In her 50 years of writing and being vocal, Nawal El Saadawi has been referred to as a feminist, an activist, an educator, a traitor and a blaspheme, among many other things. Yet, this trail of references can only reflect the impact that her work, her fights and her outspoken opinions have had on people.
As a political activist, she protested against British colonialism under King Farouk, was dismissed from the Ministry of Health by Gamal Abdul Nasser, stood against Anwar Sadat’s Jerusalem Peace Treaty and stands with the people today against the corruption of Hosni Mubarak’s government. Nawal El Saadawi, 80 years old this year, has never been afraid to voice her opinion and risk her freedom.
This week, London welcomed El Saadawi in conversation with editor of Bidoun magazine, Negar Azimi. Hosted by the Serpentine Gallery as a string of talks organized with Bidoun, the event drew a good number of men and women — Western, Arab and otherwise — into the atrium-like room on Saturday afternoon. They spoke of El Saadawi’s latest book, “Zeina,” and the role of creativity in the ongoing uprising in Egypt.
Among El Saadawi’s enduring themes is the notion that everything — from the personal to the political — is connected. As a physician, she witnessed harsh living conditions for women in rural Egypt — particularly the practice of female genital mutilation. She also researched neurological situations of women, linking their mental state to that of what she considers wide spread oppression of women in the country. Linking that to post-colonial politics, capitalist injustice and patriarchal leadership, she writes novels that represent how she sees life for everyday people in Egypt.
Her latest novel, “Zeina,” is one of them. The book tells the story of Bodour who must live with the guilt of having an illegitimate child, Zeina. As is the law in Egypt, children without known fathers must remain without a surname. In addition, most of the time, they are abandoned on the streets after their mothers bow to family honor and the social pressure of shame. Though Bodour eventually finds Zeina, she is unable to tell her that she is her mother. Despite all odds, Zeina becomes a popularly respected musician while Bodour pins after her, proud of what she has accomplished.
Critics have found the novel to be brutally anti-male and gruesomely descriptive. “There are millions of Zeinas in Egypt,” says El Saadawi, explaining that they remain illegitimate children with no names and uncertain futures. It is their story that she is interested in telling. The book goes back to previous revolutions in Egypt from 1919 to 1959, linking the narrative’s story line to issues of global politics as well.
Having been asked to read a section of the novel at the discussion, El Saadawi refused, insisting that audience members can read themselves. Prophetically, the book was published in April of this year, right after the fall of the head of state, Hosni Mubarak, by the popular-lead protests. Today, with the audience, she preferred to speak precisely about how interconnectivity referenced in the novel is what makes us think creatively and thus progressively. “Creativity,” she explains, “is related to revolution.”
As a writer, she has published within various genres, ranging from social and political manifestos to memoirs, novels, poetry, essays and drama. Her topicality comes from her direct political activity as well as her experience as a practicing physician and psychiatrist.
“There is no difference between reality and dreams,” she explains. “There is no separation between fiction or non-fiction.”
In her teaching, she encourages students to think beyond the categorization of studies and is critical toward subject based education system. “Specialization is good, but it must be united with other knowledge,” she explains.
In this, she adamantly notes that, contrary to what Freud preached, creativity does not come from the unconscious drive but from the super-conscience: from awareness.
It was this awareness that led the Egyptian revolution of January this year. People were able to liberate their minds, notice how connected the corruption across Egypt was and stand up against it, as they are up till today still unwavering in Tahrir Square. And, this is not isolated; El Saadawi mentioned all the countries that are working toward reform on a national level, as well as the fights women are taking up to gain their civil rights in the Arab world. In her mention of Saudi Arabia, there was pride in reference to Manal Al Sharif, a single mother who is leading women against the ban to drive.
El Saadawi spoke of many things during her two-hour talk. She spoke of justice and equality, and how she forged on in her fight against Egypt’s corrupt government, and of course, encouraged everyone to be aware and creative. It is clearly her uncompromising and constructive manner that lends to her steadfast strength and charisma.