About Helena

Helena Frith Powell is the author of seven books, among them the bestseller Two Lipsticks and a Lover. Her latest novel, Love in a Warm Climate is out now. She used to write the French Mistress column in The Sunday Times about living in France. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper's Bazaar. Among other topics, she writes about health, beauty, France, interiors and travel. Until recently she was editor of M magazine, the Saturday supplement of the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper. She is now publisher of Masquerade Magazine, a high-end fashion glossy. Helena was educated at Durham University and lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband Rupert Wright and their three children. She has two step-children.

Missing

By the time it got to Saturday evening, none of us could remember exactly when we’d last seen him, we only knew he was missing.
We’d rolled in at 2am that morning after an evening of wine and music with an octogenarian friend of ours (these 80 somethings know how to party).
“Did you see him when we got back?” Rupert asked me.
“I’ve no idea,” I replied.
Sunday morning we started to look for him. We walked in all directions from the house whistling and calling his name. Only the cicadas responded. All day Sunday we searched, frantic to find him before his owner, Leo, came home from a camping trip.
“Leo’s not going to be happy,” said Rupert.
“I know,” I replied.
“Where the hell can he have got to?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Where has he got to?” I asked his sister Minnie, but she just purred, delighted with all the attention we were lavishing on her.IMG_3186

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Monday morning there was still no sign of him. I had spent most of the night imagining all kinds of dreadful fates that might befall a tabby cat called Tiger in the garrigue; hunter’s traps, kidnapping, mauling by a wild boar, fighting with a fox. Three days on what was he eating, and more importantly drinking? I began to lose hope of ever seeing him again.

Leo came back around midday Monday and spent the afternoon calling him, using the special whistle he has for him. “He’s heard my whistling, I can feel it,” he told me at one point. I nodded and tried to look encouraging. Every ten minutes or so I called Tiger from various vantage points all around the garden. Every sound I reacted to, wondering if it might be him. I longed more than anything to see him padding up the road. The worst thing of all was watching Leo, optimistic at first, slowly getting despondent, shoulders slouching, kicking the gravel on the drive as he returned disconsolate from yet another fruitless search.

It was the uncertainty that was so awful, the not knowing what had happened, not knowing if he was still alive, or suffering. I know he’s just a cat, but it was utterly all-encompassing. I don’t think half an hour passed when we didn’t think about him, and either Rupert or I asked one another: “Where the hell can he have got to?” Although Rupert remained optimistic, confidently declaring “He’ll be back.”
But by 11pm on Monday I had begun to give up hope of ever seeing him again. I was cleansing my face when I heard a strange peep. Then another one. I thought it must be a mouse, or maybe Minnie. Suddenly from under our bed sprang Tiger. He looked dishevelled and slightly freaked out, but he was in one piece. I took him into the kitchen where he ate two pouches of food in very quick succession and drank some water.
“He’s back!” I told Bea who had walked in to make a cup of tea.
“He was just with his girlfriend,” she said. “All’s good in the hood.”

