and religion, unafraid to challenge male authority, and unwilling to accept the international status quo.

Of the three titles under review here, one would be advised to start first with She Has No Place in Paradise for the simple reason that these stories are highly accessible for a foreign reader. They are for the most part simple narratives of sexual and psychological conflict played out in a variety of settings.

In the first story and the one perhaps most representative of the author's relentless social dissections, a weak-kneed groom fails the public test of virility on his wedding night. Not surprisingly in a male-dominant society, blame for this passes to his virgin bride because of what everyone, including her father, presumes to be her moral failings.

In the title story, a long-suffering widow waits in the grave for her delivery to heaven, having been promised an eternity of lying in bed with her husband. When she arrives, she finds him in the arms of two houris, the fair-skinned virgins of paradise that the Koran promises as a reward to every male, and turns her back on her own afterlife. The scene rings sad but true, even without an understanding of Islamic eschatology.

What makes each of these stories so powerful is a deep concern for the life of the poor, with an honesty and respect bringing to mind the master Egyptian writer Yousif Idris. Like him, El Saadawi examines everyday frustrations and deprivations for their root causes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both writers are also doctors, whose training in clinics for the poor led them to trade in their stethoscopes and patient charts for pen and paper, making other diagnoses by which more might be cured.

The novel The Fall of the Imam is altogether different from these stories. Densely written and politically allegorical, it is very much an Egyptian version of Salman Rushdie's 1983 novel Shame. Only here, Anwar Sadat rather than the Pakistani Zia al-Huq is under the microscope, with results decidedly more dystopian than picaresque.

The guideposts are hard to miss, even though too many Middle Eastern regimes share the same features of personality cult worship, strategic marriages of children into the families of rivals, mock religiosity in order to quiet fundamentalist dissent, and the co-optation of intellectuals. Details such as the seating arrangements at a deadly Victory Day parade, an officially decreed “opposition” party, and an irradiated-milk-powder scandal make this roman à clef fall into place.

The contorted, multinarrated plot involves an orphaned girl named Bint Allah, the Daughter of God, and her tortured relationship with a mysterious tyrant known only as the Imam, a purely religious title. In tacit acknowledgment to the Iranian revolution, the book lays out all the horrors that stem from religion put to the service of naked political power.

The author's preface explains the story as originating in childhood dreams, when God might appear wearing the father's face, sometimes kind but more usually cruel. The nature of the divine therefore depends on the relationship with one's father, and thus the link between patriarchal (real political) and religious authority. Add to this the inverted logic of dreams, and its sum is the equivalent of a nightmare.

The novel's first and recurrent scene is of Bint Allah being shot in the back by the Imam's chief of security as she flees through the night from a crime she has no knowledge of. The plot circles in reverse from there, recounting her immaculate conception to a virgin mother and other vignettes closely mirroring the life of Jesus.

Added to the Christian iconography of Bint Allah's past are testimonials by the court propagandist, the Great Writer, who blends details from Sadat's biography into the Imam's hagiography. In another narrative overlay, the Imam himself becomes King Shahrayar of The Thousand and One Nights, a despot cuckolded by his wife who took revenge on the female sex by murdering a new slave girl every night. At times, the story spins even further out of control, but always reenters orbit in time to keep the reader in sight.

El Saadawi takes a long step backward from surrealism in the intimate stories collected in Death of an Ex-Minister, all but one of which are narrated in the first person as dramatic monologues, letters, and confessionals. Firmly rooted in contemporary times and circumstances, they delicately probe what must be the author's own open wounds as a woman, artist, and healing professional in a country that seems truly to value none of the above.

What is most striking about the three stories with male narrators is an acute awareness of the doubts and hidden fears in a society where such subjects cannot yet be safely raised. It is ironic but perhaps inevitable that a woman must be the first to break these taboos. Still, men everywhere should be thankful that by portraying their inner lives with such sensitivity, El Saadawi provides them with the opening to speak for themselves without embarrassment or defensiveness.

But gently treating a man's secret weaknesses vis-à-vis women, does not mean that El Saadawi can forgive his overt cruelties to them. Indeed, she is almost cruel herself as she mocks male sexual authority wherever she finds it whether in relationship with mothers, wives, or female colleagues.

In the title story, for instance, a fallen politician is brought to tears in his mother's lap as he recounts how a secretary destroyed him simply by meeting his gaze straight on, refusing to be afraid of his superior status. The scenario's near comedy is tempered however, as he confesses to his mother that his love for her has changed to disrespect since realizing that his own fear of authority stems from her crippling fear of his father.

Authoritarian relationships in all their pathological permutations are the basic themes in all of Nawal El Saadawi's writing, in her essays as well as in her increasingly impressive body of fiction. Anyone interested in reading one of the most compelling and challenging writers in the Arabic language today would be well advised to follow her progress.

Lucasta Miller (review date 19 July 1991)

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SOURCE: Miller, Lucasta. “Without Doubt.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 160 (19 July 1991): 36.

[In the following review, Miller discusses El Saadawi's travelogue My Travels around the World, which she contends is a mixture of travel writing and autobiography designed to fight oppression.]

Doctor, writer, UN representative, and, for a time, political prisoner, Nawal el Saadawi has been a rebel with a cause since childhood. From the moment she stamped her foot and rejected a frilly white dress for a toy aeroplane, she was determined to escape the limited role assigned to the daughter of a traditional Egyptian family. Her new book [My Travels around the World.] is a mixture of autobiography and travel writing. Through dialogue, description, and political commentary, her trips abroad take on the flavour of a personal crusade against oppression.

But however liberated the author may be as a person, the way in which she transforms her experiences into writing is strangely limited. The autobiographical element is mainly external—where she went, whom she met, what she did. And when it does venture into something more personal, the result often has a faintly mannered feeling: it's almost embarrassing to picture her fondling the Egyptian exhibits in the Louvre.

If Saadawi fights shy of self-analysis, she is only too willing to objectify opinion into dogma and to regard her travels as a learning experience. With the authority of a textbook, she gives us a lesson on Indian social history: “Until relatively recently an Indian wife would burn herself after her husband died.” It's hard not to think that generalisations like this breed exactly the sort of prejudice she should try to avoid.

Though the inequalities of oppression she encounters on her voyage stir her to righteous indignation, Saadawi can itemise material deprivation without taking the imaginative leap into empathy: “I feel sad for those millions of Indians kneeling before the god Shiva to ward off disease or drought or hunger, not realising that neither Shiva nor other gods can prevent hunger, but what does prevent it would be the fair distribution of India's wealth …” The superior tone in which she regurgitates her undigested Marxism prevents her from reaching a more penetrating-understanding of religious experience and its social function. In pre-glasnost Russia, it inhibits her from seeing through the champagne-and-caviar treatment she receives: she never questions Party assurances about freedom of expression.

Saadawi's life has been an embattled one—from which she seems to have emerged victorious. But, if this book is anything to go by, there's something Pyrrhic in the victory. Perhaps people who fight for their beliefs in the face of opposition can't afford the luxury of self-doubt.

Kenneth Payne (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Payne, Kenneth. “A Woman at Point Zero: Nawal El Saadawi's Feminist Picaresque.” Southern Humanities Review 26, no. 1 (winter 1992): 11-18.

[In the following essay, Payne investigates the rogue aspects of Firdaus's actions in A Woman at Point Zero and establishes that her behavior is not merely an act of rebellion but an effect of her dissatisfaction with an oppressive society.]

Nawal el Saadawi's A Woman at Point Zero was conceived in the autumn of 1974 at Qanatir Women's Prison, where the author began a series of meetings with a female prisoner who was awaiting execution for having murdered a man. The prisoner was Firdaus, and A Woman at Point Zero is her story—“the whole story of her life,”1 el Saadawi calls it—told from the cell of the condemned. The novel therefore represents an interesting configuration of narrative source and perspective, being essentially the writer's selective and imaginative rearrangement of an orally presented autobiography. It emerges as a form of pseudoautobiographical memoir which is also feminist tract, political and social satire, and memorial. As far as el Saadawi is concerned, the story of Firdaus is also an allegory, a retelling not just of the tale of women's exploitation in a patriarchal society, but also of the wider story (to use the author's own words) of the “need to challenge and to overcome those forces that deprive human beings of their right to live, to love and to real freedom” (iv). As I intend to show, each of these levels of significance is supported through a mode of narrative organization which is recognizably picaresque in many of its characteristics. I also intend to show that in appropriating the picaresque model, el Saadawi produces some interesting variations on the mainstream picaresque theme.

It seems impossible to propose an absolute norm with regard to the picaresque novel. In its loosest modern sense, the term has come to signify “the autobiography of a nobody and his adventures in a repressive society”2—a description which fits el Saadawi's novel exactly. But even if we apply the most schematic formal criteria—as devised by Claudio Guillen, for example—then A Woman at Point Zero must still qualify for inclusion. In attempting his definition, Guillen singles out eight features which he finds essential to the genre. The picaresque narrative, he insists, is a form of pseudoautobiography which involves “a dynamic psycho-sociological situation,” in which “hardship and bitter lessons conspire at every turn to shape the hero into an enemy of the social fabric, if not into an active foe,” and in which the hero will “grow, learn, and change.”3 Typically, Guillen argues, “the total view of the picaro is reflective, philosophical, and critical on religious or moral grounds,” “there is a stress on the material level of existence,” “the picaro observes a number of collective conditions (social classes, cities, professions),” he “moves horizontally through space and vertically through society,” and the novel is “loosely episodic.” We may disagree as to the extent to which some of these ingredients might be said to apply to el Saadawi's narrative (her heroine, Firdaus, is always more concerned with the moral and spiritual than with the material, for example), but they are all to be detected in the text in one form or another. El Saadawi's innovative contribution to the tradition comes, firstly, in her female picaresque, or “picara,” who grows towards an explicitly feminist understanding of society, and in the way that this insight finally transforms her into what Guillen terms an “active foe” of the status quo. If the traditionally marginal situation of the picaro has encouraged a radicalized view of society and its workings, then A Woman at Point Zero carries the tradition to its logical boundary and presents us with a modern “picara” who metamorphoses into an iconoclast, driven to an extreme of disillusion and alienation not commonly experienced by the conventional picaro, who usually compromises, adapts, or remains a cynically detached observer.

Several standard elements in the picaresque situation give shape to the early sections of el Saadawi's narrative. Pellon and Rodriguez-Luis have noted of the picaresque genre that “the initial goal of rising in society, which characterizes the original Spanish picaros, remains a constant though the means of achieving that end, and the nature of the picaro, continually change with the evolution of the socio-economic and ideological climate in each age and country.” They add that the contemporary picaro remains “someone living at the margins of society. He is an outcast, even if this role is the character's own choice rather than one imposed on him by society.”4 The opening sequences of Firdaus' story reveal a strong concern for personal betterment, which indirectly leads to the marginal social role that she later assumes. Firdaus' girlish imagination rejects the idea that she belongs in the squalid poverty of the village, and that she is to spend the rest of her life as a beast of burden, carrying jars of water or loads of manure, when she is not laboring in the fields. The child possesses an unusually alert and inquisitive intellect, and is absorbed with the possibility of some alternative mode of existence, some other means of self-fulfillment. “So I would retrace my steps with bent head,” she says, recalling her childish disappointment at not being able to accompany her uncle on the train back to Cairo, and “as I walked along the country road, wondering about myself, the questions went round in my mind. Who was I? Who was my father? Was I going to spend my life sweeping the dung out from under the animals, carrying manure on my head, kneading dough, and baking bread?” (16)

The great city of Cairo becomes the focus of the child's yearnings for escape from the suffocating confines of the village. She is spellbound by her uncle's stories about “his room at the end of Mohammed Ali Street near the Citadel, about El Azhar, Ataba Square, the trams, the people who lived in Cairo” (15). With the deaths of her parents, Firdaus is orphaned (another common formative circumstance in the early life of the picaro) and is taken by her uncle to the city. There, she feels “as though I had just come into the world, or was being born a second time” (20). Her long peasant gallabeya is replaced by a smart knee-length dress, and for the first time in her life she wears shoes and attends school. This proves to be a brief interlude of satisfaction, however, and Firdaus is reminded of her precariously marginal status when her uncle takes a wife and sends his niece to board at the school. When the other girls are collected by their parents at weekends, Firdaus “would look over the top of the high wall and watch them as they departed, my eyes following the people and the movement of the street like a prisoner condemned to look out at life over the top of a high prison wall” (24).

An interesting feature of Firdaus' picaresque outlook is the way in which she clings to the prospect of social acceptability and recognition, even long after she has embarked on her career as a prostitute. At this early stage in her life, she assumes that she exercises complete control over her future, which, she says, “was still mine to paint in the colours I desired. Still mine to decide about freely, and change as I saw fit” (25). She dreams of becoming “a doctor, or an engineer, or a lawyer, or a judge.” After taking part in an anti-government street demonstration, she imagines herself as “a great leader or head of state.” However, her marginality helps her to become an acute and critical observer of men and politics. Through her reading of newspapers, magazines, and history books, she develops a suspicion of all rulers. El Saadawi's aggressive feminism informs Firdaus' quite precocious declaration that all the great rulers of history shared “an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows” (27). It is important to note that Firdaus' hostile attitude to the patriarchal establishment has a moral and philosophical foundation, and precedes her professional insights into its shams and hypocrisies. Her experience as a prostitute merely confirms conclusions she has already reached through study and reflection.

