Following on from our review of Saqi Books’ 2020 reprint of Nawal El Saadawi’s The Fall of the Imam (first published in 1987), ‘A Dizzying Tale of Duality’, we are now reviewing the second in our series of their re-releases, El Saadawi’s 1983 novel Two Women in One, both of which featured as part of our #24Books alternative advent in the run up to last year’s seasonal holidays.
Compared to The Fall of the Imam, Two Women in One is a much more straightforward read – but this doesn’t mean that it is simple. Where The Fall of the Imam is sticky and elliptical, whirling around and returning to the same plot points in a sometimes bewildering fashion, Two Women in One follows a much more linear narrative progression, though it does have moments of ambiguity and confusion—a trademark of El Saadawi’s prose—where the protagonist battles to find herself through artistic expression. The novel’s core is mined from El Saadawi’s own experiences as a medical student torn between familial and societal expectations, and her own desires to write. As she says in an interview with The Cairo Review: ‘I never wanted to be a medical doctor but I became a doctor just to please my parents.’ In both The Fall of the Imam and Two Women in One, El Saadawi privileges both individual agency and collective resistance to oppressive, patriarchal structures and societal norms. El Saadawi’s preface to The Fall of the Imam raises the many voices that make up the characters she creates, collecting and inspired by reflections of women across the Middle East—‘they were always there, watching me wherever I went’ (xi), their stories and lives living with her. Echoing The Fall of the Imam and its resistant dualities, then, Two Women in One and its original autobiographical inspirations also explore a sort of ‘twoness’ in its women, here fighting external pressures to conform.
The titular Two Women in One is the central protagonist Bahiah Shaheen, an eighteen-year-old medical student and the daughter of a prominent Egyptian public health official. Set in Cairo, the novel tracks Bahiah’s disconnection with her public self and what is expected of her as a young girl in Egypt by her domineering father and her male classmates and teachers who she sees as a breed apart. Frustrated and upset by the split between her outward, obedient self and an inside, hidden life where the coupling of art and rebellion bubble under the surface, an encounter with a stranger in a gallery one day begins to unravel Bahiah’s outward persona in a journey towards self-discovery.
Bahiah’s life is confined by restrictions imposed on her choices in education, sex, and even her hobbies, caused by the division and sense of obligation between what her family want of her and what she wants for herself:
‘It was her mother who had given birth to her and her father who had enrolled her into medical college. Her aunt, who suffered from a lung disease, wanted her to specialize in this particular field of medicine. Her uncle wanted her to be a successful, highly-paid doctor, who would marry his son, the business-school graduate. Her savings would grow thanks to his expertise in commerce, and they would raise children who would inherit their wealth and bear his name, and the names of his father and grandfather before him.’ (85)
Bahiah’s father is an ominous figure, stifling Bahiah’s independence and standing over her ‘like a vast, high barrier between her and her real self, blocking her way, guarding the entrance to the house with the bulk of his body, his loud coarse voice, huge palms and wide eyes’ (35). Her father is a wall barricading Bahiah’s free will and decisions; he controls the small amount of pocket money she receives and lives on, and when Bahiah falls behind at university, her father has the final say in who she must marry. Ultimately, the walls built around Bahiah signal her isolated life: ‘drowning alone in a sea of people, unseen and unrecognised’ (61), she fears the discovery of her ‘real self’, ‘that other self-dwelling within her, that devil who moved and saw things with the sharpest powers of perception’ (46).
El Saadawi masterfully deconstructs and unravels the social confinement which Bahiah endures through a series of her rebellious acts, bringing out ‘the devil’ within her: beginning with art, leading to sex, and ending with public protest and arrest. At the start of the novel, Bahiah is in her small bedroom, drawing ‘a face and a pair of eyes glaring up from the white paper, a pair of wide black eyes like her own, staring at her woman to woman’ (33). Her father comes in and finding the drawing, slaps ‘her small hand with his broad palm’ saying, ‘What do you mean by wasting your time scribbling?’. Crumpling the sheet and throwing it away (34), and with it the self-portrait it represents, her father sets up art and artistic exploration of the self as deviant, useless, and a waste of time. Yet, Bahiah continues to draw, entering the university art exhibition, and her acts become defiant, possessing opportunities for self-definition. Art, Bahiah’s secret passion hidden under the bedsheets from her father’s prying eyes, enables her to locate her own agency beyond socially constructed feminine identities.
Of all the medical students at the university, only a couple present in the art exhibition. As Bahiah asks—“why should medical students be interested in an art exhibition? What good was a painting, a story or a piece of music to them?” (48)—El Saadawi’s satire expresses the failure of the system to provide a fully rounded education. Yet, for Bahiah, it is art that leads to her emancipation from her dull and conforming life.
