Nawal El-Saadawi’s ‘Daughter of Isis’ Life and Times via the Plenitude of Her Writings

D. H. Melhem
Nawal El Saadawi by Zareh for Al Jadid.
When the distinguished Egyptian writer Nawal el-Saadawi was scheduled to speak last October at the Brecht Forum as a guest of the Forum, the Kevorkian Center of New York University, and RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), I attended with anticipation. As she signed the books I had just bought, I was struck by her warm smile and alert gaze.  El-Saadawi wore no makeup, eschewing what she considered “a mask,” as she would note later. Like Firdaus, the heroine-narrator of her novel “Woman at Point Zero” (l983), she seemed “to look at me from the depths of her eyes,” peering below surface impressions and superficialities of language. Then it was time for her lecture.
Tall, erect, she rose from her seat and strode to the stage. She informed the rapt group who jammed the hall that she would speak without notes. Her thoughts poured forth, at times like a waterfall, at others like clear water from a well.  Candid, powerful, whimsical, free from academic jargon, her views formed a lively mix of cutting-edge thinking and common sense. True to her books, el-Saadawi emphasized the importance of socioeconomic factors in our lives and language.  For her, postcolonial means neocolonial. The “Middle East” is an ambiguous misnomer, often used as a euphemism for the less palatable “Arab.” Nor does the phrase “Third World” escape her critique. She probed commonplaces, exposing their absurdities. Viewing everything as political, she quipped, “Two people in one bedroom is political.”
El-Saadawi linked disobedience to creativity and recalled her incarceration in Egypt in l98l. Explaining her three-month detention, she noted that it was the result of offending the regime of Anwar Sadat with her feminist and unconventional religious views in “The Hidden Face of Eve” (l980). 
A primary target of her militancy is the practice of female circumcision, which she herself experienced when she was six years old.  (El-Saadawi remarked that she also opposes male circumcision.) In her autobiography, “A Daughter of Isis” (Zed Books, 1999), she describes that childhood trauma, an event supervised by her mother, a woman el-Saadawi otherwise adored. In fact, the book is dedicated “to Zeinab Shoukry, the great woman who lived and died without giving me her name—my mother.” The writer scores the patronymic tradition, Western as well as Eastern, as another example of the patriarchal system.
El-Saadawi sees male domination as a form of sexual oppression, which has promoted “the fragmentation of knowledge” into discrete and effectively divisive areas of specialization. Liberation of women requires the liberation of all society. She describes her organization, Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which she founded in l982, as “historical, socialist, and feminist.” AWSA is planning an Arab women’s solidarity conference, to be held next October in Cairo.
El-Saadawi’s thinking is holistic and nontheistic. “God is justice, freedom, and love,” she declared. As for Holy Scriptures, she epitomized her view in the words of her paternal grandmother, Sittil Hajja: “God is not a book.”
Following her talk, the speaker took several questions from the audience, calmly answering a query about religion from a woman agitated by the writer’s unorthodox stance. At the end, el-Saadawi received an ovation, and she prepared to leave. Although she had been traveling and had been interviewed just before her talk, she was still animated and showed no signs of fatigue. I would learn from her writings that she usually walked seven kilometers (nearly five miles) every morning in Duke Forest, at Duke University.
“It was my mother who taught me how to read and write. The first word I wrote was my name, ‘Nawal.’ I loved the way it looked. It meant ‘a gift.’” This introduction to el-Saadawi’s autobiography, “A Daughter of Isis,” begins her psychic odyssey. Born in l93l, she had an older brother and eventually acquired seven other siblings. The account covers her first 20 years, up to her marriage. In its final pages, she skips to the present and discloses that she bore a daughter, Mona, to her first husband. After a second marriage failed, in l964 she married Sherif Hetata, a medical doctor and the translator of her books; a son, Atef, was born to the union. With Hetata, in l992, she embarked upon a four-year exile in the United States.
In “The Nawal el-Saadawi Reader,” (l997) we learn some additional facts about her later life. While her second marriage did not work out due to restrictions it imposed on her writing career, her third, to Hetata, has been fulfilling. All four family members work together in the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA), the first pan-Arab organization to be accorded international status at the United Nations. Dr. Hetata was jailed for 15 years for his political beliefs and activities.  Husband and wife share a fervent political commitment.
