Arab Feminist Pens Powerful Prose

Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi dares to address the injustices of a patriarchal society

THE Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi is a remarkable and courageous woman. Successfully balancing vocations in literature, social criticism, and medicine, she has broken a path that most of her countrywomen can only hope one day to follow. And for taking as her primary subject the injustices of patriarchal Arab society and the neo-imperialist West, she has been jailed under President Sadat's ``Law of Shame,'' dropped by her Egyptian publisher, fired from her position in the ministry of health, and labeled as a radical feminist whose blind ideology too often gets in the way of her art.

Nothing is further from the truth, and recent translations of a novel and two collections of short stories (published in Britain), joining some seven other titles already in English, confirm the broad range and sophistication of her literary voice.

But her purely technical gifts would surely be wasted if not built upon the personal experience of sexual and economic oppression. The fact that an earlier book, ``The Hidden Face of Eve,'' begins with an unblinking account of her own circumcision, forced upon her at the age of eight, testifies to her bravery in serving as an example for others.

Yet El Saadawi's philosophy is not based on the same modern secular ideas that might comfort Western liberals. In fact, she believes that Islam must be reformed and strengthened vis-a-vis the West in order for Muslim women to be treated justly both as women and as Muslims. Unlike Egypt's first generation of feminists, El Saadawi is secure in her own culture and religion, unafraid to challenge male authority, and unwilling to accept the international status quo.

Of the three titles under review here, one would be advised to start first with She Has No Place in Paradise for the simple reason that these stories are highly accessible for a foreign reader. Although nothing written by El Saadawi is altogether straightforward, they are for the most part simple narratives of sexual and psychological conflict played out in a variety of settings.

In the first story and the one perhaps most representative of the author's relentless social dissections, a weak-kneed groom fails the public test of virility on his wedding night. Not surprisingly in a male-dominant society, blame for this passes to his virgin bride because of what everyone, including her father, presumes to be her moral failings.

In the title story, a long-suffering widow waits in the grave for her delivery to heaven, having been promised an eternity of lying in bed with her husband. When she arrives, she finds him instead in the arms of two houris, the fair-skinned virgins of paradise that the Koran promises as a reward to every male, and turns her back on her own afterlife. The scene rings sad but true, even without an understanding of Islamic eschatology.

What makes each of these stories so powerful is a deep concern for the life of the poor, with an honesty and respect bringing to mind the master Egyptian writer Yousif Idris. Like him, El Saadawi examines everyday frustrations and deprivations for their root causes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both writers are also doctors, whose training in clinics for the poor led them to trade in their stethoscopes and patient charts for pen and paper, making other diagnoses by which more might be cured.

The novel The Fall of the Imam is altogether different from these stories. Densely written and politically allegorical, it is very much an Egyptian version of Salman Rushdie's 1983 novel ``Shame.'' Only here, Anwar Sadat rather than the Pakistani Zia al-Huq is under the microscope, with results decidedly more dystopian than picaresque.

The guideposts are hard to miss, even though too many Middle Eastern regimes share the same features of personality cult worship, strategic marriages of children into the families of rivals, mock religiosity in order to quiet fundamentalist dissent, and the co-optation of intellectuals. Details such as the seating arrangements at a deadly Victory Day parade, an officially decreed ``opposition'' party, and an irradiated-milk-powder scandal make this roman `a clef fall into place.

The contorted, multinarrated plot involves an orphaned girl named Bint Allah, the Daughter of God, and her tortured relationship with a mysterious tyrant known only as the Imam, a purely religious title that Ayatollah Khomeini has endowed with shuddering connotations in both the East and West. In tacit acknowledgment to the Iranian revolution, the book lays out all the horrors that stem from religion put to the service of naked political power.

The author's preface explains the story as originating in childhood dreams, when God might appear wearing the father's face, sometimes kind but more usually cruel. The nature of the divine therefore depends on the relationship with one's father, and thus the link between patriarchal (real political) and religious authority. Add to this the inverted logic of dreams, and its sum is the equivalent of a nightmare.

The novel's first and recurrent scene is of Bint Allah being shot in the back by the Imam's chief of security as she flees through the night from a crime she has no knowledge of. The plot circles in reverse from there, recounting her immaculate conception to a virgin mother and other vignettes closely mirroring the life of Jesus.

Added to the Christian iconography of Bint Allah's past are testimonials by the court propagandist, the Great Writer, who blends details from Sadat's biography into the Imam's hagiography. In another narrative overlay, the Imam himself becomes King Shahrayar of ``The Thousand and One Nights,'' a despot cuckolded by his wife who took collective revenge on the female sex by murdering a new slave girl every night. At times, the story spins even further out of control, but always reenters orbit in time to keep the reader in sight.

El Saadawi takes a long step backward from surrealism in the intimate stories collected in Death of an Ex-Minister, all but one of which are narrated in the first person as dramatic monologues, letters, and confessionals. Firmly rooted in contemporary times and circumstances, they delicately probe what must be the author's own open wounds as a woman, artist, and healing professional in a country that seems truly to value none of the above.

What is most striking about the three stories with male narrators is an acute awareness of their doubts and hidden fears in a society where such subjects cannot yet be safely raised. It is ironic but perhaps inevitable that a woman must be the first to break these taboos. Still, men everywhere should be thankful that by portraying their inner lives with such sensitivity, El Saadawi provides them with the opening to speak for themselves without embarrassment or defensiveness.

But gently treating a man's secret weaknesses vis-`a-vis women does not mean that El Saadawi can forgive his overt cruelties to them. Indeed, she is almost cruel herself as she mocks male sexual authority wherever she finds it, whether in relationship with mothers, wives, or female colleagues.

In the title story, for instance, a fallen politician is brought to tears in his mother's lap as he recounts how a secretary destroyed him simply by meeting his gaze straight on, refusing to be afraid of his superior status. The scenario's near comedy is tempered, however, as he confesses to his mother that his love for her has changed to disrespect since realizing that his own fear of authority stems from her crippling fear of his father.

Authoritarian relationships in all their pathological permutations are the basic themes in all of Nawal El Saadawi's writing, in her essays as well as in her increasingly impressive body of fiction. Anyone interested in reading one of the most compelling and challenging writers in the Arabic language today would be well advised to follow her progress.

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