Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Nawal El Saadawi : Daughter of Isis

At last!

After the reading the novels of two Egyptian men, I finally get an Egyptian woman's P.O.V.

Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931, and this autobiography covers the first two decades of her life as she fights enormous odds to get the formal education that will lift her out of the peasant village where she grew up - culminating in her admittance to medical school.

Her father had performed the same feat 20 years earlier, with the extensive help of his mother who was another strong woman. In fact there seems to have been a tradition of strong women on her father's side, beginning with a 'the woman from Gaza" who was ordered beaten to death by the village headman after mouthing off.

The picture of a peasant woman's life is rather grim. Genitally mutilated at the age of six, married at the age of 10 or 12, and ritually beaten by her husband on her wedding night. After all, she's just a child and her adult husband needs to establish his authority. Though, it doesn't seem like her grandmother had it all that bad after she was widowed in her thirties. She was left with enough land to feed her children and send the oldest son off to school.

Nawal rebels against all that and her unusual parents give her a lot of support, even though she's only one of their nine children.

And unlike every other Egyptian couple that I've been shown so far, her parents appear to love and respect each other. Dad does not go out drinking and whoring, like one of Nawal's uncles on her aristocratic mother's side - who is just like the patriarchal figure in "Cairo Trilogy".

Her father really is a remarkable man -- very upright and uncorrupted, but also very patient and not severe. And he seems to have his own take on Islam that is pious but not reactionary. He rejects the politicized Islamists, while his own politics are a bit romantic in a typically goofy Egyptian way.

Egyptians love street demonstrations against authorities - without a whole lot of committment to any specific issues or agendas.

The defining moment in her father's career was his participation in a street demonstration. As a consequence, his government educational career was diverted to a distant backwater. But as his daughter tells it, he hadn't really planned on marching in the streets that day -- he just got swept away by his enthusiastic students who carried him on their shoulders. And his daughter is the same way about the demonstrations in her time: she just gets swept away, with no attention to the specific issues involved - since, after all, her young life is devoted to one goal and one goal only: get a degree.

His daughter's involvement with Islam was somewhat different.

As an imaginative, idealistic child she was drawn to the narrative and she was thrilled to recite it. But as a girl, she felt left out. The prophet's first wife may have given him the opportunity to meditate in the mountains -- and she may have been his first convert -- but he never mentions her in the Qur'an. And she's not content to accept a woman's monthly ritual pollution. She doesn't entirely rebel against Islam - but one may note that she doesn't give Muhammad his traditional blessing of "peace be unto him" - as she does when she mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Getting a scholarship to med school is the climactic moment in her story. Her parents can't really afford the tuition. And she gets it by shear willpower -- walking into the dean's office, without an appointment, and asking why her tuition is not waived as it is for students whose academic record is worse than hers.

It seems to be a characteristic moment in Egyptian society. No one without family connections could enter the dean's office -- and it's not like he's busy doing anything else. But he's romantic enough to empathize with her remarkable presence and he guarantees her scholarship by simply putting his name at the bottom of her application.

It's too bad this story ends before she begins her career as a doctor, social activist, mother, and novelist --- and right before the Egyptian revolution of 1952 that swept the old Turkish aristocracy out of power and took away their land. Why didn't Egypt have the kind of revolution that rocked China or Russia?

But it's a nice snapshot of life in peasant villages and in an aristocratic home (her mother's family) -- though that family has already lost its property and her aunts all seem to have bitter, dead-end lives.

Speaking of bitter, dead-end lives-- that's how she depicts all of the female school administrators with whom she has contact. She really hates those women.