The Hidden Face of Nawal El Saadawi

There was always an aspect of the towering Egyptian novelist’s work that audiences could not face

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The Hidden Face of Nawal El Saadawi
Portrait of Nawal El Saadawi in her home on September 30, 2015 in Cairo, Egypt/David Degner/Getty Images

When you write about a writer, you should start with their words. A representative quote; a provocative sentence. One of the gifts of social media, even at a time of sadness, is that you can see, in real time, which words people found most affecting.

“They said, ‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”

When it was announced on Sunday that Nawal El Saadawi, one of the Arab world’s most celebrated authors, had passed away at the age of 89, social media shared that quote more than any other, from her first book, the 1975 novel “Woman at Point Zero.”

Social media users also shared their thoughts on her writing and views — and there a divergence became apparent. In English, her views on feminism were highlighted; in Arabic, her views on religion.

A rough comparison, perhaps, but one that points to a deeper truth about Nawal El Saadawi, a woman who had been writing and speaking for more than half a century: Her work meant different things to different audiences.

As much as El Saadawi was celebrated at home and abroad, and for so many decades, she was also as much misunderstood and marginalized.

Both her Arab and Western audiences compartmentalized her criticisms, highlighting those that suited them and downplaying others. There was always an aspect of El Saadawi’s work that audiences could not face.

The hardest thing about the words El Saadawi wrote was also what she considered to be the hardest thing about being a woman: to simply exist in the world, on her own terms.

All writers send their words out into the world and cannot know how they will be received. Audiences hear what they want to hear; they read what they expect to read. These expectations can rapidly become walls, trapping the writer as much as the audience.

For El Saadawi, her work — and she herself — were always labeled, in the West and the Middle East.

When the translations of her work first received prominence in the West in the early 1980s, she was known as an opponent of female genital mutilation. As time went on, she became the voice of Arab women, an outspoken, secular-minded Egyptian who undermined the prejudices of Western audiences of what an Arab woman should sound like and speak about. They thought she was a feminist, bringing “Western” ideas to the Arab world.

But as El Saadawi herself was at pains to point out, she wasn’t bringing Western ideas to the region at all. Instead, she was exporting her criticism to a West that badly needed it. Feminism, as she said, wasn’t a Western construct, any more than patriarchy was. For El Saadawi, men had erected this edifice of patriarchy across the world; it would be unusual if it could be torn down only by the women of one region.

In the Middle East, too, she was labeled. She was called unpatriotic for her criticism of Arab and Egyptian leaders. She was called anti-religious for her stance on the hijab and for criticizing the rituals of faith. But her criticism of America’s wars in the region were perfectly palatable to the authorities.

El Saadawi had the mark of a true intellectual, willing to take ideas to extreme lengths, courting neither political favor nor public opinion. She railed at the sham democracies of the Middle East — but also the imposture at the heart of Western democracies. She criticized female genital mutilation — but argued the West had also excised the clitoris from Western women through education and culture.

At every turn, her criticism was greater than most of her audience could stomach.

The patriarchy was only part of the problem, she said; class and imperialism had to be interrogated and dismantled as well. She criticized former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat not merely for jailing his critics but for managing America’s post-imperial hegemony in the Middle East.

Poverty in Egypt wasn’t only the result of the greed of elites, she argued, but the inevitable end point of capitalism, which demonstrated that the system needed to be torn down and replaced with socialism.

But such extremes were always taboo for some audiences. Always, there was a face of El Saadawi’s work that had to be hidden.

These were boxes that we, as an audience, created for her; she did not inhabit them.

El Saadawi was a writer beyond our prejudices, above them. If Western audiences wished she would shut up about imperialism and just focus on religion, and Arab audiences wished she would just focus on imperialism and shut up about religion, well, El Saadawi would always disappoint. Determined to follow her ideas wherever they led — and they led to prison, exile, and death threats — she wasn’t merely dangerous to her critics; she was subversive to her fans.

She transcended the walls others sought to build around her. Arab, African, woman; outspoken, dangerous, subversive. In a publishing industry that still compartmentalizes female writing and marginalizes non-Western voices, she defied the expectations of the male and the Western gaze.

El Saadawi wasn’t merely a writer for one country or one region or even one gender: She was a writer for all time, that rarest of things in a world that tilts toward the English language, a universal writer of color.

Her critics liked to tar her with words reserved for women who step out of line: dangerous, difficult, angry. She embraced those labels. “I should be more outspoken, I should be more aggressive, because the world is becoming more aggressive, and we need people to speak loudly against injustices,” she said. But in person she was nothing like that.

When I interviewed her six years ago, she was obliging and inquisitive, more interested in the interviewer than in being interviewed. She was approachable, so much so that filming the interview was repeatedly delayed as people, always young women, rushed up to talk to her. They gazed at her with awe, and she, half a century older, was patient with their fumbled inquiries, always quick, I noticed, to lay a comforting hand on theirs.

I never saw her speak without a standing-room only crowd: always young, always mostly women, always including audiences of color. If other writers who spoke on the region most often addressed those beyond it, she did not. She always spoke directly to the crowd in the room in direct, amusing language. That always struck me about El Saadawi, her sense of fun: She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. I think she knew what she meant to her fans; they invested in her the responsibility to speak truth to power , but she wore it lightly, although she spoke of subjects of life and death.

The audiences she loved most were young people, and they loved her in return. She had genuine affection for the Middle East and its people. El Saadawi agreed to let me produce a film about her, and it was essential that I found a woman from the region to direct it. (The film never got made, and it remains a bitter regret.) She felt young people protected her. “The government is afraid of the young,” she told an interviewer once, “and they won’t touch me because they know I have the power of the young people behind me.”

Her passing elicited an explosion of anecdotes, stories, and photographs on social media from people who had interacted with her over the decades. It’s remarkable how often she was smiling. Still, her words were forceful. She spoke, in her own words, a truth that was savage and dangerous.

But her words weren’t dangerous because of what she was saying; they were dangerous because of what we were hearing. Her opposition wasn’t merely to the dominant social norms of Egypt or the Arab world; she wasn’t opposed to one country or one religion or one empire. Hers was a determined criticism of all forms of oppression that she saw in the world around her.

El Saadawi’s experience may have been formed as an Egyptian woman born in the 20th century, but her critique was far bigger, a damning of the very structures that uphold modern societies. As an audience, we read her and heard her through the narrow prisms of our local politics, when in fact she was calling us to understand the full spectrum of her ideas.

It turns out the walls we were building around her words were trapping us more than her. As an audience, we were so invested in parts of the edifice of the modern world — politics, society, economics, gender, faith — that we could only accept limited critiques. We couldn’t bear to look at all that Nawal El Saadawi was trying to show us. We had to keep half of her face hidden.

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