Fidelity à la Française

I first went to Paris when I was 14 years old. I was travelling with my father who introduced me to a “friend” of his, a dancer at the Lido called Sophie. Something she told me has remained with me ever since. “All you need to be a French woman,” she said, “is two lipsticks and a lover.”
Having lived there for several years I would say the truth is closer to one lipstick and two lovers.
The French are famous for sex. Now we have it from an official source that they excel at it. And, rather predictably, they’re much better at it than us. An Ifop (Institut Français d’opinion publique) survey published this week entitled ‘Paris, City of Light, City of Debauchery’ concludes that Parisians have on average 19 lovers, whereas we Brits have a measly nine. It also found that 44 per cent of Parisians have slept with someone whose name they don’t know, 29 per cent have taken part in threesomes (or ménage à trois as they are known in France) and 22 per cent have been involved in an orgy.
In 2014 Ifop carried out a survey that found that 55 per cent of French men and 32 per cent of French women cheat on their spouses. I would guess the real figure is even higher. Do the French have time for anything else but sex? No wonder their economy is in such a state. And the fact that they’re always on strike, is that just a ploy to spend more time in the sack?
We Brits have always been slightly jealous of the French je ne sais quoi. If your husband announces he has a French mistress, you know the game’s up. Similarly when women dream of a tall, dark and handsome man, he probably has just a hint of a French accent.
But are their sex lives really fuelled by romance? Is it all candlelit dinners and longing gazes under the Eiffel Tower? Holding hands as you stroll along the banks of the Seine and drinking champagne under the shade of a Plane tree?
I would argue that no, it’s not. OK so they have more lovers, but that doesn’t make them more loving. The truth is that French sex is more about promiscuity than romance. If you are serially unfaithful your tally will increase, won’t it?images-1
While we Brits get married and settle down, the French get married and, er, carry on as if they’re not. A few years ago while discussing the difference between vous and tu with a married French couple, the man told me he always vous his mistress. “It’s much sexier,” he said. His wife didn’t blink. I half expected her to chip in with a ‘oh yes I always vous my lovers too, makes it seem so much more exotic, not to mention erotic.’
A friend of mine called Bernadette is 37 years old and has been having an affair with the husband of a friend of hers for a year and a half. “We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in town. We had coffee and he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress,” she says. “I was surprised at how direct he was, it was almost like a business proposal, he suggested we meet once or twice a week, he would book a hotel, and we would have sex.” They do just that; she goes to the hotel after leaving work and before she gets home to her husband and two small children. She is not in it for the romance, but views it more like a treat. “Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room where there is a man waiting for me.”
Jean-Claude is in his mid-forties. He’s a successful Paris-based businessman who has been married to Chantal for 15 years. They have three children. He freely admits that there is not one year out of the 15 when he has been faithful to her. He doesn’t have one regular mistress, like a lot of French men do, but a series of lovers, none of whom he sees more than a handful of times because he doesn’t want to risk getting too attached to them. His motivation is purely sexual. He finds sex with his wife boring, and he enjoys the chase and thrill of seducing other women. But he has no desire to break up his family, hence the need to keep the affairs brief and to the point. But is there really any point?
“It never even occurred to me to remain faithful,” he says. “It’s just our way of life. Added to which among my friends a mistress is a bit of a status symbol, you’re seen as a bit of a loser if you don’t have one.”
The fact that infidelity is culturally acceptable makes it so much more acceptable than it is here. Another friend of mine called Gilbert says that one of his most enduring memories from childhood is of his grandmother consoling his grandfather when one of his girlfriends had finished with him. There is no stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair, in fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of. No one would dream of asking you where you were between cinq and sept. In England, if you are an unfaithful person, you are also a bad person. Not so in France. For example, you can be a philanderer and still be a good President as we have seen with a succession of French heads of state. As far back as 1899 a French President called Félix Faure died during an oral sex session at the Elysée Palace. What a way to go. Makes Clinton seem like a lightweight. Before they had presidents, French kings were at it. Madame de Pompadour was Louis XV’s official mistress, and that title must mean he had several unofficial ones as well.
There are even those who argue that infidelity in France is a basic human right. As Michael Worton former (now retired) Professor of French Literature at University College London sums up: “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
The Paris-based American author Edith Kunz put it like this: “Wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers function together on a relatively peaceful basis in France when the players adhere to the non-verbal code of manners.”
Infidelity is a French specialist subject. But maybe because it is so entrenched it’s in danger of becoming as much of a burden as marriages sometimes appear to be? Jean-Claude admits there are times when he tires of the affairs. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he laughs. “But there are days when I wonder if I can be bothered. And then I think about a certain pair of lips or the way someone laughs and I’m off again.”
Antoine, 36, who lives in Lyon, has been married for five years but has been having an affair with an older divorced woman for almost two years. They meet at her place two or three times a week. “I think it is nearing the end of its natural life,” he says of the affair. “There comes a time when it starts to turn into the same mundanity you have at home, and then you have to move on.” Antoine says he will probably always have a mistress on and off. “I can’t imagine being with the same woman forever. Never kissing another woman, or caressing another body. It would feel like a prison sentence. I think being sexually liberated is essential for your well-being.”
And the women? Well here again is a crucial difference between the French and us Brits. “French women are born to seduce,” a male French friend once told me. “And what are English women born to do?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Cuddle their dogs.”
But does all this sex and seduction actually get them anywhere? Are they any happier than us semi-frigid Brits cuddling our dogs and counting our sexual conquests on one hand?
While it all seems terribly exciting running around chasing women or being seduced by men who one would assume after so much practice must be getting rather good at it, most French people concede that actually having your cake and eating it is just not possible. The statistic from the survey that 44 per cent of people have slept with someone whose name they don’t know is just plain depressing. For sex to be truly exciting and interesting surely there has to be an element of romance? There may be times when a nameless encounter is just the ticket, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable path to fulfilment and happiness.
None of the case studies I spoke to seemed overly excited by their affairs. Funnily enough, if anything the women were happier than the men. With the men I got the impression they almost felt obliged to be unfaithful, as if it was somehow a reflection on their manhood (or lack of it) if they only slept with their wives. As Jean-Claude says: “I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this for me or if it’s only because it’s expected of me.” Another friend of mine who lives in Provence travels to Paris once a month to get his hair cut. Obviously being French he is not getting his hair cut at all, but seeing his mistress. But he admits that he sometimes enjoys the journey more than the actual mistress. “It’s so relaxing,” he says. “I think I’d still go even if it weren’t for her.”
The French might have more notches on the bedpost, but as with so many things, happiness through lovers is more about quality than quantity.
So while the French may have won the battle, we are winning the war. Plus ça change.

The rise of La Cougar

During my last visit to France I visited my beautician. I have known Chantal, who works in a salon in Montpellier, for 15 years and I always pop in for a facial and to talk about the latest skincare products. This year, she had some unusual advice for me. And it had nothing to do with my skincare regime.
“Get yourself a younger man,” she said conspiratorially. “At our age we need a young man to keep life interesting.”
I tried to explain that while this might be acceptable behaviour in France, in England husbands take a rather dim view of their wives sleeping around. Especially with young colts.download
“Oh well you don’t have to tell him,” she laughed. “You know what things are like here; everyone does their own thing in their own corner.”

I have heard that expression about corners before. France is of course a country that has always been famous for infidelity, where many married couples view the cinq à sept a bit like our afternoon tea.

