Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Eye of Ra

God Dies By The Nile by Nawal el-Saadawi

Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.

“Nawal el-Saadawi,” writes Katherine Roth, in a piece for the on-line journal, The Best of Habibi, “is perhaps the best loved, most hated, and best known feminist in the Arab world.” Indeed El-Saadawi is like a latter-day Eye of Ra in the might and violence with which she (and this novel’s protagonist) confronts and subdues her enemies—those bloated, hypocritical, essentially male defilers of ordinary people and their homes who continue, Quran in hand, to define the fate of Egyptian girls and women to this day.

An ardent political and social activist, as well as an accomplished physician who has devoted much of her career to serving the rural poor, El-Saadawi is also a writer—an intellectual and artist who has committed much of her power to writing fiction as a means of speaking her mind. For it is through her novels, in their unflinching portrayal of the oppressed and often wretched lives of ordinary Egyptians, that she truly makes her mark, an authority perhaps nowhere more apparent, nowhere more affecting, than in her still-startling 1974 novel, God Dies by the Nile.     

Set in the fictional Nile village of Kafr El Teen, sometime in the long and unstable period between Egyptian independence from British control (1922) and the 1952 Revolution, led by the Free Officers Movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser (though distinctly the story has the timelessness of allegory, of myth) this provocatively titled novel tells the simple, if bracing tale of a widowed peasant woman, Zakeya, and her helpless struggle to protect her beautiful young nieces from the ruthless predation of the local mayor. The world of Zakeya is a grim, fatalistic world in which the rich and pious exploit the poor, and the men (be they rich or poor) exploit the women and girls—and all in the name of Allah, of God. 

In fact the lives of the women in this tale are all but entirely circumscribed by the whims and pleasures of men whose misogyny thrives in direct proportion to their piety and power. While there is no doubt that the routine tyranny, harassment, mutilation, and rape suffered by the women and girls in this story are an Egyptian, Muslim problem, a religio-cultural oppression decried again and again (and often smugly) in the popular Western press, it would be a shallow reading of this novel indeed if one were to close the book and not think long and hard about the different, if still pernicious effects of patriarchy and poverty here in the U.S. 

For the wonder of a novel like God Dies by the Nile lies not simply in its ability to show us the lives of others (that alone would be voyeurism, tourism), but also in its power to move us—men and women alike—to consider with fresh eyes the very terms by which we live and relate to each other, to examine daily all we hold “righteous” and “natural” and “true.” Grim as it is, this novel is much more than a catalogue of cruelties, for great fiction is always—indeed necessarily—redemptive. For a writer, a feminist, like El-Saadawi, merely describing the status quo could never be enough.

Nawal el-Saadawi, like her protagonist, Zakeya, was born on the banks of the Nile. As a young woman she refused to accept the limitations that both religious and colonial oppression imposed on most rural women, qualifying as a doctor, only to be awarded the post of Director of Public health before she was dismissed for writing Woman and Sex. Undeterred by this experience, the banning of her books, and even a period in detention under Sadat, she continues to write about Arab women’s problems and their struggles for liberation. (Thanks in part to Zed Books Ltd.) God Does by the Nile was translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

Peter Adam Nash

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