Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Nawal El Saadawi in conversation

Last Friday I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Nawal El Saadawi - Egyptian writer, doctor, activist and feminist are just some of the labels used to describe this remarkable woman. She was 'in conversation' at a event at Goldsmiths, University of London, as part of a three-day Race in a Modern World conference there.

It was at the age of seven, she told the packed audience, that she became aware of inequality in the home with her brother. Whilst she did more housework, more schoolwork and was "more intelligent" the brother got to roam free and be feted by the family and society (yeah, we know about that one...). The experience burned into her the desire to express injustice - she did this by writing. At first a letter to God - but she didn't know his address and he didn't answer. She then moved on to stories and eventually, award-winning novels, writing about the rights of women and of the poor, with criticisms of sham democracies ('mere voting is not democracy...') and oppressive religions. Her most well-known novel, Woman at Point Zero, was published in Beirut in 1973 and she has clocked up over 40 novels altogether.

She spoke about a relationship between "creativity and dissidence" - if you feel injustice and you feel you can't do anything, then "at least you can write". And this she did, at a great personal cost of censorship, imprisonment and exile. In 1981 Nawal El Saadawi publicly criticized President Anwar Sadat's policies and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. She was also on a fundamentalist 'death list' following publication of her novel The Fall of the Imam in Cairo in 1988.

El Saadawi also had much to tell us about capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism - none of it flattering of course. Having been in London whilst the G20 theatre was going on two days before, she said she saw the posed photograph of Brown, Obama and Sarkozy and they looked to her like "the gang of the world", trying to solve a crisis which they created. She would tell them what to do, we were told, "but they wouldn't let me in".

She regaled us with a detailed tale of how the original manuscript was stolen, years ago on a train to Belgium, of her most recent novel, Zina, The Stolen Novel, (2008). Dr Nawal El Saadawi spoke with great humour, intelligence and, perhaps belying her 77 years, with a little occasional mischief. I'm glad I went to see her, it was an inspirational experience.

You can read more about her here, at her publisher's website here and, if you want to, a Guardian interview from yesterday, here .

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