The typically episodic structure of the picaresque experience leads Firdaus through a series of relationships which leave her progressively more isolated from the respectable professional world she had envisaged. Unmistakably, it is society itself, with its cruelties and double standards, which is responsible for Firdaus' alienation and her eventual adoption of the life of a prostitute. In her marriage to Sheikh Mahmoud (who is more than sixty years old, while Firdaus is a mere nineteen), Firdaus finds herself treated as a sex object, when she is not cooking, cleaning, or washing for him. When the Sheikh takes to beating her, Firdaus is told by her uncle that “the precepts of religion permitted such punishment” and that “her duty was perfect obedience” (44). Significantly, it is in her dutiful role as wife that Firdaus first learns how to “turn off” physically, so that her body becomes “like a piece of dead wood or old neglected furniture … or a pair of shoes forgotten under a chair” (45). Firdaus' actual propulsion onto the city streets comes out of fear for her life, following a particularly savage attack by her husband which leaves her bleeding from nose and ears. From this point in the narrative, Firdaus is truly the outcast inasmuch as she is now without home or family. To her, the street looks “like a sea,” and she is “just a pebble thrown into it, battered by the waves, tossed here and there, rolling over and over to be abandoned somewhere on the shore” (45). In this classically alienated vision, Firdaus' potentially picaresque marginality is confirmed, imposed on her by an unjust and hypocritical society. Following a further experience of physical abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of the coffee-house owner, Bayoumi, the street becomes “the only safe place in which I could seek refuge, and into which I could escape with my whole being” (51).

Guillen has drawn attention to a distinction between “being and appearance, or between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ man,” which he finds “especially relevant to the picaresque and to its highly inventive uses of the autobiographical form.” In Guillen's view, “while the picaro becomes ‘socialized,’ while he assumes … a social role, a process of ‘interiorization’ is also taking place. An inner man (embracing all the richness and subtlety of one's private thoughts and judgments) affirms his independence from an outer man (the patterns of behavior, the simplicity of the social role).”5 This is precisely the case with Firdaus, who explains at one point that “as a prostitute I was not myself, my feelings did not arise from within me. They were not really mine” (85). She continues to grow intellectually and emotionally, to assert an increasingly defiant independence of spirit, even as her “social role” as prostitute begins to take shape. One of her most important early teachers in this process is Sharifa, the procuress, who “opened my eyes to life,” Firdaus says, “to events in my past, in my childhood, which had remained hidden to my mind. She probed with a searching light revealing obscure areas of myself, unseen features of my face and body, making me become aware of them, understand them, see them for the first time” (54).

This process of “interiorization” involves speculations, reflections and judgments on a wide variety of topics, including the almost religious value that society appears to place on money. When Firdaus' first client gives her a ten-pound note, “it was as if he had lifted a veil from my eyes,” she says, “and I was seeing for the first time” (64). What she sees is that money represents independence and power, and she feels “the elation of a child that has just pulled a toy to pieces and discovered the secret of how it works” (68). The money Firdaus earns enables her to lead a content and meaningful life—to enjoy visits to the theater and cinema, to buy books and paintings, to discuss culture and politics with friends. In other words, she is able for the first time in her life (at the age of twenty-five) to exert unrestricted control over her own life, and to have full expression to her individuality. “How many were the years of my life that went by before my body and my self became really mine,” she says, “to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who told me in their grasp since the very first day?” (68) At this high point in her career, Firdaus experiences a heady feeling of liberation and a very definite sense of accomplishment at having held her own against the worst that a hostile world can do.

Guillen's distinction between the “inner” and the “outer” in the picaresque personality implies a possibly incomplete or ambiguous estrangement from society and its established ideologies. Firdaus' hankering for a niche in society, where she will be able to make use of her prized secondary school certificate, reasserts itself during this period of her greatest satisfaction. Insulted by a client who describes her as “not respectable,” Firdaus resolves to begin a new life of respectability. “From that moment onward,” she says, “I became another woman. My previous life was behind me. I did not want to go back to it at any price, no matter what torture and suffering I might have to go through, even if I were to know hunger and cold, and utter destitution. Come what may, I had to become a respectable woman, even if the price were to be my life” (73). This attempt to renew her membership in conventional society ends in failure, for the reason that society refuses to offer Firdaus genuine respect, even after three years as “the most highly considered of all the female officials in the company” (76). At the end of this period, she explains, “I realized that as a prostitute I had been looked upon with more respect, and been valued more highly than all the female employees, myself included” (75). This is a significant moment in Firdaus' intellectual growth. She prepares herself to resume her “picara” role as a prostitute rather than continue as a “respectable” employee, since respectability involves exploitation and degradation. She emerges as morally superior to her respectable female colleagues, “who were guileless enough to offer their bodies and their physical efforts every night in return for a meal, or a good yearly report, or just to ensure that they would not be treated unfairly, or discriminated against, or transferred.” One of the ironies of her situation is that because she refuses to submit to the blandishments of the higher officials, Firdaus acquires a reputation as “the most honourable” female employee in the company. Finally, she comes to the conclusion that “all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices, and that an expensive prostitute was better than a cheap one” (76).

Although her feminist reading of society is well on the way to being formed, it is not until her notions about romantic love are shattered that she is able to detach herself absolutely from the conventional social world. Unlike her notable “picara” predecessors (one thinks here of Defoe's Moll Flanders, for example), Firdaus has not frozen herself emotionally, and has not yet become irretrievably cynical about human behavior. It is as a romantic idealist that she dedicates herself to her fellow employee, Ibrahim, chairman of the workers' revolutionary committee. “It was as though I held the whole world captive in my hands” (82), she says of her exultant mood after their first lovemaking. As she explains after her inevitable betrayal by Ibrahim, love had seemed to offer her the only way to “find myself again, to recover the self I had lost. To become a human being who was not looked upon with scorn, or despised, but respected, and cherished and made to feel whole” (86). Firdaus' enduring capacity to love and her need to receive love give her an emotional depth not usually associated with the traditionally unsentimental and hard-boiled picaresque protagonist.

With her rejection in love (the “revolutionary” Ibrahim sells out by becoming engaged to the chairman's daughter), the last remaining veil of delusion is removed from Firdaus' eyes. Her estrangement becomes total, her hostility toward the male establishment uncompromising. It is at this juncture that she literally becomes an “active foe” of “the social fabric,” to repeat Guillen's phrase, with her animosity expressed through her stabbing of the pimp, Marzouk, who appears as yet another exploiting and manipulative male. El Saadawi's description of this final phase of her heroine's career is noteworthy for the almost cosmic sense of release now experienced by Firdaus via her unambiguously picaresque situation. Now “aware of the reality, of the truth” (that “all women are victims of deception,” and that “a successful prostitute was better than a misled saint”), Firdaus “experiences the rare pleasure of having no ties with anyone, of having broken with everything, of having cut all relations with the world around her, of being completely independent and living her independence completely, of enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage, or to love; of being divorced from all limitations whether rooted in rules and laws in time or in the universe” (87). This signals an interesting advance on the less complete separation from society normally enjoyed by the picaresque protagonist, who is usually unable to cast himself off altogether from his fellow men, and who remains to one degree or another dependent. Clearly, what Firdaus relishes in her “picara” extremity is the ability to direct her life absolutely, in unrestricted freedom of spirit. For the first time in her life, also, she “no longer fears anything, for everything which can hurt her she has already undergone.”

That Firdaus' freedom is tragically short-lived and ends in her literal destruction suggests that the picaresque extreme to which el Saadawi leads her heroine will be impossible to preserve. That society will always overcome the truly rebellious outsider seems to be el Saadawi's final verdict. However, on one level, as one reviewer has pointed out Firdaus' act of murder does represent “a genuine liberation.”6 “I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live,” says Firdaus on the eve of her execution, “nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free” (101). El Saadawi succeeds in making her “picara” a truly exceptional figure, one who was “in fact, better than all the men and women we normally hear about, or see, or know” (4), including the author herself.

Notwithstanding the frequent stridency of her feminism, el Saadawi presents us with a picaresque heroine who finally surmounts the limitations of the genre stereotype, and who becomes the voice of “the savage, primitive truths of life” (102). If the picaresque tradition really is in a state of continuing evolution and diversification, as most authorities seem to agree, then Nawal El Saadawi's feminist version should certainly be recognized as one expression of it. A Woman at Point Zero is evidence of the enduring attraction of the picaresque motif to the modern literary imagination, and of its appeal in particular to those, like el Saadawi, who are concerned with the unequal struggle between the dissenting individual and a repressive society.


  1. Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), iii. Subsequent references are to this edition, and will be given parenthetically in the text. The novel was originally published in Arabic, 1975.

  2. Harry Sieber, The Picaresque (London: Methuen, 1977), 74.

  3. Claudio Guillen, “Toward a Definition of the Picaresque,” in Upstarts, Wanderers or Swindlers: Anatomy of the Picaro (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B. V., 1986), 86.

  4. Gustavo Pellon and Julio Rodriguez-Luis, “Introduction,” Upstarts, 19.

  5. Guillen, 90.

  6. Fedwa Malti-Douglas, “An Egyptian Iconoclast: Nawal el Saadawi and Feminist Fiction,” American Book Review 11:3 (July/August 1989), 5.

Nawal El Saadawi and Angela Johnson (interview date March 1992)

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SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and Angela Johnson. “Speaking at Point Zero: [off our backs] Talks with Nawal El Saadawi.” off our backs 22, no. 3 (March 1992): 1, 6-7.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi shares her views on the political aspects of female liberation, discusses women's political oppression in Egypt, and outlines the impetus behind her writings.]

At the recent National Organization for Women (NOW) 25th Anniversary Conference [off our backs] collective member Angela Johnson interviewed Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El-Saadawi.

[Johnson]: What did you think of the conference?

[El Saadawi]: I think it's a good conference. This global conception of feminism and women's liberation that NOW as one of the very big women's organizations here, is now starting to think that our enemy is global, and that we should have a global struggle, and work together.

I told them that in the plenary session today. I said I came for two reasons; because NOW organized a demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy to protest against the closing of our association, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA). You wrote about our group sometime in your magazine. [1987.] This is a pan-Arab international association, and we have status with the United Nations. We also have an Egyptian branch.

The minister of social affairs in the Egyptian government issued a decree last June to close the Egyptian association, not the international group. We think this is political because we were very much against the government. We had an international women's peace initiative: we went to Baghdad and Geneva. We had a tour here with Madre and we did a lot of work to fight against the war, to stop it. And we failed, but we were very outspoken against the war, and against American intervention, the so-called Allies, etc.


And the double standard of the United Nations. We called it the “United Nations of America”, in fact. So this did not please the Egyptian government, so they closed the Association down. This was the main reason. There were many other reasons, chronic reasons. They don't like our politics, the minister of social affairs sent us a letter in November 1991, telling us “you should not discuss politics or religion, according to the law of association in Egypt.” So we organized a committee to change the law of association, because we said it's a very undemocratic law, and Egypt is democratic. They say it's democratic, so how can you have such a law? The grassroot members of associations cannot discuss politics or religion, so what do they speak about? So anyway, this was really ridiculous. So NOW organized a demonstration here last October in front of the Egyptian embassy, protesting. So this is international solidarity. It's a concrete example; it's not talking, it's acting. So that's why I came. Also because of the title of the conference itself: Global. A Global Conception of Feminism. We need that, because our enemy is global. Our struggle should be global. We discussed a lot of things. We discussed fundamentalism, we discussed religion, we discussed sex, we discussed class. I spoke today about the new international order of Bush. I said we should have our new world women's order. We must fight against this new world order of Bush, it's a new imperialist order. We must have our new women's world order, with such characteristics: no militarism, no double standards, separation between religion and state; religion is personal, or we re-interpret religion and god is not a book, god is inside us. Freedom, justice, and god is not the bible or the old testament or the Koran, god is human, inside each of us. This is our women's world order.

There was a group discussing fundamentalism, discussing the Palestinian problem in the middle east. In the group, some of the Israeli women were upset, but it went on well. We told them, “we differ, and you should listen”. Hanan Ashrawi came. The Palestinian spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation [at the Middle East peace talks]. She came and she spoke. She gave a very good presentation about her life as a Palestinian woman, what's happening, the curfew, the deportation of Palestinians, etc., etc.


So in a way I think now the National Organization of Women here is really changing towards global feminism; towards also being politicized, not to separate between politics and women. Because there is no separation between women and politics. I remember in Copenhagen and in Nairobi [UN Decade on Women conferences, 1980 and 1985] American women—some of the prominent American women, came to me and told me “We do not want to politicize the conference. Please do not speak about political issues, or the Palestinian issue. We want to speak about women's issues.” And I was astonished. I told them “but women's issues are political. Everything is political.” If a husband rapes his wife in bed, this is politics, because it's power; and dictatorship in the family is related to dictatorship in the state, is related to dictatorship in religion. And you cannot separate them. You cannot separate sex from religion or politics from international politics. And that's how we understand feminism in our region. That's our feminism. It has all these dimensions—international politics, national, the family, family, sex, psychology, the history, even anthropology. All of this. That's how we understand it. And that's the creativity of feminism, the input of feminism to the world's civilization. It's a new civilization. I think feminism is a new civilization. To me, it's a new science. Even in medicine. I am a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, and I think women made a revolution in biology, in psychology, in religion. And then somebody comes and tells me to separate between women's issues and politics. To me this is ridiculous.


Do you think that there is an upward progress for women? Do you think that things change for the better, or just change? The things that were happening in the Persian Gulf—power shifted there, and power shifted there repeatedly. Is it getting better, or is it just changing?

Of course, the Gulf War was a disaster. A disaster for everybody, especially for the Arab people. A lot of people were killed so that George Bush dominates and takes our oil, and puts permanent leaders in power in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Gulf region and the Arab world. And that's why we call it the new colonial order. So we are defeated in the war, as Arab peoples, Arab countries, nations, etc. And women are half the Arab world, so women are defeated. Poverty is increased, unemployment, fundamentalism.

In fact, the fundamentalist movement is universal, it's political, it's not only Islamics, it's Christians and Jews, etc., etc. I agree to that. But younger people, when they see the double standard of George Bush, when they see that he is so discriminatory to the Arab people and so supportive of Israel, that he brought thirty armies, thirty countries fighting because he wanted to liberate Kuwait, and he didn't move a finger to liberate Palestine—he was even supporting Israel all the time—people felt the double standard, so many young people became fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, just to fight against Judaism, Jews and Americans. Islam is their identity, they fight for Islam. Those are the enemies of Islam—George Bush and Israel. The failure to solve the Israeli, Palestinian and Arab conflict increases fundamentalism in our region, like what happened in Algeria.

