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.


Nawal El Saawadi

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

An apt thought for today

But Mahmoud’s old doubts came back in the evening. He and his brother were walking along streets that grew more and more empty, past faces deprived of any vitality. Exhausted pedestrians were trudging home or standing silently at bus stops. Some men were sitting against a wall, dozing, their faces on their knees. Mahmoud pointed at them and asked, “Who is going to carry out this revolution of yours? They are all sleeping.” His brother replied, “These very people will do it. One day they will sprout wings.”

– From Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vintage International, 1992.

V. Charm

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.

Impressions of Muslim Brotherhood

I wrote this originally in 2007 and, again, it seems terribly naive and dated, but I’m keeping it as is.


The Muslim Brotherhood (lets call it MB from here on out) is a massive organization, the biggest opposition group by far in Egypt, and everyone I have asked here had an opinion about it.

Here’s some of the basic things I have learned since I got here about MB and opposition groups in Egypt in general, take it for what it is worth. Remember that my impressions of this place are deeply colored by the fact that almost everyone I associate with is very well off and extremely well educated by Egyptian standards.

The way people talk about the Muslim Brotherhood here is similar to the way I have heard people from Ireland and Palestine talk about the IRA and Hamas. Like Hamas, it provides much needed social services to the poor, but also like Hamas, its religious and political views are more hardline than the views of many of the people who take its services. Though it banks on the reputation (again like Hamas) of incorruptibility and efficenciecy*, from what I have heard, it is beginning to behave, at least on the local level in some neighborhoods, more like a street gang asking for payouts and bribes than like a pious organization. That same stink of corruption was prevalent on the local level in the IRA by the 1980s.

Officially, MB swore off violence in Egypt years ago.** There are those who will argue that that is a cover to allow it to engage in more mainstream politics and that in fact MB has a hand in violence that flares up in the Sinai and elsewhere every now and then. I have no way to judge how true this is, but most Egyptian I have talked to doubt the MB has an active hand in violence in Egypt.

MB technically can’t run candidates in elections here, since its still a banned organization***, but many of its members have run, and won as independents, or as members of the Wafd party. There also among people I know whispered rumors of MB members in high positions in the state bureaucracy.

For better or worse, though, MB is the main, serious, opposition to the Mubarak government and even from people who don’t agree with them on anything, they get grudging respect for this. If and when the Mubarak machine crumbles, MB will definitely be in the best position to control the future of Egypt.

Personally, I don’t like that idea very much, and neither do most of the well off, well educated Egyptians I have met here. Most of them aren’t really down for Sharia, and view MB’s recent liberalizing of some of its rhetoric (accepting Copts into the org, toning down the anti-Semitism, etc) with distrust.

But there is little in the way of other viable opposition groups happening here. Kifaya, a student/liberal intelligencia group lead umbrella group of pro democracy advocates that had a bit of a following two years ago, seems to have fallen on hard times with internal power struggles causing it to lose its way. ****Tomorrow Party, the party of imprisoned reformed Ayman Nour, is also easting itself up in fights about whether or not Nour should be expelled from the party or not. Until the progressive movement gets its shit together MB will remain the main game in town, and that is a shame, and a condemnation of leftist and progressive organizing in this country.

* Multiple times I have been told that they have the best demonstrations, and their campus recruiters are the most polished and articulate of the opposition groups.
**MB still supports suicide bombings in Israel, however.
*** Though they publish a public newspaper, and hold public events… I know, doesn’t sound like a banned organization to me either, but the state does crack down, and hard on MB at various times jailing leaders and breaking up offices when it thinks things are getting out of hand with recruitment. Seems like the idea of Mubarak is to keep a lid on things as opposed to trying to squash things.
****Imagine! Progressive movements derailed by internal strife! Thank good that doesn’t happen in the U.S.

Review: Raymond’s Cairo

Andre Raymond
Its amazing to me that a city with a history so rich, that spans such important events in history of the world, can be turned into such a boring book. I think Raymond is aping Braudel in this book with his focus on the economics and geographical changes that happened in Cairo’s long, long history, but he fails to use these details to capture the sense of a place, or an idea of what makes this ungovernable mess of a mega-city so interesting. Instead we just get a laundry list of how many single family homes there were in Fustat, followed by a simplistic listing of the how many people of what religions lived in which neighborhoods… boring Sydney, bloody fucking boring.

Raymond almost never bothers with the big events in history. There is no real discussion of the end of French rule. No explanation of rise of Muhammad Ali, and Nasser’s revolution takes up half a page, before we head back into lists of demographics of different neighborhoods. Maybe Raymond assumes his reader already knows all about the revolution and is more interested in where the tanneries were location in medieval Cairo. But I don’t know everything about the revolution, and Raymond’s book failed to make this and many other events in Cairo’s history any clearer. Avoid this one, it isn’t worth the time.