But for the French women of une certain age it now seems the “corner”, whether she’s married or not, contains a man half her age.
According to a recent survey carried out by the French statistical bureau Insée, 16 per cent of relationships are now made up of an older woman and a younger man, compared with just 10 per cent in 1960.
This could in part be due to a number of high-profile and hugely popular couples. Emmanuel Macron for example. This hugely charismatic 38-year-old is married to his former secondary school teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 20 years older than him. Another power-cougar couple is made up of the newsreader Claire Chazal who is 60 and her boyfriend Arnaud Lemaire, a 40-year old model. Such is Chazal’s popularity that when I first spoke to a friend in Paris about this article her first reaction was “you have to be nice about Claire, she is very well respected and loved here”.
But apart from popular power couples, along with the immense popularity of shows like Cougar Town, what other reasons are there for the inexorable rise of la cougar?
Emily, a friend of mine who grew up in Paris and lived there until she was in her mid-twenties before moving back to England, thinks it is in part due to the diminishing importance of the patriarch in French society. “In France the balance has shifted relatively recently to a more level playing field,” she says. “Women now have the power themselves in terms of earning money and being independent. So when they look for a lover, power is not necessarily the first thing they go for. Personally I’d say it’s about time; I’ve never known a nation of women suffer so much to be beautiful. I would go out with French friends and while they were nibbling a lettuce leaf, I’d be stuffing bread rolls into my mouth and drinking wine.
“You visit any town in France and there will be a hairdresser and a lingerie shop on every corner. The culture of looking good for your man is as strong as it ever was. We lost that in the 1950s.”
In France age is no barrier to being sexy. A friend of mine whose children were at the school Brigitte Trogneux taught at remembers vividly the first time she met her. “We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing tight leather trousers and stilettoes and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. I have no idea at all what she said, I was just utterly mesmerised. St Louis de Gonzague is not the kind of school where teachers wear leather trousers! But she looked incredible.”
The confidence French women carry with them as they age may be one reason they feel happy to sleep with younger men. As Clarisse, a Bordeaux-based advertising executive who in a relationship with a man who is eight years younger, puts it: “Women are now hotter for longer, whereas men seem to be going the other way with their paunches and lack of desire to stay young. In France it is typical of men to turn into their fathers once they hit 40. There is a preconception among men that middle age starts then. When I look around at my friends I see that are definitely ageing better than our male counterparts, so it’s only natural we should look to younger men.”
According to the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, the rise of la cougar is also due to a change in attitude when it comes to the older woman/younger man combination, a more feminist take on it. “The female libido doesn’t just go to sleep after children or even after the menopause,” he told French Elle. “A few years ago an older woman with a younger man was seen as something to laugh at, she was viewed as bit of a vieille coquette (an old flirt). Nowadays you can see something of a victory in the equality of the situation.”
Maybe the women even have the better deal now? As Agnès, a 40-something Parisian with a lover who is 29 sums up: “Older men have Viagra, but we women have the cougar attitude. I have never felt or looked better. He has invigorated me in a way I couldn’t imagine at my age. It’s like being a teenager again. I feel incredible.”
Caroline, who is in her late 40s and lives in Lyon, got divorced six years ago and now has a 33-year-old boyfriend. “Why would I look for what I just left?” she says when I asked her about her decision to go for a younger man. “I don’t need another fat husband and a lot of complications. And the younger generation of men are much more in touch with how women feel, and they love to make you feel good in bed, it makes them feel powerful and in control.”
For those not lucky enough to happen upon younger men, there is a French website called cougars-avenue.com. According to the home page it was set up to “offer a unique dating service for consenting adults who want to enjoy inter-generational relationships”. With Cougars Avenue “you’re guaranteed a date with someone who knows what they want”.
The testimonials make for interesting reading. Veronique, for example, who describes herself as a Versailles-based cougar, says: “Two weeks after subscribing I met a few young men whose energy matched mine perfectly”. There is even a testimony from a rather grateful young man in Clermont who claims that he had always been “unlucky in love” and never “dared to find love with an older woman” but is now happily being taught everything they know. One assumes the gratitude is reciprocal.
So what’s in it for the men? One of the most famous toy boys in France is a literary creation by the writer Colette, who was herself renowned for her taste for young men. Her book, Chéri, which was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, is about a young man’s love for an older woman. In it, the heroine Léa devotes herself to the amorous education of the beautiful young Chéri. When the time comes for Chéri to marry, he finds it impossible to leave her. Aged 49, she holds more allure for him than his young wife.
Another literary toy boy was the writer Balzac, who had many older lovers because, as he put it, “our young girls are too concerned with making a rich match, passion comes later”. This view is echoed by Jérôme, a Parisian man in his 30s who has had a string of older girlfriends. “To be honest I find young women a pain. They’re demanding and selfish. Older women don’t need you to tell them you love them constantly or expect you to buy them presents. They are secure in themselves and have the money to pay for whatever they want. It’s much less complicated. Added to which they know what the want in bed, which is extremely sexy.” Another friend of mine called Thierry points out that “you make good soup in old pots, with new carrots”.
La Cougar may be a relatively recent phenomenon in modern France, but there is at least one example from the past that will inspire French women today. The iconic French singer Edith Piaf married Théo Sarapo a Greek hairdresser turned singer and actor who was 20 years her junior. One of the results of this union was that she was denied a funeral mass when she died. Funeral mass or young lover? Hardly a tricky choice. Maybe her famous song Je ne regrette rien was prophetic.

Can a frog turn into a prince?

Not even Scarlett Johanssen could do it. Hang on to a French husband that is. Two and a half years after she married Romain Dauriac the father of her daughter Rose, the actress is filing for divorce. She doesn’t give a reason, but in an interview a few months ago talked about how impossible monogamy is. Especially for Frenchmen, she could have added.

downloadJohanssen joins a long list of illustrious women who have loved and lost a la française.

In January this year pop princess Cheryl Cole split from her French husband Jean-Bernard citing unreasonable behaviour. The actress Gemma Arterton has broken up with her boyfriend Franklin Ohanessian.

When the sexy French actor Olivier Martinez leapt onto the world scene in the film The Horseman on the Roof and announced that “Madame a déjà un escort” we all wanted to be that Madame. Halle Berry and Kylie Minouge both were, for a while, but neither lasted the course. Perhaps though the most shocking of all news of the split between Kristen Scott Thomas (who is as close to being a French woman as you can possibly be without being actually being French) and her gynaecologist husband in 2005 after 18 years of marriage. The rumour at the time was that she was having an affair with the actor Tobias Menzies, but there were bound to be some Gallic issue underlying the split.

The list goes on. The evidence is blindingly obvious. If you’re not French, don’t marry a Frenchman.

Frenchmen make appallingly bad husbands. Along with their inability to keep their trousers on is a myriad of traits that make them so, well, impossibly French. Ego, the impenetrable language, misogynism and a loathing of anywhere outside their own arrondissement to name a few.

I had a French boyfriend. Once. It was a very long time ago, back in the days when the only men who used moisturiser were definitely “batting for the other side” as my grandfather used to put it.

Except Didier that is. Didier had a bathroom filled with more products than I had ever seen in one place. And remember this was when brands didn’t even have men’s skincare ranges. One look at those shelves was enough to send me running for the hills.

I’m grateful now to Didier and his skincare obsession. Because had it not been for him I might have been tempted, as so many women are, to actually marry a Frenchman.

“I’ve kissed a lot of frogs,” says Catherine, an English friend of mine who has lived in Paris for 15 years. “But none that have turned into princes.”