I was in Algeria a few weeks ago, because we were—when our association was called in Egypt, we wanted to organize our conference in Algeria. So what I noticed is that the majority of the fundamentalist movement in Algeria were pro-Saddam Hussein, they were against the Gulf War, they were against Bush, against Israel. So they took it—they went to fundamentalism because it was part of their patriotic fighting. And this is happening in many other countries in the Arab world. So the effect of the Gulf War is really very negative, because whenever you have fundamentalist movements, women are the first targets. They veil women, they oppress women. Even Jewish fundamentalists. They oppress women. Christian fundamentalists—they oppress women. Because we are oppressed in all religions. We are oppressed in the three books. We are the first target.

So what you're seeing now is a worsening of conditions. It's getting worse.

Somehow, yes. I can see after the Gulf War things are becoming worse. The gap between classes increases, the gap between sexes increases, the gap between us—so-called Third World—and so-called First-World increases. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are the new enemy. So they replace one devil by another devil. So from that point of view everything's gone backwards.

What do you think could happen to turn that around?

Even when our association was closed, you know the decree of the government said that our money and our belongings should go to another association called Women of Islam.

In fact, fundamentalism in our region—we call it State Fundamentalism. But, there are positive things. Because with each negative backlash, new powers come in fighting. And I think the conflict is greater, but there are many people now who are women and men and young people and the poor, because when you are suffering, you seek … you have to fight back. So though the power that pulls back a society is strong, also the society—its interest lies in progress, and diminution of the gap between classes, and diminution of the gap between sexes. Diminution of the gap between the first and so-called Third World are also increasing. So there is positive, and that's why I am optimistic. I am very optimistic, in spite of everything.

So you think that there can be overall progress, despite the setbacks that we're seeing right now?

Yes, yes, yes. And this is history. Because human history goes in a zig-zag line. Two steps forward and one step back … two steps forward—we are in the step back. But there will be two steps forward, and that's why humanity progresses. Of course. So the future will be better than the present or the past. I believe in the future. That's my nature. Even when I was in jail, I was very optimistic. That's my character.

I first really became aware of politics at just about the time Ronald Reagan was elected in the United States. And so my view is very pessimistic … a constant disillusionment.

Maybe because I am a fiction writer and a novelist, I am dreaming. I live in dreams. I don't separate very very much between reality and dreams, and dreams to me span reality. Because I am a fiction writer. So I very much believe in progress and in the future. And this also serves to bring me a lot of power. When I lose hope, I am very weak. Yes, and when I have hope, some power comes from nowhere. I feel a power.

And I remember we were in jail, when Sadat put us in jail in '81, and the women with me were depressed and pessimistic, because Sadat was terrible, and he was strong, and we thought that we will be in jail forever, he will live for twenty or thirty years and we will be there. And I was optimistic, and I was smuggling toilet paper, writing my novel on it, and I was living, trying to live, and even to dance and to do something in this small cell. And they were astonished, and they called me “Nawal the Naive.” Yes! They called me that. “Nawal the Optimistic Naive.” And they tell me, “We are going to die here.” I tell them “No. He will die before us. Can you imagine? We will survive.” And he died before us! So, though his death never came to my mind, I thought “No, I am not going to be defeated. Never. I am not defeated.”

And when they closed the association, I am not defeated. I am suing the government. I am taking the government to court. And thirteen lawyers volunteered to defend us. And I am optimistic. I think we will win. Even if we lose the case, I think we will win.

I've been with the paper for about four years, and in that time I've seen us go through hard times that were very depressing, and I think that the way you can stay committed to change is what you're saying—to always think it's going to get better, and to have a lot of personal belief that what you're doing is right. When I look at myself, and I look at what we're doing with our journal, I really think it's important. That makes me love the work.

Yes, I think it's related to love. But also we have our moments of anger and defeat. But that's natural, because you cannot all the time be optimistic. You become pessimistic one day, and very low and defeated. And suddenly something happens to you, and you become optimistic. And we have to encourage this optimistic part in us. I encourage it. And I develop it. And it's sometimes illogical to be optimistic. But still it's there. And this is the power of the human being. And also creativity and fiction—because you dream.

And your fiction is often rather dream-like. I'm thinking specifically of The Circling Song.

Yes, yes. And A Woman at Point Zero, Ferdaus, ah, yes. I wrote it spontaneously. It came out.

When you write, do you sit down with an idea beforehand, or do you just write what comes to you at the moment?

Well, it depends. For instance, A Woman at Point Zero. When I saw this woman, I couldn't rest except when I finished the novel. It's a short novel, it's more or less a real story with some imagination. But I finished it in one week. I just sat and wrote it as a long short story. So when it came up I was relaxed. I was so impressed with the meeting [with Ferdaus]. She inspired me. I meet people sometimes who inspire me. And I meet them and I want to go home and write. Sometimes you read a book, or you see a movie, and you want to go home and write. I met this woman and I wanted to write. So it depends on the subject. And sometimes I plan it. Like The Fall of the Imam, of my last novel, The Innocence of the Devil. (It came in Arabic only, not yet in English). The Fall of the Devil—for years—an incubation period. The Innocence of the Devil, I had to re-read the Bible, the Old Testament, the Koran. It's a novel based on—it's different in style. With each novel, my style changes with the subject.

It's hard to get a feel for whether your style is progressing, because they haven't come out (in the States) in chronological order. But they're certainly very different. When I was in college I read The Hidden Face of Eve. I was very young, and I had come from my own very fundamentalist background. But it was exciting to read, it made me start to see that women were not just the women that I had grown up with.

Though it's written by a woman in the Arab world, how can you compare this with other books in English? Feminist books? It's the same. I met a German woman who came to Egypt looking for me. She read The Hidden Face [The Hidden Face of Eve] in German, translated. She was young, in college. She economized her ticket from Germany to Cairo, and she came and I was in Alexandria. She went to Cairo and somebody told her I was in Alexandria. She came to Alexandria and I was walking by the sea, and she told me “You are Nawal El Saadawi? I came to meet you from Germany. I read your book, The Hidden Face, and it changed my life.” A German woman! I never forget that. Because in the Arab world I usually meet a lot of young men and women, young women and men sometimes who read my books and say “You know, your book changed my life.” But a German woman, to come from Germany! And now when you told me that you read The Hidden Face and it gave you insight, I think this a big reward for a writer. And I have no rewards in my country, no rewards! I'm always punished.

I am not allowed to speak to the media. So a lot of people there know me, but some younger generations … some people don't know me at all. In some Arab countries, there is no restriction. For instance, in Algeria, I am much known. I am more well known in Europe than in America. Whenever I go to London I am interviewed by the BBC, by television, by radio, by the newspapers. In Germany also I am known; in France; in Sweden; in all European countries. But in the States, because my books are not here—

How does it feel to be so well known?

Sometimes I don't feel I am so well known. You know, the human personality is very strange. As if I am two persons. Nawal El Saadawi the genuine one and Nawal El Saadawi the writer. They are mixed. So the two together, the one who feels she is oppressed and a failure and not known, etc., etc., and the other one who feels she's known and achieved, and they go together all the time. But of course, to be known is very gratifying. I think people like to be known. I cannot lie and say “Well, I don't want to be known, I hate it.” Some people say “Oh, I am fed up, I don't want to be known, it's annoying me”. I cannot lie. It's very good to be known and people to recognize you. It's very rewarding. It proves that you did something. And especially if you are known not through the traditional power structure. I am known in spite of my government. I am not an establishment writer. There are many writers in Egypt and in the Arab world who are really helped by their government to be known. They are in the media, the government translates their work, etc., etc. But I was known in spite of my opposition to my government. My books were translated without the help of the government. So this gives me a lot of satisfaction, that I made my own self. Nobody made me.

I have no family, because I came from a very poor family in the village. In Egypt, and in many Arab countries, you must have a feudal big family to support you, to help you; a family with a name, because we have a class system. So if you are from a big family, that helps you. So, I didn't have a family, really in that sense, to help. I didn't have a government to help me, because I was against the government. The government dismissed me from my work, put me in jail, banned my books, distorted my reputation, silenced me, closed the Association. So I am building my own self in spite of all the factors in my country that can help anybody: family, class, state, anything. This gives me some satisfaction, that I made it myself.


I think writing is a beautiful weapon. The pen is a beautiful weapon. I love writing, and especially fiction. I put myself in people, and that's why I touch the heart of people. And also when I was talking this morning, I felt that there was a sort of love between me and the people. I never prepared the talk, I just talked.

I think writing, also, when you write spontaneously—when you give yourself, people feel it. Writing sometimes is very, very difficult. When I tried to pre-plan something, it doesn't come out as when I really just be myself. But we have—everybody has some mask. I really try not to have a mask at all, and to fight against this mask, try to be myself. But it makes you also very vulnerable. There is no shell. I learn from my life. When I risk, I gain. Even when I risk myself. So I put myself out here, that's it, and let's see what's going to happen.

I'm a lesbian. People say it's very hard to be out, because you're open to attack, which is true. But it's so much easier—so much easier than holding yourself in.

It's liberating. When you lie, when you hide something, it needs energy. It needs a lot of memory to hide. You have all the time to remember that you have to hide. But if you leave yourself out, nothing will happen. And people should accept people as they are. This happened to me several times. For instance, when I wrote my first chapter, about clitorodectomy, which happened to me. The opening chapter for The Hidden Face of Eve. I was very very frightened. But like you, I said “I'm writing this.” Because writing is enriching. You create yourself. Writing is powerful, very powerful.

I remember in our jail, the jailor comes and inspects the cell, and says “If I find a paper and pen in your cell, it's more dangerous than if I find a gun.” You are not allowed to have a piece of paper, or even toilet paper, to write on. Can you imagine?

And how did you write then?

Well, the prostitutes' cell was near us. They allowed the prostitutes radio, television and paper, everything; but not the political cell, our cell. They prevented newspaper or radio or television or paper—anything—or letters. And they didn't want us to write any small letter and send it outside. So that's why they prevented us from [having] a piece of paper or pen. But I [made] friendship with a prostitute through the bars, and she smuggled some of the toilet paper from her cell to us—to me. And I had to hide it in a tin, under the ground, so when the jailer comes to inspect, they didn't find it. And I wrote with a small pen—it was an eyebrow pen. So I used to sit at night, when everybody is sleeping, and write under a very dim light with this small pen like that on toilet paper. For me, this was paradise—to have such toilet paper, it was paradise. You have to read my Memoirs from Prison [Memoirs from the Women's Prison]. I described all that.

When did you learn to speak English?

Well, it's draining. I studied in Egypt. I studied medicine in Egypt. The faculty of medicine in Egypt, in Cairo, they taught us medicine in English. Also, I was in an English school in my small town. I spoke when I was a little girl, in the school. And then in the high school, I lost my English, and then I gained it in the college.

How did you get in to college? You came from the village, from a poor family?

My father came from a very poor family. He had six sisters and his mother, and his father died very early of some endemic disease among the peasants. So my grandmother decided that her son would never be a peasant, and would not die young. She was a very strong-willed woman, and she educated her son. She used to tell me “I starved to educate your father.” And he went to school, he was brilliant and he got scholarships, he graduated from University and had a post in the Ministry of Education. So he felt that now he could marry a woman from the middle class. So he went and married my mother, who came from a relatively middle class or upper-middle class in Cairo. So I was brought up between two classes: the very poor peasant class of my father, and the bourgeouis family of my mother. And that's why I was very class-conscious when I was young. My maternal relatives, they despised us very much. They said “you are peasants.” And I hated them, I can remember. I loved much more the family of my father, though they were poor and peasants. The others were very snobbish. So in fact, we were nine children. My mother was a housewife, of course, because she married my father when she was sixteen. She was in school, they got her out of school to marry my father, and she brought nine children, and she died when she was forty-five. Miserable woman, but she was a great mother. But my father, because he had a post in Education, was a man of vision. He believed in education. And because education saved him from dying prematurely like his father, and also from poverty—he had a salary—he became a director of education in one of the provinces, and he educated the nine of us in University. He sent the nine of us.

[off our backs note: at this point, the tape ran out, and a few minutes of the interview were lost to posterity.]

On one of the days of the conference, I saw a group of people protesting abortion across from the hotel where the conference was held, and began to speak with them. They were against abortion. And they are women. I asked why, they said, because they are doing that demonstration against NOW.


They intended to stand there, to meet those women, the feminist women of NOW. So why those women are doing that? You see? Like why women are raped, why women are beaten by their husbands and still stay, etc., etc.

I think this is related to the whole mechanism of conditioning and socializing, and that women prefer to be safe and secure in marriage, because it's very dangerous to be free. Though a lot of young women today love my books, and tell me “you've changed my life”, etc., sometimes they tell me “I prefer to go and marry some husband who'll provide for me and live under a roof with nobody to attack me”—they are afraid, they are afraid of my life. They say I can't go to jail, I can't be dismissed from my work, I can't be divorced like you, I cannot, I cannot, I cannot. So they are afraid, because the price of freedom is very, very high, especially at our age, and that's why they go back. They are not ready to pay the price of freedom. Even in the United States.

Evelyne Accad (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Accad, Evelyne. Review of Searching, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 396.

[In the following review, Accad presents an enthusiastically positive assessment of Searching, stating that in this novel, El Saadawi explores women's self-actualization and independence in a repressive, male-dominated atmosphere.]

The well-known Egyptian novelist, physician, and psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi, whose many achievements were made in spite of the bias she encountered within her society and who has already amazed us with her courage and her relentless struggle against the harmful stereotypes of women in the Arab world, has once more, in her poignant “search,” hit upon the important questions and problems plaguing Arab society and most other societies around the globe. It is no wonder that the first publication in English of her novel Searching, originally written in Arabic, has won critical acclaim from the judges for this year's Feminist Book Fortnight.

On one level Searching tells the story of Fouada (meaning “heart” in Arabic), who is looking for her missing lover Farid after he has failed to keep their weekly appointment at a restaurant overlooking the Nile. She calls him repeatedly at his home, but as the telephone rings unanswered, she gradually begins coming to grips with his disappearance and with her loss.