“The Reader” garners el-Saadawi’s essays, papers, and speeches given around the world during the l980s and l990s. After the Egyptian government closed the national branch of AWSA in l99l, mainly because it had opposed the Gulf War, the writer feared for her life and went into exile. From l992-l996 she resided in North Carolina, serving as a visiting professor at Duke University. The collection indicates her growing international stature and her awareness of the need to connect with like-minded people everywhere. The book culminates with “Women and Politics in Britain,” which describes her contact with the women of Greenham Common.  These indomitable war resisters established a peace camp outside the military base. Year after year, beginning in l98l, at personal risk and undergoing hardships, they protested the installation of nuclear cruise missiles by erecting a nine-mile human barrier around the installation. Eventually the missiles were removed.
Among el-Saadawi’s works of nonfiction, the transition from “Women and Sex” (l970, 2nd edition l972) and “The Hidden Face of Eve” to “A Daughter of Isis” is a significant leap in style from the expository, analytical, and rhetorical to the introspective, descriptive and lyrical. With the first book, she became the first Arab woman to denounce female circumcision. Her notoriety and heretical views resulted in her dismissal in l972 as Egypt’s Director of Public Health.
In her preface to the English edition of “The Hidden Face of Eve,” el-Saadawi asserts a class perspective on women in patriarchal societies. “The oppression of women, the exploitation and social pressures to which they are exposed, are not characteristic of Arab or Middle Eastern societies, or countries of the ‘Third World’ alone,” she states. “They constitute an integral part of the political, economic and cultural system, preponderant in most of the world.” Within this theoretical context she maintains that while women in Europe and the U.S. are not subjected to excision of the clitoris, “they are victims of cultural and psychological clitoridectomy.”
“The Hidden Face of Eve” gives a historical overview of women’s social position. The first section, “The Mutilated Half,” describes with impassioned detail the current fate of women in Arab society. It surveys aggression against female children, the practice and perils of circumcision (citing her own), and the development and deficiencies of the patriarchal family. After an account of women in religious history–”Eve was the first goddess of knowledge, later to be succeeded by the pharaonic Isis”–the author discusses the role of women in Arab history. El-Saadawi repeatedly observes that the patriarchal system is built on exploitation of cheap, free, or slave labor. She goes on to trace the development and significance of prostitution. Revealing her didactic intent in a discussion of female anatomy, the writer utilizes her medical authority as a trained physician to point out important differences among women, and to explain why some brides’ hymens do not break on cue. The author herself becomes an eloquent affirmation that men are not intellectually superior to women.
El-Saadawi’s background as a psychiatrist, critical to “Women and Neurosis” (l973-74), an inquiry into the sexual lives of Egyptian women, serves her well in the novel “Woman at Point Zero” (l983). The fiction bridges el-Saadawi’s medical profession and her literary work. Basing it on a true account, the author draws from her interviews of women in jail. A slim, powerful book, it presents the monologic narrative of a tragic heroine. Through the character Firdaus, who tells her story to an interviewer, the writer projects portions of her own subjective and objective experiences.
Firdaus, abused as a child and punitively circumcised, escapes from her miserable circumstances (including an abusive marriage) and enjoys success as a prostitute.  When she attempts to gain respectability by taking a regular job, she substantially reduces her income and becomes socially vulnerable again. Firdaus discovers she had enjoyed greater independence as a prostitute and returns to the profession. This time, however, a former lover who has broken her heart by marrying someone else attaches himself to her unwillingly as a pimp. Again enslaved, she tries to run away but he blocks her escape. Her long-suppressed rage against men empowers her to stab him to death. Firdaus finds this killing a satisfying act of real and symbolic self-liberation.  She refuses to appeal her sentence; the shaken interviewer watches her being led to execution. The novel ends with a tribute to the prisoner’s courage and integrity.
El-Saadawi’s latest book, her autobiography “A Daughter of Isis,” supports her arguments for an unfettered imagination and a liberated psyche. Warm informality draws us toward, even across, the threshold of her creative process. Her intimate tone evokes the spontaneity of conversation and of thinking aloud. Yet despite the satisfaction she finds in writing, her ultimate artistic objective eludes her. “Throughout the years of my life I wrote trying in vain to abolish the distance between the image and the original for letters, words on paper, are not the body, can never be the body with which I live.”
El-Saadawi’s narrative, rich in incident and detail, affirms her role as al rawi, the storyteller. All her experiences fed her imagination. In order to attend secondary school, she lived with relatives in what she came to view as “The House of Desolation.” She names several household members as characters appearing in her fiction. Recounting family tales, most vividly those of her paternal grandmother, Sittil Hajja, el-Saadawi reweaves the past with the sturdiness of tapestry and the fluidity of a tone poem. In a kind of impressionistic flow, her memoir spans time and events, circling, returning, elaborating, surging ahead, yet ever accompanied and augmented by previous history.