Not recommended.


I drove up to Alexandria this weekend with a group of women on their way to a wedding. One of them said along the way “the problem with Egypt is we have too much of a past and not enough of a future”. This is a pretty melodramatic thing to say, and reflects the severe inferiority complex* a lot of middle and upper class Egyptian have. It is also, at least partially, true.

Alexandria is a prime example of this, a city that as far as I can tell has little to nothing going on currently, none of the excitement of Cairo, none of the business either. It does however have some really old shit, (though not as much as you would think) and a truly stunning location on the Mediterranean.

Here’s some photos
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This is me at “pompie’s pillar” one of the few intact roman artifacts to be found in Alexandria. Its big.

Alexandria library. I think it looks hooky and silly, but it’s the pride and joy of modern Alexandria so I probably shouldn’t talk too much shit.

The Corniche
The view along the promenade is amazing. Having breakfast looking out at this was reason enough to go.

These guys are fishing off the corniche, casting past the garbage line you can see in this photo

Oh yeah and here’s
The view from inside my hotel room

The view from the window of my hotel room

The best thing to see in ancient Alexandria is the catacombs though, a couple of rooms of ancient Roman crypts. They don’t let you take photos down there unfortunately, but the mosaics (with the Egyptian god of the dead dressed in roman century outfits, etc) is totally fascinating and shows the strange mixture of the phraronic and the roman that was ancient Alexandria.

Review: Mahfouz’s Sugar Street

Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 3

Nahgib Mahfouz

Maybe I read it all too fast and got spoiled by all the excellent character development and believable dialogue, but Sugar Street, the third volume of the Cairo Trilogy was a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps Mahfouz was just running out of steam, but I was hoping for a better articulation of the personalities of the third generation (two brothers, one a communist and the other a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) of the family at the center of the novels. Still, I think this trilogy is well worth checking out, even if it loses a little steam at the end. I can’t imagine a better way to get a sense of Cairo between the wars than from reading these books.


Gender in Cairo

I wrote this post in the summer of 2007 when I was living in Cairo. Much changed soon after and my “resistance is weak” line seems horribly naive. Much was building, even then, but I was too out of touch to see it. Still, I’m leaving this as it was written at the time.  


Its life in a dictatorship here, but one that exerts a pretty soft power on the parts of the city I inhabit. I work with the most privileged people in Cairo, highly educated and generally pretty well off, and I live in one of the most international part of the city. My perceptions therefore are obvious skewed, but in the coming weeks, I’ll try and write about some of the main issues I see here from the vantage point I have.

Women’s rights here is, like everything everywhere, a very class based issue. If you’re without a veil in Zamalek (where I live) or Doqqi (where I work), it’s not a problem. I work with a pretty left/progressive Muslim woman (whose mother, b/t/w runs one of the biggest women’s rights groups in the mid-east) and she doesn’t wear a veil and shows up to work in an above the knee skirt fairly often. But when she is trying to get a cab, the cabbies will hassle her about the way she is dressed – expecting more money because only a rich girl would dare to dress that way. And they’re probably right, and that makes me sad.

A number of my friends from g’town are working in non profits, two of them in women’s rights groups. The stories they tell are pretty harrowing. Abuse and rape that go unreported for fear of retaliation. Rocks thrown in the street for a violation of the sense of decorum. Women followed for blocks by packs of young men. Women divorced and left with nothing. All the things you read about in the west. My understanding is these things happen to women across the economic range, but the worst of it is felt by Cairo’s poorest women. And God help you if you’re a female refugee – that is a horribly bleak scene.

As will be a common theme in these political posts, resistance here is pretty weak. Mubarak is a smart guy. When western funding countries start complaining about the plight of women here (like after the notorious assault on women in the marketplace last year) he just goes out and starts his own NGO to solve the problem. The biggest women’s rights one is run by his wife. But, surprise, surprise, the situation doesn’t get any better.

And I don’t know what place we as Americans really have in this. I am opposed to women being forced to wear a veil (duh.) but what if anything should I be doing about this in a foreign country? I don’t have a problem with kids from g’town coming and providing skills to organizations they believe in, but I am also not so naïve as to think that all the brouhaha in the states about women’s rights in the Middle East is really about the women here. Its about power, and about displacing the focus from the problems we have in our own society (and me, as an American male gripping about the sexism of Egyptian men could easily fall into me avoiding dealing with my own sexist behavior). If I’m going to do work internationally (which, In Shallah) I hope to do, I am going to have to come up with better answers of how to deal with these contradictions that, “I don’t know what place I have”.

The Collection; Or Me, Navigating a Bureaucracy In a Language I Do Not Understand

This post and many more around here, was originally posted on livejournal in 2007. Reposted here largely for my own amusement.