On another level the search is a pretext for a much deeper probing into the significance of life. Fouada realizes she is stuck in a dead-end ministry job and that there must be other more meaningful ways of having an impact on the world. But where and how? Like A Woman at Point Zero, another of El Saadawi's novels available in English, Searching is the long, painful journey of a woman into her inner self and into the limitations society places upon women who want to rise above the pettiness, the hypocrisy, and the walls surrounding their lives. In both novels El Saadawi indicts society and shows the need for change and reform. This is where the similarity between the two novels ends, however, for the two female protagonists come from different class backgrounds and the restrictions placed on their lives are different. Firdaws, in A Woman at Point Zero, reaches a dead end in all aspects of her life, whereas Fouada, relatively free by comparison, can go on dreaming even when her dreams appear unattainable.

It is no coincidence that Fouada holds a ministry job, as El Saadawi did at one point in her life before being dismissed after the publication of her controversial theoretical work on women and sex, The Hidden Face of Eve, and that she lives in Cairo, confronted with the pollution and the overcrowding of a city threatened with major catastrophes of today's world. It is also not by chance that Fouada would like to have been a scientist and that she opens a chemistry lab, hoping to make “a chemical discovery to eliminate hunger, a new gas for millions to breathe instead of food.” She refuses a banal existence: “She would not simply live and die, and the world remain the same.” So she goes on searching for that “unique idea” which will not emerge, impeded as it is by “thick walls.” El Saadawi is dealing with the problems that haunt her and that she confronts every day.

Fouada's search becomes more desperate as her lover Farid appears to have vanished and as her dreams seem less and less attainable. Ultimately she discovers that he has been imprisoned, leaving her these words of hope (which end the novel): “Do not grieve, Fouada, and do not weep. The words are in the wind beyond the walls, alive and entering hearts with the very air. A day will surely come when the walls will fall and voices once again be freed to speak.” El Saadawi knows how to bring out the real issues, the ones that need to be addressed and dealt with, if our world is to survive. In Searching she does this with renewed imagination, creative ideas, descriptions and images that are very effective, and a maturity of style and thought.

Nawal El Saadawi and George Lerner (interview date April 1992)

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SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and George Lerner. “Nawal El Saadawi: ‘To Us, Women's Liberation Is the Unveiling of the Mind’.” Progressive 56, no. 4 (April 1992): 32-5.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi expresses her opinion on the strides toward equality that women have made in the Middle East, discusses the political climate in Egypt, and excoriates American interference in Middle Eastern politics, finding that American involvement adds to increased fundamentalism and therefore more oppression of women.]

Nawal el-Saadawi, the author of more than two dozen books, is a champion of the women's liberation movement in Egypt. A physician by training, El-Saadawi, sixty, has used her experiences treating women of all social classes as a field study of Egyptian women.

In many novels and in such path-breaking nonfiction works as Women and Sex and The Hidden Face of Eve, el-Saadawi has decried the male domination of society and the practice of female circumcision, which persists to this day. Having written extensively of the pain and fear accompanying her own circumcision at the age of six, she has tried to educate and organize groups against the practice.

El-Saadawi challenges the righteousness of Islamic fundamentalists and the domination of political power by the Sadat and Mubarak governments of Egypt. Her progressive positions on women's roles have also alienated some on the Left. Resistance to her views after the 1972 publication of Women and Sex forced her from her position as director-general of Egypt's Ministry of Health. Several months before his assassination, Anwar Sadat imprisoned el-Saadawi, along with a thousand other activists, in an attempt to suppress all opposition. Following her release by President Mubarak, she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA) with the aim of attaining political power for women.

We spoke in her Cairo home shortly after the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs closed the AWSA office, citing the organization's failure to comply with administrative requirements.

[Lerner]: What were some of your ideas in founding the AWSA?

[El Saadawi]: Half of our society is women. They should start to speak for themselves, to write for themselves, to think for themselves, and to correct the laws that oppress them. We need advancement of women; we need women to participate in changing the society, to fight against class oppression and patriarchal oppression. We also need to create union among women, to create political power. We have two slogans: Unveiling of the Mind, creating awareness among women, and Union and Solidarity to bring political power for women.

We founded the Association in 1982, but the Minister of Social Affairs, who is a woman, refused to register it until 1985. Last June 15, the Vice President issued a decree to close the AWSA in Egypt. We are now taking the government to court because this is against the law. The government closed the Egyptian association, but it cannot close the International Arab Women's Solidarity Association, which has status with the United Nations and a board from many Arab nations.

In your writing, you link political power to the domestic role of women within a patriarchal system. How do you propose changing women's roles in Egypt?

By changing their image. If a woman thinks she was created by God to stay at home and serve her husband, then she can never do anything. We are trying to change this image, to unveil her mind, to tell her, “No, you are not here to be just a wife and a mother, to cook and clean, to be a servant in the house. You are here as a human being to participate politically in the government of your country, to speak up and to write and to challenge.” Women are changing their roles, and are now starting to understand that their roles in life are not limited to the home.

When you wrote The Hidden Face of Eve in 1980, women made up 9 per cent of the Egyptian work force. Do women have more access now to job opportunities and education?

I come from a village where all my aunts and my grandmothers worked in the fields and received no wages. Housewives work very hard, but receive no wages. What happened when women went out to work under the class-patriarchal system? The women's work outside the house became an extension of their duties inside the house. They brought the money back to their husbands and the husbands oppressed them. We have to change this. Women should work outside the house and be paid. This work should help them to have a new awareness and new economic and political power.

Was this new awareness behind the founding of the AWSA?

They closed the association because it was the only feminist group in Egypt and in the Arab world. We had seminars on topics ranging from the Gulf war to women killing their husbands, to sex, to politics, to economics, and more. We discussed everything in a scientific and free way, bringing together the Right and Left, the governmental and nongovernmental. Everyone was talking about our seminars. The government didn't like that.

How successful have you been in appealing to women across social classes?

We brought in women from the upper classes who were very much against the marriage law and against oppression within marriage. Still, they were the privileged class. Peasant women, poor women came to us because they were oppressed economically by class, because they were oppressed by their husbands and by their fathers.

How would you define feminism in Egypt?

Feminism to us is a very English word. We call it women's liberation because we don't have feminism in Arabic. Women's liberation means the liberation from class oppression and patriarchal oppression. We are attacked by different groups. The Right said we were Marxists, the dogmatic Left said we were Westernized, and the fundamentalists thought we were atheists.

You describe early Islam as having been a force of liberation for women. In the West, some people conceive of Islam as being oppressive towards women, as represented by the veil.

Many people in the West think Arab women are oppressed because of Islam. This is not true. When I compared the Koran to the Christian Bible, to the Old Testament, or to the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, and when I examined the relationships of these religions to women, I discovered that Islam is less oppressive to women than Christianity or Judaism. The concept of virginity, of oppression, and of the superiority of men is imbedded in Judaism and Christianity. These themes are also in Islam, but much less so. Mohammed was very progressive. He spoke very highly of women; he loved women. Sexual relations are very flexible in Islam.

What changed in Islam after Mohammed's death regarding the status of women?

Religions usually start progressive. They start as revolutions against poverty and against oppression, but after they become established they become oppressive. Mohammed was a poor man who fought for the oppressed groups; for slaves and for women. In his later life, and after his death, Islam began invading countries to kill people and to get them inside Islam. Then the oppression started.

Are there any people or institutions that interpret Islam in a progressive way, a way liberating towards women?

Many people are doing that; Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, Rifat Hassan in Pakistan, and many other women writers. Sheikh al Ghazalli in Egypt is quite progressive, relative to the other Sheikhs. They are not purely religious men or women. They may be sociologists who are studying religion. Religion is a social phenomenon; why should it be restricted only to the so-called theologists? Man created God; God did not create man. Sociologists, writers, and other thinkers should reinterpret Islam.

So the liberation of women involves the reinterpretation of religion?

Exactly. We are always linking religion to politics to sex. We are talking about the three taboos: religion, sex, and politics. This to us is feminism or women's liberation, the unveiling of the mind.

How do you see the origin of the veil? Why did patriarchal society develop the veil?

Veiling occurred in history before Islam, before Christianity, and before Judaism. It came with the evolution of slave society and with patriarchy: monogamy for women and polygamy for men.

Patriarchy is based on monogamy for women. If a woman were to marry two husbands, the whole patriarchal structure would collapse, because fatherhood would never be known. So the husband is very sensitive about his wife; she is his private property. He must cover her so that no other man will see or touch her. He wants to give his inheritance to his children, so he must be sure that nobody has touched his wife, that those children are his children, and that he is the father. That is the basis of patriarchy.

So women become a kind of private property, a kind of capital?

Exactly. She becomes an instrument to bear children, to work in the house. When she is divorced, the man takes the children and gives his name to them. Her name is lost in history.

At the same time, you've described the role of men as a legalized sexual licentiousness.

If a man has sexual relations with four wives or ten wives, this will never threaten patriarchy because fatherhood still will be known. But if his wife has sexual relations with another man, then fatherhood comes under doubt.

Couldn't a conservative Islamic theologian justify patriarchy by pointing out that Mohammed had twelve wives?

Mohammed married many women because in his time men married many women. He tried to restrict the number. Like female and male circumcision, polygamy started in the slave systems. In Islam, Mohammed tried to diminish female circumcision. He said, “Do not cut the whole clitoris, cut just a piece.”

He was trying to diminish the number of wives, to diminish polygamy, and to diminish slavery. We have to judge Mohammed in the context of history, not by our criteria. In the Arabian desert where men were really corrupt, he was one of the most honorable men.

Why do you think there is a difference between the practice of male and female circumcision? While young girls are circumcised in secret, boys are circumcised amidst celebrations.

In some societies, women are circumcised with celebration. But generally the rite is secret because it is offensive and painful. Inside themselves, people think it's wrong. I saw a woman crying when she allowed her daughter to be circumcised. She couldn't help it. She said, “That is what God said.” But God has nothing to do with it.

You gained much renown after the publication of Women and Sex.

It was the first book in Arabic to speak about cliteridectomy and virginity in a scientific way. And they banned it. They allow pornography, but they don't allow scientific books on sex. That is the paradox of patriarchy and class.

Wasn't Women and Sex banned for some time?

All my books were banned for eleven years under Anwar Sadat. I had to publish in Lebanon. I call the eleven years of Sadat the dark years, which ended with his putting me in jail. First, I was dismissed as the director-general of the Ministry of Health in 1972.

After the publication of Women and Sex?

And also the publication of the magazine Health. I was editor of Health and founded the Health Association. I lost my job, lost my magazine, my writings were censored, and then it ended with my landing in jail. I was never given a platform, never allowed to speak on television or radio.

You have written more than twenty novels and short stories, as well as six nonfiction works. How do you compare fiction to scholarly writing?

The effect of fiction on me is deeper than the effect of studies. When I write a study, I am illuminated by the research, but when I write a novel, I know myself better. The same is true for readers. When you read a novel, you become another person. You have a totally new light, and you have a new conception of fighting and courage, of weakness and cowardice. You understand many things about yourself; how weak you are and how strong you can be. This does not come from a study. A study gives information but a creative work gives light to the brain.

Yet you mix many contemporary figures into your fictional characters.

All my characters are real, even the Imam [the religious authority in The Fall of the Imam]. He may be Sadat, Khomeini, Reagan, Bush, Kennedy, or anyone who uses God and politics.

The Imam seems to be many of these men at the same time.

Yes, this is the amazing part of art and fiction. As a medical doctor and as a novelist, I am a link between fiction and science. I don't feel any separation between fiction and nonfiction, between reality and dreams. It's all here in the mind, the subconscious and the conscious together: the body, the feeling, and the mind together. Each of my books, especially the novels, is a mixture of reality and dream. But you can't say what part is fiction and what part is reality, they are so mixed together.

In the novel A Woman at Point Zero, the prostitute Firdaus is sentenced to death for killing a pimp. What impact did this woman, whom you actually met in prison, have on the women's liberation movement?

Firdaus is a martyr, a model of fighting to the last moment. She challenged the government, the president, the whole system, and paid with her life. Death makes her much more alive than if she had stayed. If Firdaus had signed the petition [for presidential clemency] and survived, if she had said pardon me, nobody would write about her. I admire her because few people are ready to face death for a principle.

Firdaus said only the prostitute is free, because she controls her own money and life. Do you agree?

Firdaus did not say that. She said a free prostitute is free, but there are also slaves among prostitutes. I think the prostitute is a slave, sometimes more of a slave than the wife. Firdaus said I want to be a free prostitute, not a slave. That's why, when the pimp tried to control her, she killed him. All her life she sought freedom, independence, dignity, and love, and always men interfered: her father, her husband, and then the pimp. She found that she had to be either an oppressed wife or an oppressed prostitute, no alternative.

Then where can women find independence, freedom, dignity, and love? Considering Firdaus's example, do you see any hope for a different future?

In her case, the way was blocked because she was poor, because she was a prostitute. You cannot transcend your life, you cannot get away from your material limitations.

Hope comes from the power of people who die and do not bend their heads. She could have lived if she had signed the petititon, but she said no. She gives hope to women and to men that there are people who can say no and pay with their lives.

I just finished a novel, The Innocence of the Devil. It will be published in Beirut because nobody here wanted to publish it. In it, the Devil says no to God and pays all his life without having the chance to defend himself. Why should people pay by being imprisoned? Sheriff [el-Saadawi's husband] spent thirteen years in prison. Why should he have to pay that price? It's like killing him.

At the end of my novel Two Women in One, the heroine is put in jail. Everyone asks me where the hope is in that. The hope is that people are ready to go to jail for what they believe in. Firdaus was ready to die for what she believed in.

Many of your novels—The Fall of the Imam, God Dies by the Nile, and others—describe individuals controlled by powerful forces.