Catherine has seen too many of her compatriots fail to even contemplate marrying a French man. “They’re good for a love affair, but nothing more. Talk about a crowded marriage. If you marry a Frenchman you have to live not only with his pernickety mother watching your every move, but with his ego as well. I’m not sure which is worse.”

Catherine says that when looking for a husband someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture should look for a man from a country where there is more equality between the sexes than there is in France.

“The French are sexist pigs,” she says. “They’re very charming with it, but that’s the bottom line.”

Claire, another English friend living in Paris agrees. “I think we tend to put up with less shit than French women. For example, we expect a man to stay faithful and do the washing up now and again. Added to which, you always have to be perfect. There is no way a French man will put up with you mooching around at home in your pyjamas or gym kit.”

So apart from being habitually well groomed and turning a blind eye to infidelity, how do French women keep their men in line, and why do they want to?

“Oh they don’t keep them in line, unless she’s much richer or younger than him, or the man in question has some values, which is unlikely in France,” says Julia, an American mother of three who has lived in France for 17 years with her American husband. “But they prefer to stay married, as do the men. It gives them both security, albeit different types of security.”

Julia describes French society as an odd combination of more conservative and at the same time more licentious than ours. So while French men are allowed to behave as they want to, being unfaithful and refusing to do anything around the house, French women tend to put up with their behaviour due to a mixture of cultural norms and economic necessity.

“French women get peanuts in divorce settlements here, the law is as sexist as the men, so usually it’s in their interests to stay married.”

Inspirational women

In celebration of International Women’s Day last week I am publishing a series of articles about inspirational women. One of the most intelligent, warm, interesting, as well as truly inspirational, women I ever met was the Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi. Here is the article I wrote after our meeting in her small flat in Cairo in 2010. 

Nawal El Saadawi has returned to Cairo where intends to stay until she dies. Not that she feels particularly at home there. “Home is not about where I am. I would not call Cairo home. I feel at home wherever I meet people I feel at home with,” she tells me sitting at her desk in her Cairo apartment. “I feel at home now while we are talking, do you feel the same? I feel like I’ve known you for 100 years. We are talking about very intimate things, we enjoy ourselves. We have lost the feeling of the external world. And we got rid of the photographer,” she throws her head back and laughs, referring to the young lady who was with us to take her picture for this feature. imgres Nawal El Sadaawi laughs easily. When she does so her thick curly silver hair bounces around her still youthful face giving the impression of a woman half her age. She takes my hand. “We can talk and talk and you can stay until tomorrow morning and we will never stop talking, that’s home, that’s home to me.”

After three years of exile in the United States Sadaawi has returned to her small apartment in one of Cairo’s less salubrious areas. The entrance looks like it hasn’t been painted since it was built. One rickety lift serves all the floors in the building. Sadaawi is on the 26th floor, away from the dust and noise below in the “cement city” as she calls Cairo. But the upside is that on a good day she can see the Citadel and the Pyramids from her kitchen window.

