Title: Woman At Point Zero
Author: Nawal El-Saadawi
Translator: Sherif Hetata
Publication Year: 2007 (originally published in Arabic in 1975; first published in English in 1983)
Source: Purchased from Kinokunya at the Emirates Festival of Literature
From the cover:
‘However, every single man I did get to know filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face.’
So begins Firdaus’s story, leading to her grimy Cairo prison cell, where she welcomes her death sentence as a relief from her pain and suffering. Born to a peasant family in the Egyptian countryside, Firdaus suffers a childhood of cruelty and neglect. Her passion for education is ignored by her family, and on leaving school she is forced to marry a much older man. Following her escapes from violent relationships, she meets Sharifa, who leads her into a life of prostitution, telling her that ‘a man does not know a woman’s value … the higher you price yourself the more he will realize what you are really worth’. Desperate and alone, she takes drastic action.
Saadawi’s searing indictment of society’s brutal treatment of women continues to resonate today. This classic novel has been an inspiration to countless people across the world.
I have to admit to being mildly disappointed by this book.
Maybe it was because I had built up El Saadawi’s writing so much in my head from hearing her speak and reading articles of hers, but it just wasn’t quite as good as I had thought it would be. It was for sure an interesting look at the lives of women in Egypt during a certain period in time, and it was definitely intriguing as a feminist text from outside the Western Sphere of Exclusion (TM), but I almost lost those moments in between all of the other stuff.
Having said that, there were many things that El Sadaawi said in Woman At Point Zero that caught my attention. I’m going to draw your attention to just a few of them here. Let’s start with two quotes from the main character’s thoughts, both before and after she becomes a prostitute. Before:
My virtue, like the virtue of all those who are poor, could never be considered a quality, or an asset, but rather was looked upon as a kind of stupidity, or simple-mindedness, to be despised even more than depravity or vice.
The time had come for me to shed the last grain of virtue, the last drop of sanctity in my blood. Now I was aware of the reality, of the truth. Now I knew what I wanted. Now there was no room for illusions. A successful prostitute was better than a misled saint. All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.
Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.
A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off. I was able to convince myself that I had chosen this life of my own free will. The fact that I rejected their noble attempts to save me, my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and that I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.
This was probably the most interesting part of the book for me: really being inside the main character’s head and “listening” to her thoughts about what led her into, and what kept her in, a life of prostitution. There are so many people out there who think they know what “makes” people become prostitutes, and I think that the way in which El Saadawi took the character of Firdaus and made her both a prostitute and a symbol of the EveryWoman was quite interesting. By doing so, she basically forces the reader to sympathize with Firdaus as a symbol of so many things that are(/were?) wrong with Egyptian society and the way it treats women, and to mostly ignore or forget about the connotations we have in our own minds when we think about someone as being a “prostitute”. Having lived in the Middle East for a year now, and having visited Egypt while I was reading this book, I think that El Saadawi was even more courageous to have associated the common woman or the intellectual feminist woman reading this book with the “lowly” prostitute that is the main character.
Near the end of Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus decides that she is no longer afraid of death, something that is particularly interesting since she is in jail and awaiting her upcoming death sentence. She says:
I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedom I enjoy fills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more.
I like the way that she put this; it’s one of the most haunting bits of internal dialogue in the book. It’s as if she has spent her whole life trying to reach something and has just decided that she should stop … and yet, at the same time, it almost feels as though she hasn’t really been reaching for anything in particular throughout the narrative, either. So it’s a bit melancholy and it made me think – is she saying that she was wrong to have hoped to keep living, even? Can we not be free while still wanting to live? Can we not be free and hope for better lives for ourselves or for those around us? Or is that just what she’s saying in a moment of clarity about being near “the end”, knowing that anything she expresses an affinity towards will be taken away from her and seen as a sign of weakness?
A final thought:
Unknowingly, years ahead of the current Egyptian Revolution, El Saadawi also made an interesting remark in the book that seems timely:
Revolutionary men with principles were not really different from the rest. They used their cleverness to get, in return for principles, what other men buy with their money. Revolution for them is like sex for us. Something to be abused. Something to be sold.
I’m going to just leave that one with you to think about. And to discuss in the comments if you feel so inclined!