Nawal El Saadawi (1931-2021): the pen can also be a weapon

The novelist, memoirist, doctor and feminist spoke to Prospect three years before her death about her upbringing in Egypt and the writer’s role in speaking the savage truth

April 03, 2021
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Daughter of Isis: Nawal El Saadawi Credit: Oriol Clavera / Alamy Stock Photo

The Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi died on 21st March, at the age of 89, in Cairo. She was a hugely influential figure: a novelist and memoirist, a doctor who helped reform Egypt’s health system, as well as one of the best-known feminists from the Arab world. In December 2018, I sat down with El Saadawi in London, when she was promoting the reissue of her memoirs A Daughter of Isis and Walking through Fire (Zed Books). In person she was formidable and not without the hauteur of a famous writer. We got into a discussion at the start about whether she was primarily a political rather than literary figure. (I think she is; she disagreed.) She was a charismatic presence who rightly demanded to be heard on her own terms. For various reasons, the interview was never published. Below is an edited transcript. 

Sameer Rahim: We’re coming up to the eighth anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. You took part in those protests. Could you tell us what it felt like during that time?

Nawal El Saadawi: I am astonished. I am an internationally known writer, I have written more than 70 books: fiction, non-fiction translated into 40 languages all over the world. And when journalists interview me, they interview me as a revolutionary feminist activist. And they forget I am a writer.

SR: I haven’t forgotten you’re a writer. I’ve got some questions about your writing…

NES: …but it’s secondary. It’s very strange, I don’t know why this is happening to me. I am a writer. I’m a creative writer. I was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yes—three times! Have you read my books?

SR: I have read your books, yes. Your novels Women at Point Zero and God Dies by the Nile. And your wonderful autobiographies, which I’ve been reading this week. 

NES: And you start with Tahrir Square! Can you explain that? 

SR: It’s because, I think your writing is implicitly political all the way through, and that dealing with current events in Egypt, it’s impossible to separate the literary from the political. They are intertwined questions.

NES: In fact, we cannot separate the political from the literary all over the world, not just in Egypt. You cannot separate politics from anything. This glass of clean water I’m drinking is political because there are millions of people who do not have access to clean water. Sex is political. If you have two lovers, there is politics—who will be above and who will be below—this is politics and power. So, literature is not separated from politics. 

SR: We’ll do the politics first and then come to the writing. Tell me about Tahrir Square then and your experiences there. Does it feel a very long time ago?

NES: It’s not very long. I am 87 now and Tahrir Square was yesterday, in 2011. I have witnessed many revolutions. Whenever I travel, I find a demonstration or a revolution. I’m part of any group that is against the capitalist, patriarchal, religious or colonial system. So I joined the revolution automatically. In fact two years before the revolution, when I returned to Cairo from exile, these young demonstrators used to come to my home. They were reading my books. The Sadat regime, the Mubarak regime, they were censoring my books and spreading rumours about me. But they failed, totally failed. 

SR: There was an artistic flowering after the revolution: art galleries started to open, there was more freedom in publishing. Do you find that now things have gone backwards or have things improved?

NES: No, forward. Forward.

SR: Even with General Sisi as President?

NES: Sisi is much better than Sadat and Mubarak. Sadat was very popular in America and Britain. Why? Because Sadat worked for the colonial powers. Sadat did not work for the people, for Egypt.

SR: But Donald Trump supports General Sisi. There’s that picture of them together with the globe and…

NES: Trump? I don’t speak about Trump as a person. American governments are colonial, neo-colonial governments, like the British government. They want to divide Egypt. They want Egypt to be like Syria and Iraq and Yemen and Libya. And the army of Egypt is standing against that. Egypt is unified because of the army.

SR: So do you feel complete freedom in what you can say? 

NES: I am much more free than under Sadat. Or Mubarak. I am much more free, not because the government loves my work [she laughs]. Now, I have a lot of support among young people. And there is freedom after the revolution.

SR: Turning to your memoir, ADaughter of Isis, you talk about your early life in Egypt growing up in a society that was highly patriarchal. 

NES: I was born in October 1931 and I grew up in a village. At that time, girls like me were married off when they were 10. My mother went to French schools, but my father came from the rural, peasant working class. Still, both my parents were relatively liberal. I was ambitious. I wanted to be something like Madame Curie. I inherited my mother’s ambitions. I wanted to be a doctor, or a writer or a dancer or an artist. But then I was circumcised—girls were all circumcised in those days. And I had to struggle. I had to struggle. But my mother saved me.