In her early 80s, she was born on October 27th 1931, Sadaawi is a woman who polarises opinion in her homeland. Universally adored abroad as a critic of female oppression, in Egypt there are those who wish she would be quiet. Even my driver shakes his head when I mention her and says; “not everyone agrees with her”.
She started questioning patriarchal society when she was a little girl and she hasn’t stopped since. Her outspoken views have led to exile, imprisonment and countless court cases against her and her closest relations.
Just last week three clerics accused her of blasphemy for stating that Islam should be confined to the bedroom rather like sex while discussing her latest campaign, the Global Solidarity for Secular Society. She launched the Egyptian chapter just over a week ago. She calls it a movement aimed at promoting secularism and fighting religious fanaticism.
“We have to separate religion from the state,” she says. “Why should children be forced to study Christianity or Islam? And also the Egyptian constitution is full of contradictions because of the religious influences. In the eyes of the law as a woman I am inferior to a man.”
“Recently they tried to make my husband divorce me,” she says. “They said as a good Muslim he couldn’t be married to an Infidel. I won my case, I am a winner. You must never retreat, when you retreat they hit you, but when you push head on you win. For me no way back head on until death!” she laughs again. Sadaawi has an easy, warm and generous manner. She is still startlingly attractive, despite her advanced years. Her skin is clear and her brown eyes sparkle with wit, mischief and intelligence. She is tall and slim and holds herself like a woman of 20. You get the impression she is extremely strong; both physically and mentally. A little like the illiterate peasant grandmother she talks of often and calls one of her greatest role models. “A rebel with very good genes,” she calls her.
As the star pupil of her school in the village of Kafr Tahla on the banks of the Nile, medical school was a natural choice for the young Nadaawi. “It was also what my parents wanted, “ she says. “It is a respectable profession and also brings in money.” She did extremely well at medical school, going on to become a chest surgeon, a health educator and latterly a psychiatrist.
But it is writing that has always been her main passion.
“I am a medical doctor and a fighter for human rights. But if I had to choose one thing it would be writing,” she explains.
Sadaawi has written 47 books. Over 20 have been translated into English and many other languages. One of her books, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison published in 1984, was written in secret on rolls of loo paper with an eyebrow pencil borrowed from a fellow inmate, a prostitute.
Saadawi was imprisoned for three months for allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow the government with the help of the Bulgarians.
“It was one of my best books because it was written in the agony of a real situation,” she says. “The charges were ridiculous, I don’t even know where Bulgaria is!” She was released a month after Sadat’s assassination.
Her bestselling book, Woman at Point Zero is based on conversations with a prostitute condemned to death for murdering her pimp, has been translated into 30 languages and is studied in schools and universities around the world. But not in Egypt. Why not?
Saadawi laughs. “Never, never will it be studied here,” she exclaims. “It was never even published here, I gave it to a feminist editor here and she asked me how I could defend a prostitute. The critics called me a man-hater.”
It is true that after reading five books by Nawal El Sadawi I can hardly bear to look at Egyptian men. I imagine them at best as cruel bordering on sadistic wife beaters with several child slaves hidden in their damp cellars. Her portrayals of men are relentlessly negative. So is she a man hater? Is it possible to hate men and be married three times?
“Of course I don’t hate men. Women in my books are also very contradictory. I am not a hater of men or women, but I am critical. The fact is that the patriarchal society produces men like this; they too are the victims. People really hate a woman who exposes patriarchy in a very deep way, it’s like you uncover them and make them naked. Men are scared of me because I uncover them in my books. I am a fierce writer, aggressive and precise. The pen is like my scalpel and I pierce them with it.”images
Sadaawi’s first husband was a young freedom fighter who “lost his life because he believed he should liberate Egypt from British rule.” Her second husband was a respected judge whom she married in part because all her friends were telling her she should marry. “There was no real love,” she says, “and he was scared of my writing.” She is now married to Sherif Hetata who was a political prisoner for 13 years. Together they have one son, a film director, and Mona, Sadaawi’s daughter from her first marriage. Her daughter is a poet and a writer and never married.
Sadaawi has championed many causes, the most high profile of which was a campaign against female circumcision. There is a heart-breaking passage in her book The Hidden Face of Eve where she describes her own circumcision at the age of six. She talks not only of the agony of the act but the shock of seeing her mother holding her down on the bathroom floor and realising that she was part of what she assumed was a gang of pirates who had stolen into her bedroom in the middle of the night to kidnap and kill her. Did she ever forgive her mother?
“Of course,” says Sadawi, her voice full of affection. “I loved my mother. She was also a victim. She thought what she was doing was good and that it was best for me.”
In part as a result of Sadaawi’s writing a law was passed last year to ban the practice, but she says that 97 per cent of women are still circumcised in Egypt. “You cannot eradicate such habits by law,” she says. “We need education.”
She feels strongly that her home country is going through a dark period in its history. “When I was growing up there was a Renaissance in Egypt. We wanted to get rid of the British and the king, to make all men and women equal. Now we are living in a dark period. There is no creativity, no culture, no agriculture and no industry. We are colonised by the United States, forced to import products to feed our people. At least British colonialism was clear and honest.”
Sadaawi is also working on a book called My Life Across the Ocean that is about her life in exile, on and off since 1993, where she spent most of her time teaching a university course entitled Creativity and Dissonance. “Many people think that when you go to America this is the dream; there is democracy, secularism, civilisation. They think the women there are free, liberated. They are not. Of course they may have more personal freedom than women in the Arab states have, but that doesn’t mean they are liberated.”
Sadaawi has more energy than most people I have met of half her age. Throughout the interview she gesticulates and moves around, she is expressive and dynamic. It is no surprise to me that she really wanted to be a dancer. “I wanted to move my body to the music in my head,” she laughs. “But of course as a little girl I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted.”
She remembers her indignation at her brother being given privileges like freedom to go out, to ride a bicycle and even given better food than she was. “And he was lazy,” she exclaims. “He didn’t work at home or in school!”
She is inspired by stories like her own, by the world she sees around her. “Some people say ‘oh Shakespeare inspired me’, of course I enjoyed Shakespeare but I am inspired by LIFE, by the streets of Cairo, by the view from here of houses below like boxes where people are slaves. When I smell the sweat and the sewage, then I want to write. And I am also motivated by the pleasure I get from writing. I want to be happy and writing makes me happy. It makes me happier than love or sex or food. I can forget all that when I am writing.”
She suffers from a bad back, which is aggravated by sitting at her desk. “But when I am writing even if I am in physical pain I am happy. My body is collapsing but my mind is floating. That is the paradox of creativity.”
She has a very different attitude to ageing to her colleagues at US Universities she worked at. “’Nawal, why don’t you get a face lift?’ they ask me. ‘We are intellectuals but we can still use science to look young’, they say,” she laughs uproariously. “They all did plastic surgery. I want to be healthy, I want to be happy but I will never make an operation to hide my wrinkles! Also they go to parties with their shirts down too low, and they call this liberated. I tell them nakedness and veiling are two sides of the same coin. Both mean that women are just a body, either to be covered or to be naked.”
For a woman who has sold millions of books she lives in very humble surroundings. I ask her why. I had assumed her home would be in a villa somewhere along the Nile or maybe in the rich district of Heliopolis.
She smiles. “I am not a rich woman, despite all the books. I live among the poor people. I clean my own house. You see all these books?” she gestures to the bookshelves that line her sitting room come office. “I do not make any money from them. I have been robbed by the publishers. But my reward is when someone approaches me in India or in Norway or in the US and tells me that I changed their life with something I wrote. That is all I need.”
One of Sadaawi’s memoirs is called Walking through Fire. It is a phrase her mother used when describing how strong her daughter is. Does she feel her life has been difficult?
“Yes, I feel it has been very difficult,” she says. “But I am happy like a child, naïve like a child. I feel like I have an apparatus inside me that digests pain. This is a human capacity, but some people lose it, just like they lose their creativity. We are all born creative, but we lose it through education and fear. I haven’t lost it because I am fearless.”
So despite her many enemies, she feels safe in Cairo? She leans back in her chair and sighs. “I don’t feel safe anywhere. Life is not safe. Death and life are one to me, but I have no fear of death. Can you imagine life without death? It would be impossible. But I would prefer to be shot on the streets of Cairo because of my ideas than die of cancer in the US or Norway. Because we are all going to die and if I die here then at least my death will mean something.”