All my life I have thought that I am under the pressure of divine power and political power. Sometimes it is visible; when a government like Anwar Sadat's put me in jail, I saw the oppressor. Sometimes it is invisible, like divine power: the tradition, the culture, the education. It infiltrates me like air, so I train myself to be aware of it.

Was it your experience in prison under Sadat that inspired you to found the AWSA?

I never joined a party or group in my life. I was a writer, an independent. But when I was in jail, I started to think that we cannot liberate women as individuals and writers. We must have collective political work; we must have political power. So I came out of jail and started the AWSA. The jailing opened my eyes to the power of collective work.

How much success have you had in combating the government and conservative religious forces on legal grounds?

We, the AWSA, fought to totally change the family code. We lost because the government was not with us. Before 1985, we had a relatively better family code—still oppressive, but better. In 1985, the law changed for the worse, because of the pressure of the Islamic groups on the government. We made a big row but we failed. The police and government threatened us.

Did it become easier for a man to get a divorce?

It became easier for a man to marry more than one wife and more difficult for the first wife to divorce. According to the previous law, if my husband marries another wife, I can automatically get a divorce. According to the existing law, I must go to court and prove that this second wife causes me harm. Most of the judges look at the material harm, not the psychological harm. If I say that I hate his second wife, the judge will tell me that my husband is still spending money on me, that I am living in the same apartment, that nothing happened to me. They don't respect the emotions of women.

The family code of Egypt is one of the most backward in the Arab world. It has nothing to do with Islamic law; Islamic Sharia is much more progressive than Egyptian law. It is related to slavery or the Pharaonic period.

What about the fundamentalist groups?

It is also related to the effect of fundamentalist groups and the dominant role of Saudi Arabia and the Americanization of Egypt. This is the paradox. America, through Saudi Arabia, has encouraged the most fanatic right-wing fundamentalist Islamic groups against the socialist groups, the communist groups, and the Nasserist groups.

This result of American and Saudi Arabian efforts is to oppress women, even though America speaks about democracy and human rights.

Is there any international body that can unite women—perhaps the United Nations?

I don't think so. I don't believe in the U.N. I wrote a letter to [former U.N. Secretary-General] Perez de Cuellar asking him to resign after the Gulf war. Now we hear that he is connected to the BCCI scandal.

All my life savings were in that bank, the BCCI in London. I became penniless in a minute. Now I read how this bank was used by governments, by presidents, by the CIA, and by Arab millionaires to kill people in Afghanistan, in Iran, in the Gulf, and in Nicaragua. How these people used my money, the royalties from my books! For thirty years I sweated to write books, and this bank used all that money on those corrupt people.

I have two crises; the closure of the Association and the loss of my life savings. Yet I feel that I am winning because this exposes the corruption of the whole international system. So I am a victim not only of the Egyptian government, but also of the whole international corruption of this system.

Has this corruption become clear over this past year in particular?

The Gulf war exposed everyone. Also, the collapse of the Soviet Union exposed the gigantic corrupt power of the United States. We are now seeing the ugliness of the sole remaining superpower—how criminal and corrupt it is. BCCI is linked to the corruption in the United States and in Britain and in Afghanistan and in the Third World. My money was there, an innocent novelist putting her money in this corrupt bank. This is a story.

Were you disappointed in BCCI as the first major bank from the developing world?

I was in London during the 1970s. An Arab friend said to me, “Here is a bank of the Third World, working for the Third World and Arab people. Instead of putting your money in capitalist institutions, put it here.” So I said that's where I belong, to the Third World. So I lost my money.

In 1980, you wrote of the Iranian revolution as an anti-colonial, positive force of change. Would you see it in the same way now?

It was aborted. The colonial powers played a role to shift it from a political and economic revolution to a religious revolution. The capitalist ruling powers are much happier with a religious, fanatic revolution than a socialist revolution.

The Iranian revolution was a mixture of the Left and the enlightened mullahs. They were fed up with the Shah and American domination. Millions of Iranians went out into the streets for bread and money and for equal justice, not for veiling their women. This revolution failed totally. I don't think any fundamentalist, fanatic, religious state will survive, because it's against nature, against the mind. Khomeini was terrible. He was against thinking, against humanity.

How much progress has the women's liberation movement made?

It's a gradual process. Revolution does not come in one or two nights.

The coming generation has a future much better than ours. I chose a difficult way in life and paid a high price. When I was writing I was digging into rock, trying to push my way. My generation made a path through the rock as writers and novelists. My daughter's generation has a path to follow. Of course it's rough, but they have a way, at least. In my case, there was no way.

Ramzi M. Salti (review date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Salti, Ramzi M. Review of Ganat wa iblis (The Innocence of the Devil), by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 437-38.

[In the following review, Salti examines the ways El Saadawi reconfigures oppressive religious ideologies in The Innocence of the Devil.]

Nawal El Saadawi's latest novel, Jannât wa-Iblîs [The Innocence of the Devil], differs from her previous works in that it emphasizes a subject matter that had thus far been circumvented in her novels. For the first time in her thirty-four years of literary production, the author of such relatively “secular” works as Al-ghâ'ib (1976; Eng. Searching, 1991; see WLT 66:2, p. 396), Ugniyat al-atfâl al-dâ'iriyyah (1977; Eng. The Circling Song, 1989; see WLT 64:1, p. 187) and Imra'ah 'inda nuqtat al-sifr (1975; Eng. A Woman at Point Zero, 1983; see WLT 59:3, p. 483) has written a novel in which religion is foregrounded and questioned in a way that may prove to be reminiscent of Rushdie's Satanic Verses. The title of the novel alone alerts the reader to its content. Jannât is the plural of Jannah, the Arabic word for paradise, and Iblîs is one of the names that are used to refer to the devil. In the novel, however, these are the names of two of the characters.

The narrative opens as Jannat is being escorted into a mental asylum where Nirjis, the matron in charge who has internalized the colonizer's ideology, and the male director, who sees himself literally as God, ensure that she is kept in a continuously drugged state. One of the patients, Iblis, who is described in terms that are later associated with the devil, observes the proceedings in silence. The novel is thus a series of recurring past and present events, as experienced by Jannat and other characters in the asylum. Jannat's recollections may remind the reader of certain characters in El Saadawi's other novels, such as Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero, Bahiah in Two Women in One (see WLT 60:2, p. 356), and Fouada in Searching.

In reversing traditional roles, El Saadawi purports to place the oppressor in the shoes of the oppressed and to question aspects not only of religion but also of language upon which those in power base their alleged superiority. For example, the word sâqitah, meaning “fallen woman,” becomes sâqet, meaning “fallen man.” People in the earlier lives of the characters also offer a powerful commentary on the role of religion in society. The Christian grandmother, who married a Muslim, “keeps her Bible hidden under her pillow.” Misogynist fathers and grandfathers who view women as “the devil's allies,” “the cause of sin, as is stated in the Bible,” and “greatly cunning [kaydihinna 'adhim], as God said in his Holy Book,” attempt to implant their views in the minds of their offspring. Such examples lead Jannat to understand that men use religion to oppress women by defining them as either virgins or whores, with nothing in between.

By the end of the novel, traditional and religious concepts of good and evil have been completely subverted. Iblis dies after jumping over the barbed wire in his attempt to follow Jannat, who is released after the director determines that she has lost her memory. Ironically, Iblis's innocence is then proclaimed by his killer (the director, known as God), who finds his dead body bathed in blood.

M. D. Allen (review date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Allen, M. D. Review of The Innocence of the Devil, by Nawal El Saadawi. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 637-38.

[In the following review, Allen finds The Innocence of the Devil fraught with omens and negative imagery in which the text becomes mired.]

“I knew,” reflects Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero, the best known of Nawal El Saadawi's novels, “that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth and the one in heaven.” The Innocence of the Devil makes the same point, going on to claim that male control of women in this world is facilitated by a patriarchal theology that subordinates them sub specie aeternitatis. The father of one of the two main female characters appeals to a linguistic nicety of the Koran, God's own perfect word in the eyes of believers. After the primal sin, God forgives Adam alone, using the singular and not the dual form, although he does use the latter when speaking of the couple's disobedience. God does not make mistakes, and “He would never use the singular or the dual except in the right context.” (In fairness it should be observed, as Fedwa Malti-Douglas does in her expert and unpretentious introduction, that not all Muslims by any means accept this interpretation.)

A demanding postmodern novel in which fantasy and reality and different time periods are often almost inextricably mixed and the references of the pronouns He and She sometimes further to seek than one would like, The Innocence of the Devil tells the interlinked stories of Ganat and Narguiss. The former, who in the first chapter enters the insane asylum that is the novel's setting, recognizes in the head nurse the Narguiss with whom she had once had an intense schoolgirl friendship. Since those days the latter has failed to produce blood, that guarantee of virginity, on her wedding night. Her father, the grammarian student of the Koran referred to above, cuts his throat to expunge the shame. Narguiss had previously been told by her teacher of religion that menstruation is “an unholiness from the Devil.” The shift from moral inferiority or error, identified by patriarchal religion, to fraught social objectification is acutely caught: “She knew it was a sin which hung forever from the high heavens over her head or that it was a shame, a dishonour that could only be washed off by blood.” Honor belongs to men, it is said, but its proof resides in women's bodies, which condemn them both by bleeding and by not bleeding.

Ganat, forgetting her youthful friendship, is considered cured. Narguiss rebels at last against the male establishment in which she has played a subordinate role, declares her lesbianism, flees, is changed into a butterfly, and is joined by another. Both are shot.

The novel is curiously heavy going, often seeming overwrought and oversignificant. Portentous abstractions and paradoxes—faces never seen before yet seen many times, voices all shouting and all silent—are too frequent. The Innocence of the Devil, a novel in which both God and Satan figure as characters, tends to sink beneath the weight of its extranovelistic implications. One feels claustrophobically imprisoned within the author's lushly written resentments.

Nawal El Saadawi and Pat Lancaster (interview date December 1997)

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SOURCE: El Saadawi, Nawal, and Pat Lancaster. “Unveiling the Mind.” Middle East, no. 273 (December 1997): 40-41.

[In the following interview, El Saadawi relates her opinion on politics and the controlling elements of fundamentalist religious movements.]

On the morning of the day I was to interview Nawal El Saadawi I heard her speaking in a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4. There was growing international concern about Saddam Hussein's decision to bar Americans from all UN weapons inspections. The possible ramifications of his decision were high on the agenda of the discussion panel, which also included former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, who held office at the time of the Gulf War.

The purpose of my interview with Nawal El Saadawi had been to discuss the release of her new book The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, a collection of her non-fiction writings which explore a host of the topics that have made her one of the contemporary world's most innovative thinkers and writers.

However, some of the issues discussed in the radio programme just a few hours earlier were still on my mind and, it seemed, also on Dr El Saddawi's.

During the course of the radio discussion Douglas Hurd had strongly supported the actions of the allied troops during the Gulf War describing them as “humane” and “principled”. When questioned by Dr El Saadawi on why similar high minded principles, which compelled the allies to act within hours in the case of Kuwait, had failed to benefit other oppressed people, for example, the Palestinians, over the course of more than half a century, the former foreign secretary blustered that “Kuwait had presented a special case” and the Palestinians were “a completely different thing.” Quoted another half dozen examples where high moral principles had failed to triumph, Hurd blustered some more. One thing however the former foreign secretary was able to confirm absolutely, was that the actions of the allies had nothing to do with oil and most especially the vast reserves that lay beneath Kuwait. Well then, that's all right.

Nawal El Saadawi doesn't have much time for politicians, as was clear from her exchange with Mr Hurd. “They tell lies”, she says with a shrug, as if speaking of a child that wets the bed—unfortunate, exasperating but what can you do? She doesn't have a great deal of time for organised religion either, regardless of denomination. Too often it seems the two go hand in hand to further subjugate the already oppressed.

There is, Nawal El Saadawi believes, a fundamentalism abroad in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which has little to do with God and everything to do with religions manipulating and exploiting human misery for their own ends.

Of course the leaders of the fundamentalist movements are politicians and they are collaborating with the capitalists. They use religion politically, for their own interests. The young people who join those groups are helpless. They are poor, unemployed, betrayed by all governments and all regimes. So they think the only way is to go back to God. For them God is justice, and freedom, and love, and food. So they join the fundamentalist movements. At the level of the rank and file we can say the fundamentalist movement is more or less a testament against corrupt governments and neo-colonial and global powers.

But in fact this protest movement has tended to go backwards rather than forwards. Their leaders exploit them by playing with politics and religion. Unfortunately, religion is a political ideology which can be used and manipulated. The holy books are ambiguous, so politicians can play with religion. That's why religion is doubled-edged. It should be progressive and it should unite people but this never happens. I don't believe a religious movement can ever be progressive but people feel it can, that's the danger.

But surely sometimes an organisation which breaks the mould will rise to prominence, I suggested to Dr El Saadawi. What about the recent success and rise to respectability of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon? The Iranian-backed Islamic terrorist group which, because of its military success in repelling Israeli army attacks and the extensive social network it has established including schools and clinics, has gained the trust and confidence of people in the impoverished south. But El Saadawi is always two steps ahead, looking not towards the middle distance but as far away as the eye can see and frequently beyond that.

“Hizbollah is not very different from the Palestinian group Hamas,” she points out. “Both are Islamic groups. Hamas was encouraged by the Israeli government as a vehicle to fight against the PLO and Yasser Arafat. Now that Yasser Arafat has submitted and the PLO is fragmented, the Israelis no longer need Hamas, they are fighting Hamas.

“The same was true of Sadat. He encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the Christian fundamentalists, the Copts, in Egypt: and then it backfired, the Islamists killed him. For Hizbollah, and those who encourage Hizbollah, it will be the same, people are playing with religion. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban was originally supported by the USA to oppose the Soviet Union and now they are suffering for it, the US are trying to get rid of the Taliban. I think politics is a very dirty game, there are no principles”, she observes with a wry smile.

“Religion is a very good weapon to fragment people and to divide people and to create veils. Look what is happening in Algeria. Nobody knows but everybody knows,” she observes cryptically.

Is she suggesting some super power plot is in force, I wondered?

