Last week I went to an interview with a writer who I’d never heard of. And now I can’t stop thinking about her, which of her books I should read, and the link between George Bush and female circumcision. The talk was part of PEN International’s Free the Word! festival at the South Bank in London. The author is Nawal El Saadawi, and she’s 79 with bright white hair, a wicked smile, and eyes that sparkle trouble.
She was born one of eight brothers and sisters in a small town near Cairo. She trained as a doctor and worked as a psychiatrist, was director general for public health for the Egyptian government, has two children, is on her third husband (she’s been married to the latest for 45 years), she’s been imprisoned, run for Egyptian President, and been put on a fundamentalist death list. Oh yes, and written nearly 50 novels, plays, and collections of short stories that deal with the rights of women in Egypt and across the world, and the fight for social equality.
Lisa Appignanesi, the President of English PEN, introduced El Saadawi as a “formidable woman,” but I thought of her as more amazing than formidable. When she started talking I forgot about her intimidating and brilliant CV, and just loved listening to her tell her stories.
Many of her views were formed partly by her medical training. She said one of the positive things about medical school, “was being faced with a dead body in the dissecting room” because, “It’s a good thing for writers and artists to know about death.” Working as a doctor held her in good stead for her writing because, “meeting sick people gave me a lot of stories.”
El Saadawi was circumcised when she was six, but it was while she worked as a doctor that she saw just how much damage female circumcision could cause. She campaigned and wrote against it for 50 years, when it was a taboo subject, and writing about anything to do with sex was extremely radical. Egypt banned female circumcision in 2008.
Her books cover difficult subjects such as domestic violence and prostitution. Her political views have led to various publications she worked on being closed down, her losing jobs, and even being imprisoned. She just keeps writing though. And it seems her daughter, a poet, has also caused controversy with an article she wrote on Mother’s Day and signed off with El Saadawi’s name – honouring El Saadawi by carrying her name. The daughter was taken to court because the Qur’an says women should take only their father’s name. She won the case, but it made me think that if this was fuss caused today by using your mother’s name, imagine the stick El Saadawi must have taken when she first wrote about female genital mutilation.
As I said, I’m still left trying to remember how she held George Bush responsible for female circumcision – she gave a lecture on the subject in New York – and wondering which of her novels I should read.
Sally Carter is a technical editor, BMJ