In memory of biologico

I am reading The Leopard at the moment, Don Fabrizio reminds me so much of my father, he’s almost a literary incarnation of him. It is just over three years ago since my father died. I wrote some of this at the time, and have added to it. We miss you biologico…

I was slightly surprised that my aunt was up so early. It was half past eight and she normally doesn’t surface until around ten. I was already awake, having a cup of tea and thinking about my father.
I had visited him the day before in hospital, gone straight from the airport and stayed for several hours, talking to him about everything from Bach to my children and football. He was, as my aunt had warned me, “closer to death than to life”. There were flashes of him, but mostly he just lay there, breathing heavily, eyes closed, moaning and now and again yelling “Ostia!”
So I chatted on. At one stage I told him that he’d been a wonderful father. It was the only time during the visit that he sat bolt upright and opened his eyes, as if in shock. After a second or two he lay back down and went back to his soporific state.
The fact that I didn’t see him between the ages of two and 12 might preclude him from the category of ‘really good dad’. Also his method of fathering would not meet with universal approval. To him the most important thing was that I could speak five languages and quote Dante. He didn’t really care if I ate my greens, did my homework or had casual sex.
I understood this very early on in our relationship. My mother and I had driven through Europe in her purple Ford Cortina in part to escape her violent husband but also so that I could meet my real father. We navigated with the help of the map in my Girl Guide diary. This had its disadvantages. At one stage, when we thought we are about to hit the Italian border, we saw a sign saying: ‘Welcome to Switzerland’. But we got to the Adriatic town of Rimini eventually where we had arranged to meet my father on the beach. We were early, or he was late, I no longer remember which. I went for a swim. When I came out I realised I was lost. Rimini beach was divided into numbered sections that all looked exactly the same. I was terrified I would never see my mother again, let alone meet my father. I started running on the beach, looking for something I recognised. Suddenly I felt two strong arms around me. I looked up into eyes that were shockingly similar to mine.24598_101777316529563_3127801_n

“Ciao bella,” said my father. “I recognised you by your legs.”
One of the first problems we had to deal with was what I should call him. ‘Daddy’ or the Italian ‘Babbo’ or ‘Papá’ seemed too intimate for a man I had last seen when I was a baby and had no memory of. His name, Benedetto, a little too formal and distant. As he said that first day, there was no denying I was his daughter. “You seem to have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains,” he said. “A most unfortunate outcome.” So we settled on Biologico.
My mother left to visit her parents in Sweden after a couple of days. We set off on a grand tour in his white convertible Mercedes with red leather seats. We went from Rimini to Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. As a 12-year-old living in 1970’s England it was all impossibly exotic. I remember tasting the real flavour of tomatoes for the first time ever. I was also introduced to culture. My father was appalled at how little I knew.
“What do they teach Queen Elizabeth’s subjects at school?” he would yell as I failed to answer yet another basic question about opera, literature or art.
In Florence he sent me off with a Baedeker to discover Michelangelo.
“I loved the David,” I told him when I came back to his flat close to the Duomo.
“Which one did you see?”
“Is there more than one?”
“Oh yes, there are two. One in the Piazza della Signora, and another one in the museum.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The one in the piazza has an erection every Wednesday at 4 o’clock. The queues to see it go all the way to the Arno.”
Along with two Davids, he explained, in Italy there were also two truths. There was la verità and la verità vera. The truth and the real truth.
La verità vera was one of his key phrases, along with a lot of Italian swear words, used mainly when talking about me, and la grande amore, used mainly when talking about my mother.
“Whatever happened afterwards, you have to remember that you were born out of a grande amore,” he would say. “We were in my car in Capri with the roof down one day and the traffic came to a standstill as a class of schoolchildren crossed the road. They wove behind and in front of the car and we looked at each other and we just knew.”
“What would have happened, do you think, if you had stayed together?” I asked him.
“You would have grown up as a subject of the Republic of Italy, instead of a subject of Her Majesty the Queen. What a loss to Her Majesty!”
My aunt said his bravura was a defence mechanism. “He lost you once,” she told me. “He’s scared of losing you again.”
I’m not sure whether that was la verità or la verità vera. Biologico didn’t seem scared of anything. I had never met anyone with such confidence and charm.

It was difficult to believe that this man was my father. I had got so used to pretending a succession of stepfathers were the real thing. But here he was; the verità vera. I couldn’t stop looking at him, listening to his voice and examining his face. He really did look like me. Everyone had always told me I looked like my mother. But now I saw that they were wrong. I was the spitting image of this man I didn’t know.
I’m not sure how much better I knew him on his deathbed almost 40 years after that first summer. We had missed years, and a lot of mundanity, as I grew up. As a teenager and young adult he was relentlessly critical of me, desperate I see now for me to fulfil what he was sure was my potential. It was only when I was older and married with my own children that we became close.
If I had a problem I would call him and he would know immediately what the matter was before I said anything. His advice was always pragmatic, short and to the point. There was never any room for any “shitting sentimentality” as he called it. He abhorred sentimentality, especially in writing. I remember once when I was about 13 trying to write a short story. It came back with “shitting sentimentality” scrawled all over it. Looking back on the sorry tale about a young girl forced to marry an evil man called Rupert, he had a point.
When Biologico first became ill I was tempted to write down as many things as I could think of that might bother me in the future so I could store his answers to consult in times of trouble. Of course I never did. And by the time I got to his hospital bed it was too late.
In the same room as my father was a man my aunt called “il mostro”. He didn’t say much, but now and again he shouted out “mamma” to which his ever-present and ever-patient wife would adjust her housecoat and respond: “No dear, I’m not your mother, I’m your wife.” She repeated this with the same regularity that she repeated the phrase “let’s hope Napoli won”. I felt sorry for my father. Not only was he bed-ridden and in pain, but he had a couple of Naples fans next door. I could just imagine the abuse they would have received if he had been able to speak. My father was a Roma fan. He would sit on a wooden dining room chair and watch football matches on TV (I don’t think I ever saw him on a sofa) shouting at the players in the same way he would yell at politicians during the evening news.
“Biologico, this isn’t real,” I told him, whispering so the Neapolitans couldn’t hear me. “You’re not here. You’re at La Scala, in the Royal Box, we’re about to watch Don Giovanni and at the moment you’re reciting Dante to some beautiful unsuspecting woman. ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….’” There I had to stop, because even though he has recited this canto to me thousands of times, I couldn’t remember any more. I felt I had let him down. “You’ll have to finish it,” I told him. He looked at me and squeezed my hand.
“Let’s hope Napoli won,” said the monster’s wife.
When my aunt knocked on my door the day after the hospital visit I was pleased to see her. I had been meaning to ask her if we could take some nail scissors with us to the hospital to cut my father’s eyebrows? They were seriously unwieldy. He used to joke to my children that he shaved them off and sent them to his enemies. I figured we could pop them straight into an envelope and put them under il mostro‘s pillow. Thus ensuring Napoli would lose. I didn’t have a chance to mention the eyebrows though, before she hugged me and said “He’s dead. He waited to see you and then he died. If you want to know what love means, it is that.”
To be honest I still don’t really know how his death will affect me, because even though I have met countless people who keep telling me they’re sorry, and I’ve been to the funeral parlour and I’ve met the doctor who treated him and I’ve even seen his body, it just doesn’t seem real that he’s gone. Forever. That’s it. Finito Benito as my father would say. To me he just doesn’t seem to be gone.
He is now lying in state like Stalin (whom he once played in a film). Unlike the other dead there who all have pictures of themselves aged about 80, my father has adopted the columnist’s trick of using a picture from around 50 years ago. So instead of looking like some old codger, he looks like a cross between a young Richard Burton and a less gay Burt Lancaster.24238_108594169181211_1327112_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends and relations are invited to come and pay their respects until tomorrow when he will be driven to the crematorium in Ravenna. When the funeral director told my aunt that was where he would be cremated she told him that her brother would be so pleased, because it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 to 476. The funeral director nodded.