“The only superpower left is America, since the collapse of the Soviet Union”, Dr El Saadawi points out, but she goes on to observe that in order for globalisation—the new world order—to work from above, there must be fragmentation and division below.”

Would it then be true to say that on a world level things are already past the point of no return, completely out of hand? I asked. Dr El Saadawi was adamant. “No, I don't think things will get out of hand because humanity knows how to control itself, ultimately people will defend their lives. I am optimistic, I feel the future will be better and we will go forward in spite of the backlash. There are solutions, there are always solutions but we have to fight for them, engage in the battle. Solutions need courage and understanding, an unveiling of the mind, because what the global powers are attempting to do now is veil the minds, particularly by the power of the media.

“We have to look particularly at the power of the media and who owns the media, ask ourselves ‘who is my enemy?’ If the enemy is global then the resistance should be global. If I don't know who my enemy is, how can I win the battle?”

Nicki Hitchcott (review date December 2000)

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SOURCE: Hitchcott, Nicki. Review of A Daughter of Isis, by Nawal El Saadawi. Journal of Modern African Studies 38, no. 4 (December 2000): 722-23.

[In the following review, Hitchcott compliments the wealth of information about El Saadawi's life and family contained in A Daughter of Isis.]

In her fictional writings, Nawal El Saadawi emphasises the need for women to become the subjects of their own stories, to speak in their own words and thus to create their own meanings out of their lives. Now, in her autobiography [A Daughter of Isis], Saadawi begins to construct herself as subject of her own fascinating story. Recognised throughout the world as an Arab woman who refuses to be silenced, Saadawi chooses not to describe the imprisonment she endured under President Sadat in 1981, nor does she focus on the fundamentalist death threat she suffered in 1992 which led to her five-year exile in the USA. Instead, she recalls her memories of the first twenty years of her life (1931-51), ‘years that had been very important in the direction that [her] life later took’ (p. 290).

Central to Saadawi's memories is the figure of her mother, Zaynab. As the title of the text suggests, this is the story of a daughter descended from a line of strong Egyptian women. Although some consider Nawal a spinster when, at eleven, she is still unmarried, her mother insists that she stay on at school: ‘deep down insider her [mother] were the seeds of rebellion’ (p. 155). Indeed, it is often through her observations of her mother that Saadawi traces the duality of the Arab woman: her autonomous subjectivity necessarily concealed beneath the ‘outer woman’ in the ‘outer world’. Other acts of female resistance are recorded by Saadawi: her grandmother beating the chief of the village guards in protest at his beating of her son; her great-grandmother humiliating the village headman (an act for which she is murdered). These stories of women's rebellion are paralleled by references to the increasing Egyptian resistance to British occupation. At school, Nawal is not interested in history because it fails to shed light on contemporary issues. In A Daughter of Isis, Saadawi resists the concealment of official historical discourse by presenting alternative histories of Egypt and of Egyptian women in particular. Saadawi writes that ‘women have an unwritten history told orally by one generation to the other’ (p. 75) This text inscribes itself within the female oral tradition, transcribing the words of the women, and simultaneously committing their stories to writing.

Saadawi's autobiography follows her evolution as a storyteller, from early performances with her brother to writing and directing a school play (for which she is temporarily expelled). Each of her early writings, like her later published works, draws upon the experiences of real women; indeed she suggests that many of her fictional characters are based on real people in her life. In this book we see how, from an early age, Saadawi combines her love of the Arabic language with her awareness of gender-based oppression to create texts which are as subversive as they are moving: ‘the written word for [her] became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, or morals, or love’ (p. 292).

Nabila Jaber (review date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Jaber, Nabila. Review of A Daughter of Isis, by Nawal El Saadawi. Arab Studies Quarterly 23, no. 1 (winter 2001): 81-4.

[In the following review, Jaber recommends A Daughter of Isis to readers, stating that the autobiography is expertly written and thought-provoking on issues of gender relations and racism.]

Seeking a temporary respite from death threats back home and agonizing over living a status of exile in North Carolina, the author takes up the project of writing her autobiography as a way to make sense of her existence. Now over 60 years old Saadawi engages in the process of self-reflection while consciously challenges her representation of “self-life-text” against time and memory. “Rediscovering the past” is fused with the present, adding a layer of uncertainty and complexity to the life she seeks to retrieve/undo. How she perceives the past and what discourses she draws upon are in themselves revealing, particularly, in the light of her long-standing political activism and commitment to issues of gender equity.

Saadawi's autobiography [A Daughter of Isis] is a journey back to the 1940s and covers her childhood and early adulthood in her country of origin, Egypt. Defiant and proud, the narrative of self conveys a sense of empowerment and agency. “Daughter of Isis”, a Goddess figure whom Saadawi admires and imaginatively inhabits, symbolizes a role model, embodying power/resistance duality in achieving an autonomous self. Indeed, the author's constructed self-image, “freedom fighter,” aptly reflects her numerous struggles against social injustices and other forms of social constraints, including the power of language and discourses that legitimate oppressive practices in religion, culture and politics. The power of language in constructing us is revealed by exploring how words that signify “love and justice … shift meanings as we grow older” (p. 15). The very same words become “a sword over my head, a veil over my mind and face” (p. 16). This autobiography carries the early signs of Saadawi's numerous struggles for emancipation and democracy as expressed in both spoken and written words.

The text uncovers a social world as inhabited and consumed by the author's experiences and critical observations of what it is like to grow up in a society strictly regulated by patriarchal order and structured around hierarchical divisions based on gender, rigid social status, and class. Questions of race/color, national identity/belonging, displacement and colonialism are also among the running themes considered. Throughout the text gender, sexuality, class and race are figured prominently as they constitute Saadawi's subjective reality and understanding of what it means to become a woman, to be subjected to the male gaze, to be positioned as a marginal class and, significantly, to have the ‘wrong’ color. Saadawi's statement that: “I was proud of my dark skin … and did not believe in a femininity born with slave society and handed down to us with class and patriarchy” (p. 7) captures the complexity surrounding her sense of gender oppression.

Crucially, Saadawi's writing of self is positioned in relational and comparative terms that cut across simple divisions between gender and class. In this context, she focuses on the dynamics of unequal power relations and observes that systems of domination and subordination are both structurally and discursively constituted. The enactment of these issues are further explored in various institutional settings—family, schools, and community at large. She describes critical moments of her life by moving between different spaces. For example, the familial space which describes her conflicting relations with kin and siblings especially with her older brother; the cultural sphere where practices of rituals and rites of passage are constantly resisted; the expressive realm that consumes her artistic tendencies—music, imagining, writing short stories and keeping diaries. Through these stories of self/subjectivity, constructions of Otherness are subversively articulated and illustrated with brilliant insights and wit.

Saadawi successfully combines, what Fraser (1992:17) describes as feminist agency: “the power of social constraints and the capacity to act situatedly against them.” With detailed descriptions and reflexivity Saadawi narrates her life story from the experience of an embattled identity, grounded in everyday life practices and lived with contradictions amidst and against hierarchical gender/class/race relations. As a child, Saadawi tells us how she grew up in a racially mixed family background with oppositional class relations. Her mother was descendant from the Pashas ruling class with Turkish origin and identified as “white” in contrast to her father a self-made man of African roots and peasant background. And significantly she inherits her father's physicality (features, color, height) which marks her as different followed by the given name “Warwar”, the slave girl. But what is intriguing in the story is the realization that the emerging tensions and identity conflicts are largely contributed by “arrogant” maternal kin (aunties and uncles) rather than her immediate family. Having to live with such contradictions is likened to positioning herself on the border of those hierarchies, occupying, in Buttler's term, an “in-between space” from which to resist subordination, and to challenge the very acts of exclusionary gender practices. Saadawi's struggles at such critical moments are chilling and capture one's imagination with familiar stories that deeply touch us in one way or another.

Following her “revolutionary” father's preoccupation with political democracy against British occupation and internal ruling “Pashas,” Saadawi from early on develops a strong sense of social justice and this is reflected in the way she explores issues of social inequality in both personal and institutional contexts. She depicts the lives of men/women, husband/wife, brothers/sisters, teachers/students, and rich and poor by revealing what is “hidden through the fear of God, the father, the husband, the teacher … fear of the nation to which we belong or those we love” (p. 17). In these instances, Saadawi highlights the power of hegemonic religious discourse/language in constructing women's (and men's) ways of life as well as legitimating the status-quo in terms of hierarchical and differential positioning. She looks at how gender divisions, orchestrated by the discourse of Islam, become the basis by which social relations are organized and given legitimacy in social norms, and cultural images. Women's lives, in particular, are mostly depicted in terms of their failed personal dreams, even when fashioning themselves in the image of “womanhood.” Unlike her ambition to change/transform traditions, women's struggles, including her mother's, against patriarchal oppressive practices are mainly portrayed with muted resistance, simply enduring what is considered to be “God's will”. However, listening to her paternal grandmother's personal tales of resistance Saadawi concedes that “women have an unwritten history told orally by one generation to the other” (p. 57). With this recognition Saadawi seeks to unearth subjugated knowledge(s) and builds on making them visible. She engages the reader with powerful images of a variety of women's lives in a colorful tapestry in which tales of myth, fiction and reality serve to deconstruct as much as reconstruct the making of gender.

To Saadawi, body politics is an issue close to home. She recounts powerful tales of how cultural images and meanings in relation to femininity/masculinity are in one way or another consumed by ourselves/our bodies. Sexuality is expressed as a sign of repression and signifies shame, which ironically justifies its violation. Saadawi describes, for instance, her own forced genital circumcision, followed by other practices of “humility,” such as ripping the hair off the body to please men's desire to “conquer the female body.” Again, more cultural images are depicted of how the female body is associated with shame and pain and could only be “protected” by following maelstrom discourse of “legitimacy,” including that of marriage. Why is it, Saadawi asks, that “everything in a woman's life” is seen as “shameful, even her face,” referring to the veil. It is through her own corporeal experience, and observations of other women, that Saadawi makes the necessary link between body and self and shows how the very act of self-embodiment, becomes a site of resistance. To Saadawi, this constituted a political space from which her agency is articulated.

Overall, I find the way she writes herself into the text invokes contradictions between vulnerability and strength in considering acts of resistance against conformity. But what is interesting is that throughout her accounts of inequalities and injustices around her she maintains personal visions/dreams for a better place for women. Towards this end Saadawi's life journey, informed by both liberal and socialist tendencies, tells a penetrating story of courage and achievement. After all, the slogan sisterhood is global and struggle against universal women's victimization remains central to Saadawi's daily politics. In addition, Saadawi is rather skeptical of the complementary model of gender equality as she is critical of its operation even in her own “loving” and “caring” immediate family. Hence, the notion “equal but different” usually means that women remain subjected indiscriminately to male-defined traditional values.

The strength of the book is its contribution to ongoing debate within feminism on question of sameness/difference, patriarchy and women's subordination. Equally, the book presents some challenges to post-colonial feminism on issues of race/color and the elevation of Whiteness as a color symbolizing power and desire. The book is a pleasure to read for its rich textuality, clarity of prose, engaging style with a sense of humor. I strongly recommend it for both feminist scholars and the general public. On a more personal note, Saadawi's identification with the homeland, the river Nile, Arabic language/literature continues to constitute a meaningful existence and powerful sense of belonging.

Earl G. Ingersoll (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. “Nawal El Saadawi's The Fall of the Imam and the Possibility of a Feminine Writing.” International Fiction Review 28, nos. 1-2 (2001): 23-31.

[In the following essay, Ingersoll probes the style of The Fall of the Imam and maintains that through the use of fantasy, multiple points of view, and non-linear plot techniques, El Saadawi focuses on patriarchal societies and religions while controverting the masculine narrative structures used in most novels and replacing the form with a more feminine discourse.]

The writing of Nawal El Saadawi1 reminds readers that not all “democracies” of what we used to be comfortable calling the “free world” are quite as respectful of civil liberties as we often naively assume them to be. Saadawi was trained first as a physician and later as a psychiatrist—something of a professional feat for an Egyptian woman a generation ago, given the restrictions on women's rights in the Arab world, even in a more “liberal” state such as Egypt. Eventually, she rose to become Egypt's Director of Public Health, but then she was summarily fired, in large part because of her outspokenness as an advocate of women's rights. In addition, she had begun to make increasingly frank assertions about human sexuality, especially in her book Women and Sex (1972), a study of the status of Arab women and their aspirations for freedom. In 1981, she and hundreds of other Egyptian intellectuals were imprisoned by Anwar Sadat, a political hero in the West for his pioneering efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. Subsequently, Saadawi's works have been banned in Egypt. Saadawi's feminism does not restrict itself to the “content” of a narrative such as The Fall of the Imam;2 however, it soon becomes clear that the very “form” of her fiction, in its subversion of traditional plot structure, is implicated in a more subtle variety of feminist project.

In the preface to The Fall of the Imam, Saadawi explains that the text comes out of her experience in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East during a period of ten years before the novel appeared in 1987. She speaks of her many conversations with victims of Arab culture, such as the Iranian woman whose “little girl” was raped by her jailers, and the Sudanese woman who accompanied Saadawi on a visit to the “Association for People with Amputated Hands,” where she saw many of those who had been punished under Muslim law, called “Shariat.” Confronting the horrors of what men can do to men, but also what they can do to women and children, Saadawi constructed a fantasy narrative of a girl called Bint Allah, who is stoned to death for fornication, as well as crimes against God and the State—God and the State being virtually synonymous with those in power. The decision to employ fantasy as the means of representing the horrors of a repressive State entailed some risk for Saadawi in her efforts at bearing witness to atrocities against women. Saadawi is working in a context similar to the modus operandi of other fantasists who have dealt with the “unspeakable.” Art Spiegelman in Maus (1986) and Jane Yolen in The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) come immediately to mind. As a fantasist, she could easily be misread as offering a form of artistic “play” in response to an oppression of women that makes Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) seem mild in contrast.3 Whether contemporary writers are right in attempting to represent the horrors of the Holocaust or not, Elie Wiesel's pronouncements cannot be easily ignored when he warns that any attempt to represent atrocity is to engage in a morally abhorrent activity.

