Review: Saawadi’s Woman At Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero

Nawal El Saawadi

A novel based on Saadawi’s interviews with a n imprisoned psychiatric patient, Women at Point Zero is important, deeply moving and horrific. I’m not going to lie to you, this one isn’t easy to get through. Saadawi’s protagonist life is an unending series of horrors committed against either by, or ostensibly for, men. She endures female genital mutilation, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and more. Through it all, society provides her with no support, and no way out. It’s a bleak, damning, indictment of the way Egyptian society treats women.*

I read this book in 2002 and I remember how hard it was to get through. It’s a short work, but it is so brutal in its descriptions of the traumas and injustices that the narrator has faced that I often found it too much to bear. Still, not all books are there to pass the time, or educate, some are there to make us feel the things we don’t want to feel and face the things we don’t want to face. This is one of those books.

Recommended.

Nawal El Saawadi

*Or treated, the book was published in the 1970s, some may say things have changed; others will disagree.

Review: Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building: A Novel

Alla Al Aswany

When I lived in Cairo in 2007, the Yacoubian Building was probably the most talked about book. Every time I brought up Mahfouz in a conversation, this book comes up as well. Written in 2002, but taking place during the time of the first Gulf War this book deals with themes rarely seen in Egyptian literature – homosexuality, prostitution, Muslim Brotherhood and political corruption. Word is everyone in the book can be traced to a living public figure, but the author denies this. When we were talking about it at work the other day, everyone seemed to be able to agree on who the nasty political fixer was, but everyone had their own theory on who the gay newspaper editor was…

It’s a good book. The writing isn’t as strong as Mahfouz but the storyline in compelling and when shit starts to fall apart at the end, I found myself pretty seriously emotionally connected to the characters. The characterization of the single gay character (which gets all the attention when I talk to people about this book) would be considered offensive by liberal western notions** but here the fact that the gay male character is portrayed at all, and is portrayed in what is basically a favorable if stereotypical light is cause for a whole lot of controversy. When they made this one into a movie, apparently there were protests… and major box office sales as well.

Egyptian Books

During law school I spent a summer in Egypt. I made many friends and read my fair share of books. Someone once said to understand a people, read their poetry. I’m not a poetry fan, but here are some of the best Egyptian authors or books about Egypt that I have read. I don’t read Arabic, so my choices are only from those works that have been translated into English.

Nagib Mafouz.

Mafouz, Nobel laureate, victim of an assassination attempt, and for many years, the voice of Egypt, towers over Arab literature. He is by far the most popular and important Arab writer of the twentieth century. He was very prolific, and most of it is good. I’ll highlight just a couple.

The best by far is the Cairo Trilogy. Written in the expansive, meandering style of 19th century European novels, the Cairo Trilogy tracks the history of the modernization of Egypt through the story of one family in old Cairo. Its massive, but the pages fly by quickly. I would recommend this book even if Cairo was not the lead story on the news every evening.

Notably, a large number of Mafouz’s books have been turned into films. In the Arab world, the films adaptations are sometimes more recognizable than the novels themselves. I met multiple people in Cairo who did not know the Trilogy were books.

Another lesser-known work by Mafouz, Adrift on the Nile, is also worth a look, especially in these times. One of Mafouz’s more overtly political books, it addresses the lack of political will in the upper classes of Egypt, especially amongst artists and writers.  Adift takes places in the 1960s, in the time of Nasser, but the story could have been told in the Cairo of 2007. Disenfranchised and decadent artists uninterested in the political future of their country populate the novel. That was, until last week, a common criticism of the youth of Egypt today.

Obviously, everything has changed, but Adrfit on the Nile is still a good portrayal of the kind of decadent ennui that has been a factor in Egyptian culture for some time.

Nawal El Saadawi

The great feminist writer of Egypt has been a voice for women’s rights and social justice for going on ninety years. Her autobiography, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, shows you in uncomfortable detail just what it meant to be a dissent under the Mubarak regime.

Because I don’t read Arabic it is hard to know if Saadwi doesn’t have translators as good as Mafouz or  if her writing is not are strong, but her books sometimes are not as well writtern (or translated), as Mafouz’s work. That does not take away from their emotional power. Her novel Woman at Point Zero, about the horrific treatment of one woman in Egyptian society, is extremely disturbing and moving. I read it years ago and the thought of it still puts me ill at ease.

Nothing about Saadawi’s life has been easy, and neither are her books. But they are worth the effort, and she is worth celebrating for her incredible courage.

Alla Al Aswany

Aswany is a younger voice in Egyptian literature*, and his novel The Yacoubian Building is a must read. Portraying the goings on in an apartment building in Cairo, it was among the first novels in Arabic to honestly discuss homosexuality and hints at the complex role of the Muslim Brotherhood in modern Egyptian society. Perhaps not the greatest work of literature, it is amongst the most honest portrayals of Egyptian society that you will find in English.

Max Rodenbeck

Rodenbeck is not Egyptian, but his book Cairo: The City Victorious is a wonderful love letter to the city. Cairo can be a cruel mistress; its dirty, loud, insanely crowded, full of injustices large and small, and, in my experience at least, can be exhausting and frustrating. Rodenbeck acknowledges all that, and still loves the place. His enthusiasm for the city, warts and all, pulls you in. Read this, and go see the place for yourself after the current crisis calms down.

*It tells you something about the state of Egyptian literature that a “younger” voice was born in 1957.