“Take a card,” he said, I suspect in an effort to change the subject.
“I’d prefer not to,” said my aunt.
I am on my way to England where I have the difficult task of breaking the news to my three children. The girls especially were really close to him, they loved his zany ways and imagination. No one could make them laugh like he could. I’m pleased the last time they saw him he was sitting on a rock in a beautiful garden close to Rome reciting Dante.
In life as in death my father did exactly as he wanted. I even believe he decided when to die. He has one last act of rebellion to come. We forgot to bring his underwear to the hospital. So although he is dressed in his Sunday best, he’ll be heading to the crematorium commando.
Biologico wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

What’s with all the beards?

As if this year hasn’t been traumatic enough.
Not only have we had the shock of Donald Trump being elected president, the Brexit vote and David Bowie dying. We have men with beards. Beards are everywhere, they are ubiquitous, they are trendy, they are the latest must-have accessory. Beards are, in fact, the new black. Or orange, as with Prince Harry, who I think has a lot to answer for when it comes to the proliferation of facial hair everywhere.
Glamour Magazine’s top 100 Sexiest Men of 2016 contains more than a smattering of Beardy Brits. Topping the list is Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame in at number 33; everyone’s favourite David Beckham is unshaven at number 38. Also in the top 100 are Craig David, Prince Harry, Gerald Butler and Rufus Sewell. Even Harry Potter (aka Daniel Radcliffe) has a beard.
A few years ago you really only saw beards on men steering canal boats or mad professors. The kind of people who would also wear socks with sandals. They were not considered sexy. Beards were not ever associated with anyone remotely attractive. With the possible exception of George Best, and even he would have looked better without one.Manchester-United-Football-Club-season-1972-73-George-Best
Now anyone who is anyone just has to be hirsute. Going back to the Glamour mag list the actor Idris Elba who is number 29 is sporting a dappled grey beard, Tom Hardy at number 19 is looking slightly jowly with his facial hair, the model David Gandy is at number 17 with a suitably tailored one and Harry Styles at number 12 is desperately trying to get in on the beard look by sporting a bit of fluff that makes him look even more like a 13-year-old trying to look 18 than he already does.
Where did it all go wrong?
One theory I have is that in this metrosexual age men are trying desperately trying to prove their masculinity. Studies have shown that women perceive men with beards as stronger and more aggressive. So in this politically correct era where men are often vilified for being just that, this is one way to show off the masculinity they otherwise have to keep hidden.
Facial hair is also linked to finding a mate. So rather like male birds show off their plumage and hop around on one leg in order to attract a partner, men grow beards to pull. A study of facial hair fashions between 1842 and 1971 by the aptly named researcher Nigel Barber concluded that the predominance of beards is directly linked to the ratio of men to women in the marriage market. Beards and moustaches become more popular when the ratio of women to men is lower.
A friend of mine called Paul Rodgers has sported a beard for four years. He is now so fed up with everyone else doing the same that he’s thinking of getting rid of his. He first grew one because it gives his face definition. I always thought it was a lazy thing. I mean it must get rather boring shaving every day. Apparently not. “I didn’t grow one to avoid shaving,” he tells me. “I still shave every day, and trim my beard every two to three days.”
And herein lies one of the big differences between beards back in the 60s and beards now. Whereas then they were allowed to flow as freely as the drugs and love, now they are trimmed, oiled, shaped and groomed to within an inch of their lives.
Look at David Gandy for example. That beard has not just grown like that. No, it’s been more neatly manicured than a lawn in suburban Surrey. At the far end of the scale we have (thankfully increasingly less) the goatee, which in my opinion just means someone lacks personality and is trying to make themselves look interesting. It screams ‘hey look how zany I am when it comes to my facial hair, just imagine how cool and fun I can be’. It’s rather like a banker wearing bright red glasses. You’re not cool, or fun and added to which you have ridiculous facial hair that makes you look like a pervert.
Bring back the dapper stars from the 1950s I say. Would James Dean still be remembered as one of the most handsome men ever if he’d had a beard? Would Audrey Hepburn have fallen in love with a Simeon Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday? I don’t think so.
I’m not sure what 2017 holds in store. More beards I suppose, as I can’t see this hirsute trend going away any time soon. Pretty soon Donald Trump will be wearing a ginger wig on his chin as well as his head.