The Fall of the Imam is likely to prove problematic for most readers; at the same time, the novel's plot is intrinsic to this narrative's subversive—one might add, “feminist”—impulses. Bint Allah, “Daughter of God,” is apparently pursued again and again by agents of the Imam who apparently shoot her or stone her to death for claiming that she is either Allah's daughter or the Imam's. The segment of the narrative that focuses upon the Imam and his relationship with his inner circle seems to move forward in a more traditionally linear fashion, even though it is uncertain whether the Imam is indeed assassinated. More central to the narrative, however, is the recurring pursuit and killing of Bint Allah.

Even this brief and truncated rendition of Saadawi's novel should suggest the problematic nature of her narrative structure.4 The traditional structure of narrative, from which Saadawi is clearly departing, is nowhere more brilliantly explored than in Peter Brooks's contribution to contemporary narratology. In Reading for the Plot,5 Brooks argues for the displacement of old-fashioned amateur psychoanalysis of fictional characters, or of the authors who created them, by what might be characterized as a psychoanalysis of the narrative text. Brooks grounds his theorizing about narrative in the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and in Lacan's preoccupation with language. Brooks adopts Freud's conception of the death instinct as the impulse drawing the human subject toward quiescence. That quiescence of death is a return to a state similar to the one from which the subject was aroused into life by the tension of desire. Narrative is a similar teasing of its listener/reader into a desire for the end because ending alone can offer “meaning.” Like subjectivity, or “life,” narrative represents a longing for the quiescence following the last word, a repetition of the quiescence before the first word is heard/read.

Brooks finds corroboration for his conception of ending of narrative in Walter Benjamin's linking of death and narrative closure. Benjamin asserts that “Death is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell”6 because it is only death, or an ending, that can affirm meaning. In a similar vein, Brooks notes Sartre's claim that as a young man he had no sense of how to live his life until he decided to live in a manner which might make him what he wanted to be at the moment of death. Sartre proclaimed: “I became my own obituary.”7 Thus, the ending takes on an overriding importance in this context, and Brooks argues that an interminable narrative, or even a narrative that merely stops without closure, cannot have “meaning.”

Narrative, Brooks argues, is energized by a “textual erotics.” Like the reader, the text is the site of a dynamic tension of competing desires. The first desire is for the end, because it is the ending that transforms plot into meaning. We read in anticipation of the ending because the ending transforms all that precedes it, giving readers that “moment of truth,” or “epiphany,” an epistemological equivalent of the revelation of the “whodunit.” The opposite of that powerful longing for the end is the desire to forestall the ending, or “climax,” because the ending is after all the “death” of narrative. Timing is everything: waiting too long for the end exhausts desire; on the other hand, “reading the last page” is for Brooks a “short-circuiting” of narrative desire, a premature arrival at the “climax.”

Not surprisingly, the inscription of male sexuality in the narrative paradigm that Brooks posits has not gone unnoticed by feminist contributors to this field of narratology. A case in point is the film theorist Teresa de Lauretis.8 Because she is writing in the same year as Brooks, de Lauretis depends upon a somewhat earlier theorizing about narrative desire. She cites the structuralist critic Robert Scholes, who writes: “what connects fiction with sex is the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the arts consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.”9 De Lauretis continues with the wry response: “Those of us who know no art of delaying climax or, reading, feel no incipient tumescence, may well be barred from the pleasure of this ‘full fictional act’; nor may we profit from the rhythm method by which it is attained.”10 Once she has artfully exposed the masculinist self-absorption in expounding on a paradigm for all narrative grounded in the rhythm of male sexuality, de Lauretis begins to map narrative structures and strategies that might be seen as alternatives to what I have chosen to call the Male Narrative Paradigm.

The theorizing of de Lauretis has been influenced by the Soviet semiotician Jurij Lotman, whose interest in the origin of myths as cultural texts supports her project of exploring alternative narrative strategies. Lotman examines the “exclusively cyclical-temporal movement” in these texts as they are “synchronized with the cyclical process of the seasons.” As de Lauretis phrases it, Lotman generalizes: “Because linear-temporal categories, such as beginning and end, are not pertinent to the type of text thus generated, human life is not seen as enclosed between birth and death, but as a recurrent, self-repeating cycle which can be told starting at any point.”11 The opposite of this cyclical pattern is the one readers have come to expect in narrative: a structure grounded not in enduring “laws” but in the anomalous or eccentric “story.” She continues: “And it is the latter which, organized according to a linear, temporal succession of events, generated oral tales about incidents, calamities, crimes, chance occurrences—in short, anything contravening, or in excess of, the mythically established order of things.”12 It is impossible not to hear in the structuralist Lotman's notion of “cyclical-temporal” and “linear-temporal” time structures an echo of the semiotician Julia Kristeva's gendering of antithetical “times.” In her essay “Women's Time,”13 for example, Kristeva argues for “repetition and eternity” as central to “female subjectivity,” just as by implication “linear time” might be engendered “male.”

These engenderings of “times” and their associated narrative structures provide, then, a valuable framework within which to read The Fall of the Imam. Clearly, Saadawi's narrative is working against the Male Narrative Paradigm with its grounding in linearity. Her narrative is implicated, instead, in the “emancipatory strategies”14 Marianne Hirsch speaks of in her study The Mother/Daughter Plot. Hirsch finds these “emancipatory strategies” in “the revisions of endings, beginnings, patterns of progression” in women's writing. In place of the “retard, postponement” or the “deferral” central to the Male Narrative Paradigm, as it is enunciated by Scholes, Brooks, and other male theorists, these strategies provide what Hirsch terms “continued opposition, interruption, and contradiction.”15

Thus, it becomes clear that Saadawi's approach to narrative is closer to these “feminine” “emancipatory strategies” explored by de Lauretis and Hirsch. Indeed, Fedwa Malti-Douglas, who has written of Bint Allah's and the Imam's dying, points out: “Each death is repeated obsessively throughout the novel in a complex cyclical pattern.”16 Furthermore, as we have seen, Saadawi's narrative is bent upon “continued opposition, interruption, and contradiction.” As de Lauretis and others have written, these theorizings about “emancipatory strategies” are meant to be explorations, or subversions of the traditional male paradigm; they are not intended as efforts at defining what might be termed a Female Narrative Paradigm. Indeed, inherent in these explorations is the recognition that attempts at defining, categorizing, and delineating may themselves be masculinist, and efforts at seeking a single binary opposite to the male paradigm may end by replicating masculinist self-entrapment. Here, “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Hélène Cixous offers a valuable perspective. Writing of écriture féminine, Cixous asserts: “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system. … It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures no authority can ever subjugate.”17

The Fall of the Imam may well be a “difficult” narrative not only because of the indeterminacy of the story it tells, but also because it is an expression of one variety of such “feminine writing.” That indeterminacy is evident from the very beginning. When I say that Bint Allah is “apparently” being stoned to death, it is because the text makes it impossible to ascertain what exactly has happened to the novel's central consciousness, even though Bint Allah, this “daughter of God,” as she blasphemously calls herself, functions as part-time narrator of this strange tale. The narrative moves through a maze of uncertainties and contradictions.

The novel begins with an event that is repeated again and again, the “night of the Big Feast,” the night Bint Allah died, making the narrative a series of recurrent nightmares of flight, capture, and death. The narrative voice asks her persecutors: “Why do you always let the criminal go free and punish the victim? I am young. My mother died a virgin and so will I.” They reply: “You are the child of sin and your mother was stoned to death,” to which she in turn replies: “I am Bint Allah [Allah's daughter]. That's what they called me in the orphanage.” When they persist, saying that her mother “died an infidel,” that she is “burning in hell,” Bint Allah enrages them by adding: “My father is the Imam.” Described as a “religious leader and ruler, representative of God on earth,” the Imam is beyond reproach.18 Her persecutors scream: “May your tongue be cut out of your head” (1), and the very next paragraph seems to carry out their sentence, for it begins: “They cut out her tongue first. Later came the rest. For the Imam ruled according to the laws of God's Shariat. Stone adulterous women to death. Cut off the hands of those who commit a theft. Slash out the tongues of those who spread rumours about irradiated milk” (1-2). Readers are left to wonder what to make of this “her.” How can a first-person narrator “tell” her story if her tongue has been cut out at the very beginning? Is the “her” being referred to here Bint Allah, or is it her mother? If so, how would the narrator know what happened, since she was a mere infant when her mother was killed in a similar manner? Or, as we come increasingly to suspect, is the object of this brutality any woman whose body is the site of persecution?

The apparently intentional strategy of unsettling the reader's expectations continues, and in the next paragraph but one, the narrative switches yet again: “It was her turn to be free, but the spies of the Imam spotted her as she slipped out, trying to escape in time. They saw her running in the black of the night with her dog close behind her. It was just before dawn. She had almost given them the slip when something struck her in the back. As she fell, the question echoed in her mind: Why do you let the criminal go free, and kill the victim?” (2). Given that this question has already been asked by the novel's “I,” the narrative has shifted in this first chapter of barely two pages from the first-person narrative of Bint Allah to a third-person narrative within which she is now positioned as object—as the narrated, rather than the narrator.

Thus, Saadawi offers a narrative in which there are segments of consciousness or voice arranged along a continuum between author and reader, with a center in which a third-person narrator is sharing the responsibility of telling the story with a first-person narrator/point of view character. Moving toward the center of the continuum with a Saadawi who functions outside this text, there is another Saadawi, or consciousness/voice, for this text alone. Often that voice merges with the central consciousness of Bint Allah, so that Saadawi's voice is also Bint Allah's, and readers are offered the sense of this “character” Bint Allah as a vehicle for mediating between author and reader. In this easing of the dark outlines of Bint Allah's “character,” the narrative can also move back and forth between the author and reader, with less sense that the two are mutually exclusive. This narrative strategy—quite similar to Virginia Woolf's method in Mrs. Dalloway (1925)—erases the sharp boundaries that we normally expect in a text, boundaries upon which the traditional reader has depended to posit the logical categories grounding an illusion of mastery. In one sense, the narrative is deconstructing the conventional binary of first-person narrative and third-person narrative to produce a narrative site in which the “either/or” of third- or first-person narrative has been supplanted by the “both/and” of first-person alternating with third-person narrative.

Similarly, Bint Allah is the “Daughter of God” and also the child of the Imam, or perhaps some other earthly father who is less holy—or more holy?—than the Imam, or “representative of God on earth.” As narrator within the text, Bint Allah repeats what Saadawi herself has written in the preface, that is, a text before or outside this text: children are able to see the face of God in their dreams, and the face they see is that of their fathers. Bint Allah's mother is both a virgin and a mother, she tells us, just as Bint Allah herself claims to be. Once again, Bint Allah has borne another like herself, a child of God and of the Imam as well. Bint Allah is her mother's only child, yet she speaks of a sister and a brother, an issue easily resolved when we discover they are foster siblings. These apparent contradictions persist in Bint Allah's stories of the two faces of God: one is like her mother's, while the other is like the face of Baba, who punished and may have even raped her in the orphanage.

Following this paradigmatic first chapter, the narrative continues to deconstruct conventional assumptions. The identity of this recurring “she” is seldom certain, except when the text refers to Bint Allah's dog Marzouk, who accompanies her in martyrdom. Marzouk is important to Bint Allah, for she believes the dog was a “witness,” supporting her belief/self-delusion that the Imam is her father. She believes that the dog took a chunk out the seat of the Imam's trousers when he was leaving the scene of Bint Allah's conception. This narrative gesture, reminiscent of popular art forms such as comic strips and animated cartoons, threatens to diminish the seriousness of the issues at stake. At the same time, having been led to believe that Bint Allah has been stoned to death, readers learn that “the bullet struck her in the back” (4). Later in the same paragraph, readers learn that “Her dead body was turned to stone, became a statue of rock living on year after year with her dog by her side” (5).

Furthermore, once the narrative has lulled readers into a false sense of security that they are confronting a recognizably coherent narrative strategy of shifting between first- and third-person narrators, the text unexpectedly undermines expectations once again. In the seventh chapter, entitled “Chief of Security,” the narrative exposes Bint Allah as the object of the Imam's gaze as well as the Chief of Security's. In addition, the dark glasses of the Chief of Security take on magical attributes, allowing him to “pierce the disguise of the Imam slipping out of a prostitute's house” (24). Then the text further decenters narrative expectations by beginning the fourth paragraph of the chapter “Chief of Security” with the assertion “I was standing in the first row.” This “I” refers to “my dark glasses,” confirming that the narrative has shifted, even if ever so briefly, to the Imam's Chief of Security.

The pattern replicates itself in the next chapter, entitled “Allah is on the Side of the Imam.” When this chapter begins “I heard the sound of gunshots ringing in my ears” (31), the logical assumption is that Bint Allah is the “I” who hears. However, the narrative has done the unthinkable: it has authorized the voice of the Imam himself, the very embodiment of evil, who may in fact be dead, if those “gunshots” have found their target.

Allah has also visited the dreams of the Imam, and Allah has the face of the Imam's father. In a dream, Allah jabs the boy Imam with a sword which he is obliged to take up against those who would disobey the Imam's commands in the future, and the boy awakens back in the world of his father, who has sold the family's possessions to raise the money he needs to make his pilgrimage to Mecca, where his sins may be washed away. The boy's mother has no money, but then, to borrow the title of a Saadawi short story, “She Has No Place in Paradise”19 anyway. The future Imam promises to return when he has made his fortune, but somehow or other the Imam who the boy subsequently becomes never has the time for sentimental journeys, especially back to the squalor of his childhood. Saadawi's strategy is apt here: Evil is not Satan; it has a familiar face, perhaps even a familial face.

