The Golden Notebooks

Angele Ellis

A Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words
Walking through Fire: The Later Years of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words
By Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hatata
Zed Books, 2018
Zed Books has chosen interesting times in which to re-release the English translation of the two-part autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, “A Daughter of Isis” and “Walking Through Fire.” One of the most important and distinctive voices of her generation, not only in the Arabic-speaking world, but across the globe, El Saadawi has served as a physician, writer, rebel, and revolutionary. Born in 1931, she explores in these two interwoven volumes her personal struggles for autonomy – for the survival of body, mind, and spirit – as both girl and woman in an Egyptian society warped by patriarchal religion, as well as repressive social traditions and laws. She states in “A Daughter of Isis” that at the age of six, she learned “these three words by heart and they were like one sentence: ‘God, calamity, marriage.’”As I write this review, similar women’s words echo in the halls of the U.S. Capitol and throughout America.
El Saadawi composed “A Daughter of Isis,” first published in English in 1999, during her comfortable but disconcerting exile as a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in the 1990s. She wrote “Walking through Fire” in her long-time apartment in Cairo at the beginning of millennium, publishing it in 2002, later having both books translated into English by Sherif Hatata, a fellow writer, physician, and political activist imprisoned for his work (as El Saadawi was for several months in 1981, under Anwar Sadat). A communist, Hatata, who died in 2017, spent a total of 13 years behind bars, including several years of hard labor, before his release under a general amnesty in 1964. He married El Saadawi (becoming her third husband) in 1981, but she divorced him in 2010.
Although fluent in English – with her medical studies conducted in that language – El Saadawi chose Arabic as the language for her prolific oeuvre, which includes eleven novels, eight short story collections, six memoirs, ten works of non-fiction, and a play. Her profoundly political view of life influenced that decision, in spite of her many experiences of corruption and betrayal. (In this autobiography, El Saadawi takes a Dantean relish in ticking off her enemies, including a disappointing parade of Egyptian leaders, former friends, and the colleagues who capitulated to one regime or other for material and professional gain.) The late Arab American writer D.H. Melhem said of El Saadawi, after hearing her speak at a RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) conference in New York City in 1999:
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 [probes] common places, exposing their absurdities. Viewing everything as political, she quipped, “Two people in one bedroom is political.” (D.H. Melhem, Al Jadid, Vol. 5, No. 20.)
El Saadawi uses her lifelong opposition to colonialism as a major theme in this lyrical work, whose loose, stream of consciousness structure moves the writer from present to past and back again, in a similar fashion as an individual’s memory, or a diarist’s entries. (El Saadawi kept a diary – usually hidden – from childhood, even in prison, and quotes from it a number of times in this autobiography). Little wonder that the late Doris Lessing admired these books, as they fuse Lessing’s own personal and political concerns – expressed in her novel “The Golden Notebook” as separate “notebooks” in a woman’s life – into a whole narrative, which, being only nominally linear, flows and fascinates like the Nile. 
El Saadawi speaks repeatedly of her pride in her father, the son of peasants from Kafr Tabla (educated by money that his remarkable mother, known as Sittil Hajja, saved from working her tiny plot of land), because he campaigned against British rule in Egypt and the Sudan during the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Although he did not lose his job, his politics stunted his career in the Ministry of Education, resulting in 10 years spent in the Nile Delta without a promotion, all while his family grew to include nine children.
Her relationship with the vivid and powerful Sittil Hajja – from whom the young Nawal inherited her height and physical presence, her black eyes, and her skin “the color of silt from the Nile” – proved more controversial, and profoundly influenced El Saadawi’s views. As the 1999 speech quoted by D.H. Melhem demonstrates, El Saadawi expanded her definition of colonialism to include the ways in which men, as well as women serving patriarchal goals, colonize women’s bodies. Hajja chose to educate her son, but not her daughters, whose children (unlike her son’s) remained in Kafr Tabla. In addition, although another woman, not Sittil Hajja circumcised the six-year-old Nawal (a trauma whose shock and outrage never left El Saadawi, and which led to her well-known campaign against the practice), she did not oppose it, any more than she opposed marrying off her daughters and granddaughters in early adolescence. 
El Saadawi, who matured early, learned to fend off prospective suitors from the age of 10, making herself seem clumsy and unattractive, an ironic bit of comedy other reviewers have noted. However, the deadly earnestness and fierceness with which she pursued her studies finally convinced her parents to let her continue her education – although her older brother’s academic failure probably had more to do with her parents pinning their faith on her – leaving her, upon their untimely deaths, as the guardian of her younger siblings.
“You could throw Nawal into the fire, and she would come out unscathed,” her mother came to say. This statement would steady El Saadawi during many critical moments, proving true when she conducted a successful appendectomy performed under risky conditions while working as a young village doctor. However, this most intimate of relationships between mother and daughter also proved the most complex for El Saadawi. Her mother, although from an educated Cairene family of partly Turkish origin, did not protect her daughter from circumcision (she herself had been circumcised), nor did she do anything to thwart the efforts to marry off the barely teenaged El Saadawi (she herself had been married at 15 to El Saadawi’s father – a man of 30). Throughout this autobiography, El Saadawi approaches the subject of her beautiful, feminine, and thwarted mother with a love both mystical and sensuous, and with a yearning that never can be fulfilled. She reimagines her own birth, and her mother trying to hold back the girl baby who would be greeted only as a disappointment; when a nursing infant and a small child, she remembers the comforting scent of her mother, and she associates her mother with her own indomitable need to write: “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. [نوال‎] It meant “a gift.”’
El Saadawi’s marriages – two of which produced children, and one whose ending was presaged by a bloody and half-deliberate miscarriage – must be mentioned as milestones (and millstones) in her compelling life. Her first husband – a medical student who went off to be a freedom fighter and returned a broken man addicted to drugs – at first sparked her romantic imagination, and later retained her sympathy despite behavior that caused his own mother to close her door to him. To El Saadawi, he had shown courage and faith – like her father, who among other things, assured her that Islamic law gave her the right to separate from a husband, whatever the courts ruled, as long as she relinquished her dowry. (She felt her daughter, Mona, in any case, to be more precious to her than respectability or material wealth.) She married her second, physician husband – on the surface, an ideal match – in a fit of despair. That union became a nightmare of spying, revulsion, and violence, making Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the famous short story of a woman’s literal imprisonment in marriage, seem like a fairytale. Her third marriage proved a successful partnership for decades, and produced her son, Atef – but perhaps (although this speculation lies beyond the scope of this narrative), El Saadawi could not endure Sherif Hetata’s decision to take a second wife – something her own father never did, despite the liberties that religion and law allowed him.
One two-part autobiography cannot express the breadth and depth of any life, much less that of a formidably accomplished and courageous writer and activist who from childhood, dreamed herself a daughter of Isis (the magical, healing goddess who arguably served as the most important deity of ancient Egypt), and then became a modern legend. New readers, start here.

"The Golden Notebooks: Nawal El Saadawi’s Two-Volume Autobiography" by Angele Ellis appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 75, 2018.

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