Radical Author Nawal el Saadawi Speaks About Her LifePrint This Post July 6, 2009 8:00 am Features
The famed Egyptian activist and author, Nawal el Saadawi, jet lagged from a trans-atlantic flight but still full of the energy and the passion which comes through in her writing, gave a talk at Housman’s bookshop in April to celebrate the re-issuing of three of her books, Kate Kingsford writes. Click HERE for her books.
Housman’s bookshop is one of the last truly radical bookshops in London, and, as such, the perfect setting for Nawal el Saadawi, a truly radical writer, campaigner, and feminist.
Nawal has many talents, having trained as a doctor and studied many of the world’s religions. However, she is most famous as a writer and an activist. Her novel “Woman at Point Zero” is one of the best-known Arabic novels outside the Arab world and has become a key work of Arab feminist literature. The novel reveals the wretchedness of one Egyptian woman’s life in a male-dominated society. Now in her late seventies, she appears decades younger and has lost none of her active commitment to women’s rights and social change.
Nawal has written 47 books and challenged political systems and ideology again and again. Her passion is such that, despite years of threats against her life, being emprisoned in the 80’s for her outspoken criticism of the Egyptian government and having to spend periods in exile, she ran for president in 2005. She has never held back in her attacks on patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Currently an exile from her own country, she is now planning to return home.
She has never been afraid of controversy and recently won a court case which threatened to remove her Egyptian citizenship for the ideas expressed in her play “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.” The title alone is enough to demonstrate that age has not made her any less uncompromising.
Housman’s bookshop is a small venue but was packed with admirers of Nawal’s work. After telling us about her latest book on her years in America, “My Life across the Ocean”, soon to be published in Arabic, she chose to spend the remaining time answering questions and debating issues raised by the audience.
She talked a great deal about her long struggle against the circumcision of children. As one of the first people to try to end the practice of female circumcision in Egypt and around the world, Nawal has seen attitudes towards this issue change radically over the past few decades - largely due to her own writing and campaigning. Although she went through the horrific experience of circumcision herself as a young girl, it has become increasingly rare in Egypt thanks to her efforts. She is now beginning a new campaign against male circumcision, which she considers pointless as well as damaging, both physically and psychologically: “There is no excuse whatsoever for cutting children”.
Several people asked her about her attitude towards religion. She said that for her an ideal world would be without religion, and told a story of how she had been separated from her best friends at school because she was Muslim and her friends were Christian and Jewish. Since then she has been strongly against any kind of religion which causes division, which is why - controversial as ever - she supports the French ban on all religious symbols in schools.
And, of course, she talked about feminism. One of her recent campaigns has been against ‘the name of the father’, an attempt to make it equally acceptable for children in Egypt to take the name of their mother. She pointed out that “el Saadawi” was her grandfather’s name, a man whom she has never even met: “Why should his name be stamped on all my books?” If her campaign is successful - as she has been in the past - it would mean an end to the discrimination faced by illegitimate children, whose mothers were often victims of rape. They do not know the name of their father and are thus deprived of a name for themselves, forced to endure the social stigma throughout their lives. Nawal’s own daughter was recently taken to court in Egypt for insisting on using her mother’s name as well as her father’s; like her mother, she refused to compromise and eventually won the case.
Although in many ways liberal values in the Middle East have been sidelined in recent years, Nawal is optimistic about the future, saying that “we just need to get organised” in order to start a liberal movement which could act as an alternative to religious fundamentalism. All the same, she doesn’t like the term ‘Middle East’, it’s too neo-colonialist, or ‘fundamentalism’, because fundamental values can be positive. She has strong opinions about everything, even vocabulary.
After an exhausting day of travel Nawal stayed on at the bookshop to sign copies of her books and hold animated conversations with individual members of the audience. Everyone was left inspired by her energy and optimism: considering how much she has achieved in her lifetime, anything seems possible.