It is a Herculean task to try to capture the essence of the writer, doctor and global activist Nawal El Saadawi. There is so much to say, the little things and the bigger things, and at the same time they are still not the same as Nawal. The author of more than fifty books died on March 21, 2021 at the age of eighty-nine.
My first direct contact with Nawal El Saadawi was on March 14, 2007, and I have kept the first email she sent me. Your yahoo.com email address has been floating in my inbox many times over the course of our friendship. I made a folder in my inbox just for her. Despite not being a typist, Nawal could fire an email faster than a court stenographer. She tapped the keys with her two index fingers as if providing a poignant point. I could see her brain working as she typed.
I met her on April 16, 2007 at the Springfield, Missouri airport. She was then seventy-five years old. She had been invited to give a series of lectures on creativity and dissidence at Missouri State University. Her thick mane of curly, shockingly white hair that was cut just above her neck, her smooth brown skin and her petite stature did not match the image of the fire blight I had made up in my head. Her walk was purposeful in her brown running shoes. She looked straight at me as she approached. Her eyes sparkled and her smile warmed; “Hello, I’m Nawal,” she said in a melodious, conscious and strong voice. What I remember best about Nawal are her eyes, her steadfast gaze. She wasn’t afraid.
What I remember best about Nawal are her eyes, her steadfast gaze. She wasn’t afraid.
She once said to me: “People don’t like my politics.” She was jailed in 1981 with a group of liberals charged with conspiracy to overthrow Anwar Sadat’s regime. After her release, she told Hosni Mubarak that she would sue him for unjustified detention. Her name appeared on a fundamentalist death list that forced her to leave Egypt in the early 20th century. In 2001, an Egyptian attorney filed a civil lawsuit seeking to forcibly separate her from her husband, Sherif Hatata, in response to reports that she was calling the annual pilgrimage to Mecca a pagan practice. She wrote an article in support of the position of her daughter Mona Helmi’s (2007) article suggesting naming children after the maternal, not just paternal, line. In 2008 she was accused of rubbish and her books were banned in Egypt. She was accused of offending Islam in her play God resigns at the summit. One of the most amusing anecdotes she shared was her application for president. Of course, she said, she knew she wasn’t going to win, but she felt compelled to put her name in the pot. In 2004 she announced her plan for the Egyptian presidential elections in 2005, which Egyptian clergy objected to. Her response to the clergy who opposed women serving as president of the state:
Because of her physiological characteristics and because of the suffering she experiences during her period. Period? God the University, did menstruation keep Margaret Thatcher from becoming Prime Minister? Does her period prevent an Egyptian woman from working in the field, just like men do from sunrise to sunset? Because pregnancy and childbirth do not stop the women who work in the fields, in the offices and in the embassies. It’s funny that these clergymen mention “menstruation” because every woman in politics or in the presidential campaign here is over fifty years old. So what’s the problem with menstruation?
She also had a pungent sense of humor. She once told me how she loved India. She had traveled there with then-husband Sherif Hatata for a conference. She said she loved the Indians and their food. She even expressed some kind of spiritual kinship with them. One night she and her husband returned to their hotel after dinner. She said a man asked him to speak privately. She could hear the man offer to get him a girl, any kind of girl he wanted. After apologizing from the man, Nawal said she approached the man and asked, “What about me? Do you have a girl for me “The man responded by scurrying away. The incident echoes a scene in her play God resigns at the summit (2012), in which the daughter of God challenges him: “Why only recognize male children?”
Nawal had an institution for languages. She spoke English, French and spoke Italian. However, she only wrote in Arabic and called it the most beautiful language in the world. Once at a conference in Stockholm she pretended not to speak English well and asked the audience to direct their questions to me – as if I could translate them into Arabic – which I couldn’t. Months later, I found out. She trusted me to rephrase the questions with a clear indication of the questioner’s intent. Since she was familiar with my voice and my thought patterns at this point, she probably trusted me. Nawal didn’t trust many people. Men in the government were always suspicious. She called publishers “thieves” and once told me to quit my job. “If I had a boss,” she explained, “I would kill him.”
She also had an opinion on everything. At dinner, she remarked: “Americans can take dog bags home with them, in Egypt it is frowned upon.” She forever questioned both the practical and philosophical inequalities of her environment. In the case of dog sacks, she spoke to the huge portions served in American restaurants. That said, it wasn’t just rhetoric with her. She also referred to professional sport as the “opium of the people”. It distracts them from important issues that affect them. “She wasn’t a sports fan. However, in 2011 I managed to get her to go to a Morgan State University (American) soccer game with me. She was more impressed with the band than with the game itself.
After her introduction to the evening event at Missouri State University in 2007, she was standing in front of the audience (not behind a podium) and certainly not sitting in her designated area. “Turn off the lights,” she ordered, referring to the spotlight that outlined her shape on the stage. “I want to see who I’m talking to.” She began:
I am African from Egypt, not the Middle East. The Middle East is a term used relative to London to mean that India becomes the Far East. I am not from the third world. There is a world that is a racist, capitalist economy. . . . As a child, I became a feminist when I started asking questions to realize that women are oppressed and feel discriminated against. (April 2007)
As expected, she had cast a spell over the auditorium of university and community members for the duration of her ninety-minute lecture. She did not speak from notes or give precise lectures. I suspect that her lyrics were derived from what was currently at the forefront of her thoughts. Even when Nawal was tired, she could continue to stand up for her beliefs, as if her words fueled her energy. Her favorite subjects at the time were George Bush “the father” and bin Laden. She referred to them as twins.
“If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer.” – Nawal El Saadawi
In another conversation she admitted: “If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer.” The statement is immediately reminiscent of the statement she made in her autobiography, ON Daughter of Isis (1995):: “Ever since I had a pen in my fingers, I have fought against history, against the falsification of official registers” (30). She was convinced that “no one sets women free, women set themselves free”. She offered this in response to an American politician who said, “We have to help women in the Middle East.” In a June 2018 podcast interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, she said: “Feminism is not a western invention. Feminism was not invented by American women as many people think. No, feminism is embedded in the culture and struggle of all women around the world. “
During my more than ten years of acquaintance with her, I traveled with her to London; met her in Sweden; drove her from Atlanta, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama (when she was the Cosby Chair at Spelman College for two years); arranged for her to attend Morgan State University in Baltimore. It was an amazing gift to have full access to her. I also communicated with her often by email. In the communications, the most common questions I asked her were what she thought of a particular book or article. She was outraged by an article entitled “The Sad State of Arab Men,” which appeared in the May 4, 2017 issue of Economist. I sent her a two and a half page reply at a distance on the article to the economist for release. It was not accepted. The response challenged the “scientific research” of “professors who live mainly in the US and Europe and are mostly funded by American and European donors” as one-sided and isolated from real life in the countries they studied.
My lasting impression of her is this: She would not compromise.
My lasting impression of her is this: She would not compromise, and her eyes spoke that truth. Years ago she said to me, “Creativity means disobedience. I am against being careful. Real education means dissatisfaction. Creativity undoes the separation for the self and the “other”. It reverses all dichotomies. “Your novels are rich in clues at the sight. In the novel The circling song (1989) the opening line reads: “Every day and at every time when I left the house, my gaze was met by a ring of small bodies that snaked round and round and continuously circled before my eyes” (7). The very last picture I have of her is an internet photo of her surrounded by little boys and girls. She had started a new project to save the world.
Morgan State University