Yesterday, I had to renew my visa. Holy shit was it a mess.

There is really no way I am going to be able to explain how nuts the whole experience was, how confused I was, how chaotic the scene. You really had to be there. Luckily for me, the office I work for sent someone down there with me. Without him, I would have been like the group of Japanese tourists I saw there, terrified, and immobile on a bench.

The building you go to have you visa renewed is called the “Mogamma”, which apparently translates as “collection”. It’s the heart of the Egyptian bureaucracy. A giant piece of Stalinist architecture that makes you feel small and weak from the moment you get near it. People here talk about it like people in the States talk about the DMV, as this slightly humorous, but totally painful venture in government employee hell. But trust me; the Mogama is way, way worse than the DMV.

Imagine you are me. You are in a building like the DMV.  But it’s three times as packed, there is no air conditioning, and its a hundred degrees outside. Unlike most of the poor foreign saps here, you’ve got a guide. But he doesn’t speak English, and is kind of scared of you because your boss seems to have put the fear of God into him that he had to return with a renewed visa or heads were gonna roll. You can’t read most of the signs. And the few signs you can read don’t make any sense. There are lines you’re supposed to wait in, but really no one is waiting in any of the lines – people are just jockeying for a spot and shouting.

Oh and there’s dudes everywhere selling tea and nonalcoholic beer.

While I stood there like a dumb American, Ali (the guy from my office) heckled Dude #1, who told us to wait for Dude #2 who directed us to Dude #3 who stamped my passport with something and told us to come back in an hour to see Dude #1. An hour later we went back to Dude #1 but the guy wasn’t there. Ali, I think, thought he was going to lose his job and have to move back to Luxor or something, because he had an amazing take no prisoners attitude and started badgering other people asking where Dude #1 was. Before I know it, we’re marching down some hallway and busting into a break room with a trail of twenty people behind us. There is Dude #1, having his lunch.

Everyone is shouting for Dude #1 to do this or that for them. Dude was none too pleased to have his break interrupted by a hoard of pissed off people, but he signed my visa application, and we moved on to Dude # 2.

Can I stop here for a second and express the obvious? There is no reason this has to be this way. None. I refuse to believe that this is about Egypt being a poor country. I got a visa in Cuba… fucking CUBA! A real live socialist country! It was easier than this.


Interactions with Dude #2 involved a whole bunch of shouting in Arabic, plus some pushing of my visa back and forth between Ali and the guy. Then Ali took my passport and gave it to the dude, who, I kid you not, stuffed my visa application into it and threw it into a giant laundry sized basket with a couple hundred other passports. Just a big old pile of passports with lose papers sticking out of them. Then he says to us, “Come back tomorrow”.  Ali turns to me and says “Tomorrow, nine a.m., no problem.”

Yeah, right.

I figured – that’s it. No way is that thing ever coming out of that fucking building. Tomorrow, I’ll go back, they won’t be able to find my passport and I’ll just got straight to the US embassy and get a new one. But this morning, Ali and I returned and with only another twenty minutes of shouting and movement from one Dude to another, AND presto, they produce my passport from another giant basket of passports and done deal, I get to stay in Egypt.

That shit sucked though.

Postscript — The Mogamma was blockaded during the Tahrir square uprising, but to my knowledge, it is still the center and symbol of of Egyptian redtape. 

Review: Mafouz’s The Palace Walk

One among many reviews originally posted to livejournal.

Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1
Nagib Mafouz

The Palace Walk is wonderful novel.  In the translation published by the Everyman Library it is funny, biting and tragic with precise descriptions and deeply thought out characters. Though I haven’t read much of the great western popular novelists of the 19th century (meaning, Balzac, Dickens, etc) I get the impression that Mafouz was heavily influenced by them. This book is descriptive of setting and the psychological motives of the characters in a way that is totally out of fashion in today’s fiction. I ate up the long thought passages of the law student son in love with a neighbor he has barely seen, or the minute descriptions of the mother’s daily rituals. The characters slowly open to us through daily experience and then, without warning, a tragedy or celebration occurs. The pacing and writing make for a book that hits that sweet spot between well written and highly readable. Unlike so many serious modern authors, reading Mafouz is not work, but it isn’t candy like some of the other trash I have been reading lately.


People’s reactions to Mafouz while I lived in Cairo were interesting. First, they are surprised I have even heard of him. Then, they talk about the movies. In my experience, odds are they haven’t read him. While there, I heard Mafouz described as a national hero, and as anti-Islam. I have heard that he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, that he is the greatest Arabic novelist of all time and that he is boring. I can’t really speak to whether or not he exaggerates the traits of Egyptians, I imagine he does, but I do think he is one of the best novelists I have read.