The writer often fuses hurt with humor. An example: “When I was six years old I learnt these three words by heart and they were like one sentence: ‘God, calamity, marriage.’” Her hilarious account of attempts to discourage suitors by discoloring her teeth with eggplant and upsetting a tray of coffee illustrates the resourceful determination of a child facing spinsterhood at age 11. She is grateful to her mother for not forcing her into marriage. Resigning themselves at last to their daughter’s intransigence, both parents encouraged her in the arts and literature. She wrote, starred as Isis in a play, enjoyed sports, and dreamed of owning a piano which, many years later, she was able to buy for her daughter. She did very well in school and was recognized as an outstanding pupil.
Despite their conventional beliefs concerning marriage, el-Saadawi’s upper-middle-class family valued education for its daughters as well as for its sons. The entire broods of children were educated. While parent-child relationships were closest in the early years and continued in a restrained manner, affectionate displays were discouraged later on. The author states that her father never kissed her. 
An old family photograph taken at Chatby Beach, Alexandria, in June l935, inspires rhapsodic passages describing how her mother taught her to swim. “I imagined she was a daughter of the sea who, born of its waters, had given birth to me.” She continues:  “Her arms embrace me, hold me high up over the waves, leave me free to swim alone, and then encircle me again, so that her body becomes my body, before she lets me go once more, her body separate from mine. Over the waves and under them we continue this never-ending game of becoming one, fusing and separating from each other again.” The images recall Sigmund Freud’s description of the oceanic bonding between mother and infant.
From the same picture, another affectionate yet contrasting portrait emerges. “Against the white sand, the contours of my father’s body were well-defined, emphasized its existence, an independent, solid existence in a world where everything was liquid, where the blue of the sea melted into the blue of the sky with nothing between. This independent existence was to become the outer world, the world of my father, of land, country, religion, language, moral codes. It was to become the world around me. A world of male bodies in which my female body lived.”
El-Saadawi’s political roots spring primarily from her father and his mother’s family. Impoverished peasants, their national pride ran high. Invaders like the British were to be opposed. Al-Sayed Al-Saadawi, the writer’s father, the first village man to graduate from secondary school, rose to the post of school Inspector with the Ministry of Education. Her mother, Zeinab Hanem Shoukry, came from an upper-class family that, bankrupt after the world economic crisis and collapse of the cotton market, clung vainly to vestiges of its lost feudal status and past glories. Married at 15 to a man 16 years her senior, a man she had never met before her wedding night, she wished she could have completed her education, become a musician, “invent(ed) something useful,” traveled. Her father dreamed of liberating his country from colonial rule, freeing himself of his government job, becoming a writer. Yet the couple was strongly bound to their constantly growing family and to each other. They created an atmosphere recalled as being mostly happy. When Zeinab died at the age of 45, her grief-stricken husband followed her to the grave four months later. The writer reflects wistfully about fulfilling their thwarted ambitions in her own life.
Despite their personal disappointments and preferences, el- Saadawi’s parents adapted themselves to their daughter’s desire for a career in medicine and took pride in her accomplishments. She also had become politically active in school. By the time she entered Cairo University at 17 as a medical student, she had participated in national demonstrations against the British. Concerned for her safety, her parents tried to dissuade her from engaging further in such dangerous activities. In the last chapter, dream and reality merge as she is rescued after another demonstration by a shadowy, quasi-mythic figure. Reappearing strategically throughout the narrative, he symbolizes the persistence of idealism and of ideal love awaiting her future.
At times the reader may wish for a more linear narration. For example, the sound of the writer’s own footsteps in Duke Forest recalls the knocking on her door at l a.m., 11 years before, by the police in Cairo as they broke in with rifle butts. In vain, one anticipates more information but must either locate el-Saadawi’s “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison” (1983) or wait for the second part of her autobiography, content with these teasing glimpses of a sequel. And yet such abrupt shifts indirectly validate the text: Behold the exile, wandering but never escaping from the homeland carried within. It is a place where pleasant memories intersect with traumas that capriciously ambush the psyche.
This reader is grateful for “A Daughter of Isis,” for its brave soundings into a socially resonant life, and for the plenitude of el-Saadawi herself. It will be exhilarating indeed to share in the next phase of her heroic journey.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 29, Fall 1999.
Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE