AiW Note: As part of our Africa Writes #PastAndPresent weekend, and in the absence of the in-person festival in 2020, this highlight reel marks the headline event at Africa Writes 2016, “On Being a Woman Writer: Nawal El Saadawi in Conversation”. The timetable for all the Africa Writes posts we’re revisiting this weekend, published each day to give a sense of moving between the events on offer at the festival, can be found here.
From Sheila Ruiz’s ‘A Brief History of Africa Writes’ for the Africa Writes blog 2016:
“…For this year – our 5th anniversary! – we have programmed yet another exciting and wide-ranging festival, which will include some of the most popular sessions from our previous editions – such as the Caine Prize shortlisted writers’ conversation, ‘African Books to Inspire’ and ‘Meet the Publishers’ – as well as new ones. This year we are shining a light on ‘disruptive stories’, including narratives of displacement and migration, women’s and LGBT stories. On Friday 1st July, we present ‘Sex, Love & Poetry’, an evening of explicit readings and uncensored conversation hosted by world-renowned Nigerian LGBT rights activist Bisi Alimi. On the evening of Saturday, 2nd July, we welcome the internationally renowned Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi to headline the festival. And to close the festival, on Sunday 3rd July, we host a staged reading of Joy Gharoro-Akjopotor’s ‘The Immigrant’, a provocative new play set in the year 2116 about a desperate British migrant claiming asylum in the African Union. Imagine that! These are just some of the highlights of the three-day festival feast we have prepared to mark our 5th birthday. But check out the full Africa Writes 2016 programme and come and join us to celebrate five years of Africa Writes. The festival is for you!”
For the 2016 headline event at Africa Writes, Egyptian writer and critic Nawal El Saadawi drew on her epic life story and prolific writing career in conversation with publisher Margaret Busby.
El Saadawi – novelist, psychiatrist and fierce advocate for women’s rights – was born in 1931, in a village outside Cairo, and wrote her first novel at the age of 13. Her many books have been translated into over forty languages and include titles such as Woman at Point Zero (1975), and her work of feminist criticism Women and Sex (1972), which was banned in Egypt for almost two decades and established her reputation as a fearless commentator on women’s rights. She has faced exile and death threats in her fight for change, and in 1981, El Saadawi was imprisoned for “crimes against the state”, a sentence that for her cemented the link between power and patriarchy that she consistently critiques in her work, reflecting on questions of gender and the challenges posed for women within traditional and religious societies.
Rounding up the 2016 Festival for the Africa Writes blog, Kelechi Iwumene captures the excitement and joy of El Saadawi’s legendary zeal and generosity, as well as the emotional depth of the impact of her approach to audience questions:
The second night closed with a conversation with internationally renowned Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. When she arrived at the conference centre there was a hushed silence and whispers amongst the festival goers. The festival excitement grew when Nawal’s session drew nearer.
Her personality and fiery zeal for justice and social and economic equality shone through her old age and filled the auditorium. Her interlocutor Margaret Busby drew out the insights and anecdotes that El Saadawi was keen to explore, and the audience hung on El Saadawi’s every word. She invited members of the audience to come up on the stage and sit where she sat so she could look at them when they were asking their questions. It was surreal, uplifting, and heartfelt; we could almost cry with joy. Question after question was thrown at her and she answered them with such wisdom and insight, it left us begging for more.
You can listen to Busby and El Saadawi’s full conversation at Africa Writes here:
El Saadawi’s seventh novel, The Fall of the Imam, translated from Arabic by Sherif Hetata and first published in 1987, was re-released this year by Saqi Books:
“Bint Allah knows herself only as the Daughter of God. Born in a stifling male-dominated state ruled by the Imam and his coterie of ministers, she dreams of one day reaching the top of a distant hill visible through the bars of the orphanage window.
But Bint Allah’s ambitions do not escape the attention of the Imam, who never feels secure no matter how well he protects himself. When the Imam falsely accuses Bint Allah of adultery and sentences her to death by stoning, he is not prepared for what happens next.
This powerful and poetic novel is a call to arms against those who use religion as a weapon against women.”
Ellen Addis’s review picks up on the dreamlike, almost suffocating rhythm of the text and its non-linearity:
In The Fall of the Imam, the narrative pivots around a triad of death, religion and hypocrisy through tales concerning the desire and judgement of women, and the murders of the titular Imam and Bint Allah. El Saadawi’s cut-and-stick-like novel repeats and re-articulates these dramatic events continuously, creating an elliptical narrative that is more akin to prose-poetry than to the traditional novel format. The dreamlike, sweeping language runs like a ribbon through the text, tugging away at certainties and consistencies, leaving traces of meaning, but ultimately indeterminacy. …
The absence of linearity in the novel’s narrative is so pervasive that it makes me wonder about its status as a metaphor for the chaos of a terrifying extremist-religious state. The dizzying repetition – its shifting evocations of inner lives and surface presentations, its implications of similarity and difference, in and out – though mainly successful, can disorientate to such an extreme that the complexities of the novel and its rendering of its setting can become lost in maze-like dualities, or at worst, be rendered too simplistic an analogy as a response. While the text prompts me to note that my reading is from outside of the cultural framework and original language that The Fall of the Imam is produced from, I see this extreme non-linearity as its strength, working explicitly against the traditions of narrative structures devised (in the most part) by men. In subverting any sense of centre and concrete understanding, El Saadawi suspends the reader in a state of flux and the unknown, replicating the feelings of Bint Allah and other women in the narrative.
El Saadawi’s 1983 novel Two Women in One was also re-released by Saqi this year:
Bahiah Shaheen is an eighteen-year-old medical student and daughter of a prominent Egyptian public official. She is also an artist – a secret she carefully keeps to herself.
Bahiah finds the male students in her class rough, coarse and alien. Her father, too, seems to belong to a race apart, and Bahiah cannot be her real self in his company. Then, following a surprise conversation with a stranger at an art exhibition, Bahiah begins her journey to self-discovery, abandoning the life constructed for her.
Two Women in One tells the powerful story of a modern Middle Eastern woman’s quest for emancipation and dignity.
Ellen closes her review of this novel by bringing the two female protagonists of both The Fall of the Imam and Two Women in One together in their fight against silencing and the possibilities of the imagination as offering other ways of being heard, citing El Saadawi in an interview for The Cairo Review, that “all creative works help to open the minds and illuminate oppressed women and men”.
For the artist inside the medical student – the two women in Bahiah, the latter novel’s heroine, creative works and the agency inherent in their possibility is the path to freedom from conformity:
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.
Persisting in this righteous exploration of possibility again and again, El Saadawi echoes this sentiment in her 2016 Africa Writes conversation:
Nawal El Saadawi was in conversation at the 2016 Africa Writes festival, usually held in London each year over the first weekend in July.
For full details of our Africa Writes #Past&Present weekend, as we anticipate the digital conversations happening later in the month for the 2020 edition, see the schedule here: Back to Africa Writes – AiW’s #PastAndPresent – Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th July, 2020.