Monday, October 12, 2015

God Dies by the Nile and other stories

I first discovered Nawal el Saadawi in my early teens when I came across her novel about women in rural Egypt "God Dies by the Nile", and I was instantly fascinated, delving in to whatever books of hers I could find translated in to English.

Probably not the way most Orthodox Jewish teenage girls discover modern political feminism. My poor mother had no idea what I was reading - boy do I sympathise with her trying to keep up with the stacks of books I brought home from the library. Incredibly well read in several languages she encouraged me to read widely, though I suspect she didn't quite mean her young teen to read quite that widely.

Nawal El Saadawi taught me the harsh realities of life in rural Egypt, especially for young women. If until then I had some idea that there was extreme poverty and subjugation of women in rural areas across the Middle East her writing brought it in to stark relief, complete with graphic details that once learnt could not be erased. I was at once horrified and impressed by her courage and openess. Having both grown-up in these areas and returned to them as a doctor she was more than qualified in conveying just was it like to be a woman living in such circumstances.

Her work in promoting womens' health and education in Egypt, her fight against FGM, her campaign for womens' most basic and fundamental rights under such difficult circumstances, including imprisonment and threats against her life, made her one of my heroines alongside Hannah Sennesh and other Zionist icons I had grown-up with. I felt that she was one of those women who could change the Middle East for the better. Her story inspired me. 

El Saadawi is unfortunately no friend of Israel, her radical Marxism putting her on the side of the extreme anti-Israel camp, but as a young teen I always hoped that her zeal for justice and compassion might one day change that view of her Jewish northern neighbours.

She is still going strong in the new post-post Arab Spring Egypt, hoping that the leadership of General Sisi will bring the greater freedom, modernity and positive change that she has always hoped for.

Reading Nawal El Saadawi led me to other regional feminists and writers, like the writings of Lebanese/Egyptian/French author Andree Chedid, Palestinian feminist and PLO activist Raymonda Tawil (Yasser Arafat's mother-in-law) and a selection of women authors from the Maghreb countries and Lebanon.

What I discovered was a world full of unfamiliar and strange concepts, of incredible brutality, mindblowingly strict tradition and hard hearted men, but also full of women with the vision and hope to try to create something new, though in practice often running up against a very high and thick stone wall, sometimes quite literally.

It wasn't all feminism and theories of the patriarchy though. There were descriptions of the Westernised decadent middle and upper classes in Egypt and Lebanon, clashes of identity among the Francophone educated classes of the Maghreb, beautiful rural retreats and villages where the illusion of freedom could be reached just beyond the last house or among the circle of female relatives within the secure confines of the enclosed courtyard.

Very cliched sounding I know, but a huge eye opener to my teenage self, a window on places I could likely never visit, people who I would likely never know because along with their quest for freedom within their own societies and their rejection of many of the supposedly sacred truths of the Arab world, they generally still embraced a very firm hatred of Israel, be it framed in terms of the Marxist struggle against Western colonialism or the cultural/nationalist insistance on maintaining a united Arab front across the Middle East.

Most of these books were written in the revolutionary cultural fervour of the 1960s, 70s, even 80s, barely broaching the Islamist revolutions that were just starting to ferment in the region, replacing the secular Socialist and Marxist Arab nationalisms that had held sway among the revolutionary classes.

Looking at the post-Arab Spring Middle East it seems that the only perhaps Egypt and Tunisia have had revolutions that in any way matched the aspirations of these authors. Looking out over the broiling burning early 21st century Middle East I think often of their books and feminist ideals and I wonder if any of the women dashing off to join Da'esh may have read them too, and if not, perhaps they should. 

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