Christmas scene from The Arnolfini Marriage

To celebrate Christmas, here is a seasonal scene from my latest book. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Summertown, Oxford
December 1995

Summertown is a little like a village in its own right. Residents talk about going ‘into town’ when they go into Oxford, as if they don’t actually live in Oxford at all. I suppose once it probably was a village, a couple of miles from Oxford. Although why they called it Summertown I can’t understand. It’s not a town and it never seems to be summer, but maybe it’s a bit like Greenland, which was so-called to sound nicer than Iceland, whereas in reality the climate is so much worse.
Anyway it is no surprise that we have our own Christmas-tree lighting ceremony, where two large conifers on the main drag are lit, usually in contrasting colours such as one in red and the other in blue. There is always a brass band and a children’s choir from St James’s, the local primary school. The ceremony today is at 7pm and at ten to I am struggling to get the boys into their jackets, gloves on strings, hats and boots. During winter just going outside is a major operation, with all the paraphernalia they need.
“William, are you coming with us?” I ask as he passes me on his way to his studio.
“Where?”
“The Christmas tree lighting, on the Banbury Road.”
“No thanks, you can keep your middle-class traditions,” he hisses and stomps up the stairs. He really has been unusually grumpy recently, which is odd, as he has even sold some paintings. I’m looking forward to being able to put more in the boys’ stockings this year than a Brazil nut and a clementine.
“OK, we’ll go ahead then,” I smile. Nothing is going to spoil my Christmas cheer.
The boys and I arrive at the trees around the same time as the brass band. There is already a crowd gathered, and the choir is ready to sing, dressed in the red and white school uniforms and carrying songbooks. At the moment though there is Christmas music coming from the amplifier, I recognise Frank Sinatra’s voice. In fact I think my mother has this album.url
It is a crisp, cold evening. The stars are already up, adding to the feeling of Christmas magic, and there is a feeling of snow in the air. We stop as equidistant as we can in between the two trees. I know Eddie will want to be closer to whichever one is blue, if indeed one of them is going to be blue. The colour of the trees is a closely guarded secret, only the sponsors know what combination we will be looking at for the next few weeks.
Frank is suddenly interrupted mid-sentence and a woman takes the mike. I think I’m supposed to know who she is, but I have no idea. She is dressed in a suit that looks much too big for her and sounds very bossy; maybe she’s the headmistress of the school.
I zone out slightly and look around. Most people have a ruddy-cheeked expectant air about them. Opposite me there is a young family; the mother is carrying a tiny baby in a Baby Björn and the father is balancing a toddler on his shoulders. He has one arm around the mother. They look blissfully happy; it must be the baby’s first Christmas. I can imagine the excitement and the preparations going on at home; there is nothing as intimate as those early months, the feeling of being a family, the togetherness, almost like you’re alone in the world, like you don’t need anyone else. It occurs me as I look at them that we didn’t ever have that closeness. William was resentful that I was pregnant and he never seemed to get over that feeling, so there was really never a time when we felt complete as a family. He was always angry and I was always nervous about making him angrier.
Next to the model family are a couple of teenage girls clearly looking around for some boys they have arranged to meet there. The choir starts signing Away in a manger. I always remember my father telling me to pronounce the word ‘little’ with an almost silent ‘t’. The ‘littel’ Lord Jesus sings the St James choir, oblivious to my neurosis. Both boys are transfixed by the singing. I continue to scan the audience as Away in a manger comes to an end.

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The choir has just started on Once in Royal David’s City when I spot him. He is standing on the other side of the choir to us, wearing a dark coat, scarf and hat. But even in the get-up I recognise Kit. I think he could be wearing a full burka and I’d still know those eyes, even in the half-light we’re in now. Of course as soon as I catch his eye, I know for sure. I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that hovers between excitement, lust and fear. With a little bit of confusion thrown in, because what the hell is he doing at the Summertown Christmas tree lighting ceremony? And what do I do now? I can’t acknowledge him in front of the boys. What would I do if William were here with us? Kit smiles at me and nods a hello as the choir sings ‘he came down to earth from heaven’ and I nod and smile back. Our eyes convey countless messages over the singing crowd. The fact that he will see the boys suddenly strikes me, and for some reason it makes me inordinately happy. We keep our distance though, just glancing at each other every few seconds. It is lovely to have him there. I last saw him over a week ago when I managed to escape from school at lunchtime with the excuse of a dentist’s appointment. My whole body yearns to touch him now but instead I sing the carol and squeeze my toes in frustration.
At the end of Once in Royal David’s City the badly-dressed bossy boots is back and it’s time to light the trees.
“Now then…. can you all help me to count backwards from 10?” she says in her irritating sing-song voice.
“I think we can just about manage that,” I mutter to no one in particular.
She raises her arm and obediently we all start counting.
“Why is everyone counting the wrong way?” asks Eddie.
“It’s called a countdown,” I explain. “When we get to nought the Christmas tree lights will go on.”
I glance over at Kit who is looking up at the sky. I follow his gaze; the sky is deep blue-black, the stars in sharp contrast. There is Orion, looking majestic.
“Nought,” says Miss Bossy-Boots and the lights on the trees come to life; one gold and the other silver.
“Where’s the blue one?” wails Eddie.
“Pretty,” says Tom, kicking his legs enthusiastically.
We all stand in the glow of the Christmas trees for a few moments and breathe in the feeling of Christmas. I glance over at Kit who gives me a little wave and a wink before walking off towards town.
“Come on boys,” I say, watching the clouds suddenly roll in, looking extremely ominous. “Let’s go home and have some dinner.”
Eddie seems to have got over the lack of a blue tree. “Can we have mashed potato?”
“Yes darling,” I say, with one last look in the direction Kit went off before turning for home. “Of course we can.”
“Snow, snow,” shrieks Tom as tiny white flakes start to fall into his lap.
I look up to see the snow falling from the sky like minuscule weightless stars.

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You can order The Arnolfini Marriage on Amazon kindle https://goo.gl/g81A1m

Latest novel out today….

painting

Inspired by the mysterious, eponymous portrait by Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage is the story of a couple falling in love as they research the truth behind the painting. A kind of One Day for grown-ups, the love affair between Victoria and Christopher, played out over two decades, is both tragic and redeeming, and always somehow intertwined with the mysterious painting that brought them together.

You can order your copy here: https://goo.gl/g81A1m

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