It is at the exhibition that Bahiah meets Saleem, a man who she cannot help find similarities with—in their black eyes, their height, even ‘his leg was just like hers’ (48). For Bahiah–who up until this point in the novel is alienated from others–Saleem offers an opportunity for a relationship driven by her own desires. Bahiah and Saleem begin a sexual relationship, one beautifully shrouded by El Saadawi’s obscure prose:
‘As if the sky had become earth and the earth the sky. It was as if all things intertwining, merging in a single point at the center of the head, throbbing perceptibly like a heartbeat, but stronger. She heard the violent pounding of his heart. It sounded like her own heartbeat. Everything of him that reached her senses became like the touch of her own body. Only with great difficulty could she distingish her body from his: temperature, smell, complexion, the flow of blood in the veins – all were as similar as if they were in one body’ (80)
Illicit, pre-marital sex with Saleem becomes an act which allows Bahiah to destabilise male dominance over her body and find her ‘true self’ even more. They choose each other. Their relationship is consensual and it is through their communion and shared appreciations that Bahiah is able to find a sense of her self which reaches beyond the expectations ascribed to her. However, underlying sexual pleasure, its possibilities for connection and emancipation, is Bahiah’s fear of discovery. Equally, the knowledge and fear of female genital mutilation runs throughout—Bahiah notices the effects of the procedure from the way some of the female students stand, and remembers her sister’s cries which ‘still rang in her ears […] limping and moaning as she walked’ (113).
Like The Fall of the Imam, this short novel is hallucinatory and intoxicating. In the closeness of the voice, we experience Bahiah’s paranoia of judging eyes and the confusion of her split self with her. Towards the end of the novel, she details notice in the panoptic gazes of multiple people: leering men with ‘hungry, deprived eyes’, a policeman, and ‘a pair of eyes […] watching her and footsteps following her’ (137-138).
The repeated image of eyes following Bahiah wherever she turns is reminiscent of Bint Allah’s struggle in The Fall of the Imam where El Saadawi’s fantastical narrative suspends the reader in a frantic state of the grammar of constant escape, away from the omniscient Imam. In exploring that novel’s own ‘twoness’, El Saadawi’s choices of absence of linearity and dizzying repetitions are so pervasive as to feel disorienting to the point of distraction, sometimes simultaneously working with and against the novel’s main political point. Similarly, in Two Women in One, after Bahiah meets Saleem, the novel’s pace dramatically picks up as actions overtake her inner musings: a bloody student protest, a jailing, and an enforced, purely transactional marriage loom over the more intimate, internalised struggles of the early part of the novel. This sudden turn from inaction to spurts of dramatic plot developments is a little jarring at times, leaving me to wonder whether Bahiah’s quickly rising political interest—where she leaves her marriage and joins the resistance, making posters donning the slogans ‘People of Egypt! Awake! Throw open your windows, open your eyes and see the chains coiled around your necks’ (133)—is sincerely fought on behalf of her community and people, or simply a means of escape, another in a chain of rebellious acts antithetical to the prescribed life she led before.
But for all its changing pace, Two Women in One is a novel that pulls on the heart. Above all, the story is driven by Bahiah’s desires for artistic expression and love, tackling and opposing the oppressive state from which she resides. There’s an image that permeates the text that concerns Bahiah’s sense of alienation from those around her, where ‘she had the strange sensation of blending into the larger world, of becoming part of the infinite extended body of humanity, of dissolving like a drop of water in the sea or a particle of air in the atmosphere’ (96). Led by her own desire to be at one with others, Bahiah achieves this freedom through creative self-expression, echoing El Saadawi’s own words in The Cairo Review interview:
‘All creative works help to open the minds and illuminate oppressed women and men, as well as assist in raising their consciousness, and therefore they organize and struggle together to liberate themselves from all types of prisons. Most of my heroines are fighters in different ways.’
In Two Women in One and The Fall of the Imam, El Saadawi creates female protagonists who rebel against the patriarchal structures which dominate and oppress their lives. Bahiah’s father’s presence acts like a large barrier to her true self-expression, and the repetitious and relentless pursuit of Bint Allah in The Fall of the Imam leads to her demise. However, El Saadawi has written women who do fight, never succumbing to outward expectations and acts intended to silence. These women are always finding a way to imagine other possibilities and to be heard.
Abdallag, Asmaa and Nadeen Shaker. ‘“My principle is to unveil the mind” The Cairo Review speaks to Nawal El Saadawi about her writing and the status of women in Egypt and the Arab World.’ The Cairo Review, Spring 2018. http://www.thecairoreview.com/q-a/my-principle-is-to-unveil-the-mind/
Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian public health physician, psychiatrist, author, and advocate of women’s rights. Sometimes described as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world,” El Saadawi is a feminist whose writings and professional career are dedicated to political and sexual rights for women. Her books include the titles Woman At Point Zero, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, and The Hidden Face of Eve.
Ellen Addis is the editorial assistant for Africa in Words. She is a Master’s graduate from University College London and is currently researching the impact of cultural studies in the regional and global space.
You can buy Saqi’s reprint of Two Women in One here.