The “fall,” or death, of the Imam is rendered even more problematic by his strategy of doubling himself for protection. To thwart assassination attempts, he has commissioned a replica of his face to be worn as a mask by one of his bodyguards. Thus, the narrative never definitively establishes whether it was the Imam or his decoy whose “fall” is played out over and over, like Bint Allah's murder. The impression of eternal repetition establishes the inescapable conclusion that evil persists, regardless of the face it presents to the unending succession of its victims, the Bint Allahs of Saadawi's and the reader's world.

In these ways, Saadawi offers a feminist fantasy narrative which disturbs its readers not only because it painfully reminds them of the brutal oppression of women, but also because it undermines a complex of constructions that feminists for almost two decades now have been announcing as “masculinist.” As fantasy, The Fall of the Imam subverts the logic of realist narrative, and by extension the “reality” such narrative often naively presumes itself to be representing. It problematizes narrative point of view by continuously undermining the reader's illusion of mastery that it is possible to determine from one chapter to another, or even from paragraph to the next, who is telling the story and how this narrative can be penetrating the consciousness of so many disparate characters. It violates the conventional notion of a discrete “self”—implicit in speaking of literary “characters”—by transgressing the boundaries of life and death, producing a text “spoken” by one who is not dead but is dying—over and over again. Thus, Saadawi's narrative is implicated in the subversion of the logic of linear time, replacing it with a time of eternal recurrence. Here a Bint Allah may speak without a tongue and in her mute speaking may embrace all those being stoned to death. Nawal El Saadawi qualifies, then, as one of Cixous's “breakers of automatisms,” one of those “peripheral figures no authority can ever subjugate.”


  1. The author's name is also written as Nawal el-Saadawi and Nawal al-Sa'dawi.

  2. El Saadawi, The Fall of the Imam, trans. Sherif Hetata (London: Methuen, 1988). Subsequent references are to this Minerva softbound edition and are cited in parentheses in the text.

  3. In her book Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), Fedwa Malti-Douglas also speaks of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in the context of a discussion of The Fall of the Imam. So does Hilary Mantel in her review of The Fall of the Imam, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, judging by the Mantel blurb on the back of the softcover edition of this novel.

  4. Malti-Douglas speaks of Imam as “a metafictional postmodern novel.” “Summarizing,” she asserts, “would mean weaving a plot where one does not exist” (91).

  5. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984).

  6. Quoted in Books 22.

  7. Quoted in Brooks 22.

  8. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

  9. Quoted in de Lauretis 108.

  10. de Lauretis 108.

  11. de Lauretis 116-17.

  12. de Lauretis 118.

  13. Julia Kristeva, “Woman's Time,” The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

  14. Hirsch borrows the term from the subtitle of Patricia Yaeger's Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

  15. Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989) 102.

  16. Malti-Douglas 92.

  17. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivon (New York: Schocken, 1981) 254.

  18. In her interview with George Lerner, entitled “Nawal el-Saadawi: ‘To us, women's liberation is the unveiling of the mind’,” The Progressive, April 1992, 32-35, Saadawi indicates that the Imam may be “Sadat, Khomeini, Reagan, Bush, Kennedy, or anyone who uses God and politics” (34).

  19. Nawal El Saadawi, She Has No Place in Paradise, trans. Shirley Eber (London: Methuen, 1987).

Marilyn Booth (review date January 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1457

SOURCE: Booth, Marilyn. “Dramatic Monologue.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 4 (January 2003): 11-12.

[In the following review of Walking through Fire, Booth acknowledges the pivotal role that El Saadawi played in Middle Eastern feminism, but wishes that the author would have elaborated on other feminists in the regime and explained the impact of the various organizations she has founded or worked with.]

In 1956, baby daughter in her arms, Nawal El Saadawi traveled from Cairo to her father's village, Kafr Tahla in the Nile Delta. Newly graduated from Cairo University Medical School, she welcomed a change of air and took a post running the government-built village clinic. “My stride on the earth was powerful, big like my village grandmother,” she exclaims in this second volume of her autobiography [Walking through Fire]. “I needed space, yearned for the smell of green fields, of mud ovens baking bread.”

El Saadawi has staked out vast space in her novels, autobiographical writings and bold works on sexuality and gender in Egyptian society. She has become an international figure, the first Arab feminist writer to be widely read in English, a flamboyant speaker in university lecture halls and a commanding presence on international feminist circuits. And she's framed this book with spaces and distances: beginning it in her North Carolina study in 1993, among the North Carolina evergreens, and ending it with her return to Egypt in 1996, on a flight enlivened by an intensely sympathetic seatmate and a good gin and tonic. She and her husband (translator of this book and many of her other works, and a novelist in his own right) had come to Duke University as visiting professors after deciding to leave Egypt when El Saadawi's name appeared on a roster of intellectuals targeted for harassment—and apparently a death threat—by the Egyptian government's most vocal opponents, who call for a theocratic government based on their version of Islam.

But it is El Saadawi's early adult years in Cairo and Kafr Tahla, punctuated by medical aid excursions to Suez in 1951, to the Canal Zone in 1967 and to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan in 1968, that command most space in this book. It might almost have been given the working title of a novel she was writing in the early 1960s, “Woman Searching for Love.” Throughout the narrative, the stories of her three marriages recur as dominant motifs of gendered oppression intertwined with national trauma, followed by a wary triumph, both serene and troubled. These are political stories, of course, as El Saadawi links marriage trajectories to the entangled realities of national and sexual politics. How can a marriage survive the profound disillusionment of a colonial war fought steadily by the young yet disavowed by the government? How to resist the grim pressures of respectable convention, urged by family and friends upon a young divorcee with a child? What a relief when she finally meets the quiet and lovely Sherif Hetata, a survivor of aristocratic forebears and years and years of political imprisonment, and a steadfast supporter over nearly forty years of her writing and activism.

Readers of El Saadawi's fiction will find here the autobiographical correlates of male characters in her novels, from the husband in her first novel, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, to the fathers in Searching and The Circling Song, to her later villains, the most repulsive and in-your-face representatives of Patriarchy. As in the first volume of her autobiography, which appeared in English as Daughter of Isis in 1999, her own father is a much more equivocal, and more finely etched, figure, the recipient of ambivalent affection from his “wayward” daughter. There are echoes here, too, of her earlier descriptions of her mother and grandmothers, who as they socialized her into the ways of the fathers also offered her strong models of female power.

Like other Arab women who write, El Saadawi attests to the power of women's storytelling, and recalls the shaping force of supernatural figures who inhabit women's tales:

I remember the stories told to me by my grandmother and [the trees near Duke] are transformed into witches or devils, their long tresses hanging down on either side of their heads as they reach up into darkness.

Throughout my life devils have surrounded me. In my village, when I was still a child, I used to look for them. In Cairo, after I had grown up, they looked for me.

(p. 2)

They hover over lives as they flit through her pages, turning now into “visitors of the dawn”—policemen come to raid or arrest—now into enforcers of social norms, or prospective suitors, or colleagues in the Health Ministry.

Daughter of Isis traced El Saadawi's childhood—literally from birth—and school days, her relationships to parents and grandparents and siblings, her moves between village and town and city school. There was a concreteness to that volume that seems absent here, particularly as she moves into the presumably wider world of adulthood. In Walking through Fire, her world often seems curiously small, bounded for good or ill by parental ghosts, as she is hounded relentlessly by her opponents and by the government that insists on “protecting” her from its Islamist opposition.

Though we meet a trio of friends who accompanied El Saadawi from secondary school through university and far beyond, we never gain a sense of the larger stage on which activism moves. We do hear of her vocal attendance at political meetings as a student, her outspoken presence at a gathering of Nasserist politicians (about which she has spoken before), her impatience with the Ministry of Health. We see her dodging bombs to treat patients in Ismailiyya. We hear of the hypocrisy of student leaders, socialist politicians and medical school professors. We read of brief encounters with villagers and wounded soldiers with whom El Saadawi seems to feel a sense of connection and communication. But has El Saadawi never felt a sense of collective political work, of the shared aims and difficult negotiations that feminism means to many, in Egypt as in the United States? If she really was the only female student from the medical school who went to political meetings, as she claims, did she have no contact with women of her generation in other faculties who were certainly politically active and vocal and who, like El Saadawi, have written about it?

El Saadawi has been criticized for muting others' voices in the organization she spearheaded, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, closed down by the Egyptian government several years ago. Perhaps her strength lies in her ability to forge ahead regardless of others, yet I would have welcomed her open assessment of the value of individual versus collective work, of where her projects have succeeded and perhaps where they could have succeeded more fully. I would also have welcomed a thoughtful analysis of how she feels about today's feminist Muslim reevaluation of the sources of Islamic doctrine and practice, a revolutionary move from within that women active in gender politics are taking up from Morocco to Iran. Instead she writes, “I kept searching in the holy books and sayings for mention of the rights of women. There was nothing, absolutely nothing.” Whether one agrees or not, surely her long history of activism has yielded some dialogue and reaction.

And how might the presence or absence of a community contour the ability—or not—to write? El Saadawi is constantly grappling with the blank page, both compelled and unable to write. Is it simply because the “Arabic language was not made for me”? Her mother tongue, she declares, “does not speak to me. It was made for men, uses divine words and expressions that deny my existence. God and Satan are masculine. Death is masculine.” Yet she writes, as do many other women. Could the awesome stare of the blank page stand in for a lack of community?

As a translator of numerous novels and short stories by Egyptian and Lebanese women (including El Saadawi's Memoirs from the Women's Prison and her novel The Circling Song), I've long been concerned with English-speaking readers' access to the rich, resolute presence of feminists in contemporary Arabic literature. I've also rejoiced in the growing range of autobiographies by Arab women available in English—works by Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Fedwa Tuqan, Latifa al-Zayyat and others, welcome alternatives to the genre of “unveiling the Arab (or Muslim) woman” by Western journalists that have found a ready market among New York's major houses. El Saadawi's importance as an activist and a bold voice in Arab feminism's most recent half-century cannot be denied. I hope she'll make her autobiography a trilogy, moving on to contemplate her role as part of a feminist history alive with many voices, productive conflicts and continuing struggles.

Ilona Lo Iacono (review date February/March 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870

SOURCE: Lo Iacono, Ilona. “Ilona Lo Iacono on a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman.” Arena Magazine 63 (February/March 2003): 54-5.

[In the following review, Lo Iacono provides an overview of Walking through Fire and highlights El Saadawi's religious and gender-specific political views.]

This second volume of Egyptian feminist and writer Nawal El Saadawi's autobiography begins in North Carolina in 1993 and moves backwards in time and place, examining the events which led her to leave her home country in fear of her life in 1992. Known for her novels, short stories and writings on women, El Saadawi has a reputation as a passionate activist whose writing seeks to subvert power structures. Accordingly, Walking through Fire is no self-indulgent reflection on the events of her own life; the autobiographical details serve as a framework for the discussion of ideas already prominent in her other works.

The book charts the Egyptian political climate from 1951 to 1992, and throughout the many changes, some threats—of prison, assassination and betrayal—remain. Just as El Saadawi loses her idealistic piety, she loses her faith in the state. Monuments to fallen freedom fighters crumble, revolutionary heroes are jailed after their work is done, and police are at once guards and potential assassins. The order for El Saadawi's protection is what finally prompts her to leave Egypt with her husband, so that she can continue to write. This, she insists, is the only thing that prevents her from either killing or committing suicide.

The narrative moves between different periods in time, slipping in and out of present and past tenses. Dreams and imaginings are woven between the ‘events’ of the author's life, drawing on her rich Egyptian cultural heritage. Alongside some references to Arab unity (which span the humiliation of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War and her stint as a doctor in Palestinian camps in Jordan), her musings reflect a connection to what she perceives as the higher status of women in Ancient Egyptian mythology. (This is immediately obvious in the title of the first volume of her autobiography, A Daughter of Isis.) She questions whether injustice has become a ‘minor sin’, dwarfed by the sin of polytheism in the ‘new order in which the female goddesses had been replaced by one male god’, an order in which female knowledge has also been transformed into a threat.

El Saadawi's depiction of her life as a university student provides the impetus for a reflection on what it means to be a young woman in an environment where femininity is a source of sorrow for parents, where education, political activity and writing are admirable in men and undesirable in women. The only way for a young woman to prove her value is to attract a bridegroom. El Saadawi's depiction of her own three marriages foregrounds her proposal that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution (which she nevertheless had to subject herself to in order to live with her third husband, Sherif Hetata, who is also the book's translator). El Saadawi's first marriage was an act of rebellion, a refusal to conform to the materialistic expectations usually placed on the bridegroom. Her second marriage was loveless, marked by the author's disconnection with her ‘true self’—living according to the dictates of a ‘false self’ is a constant theme in her fiction, and this disturbing autobiographical passage presents the alternatives as either death or drastic action to reclaim an authentic life.

El Saadawi argues that Islamic law restricts married women's rights and freedoms, causing an inequality between husband and wife. The culture of ‘honour’, too, comes under attack: women's honour refers almost exclusively to ‘the lower half of their bodies’, while men's honour relies on their income capacity. Virginity, and its ‘proof’ in the form of an intact hymen, becomes a matter of obsession among women: the Virgin Mary, who is the only woman called by name in the Qur'an, is an example for idealistic young Muslim girls such as El Saadawi once was. Even married sexual activity within the parameters of Islamic law is therefore a potential source of shame for women.

An interesting feature of the book's structure is El Saadawi's use of snippets of conversations between herself and her femes throughout the book, well after their graduation, with each of the women speaking in a distinctive voice from a fixed position, almost like members of a television debate panel. The paths of their lives are seemingly mapped out by their preferences in men—rangiale relatives, and between her three female medical school friends, to construct a discourse on love, romance and marriage. The dialogue between the friends continuing from an imprisoned Communist to wealthy, corrupt politicians—and although El Saadawi never overtly criticises their opinions, her disgust with some of them is apparent in the contrast between certain of their statements and her own feelings.

Since the book's publication, Nawal El Saadawi has been to court to fight against a forcible divorce from her husband, in a case which was brought against her by third parties believing her to be an apostate. This event, as well as many others given only sketchy treatment in Walking through Fire, may well appear in a third volume of her autobiography in future.


Principal Works


Further Reading