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. 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.”