Nawal El Saadawi: Still in the Mix in Cairo at 80

Nick Kristof in one of his posts from Tahrir Square in Cairo, talks about a hero of his, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi.

In the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, I bumped into one of my heroes, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist who for decades has fought female genital mutilation. Dr. Saadawi, who turns 80 this year, is white-haired and frail and full of fiery passion.

“I feel I am born again,” she said, adding that she intended to sleep with the protesters on Tahrir Square. She also suggested that instead of being sent into comfortable exile, Mr. Mubarak should be put on trial as a criminal; that’s a theme I’ve heard increasingly often among pro-democracy activists.

By chance, I’ve been reading one of Saadawi’s novels, Two Women in One.  Written  in the middle of her writing life, Two Women in One, captures a young woman, Bahia Shaheen who is much like a younger Saadawi, at an earlier time, much like the present in Egypt.

She goes to see a demonstration with her girlfriends

Suddenly the world seemed to rumble and shake as if an earthquake were rocking sky and earth…. it was the sound of thousands of voices raised in unison; like the roar of thunder, like millions of voices melting into one enormous sound, filling the world, not merely reaching the ears but penetrating the pores of the skin and investing all the orifices of the body, spreading like gas and flowing like blood through the cells.

And later, after her life has changed enormously:

In the small square Raouf turned right and was swallowed up by the dark street.  Fawzi headed for the main square.  Bahiah strode toward the waiting bus, her chest heaving, her breath coming in gasps.  She clutched the  leather bag bulging with leaflets to her chest.  She knew where to go.  She knew where to take the blazing words.

People of Egypt!  Awake!  Throw open your windows, open your eyes and see the chains coiled around your necks!  Open your minds and see that the sweat of your brows is being plundered.  Your crops are stolen, your flesh is devoured until you are left only skin and bones, skeletons lining up, leaning on each other.  Your breath is torn by fits of coughing and blood pours from a deep wound in your chest.

Two Women in One was written in 1983, after she had been released from prison for objecting to the Jerusalem Peace Treaty. She was released a week after Sadat’s assassination. Despite the above quote, and Bahia’s love of an imprisoned anti-government protester, the novel is not, for the most part, directly political.  It is enormously political in the feminist sense — that the personal is political.   Bahia holds center stage throughout the novel; it could almost be written as a monolog, though Saadawi has chosen the third person to reveal her to us.

We start as Shaheen is in Anatomy class at the university, one of a very few young women, as the professor guides them in dissection. We see her immediately as she sees herself — someone outside the prescribed roles of Egyptian life at the time.

She stood with her right foot on the edge of a marble table and her left foot on the floor, a posture unbecoming for a woman… In those days girls’s skirts made it impossible for them to stand like that. Their skirts wound tightly round the thighs and narrowed at the knees, so that their legs remained bound together whether they are sitting, standing, or walking…the legs and knees remained clamped, as if they were pressing their thighs together to protect something they were afraid might fall.

She had always been curious to know just what it was that might fall the minute a girls’s legs were parted.

The book is a constant, desperate struggle for Bahia to understand her self; her two selves. She is pinched and twisted by the demands of the world she doesn’t understand, or if she understands doesn’t want to accept. When as a child she undresses to show her mother that she is a girl, not a boy, her mother slaps her. When she won’t promise not to do it again, she is slapped again.

…her mind grasped a strange fact: pursing her lips and bowing her head, she realized that people suppress only real desires, because they are strong, while unreal desires are weak and need no laws to keep them in check.

Men can not be trusted

When their fingers moved as they go on or off the triam, they might be exchanging greetings or threats. Everything about them became confused. Their every aspect was identical to its opposite. A smile was a threat, truth a lie, virtue vice, and love hate.

In fact, at times,  it seems we may be reading about a descent into madness, a young woman so out of time, and with so little friendship, that her acute sensation of the absurd will destroy her. At times she can’t distinguish boundaries — did the bright flame come from the candle or from her finger? Someone calls her name. It sounds like it belongs to someone else.

She got a shock every time she heard her name and a hidden feeling would tell her that someone was calling her own name, selecting her from among millions of other bodies…

Faces all seem the same. She asks her mother, “Am I Bahia?” and the mother doesn’t understand her; she never understands her mother.  Their eyes do not meet.

It is only when she meets Saleem that the curve of madness begins to cease falling.

When his eyes moved in front of hers, she felt as if he were seeing her. It was the first time she had ever been seen by any eyes other than her own.

He puts out his hand… it was the first hand ever to envelop hers. He appreciates her paintings.    He says her name.

The name Bahia had become very special. It was not like the name Bahia — any Bahia — but referred to her in particular, her and nobody else, her to the exclusion of all others, that particular being of hers now standing beside him, the borders of her body sharp separate from the space outside…

And so she finds her way into her true self. When her father pulls her out of school and marries her, she refuses the marriage bed, kicking the groom so hard he cannot perform. No proof of virginity stains the sheets. She escapes and tries to hide. Her anatomy professor offers her a ride, and his love. She kicks him as well

“It seems I’ve made a mistake,” he said, “I thought you were in love with me.”
“Where on earth did you get that idea?” she answered in amazement.
“I understand women,” he said in his lecturer’s tone.
“With what brain?”
He pointed to his head and smiled. “Man has only one brain, in his head. Didn’t I teach you that in the dissecting room?
“The dissecting room is one thing, the truth is another,” she said scornfully.
“What is the truth?”
“That a man’s brain is not in his head.”
“Where then?”
“Between his legs,” she answered boldly.
“He put on his jacket, saying “You’re not normal, girl.”
“You’re a perfectly normal man,” she said smiling.

At novel’s end, followed by her father and husband, by government agents as well, for her leafleting she realizes that she can be true to herself only by walking into capture.

She was sure she would not plunge into the abyss. She would not surrender. She would not be Bahia Shaheen, would not return to the ordinary faces, would not sink into the sea of similar bodies or tumble into the grave of ordinary life.

She walks towards the police, holding out her wrists “Let’s go!”

Two Women in One is some times repetitious, in the way of obsessive thoughts.  Sometimes it doesn’t move ahead with the urgency of what is happening to Bahia.  As a very early forecast however, by a very impressive woman, of what is happening today in Egypt — and in which she is able to participate, it is quite remarkable.   As a remarkable “journal” of self-discovery by a determined woman, it is worth reading.  As other reviewers commented at the time of publication, it is not about only  about ‘two Egyptian women in one,’  but to some extent about every thinking woman.

El Saadawi has spent all of her life as a physician and writer.  She was  Director of Public Health in Cairo for a time,  and has worked for the UN.  Threatened by Islamist fundamentalists for her advocacy for women — and her lifelong battle against genital mutilation, which she herself suffered, she fled Egypt in 1988.  She has taught at Duke, and the University of Washington and other universities.  She returned to Egypt in 1996.

And as Kristof tells us, is happy happy happy to be out in Tahrir square.

Amy Goodman has a very recent interview with her on Democracy Now.

Brief comments about her on Kutub, a reading group, where I first ran into her, and this book.

Enotes has biographical and bibliographic information as well as citing some of her critics — as having a pro-west bias by exposing too much of problematic Egyptian culture.