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.

Review: Shaawari’s Harem Years

Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924
Huda Shaarawi

Huda Shaarawi lead a pretty fucking amazing life. She started out life in the harem* of her father, and ended it being a feminist and a nationalist hero. This isn’t a particularly well written book, but when you lead a life that was intertwined with so many world events, your memoir doesn’t have to be well written to be engaging.

I could recount the narrative here for you, how she got an education in the harem from other women, how the harem wasn’t only a place of repression but was also a place of empowerment, how she was interested in European culture from an early age** but really you should just read it for yourself. The lives of incredible women like Shaarwi deserve far more attention than they generally get.

Huda Shaarwi

*We’re talking about the turn of the century, and yes there were still Harems
** If there isn’t a book out there about the relationships between early nationalist voices and the arts and culture of the colonial powers, there ought to be

Reading Egypt

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.

Review: Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire

One of many posts originally written for a now long dead livejournal account.

Palace of Desire: The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 2
Nagib Mafouz

Palace of Desire is slower than the Palace Walk. The chapters are longer, as if the pace of the novel reflected the pace of mid-life. Major event continue to sneak up on us, and like in Palace Walk, we’re caught totally unaware when a major tragedy befalls the family. In this volume the characters Mafouz created in the first volume grow up and start to get old. Some of the characters are almost cartoons meeting each new event with exactly the same response, while others are changing and developing in way we don’t expect.

It’s a great book, Mafouz is a great writer. If you liked Palace of Desire, you’ll be pleased with this one.


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.