Sunday Salon: “Nawal El Saadawi in conversation about her life and writing”

Just over a month ago, I went to a pair of sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the session “Literature Unleashed! The Power of Translation“. Today, I’m going to write a about the second session I attended, “Nawal El Saadawi in conversation about her life and writing”.

Saadawi started off the session talking about the act of writing. She said that “every human being is a writer”, that writing is like language and language acquisition, so it’s something that we all do. She argued that the reason that we aren’t all writers as adults is that we are brought up as children to kill creativity; we are intimidated out of expressing ourselves and turned into something else. Finally, she said that we should all be writers and readers.

After this brief introduction, the hostess (Sima Abed Rabboh) started guiding the conversation with questions. For simplicity, I’m going to organize the rest of the post using her questions as headers.

Do we fear change/new horizons in the Arab world?

Saadawi claims that we fear change not only in the Arab world, but everywhere.  She said that this is the difference between people and governments: we want to communicate, speak, and live, while the government (/regimes) want us not to communicate. It’s not in their best interests for us to be enlightened.

Following that, she said that in most of the countries in the Arab word, it’s families and/or tribes that are in power, and that this goes against logic and against justice. Personally, I found this particularly interesting since she said this in the United Arab Emirates, a country ruled by families that were former tribal leaders, at an event paid for in large part by one of the Sheikhs that fits the role that she was criticizing.

You wrote because you were banned in speech. Is literature really our mirror and tool for change?

Saadawi argued that this is the case, because intellectual men and wonen change society. She went on to say that politics is a messy game that is unsuitable for motivating change, that she knows this because she entered tthe race against Mubarak once, in 2005. What changes/elevates asociety is intellectuals and philosophy, not the government.

When prompted, she went on to say that she will not run for president in Egypt, as she doessn’t see a challenge in it. Her father said that he respected himself for choosing what is hard over what is easy, and she wants to be the same way. Interestingly, Saadawi went on to say that she doesn’t plan to vote at all in the Egyptian elections. She said that none of the candidates came from the revolution, that they are all opportunists, and that she is waiting for someone who is from Tahrir Square.

Where does the freedom of the individual end?

Saadawi believes that freedom is, first and foremost, a responsibility. It must not be understood as a limit. The choice element is important – your “freedom” as an individual ends at the point where you take away the choices of another person.

Have you ever regretted something you said?

Saadawi says that regret destroys people, so she believes that we should make as many mistakes as we can, but never regret. She said that “success is to move from one failure to another without losing hope”, and that a person who doesn’t make mistakes is someone who doesn’t work. Finally, she said that taking risks makes your life longer, and jokes that this is why she’s still alive.

What makes you scared?

She said that we’re brought up to fear death so that the government lives on, so the class system means a minority rules of a majority. The way she sees it, fear helps them rule. Because of this, she says that she is not going to fear death because she won’t be alive for it! In her words, “we will not feel death, so why fear it?” She sees fear as an illusion to subject us to the elite, making us slaves to these governments/establishments.

How intertwined are our lives with politics? Can we disassociate our lives?

Saadawi argues that we don’t really get knowledge at school, because educational systems serve the capitalist, patriarchal regimes (and thus politics are an irrevocable part of our lives). She said that she graduated more ignorant than when she went into school, that the education system didn’t make student become cultured or have humanitarian values. She says that new universities are more interested in creating well-rounded individuals than in the past, however.  She says that there is a relationship between creativity – which she now teaches in universities – and rebellion. So many disasters are due to religious education, Saadawi says, and because of women being so afraid of hell and punishment; she argues that this hinders our abilities to dissociate our lives from politics.

Is the function of the writer to provide solutions or to get the reader to think?

She says that there is no law to creativity, and that we are brought up not to stay natural – so it’s up to the reader to be the judge. Speaking of literary critics, she says “I don’t think about what they will say about me, that is up to them”.

How can someone change their life? Give me some advice.

Change is very difficult. We unconsciously continue the habits that we started while growing up, most specifically those of religion. To change, we must learn more than just the Qur’an. Religions are a social phenomenon: it is very difficult to get rid of religion as an adult, so religious upbringings can be dangerous. Saadawi argues that at a collective level, children should be taught differently – they should not fear hell, and they should learn many things to have balanced personalities.

She kind of went off on a tangent here, and didn’t really answer the question. From this point out, she and the hostess slipped into almost an informal chat, and collected a variety of topics and discussion points.

Wrapping Up

Saadawi said that she cannot measure success by money; rather, she says, “I said what I wanted; that’s the most important”.

She told a story about street children (including orphans) in Egypt. She said that the child is being punished by society when they are innocent. According to her, many of these children are illegitimate, and that the majority of women in Egypt are the victims of men – men have all the rights, including the right to acknowledge a child. Saadawi said that the most important gift to a mother is for a child to carry her name along with her father’s, something that was unheard of in Egypt until recently. She did say, though – and to a round of applause – that as of May 2008, an illegitimate child can now obtain a birth certificate with the mother’s name on it so that they can go to school. Before that, the child would be without a birth certificate if the father did not “claim” him, and they would have to live an undocumented, uneducated life.

Saadawi said that, both as a doctor and as an activist, she believes in preventative medicine and bring proactive. Prevention is better than the cure.

From here, she segued into talking about the Arab Spring. She says that the Egyptian Revolution was brought about by the accumulation of oppression. She says that Egyptians are both generous and humble, but that they were pushed to the brink by injustice and inequality. She stayed in the camps in Tahrir Square, and says that she felt like a very small person surrounded by everyone. She also says that the Egyptian people don’t know their own power.

When asked for a prediction of what Egypt will be like in 10 years, she simply said “hope is a very strong power”.

Saadawi is currently working on a novel. She says that revolution changes human beings. Before the Egyptian Revolution, she was working on one novel, but she has put it aside to work on a new one. She says that the first novel was dealing with an old revolution, and that her time in Tahrir made her realize that it was time to move on to the new one.

When the hostess stated that books are like children to the author, and asked after her favourite, Saadawi responded that the most recent, the most fresh, piece of writing is always her favourite.

Rather interestingly, Saadawi said that the tragedy of female writers is that there is no husband to bring them tea on the couch. She then said that the worst thing in the world is to stop working.

Audience Question

A women came up and asked something about the hijab (to be honest, I was unclear on her actual question). Saadawi responded that the hijab is a symbol of foreign colonization and internal despotism, and that women are the victims of backwardness. She posed the question, “what is the relationship between hair and ethics?”, and went on to say that the hijab is a political symbol and a tool of oppression.

Finally, Saadawi went on to talk about the dual values (double standard) of what is expected of men and of women, and says that our values have no worth if they are not the same for everyone. She also said that “words and values have nothing to do with religion”, tying into the discussion of the hijab she had just been engaged in.

At the end, she correlated the hijab to the revolution, saying that the trauma of the people is the trauma of the government, but this is where I started to lose her. After all of the interesting and thought-provoking things that she had said, at the end, it felt like she was preaching a bit much (to the converted, I might add!) and it felt like she started rambling and was, more often than not, off-topic.


1 thought on “Sunday Salon: “Nawal El Saadawi in conversation about her life and writing””

  1. I am so incredibly jealous that you got to hear her speak. This would have been an amazing time. Thank you so much for sharing about it!!

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