SR: How did your mother save you?

NES: She stood with me. My father was liberal also, but he was a bit hesitant. He didn’t want me to go to university alone in Cairo. So he told my mother, let her stay at home and help you with the children. My mother said: “no, I don’t need help. Let her go to Cairo.” 

SR: Let’s talk about the writers you read and admired at the time. You’ve mentioned Taha Hussein

NES: I met him once in a lecture. He was a blind man but very ambitious and creative. He married a French woman. And she helped him a great deal. He was one of the best writers, and he was also relatively progressive. No book appealed to me like Al-Ayyam [The Days]. 

SR: He wrote about coming from a poor background.

NES: Exactly. I identified with him—his background was similar. And his struggle was similar, with a lot of differences, of course.

SR: Your novels have a kind of burning honesty to them. You try to get to the truth, even if it is unpleasant. I’m thinking of Woman at Point Zero in particular. 

NES: The truth is savage. It shocks people because people are blind, or they want to be blind, and do not see suffering. But when you unveil the truth you find there has been a deception. We deceive ourselves all the time. But because I keep the simplicity of a child, I have to be honest.

SR: In one of your memoirs, you write about your early life: “my anger was still nascent growing inside me like tender green shoots.” Do you feel that anger—anger at injustice, anger at the difficulty of your own experiences—is one of the motivations in your writing?

NES: Anger is powerful. If you do not vent anger, it stays inside and creates depression and mental illness. But when you write, you are liberated.

SR: You were imprisoned by Anwar Sadat for your political opposition to the Camp David meeting with Israel. Is that right?

NES: For many reasons, Camp David was one of them. Sadat hated my writings. He hated me because I was elected secretary general of the Medical Association. 

SR: In your role you dealt with issues like women’s health.

NES: I was against genital mutilation of women. I am against genital mutilation of men. I am fighting against it.

SR: Has the situation of women in Egypt improved a lot in the 60 years?

NES: Well, there are still many problems—there always will be problems. But there is progress also. For instance, my daughter Mona Helmi. She’s a poet and writer—she’s more revolutionary than me in her writing. And the generation of my daughter and granddaughters, they speak up, they’re brave and strong. But on the other hand, there are the veiled women oppressed by the Muslim Brothers. They put on the niqab with just two holes for the eyes—we are fighting against that now. 

SR: Why do you think there’s been an upsurge in religious fundamentalism in Egypt in the last 40 years?

NES: It is related to neocolonialism. Old colonialism gave birth to neocolonialism. British colonialism gave birth to American, Israeli neocolonialism. And when you have neocolonialism and occupation and oppression, you need God. You need religion to justify injustices. In fact, the British in Egypt encouraged the Muslim Brothers in the 1920s. They gave them money and weapons. But the neocolonial, colonial and religious fundamentalists cannot succeed without the help of the local government. They work together.

SR: You’ve written very critically not just about fundamentalism, but religion in general. And Islam in particular.

NES: No, not Islam in particular. I spent 10 years studying the three religions: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. And the most oppressive religion—to women and the poor—is Judaism. Christianity inherited some of Judaism’s ideas, and then Islam inherited many of the ideas of Judaism, even the veil. The veil started in Judaism, male circumcision in Judaism.

SR: But what about the idea that feminism and religion can go together like Islamic feminism? There are people like Fatima Mernissi who tried to use religion in a progressive way. Do you find that interesting? 

NES: I don’t mind if you reinterpret religion in a better way. And this is happening with Jewish feminism, Christian feminism and Muslim feminism. But I don’t belong to that. I studied religion. And they tell you frankly, religion is politics, no separation. No separation. Religion is politics. And it supports backwards politics. We must study religion very well and unveil our minds. 

SR: You wrote in your prison diary: “writing needs as much courage as killing does.”

NES: When I was in prison, my best friend was a killer [she laughs]. She was a woman who killed her husband, and she was fascinating. And there was a brave prostitute who killed her pimp, because he tried to kill her. I met many women who killed and they had wonderful personalities. This is the burning honesty you spoke of. So I learned from them and then I discovered they were like me. They were nearer to me than my colleagues, the political prisoners, because they didn’t play politics, they were straightforward. They kill or they love… The pen can also be a weapon—a weapon to kill lying and injustice. You know, when I worked as a surgeon, I used a scalpel. So these instruments—the scalpel and the pen—they are linked in my mind. 

SR: Are you hopeful about the future of Egypt?

NES: I am optimistic by nature. because hope is power. Hope is power. And we shouldn’t lose hope.