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Posts Tagged ‘  Feminist Literature’

I discovered Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘ when some of my feminist friends organized a feminist literature reading festival a few years back. Nawal El Saadawi was the only author featured in the list, who was new to me. I made a mental note to read one of her books. I finally got around to reading this today.

Nawal El Saadawi says in her introduction to the book that ‘Woman at Point Zero’ is based on a real story. The story told in the book goes like this. The narrator is a psychiatrist who visits a prison to talk to some of the women prisoners and try to understand them and study their personalities. There is one prisoner called Firdaus, who she is fascinated with. Firdaus has been convicted of murder and is going to be executed soon. The narrator wants to meet Firdaus, but Firdaus doesn’t talk to anyone and refuses to see her. The narrator is disappointed, but keeps trying. One day her persistence pays off and Firdaus agrees to see her. Firdaus tells the narrator her story – how she struggled when she was a child because her parents treated her badly because she was a girl, how when they passed her uncle took her in, sent her to school and got her an education, and though she passed out of school with distinction and loved learning she couldn’t pursue studies and was married off to an old man, how her husband harassed her and treated her like a maid and a slave and how she escaped from his house, how she met kind strangers who helped her and took her in but soon revealed their true colours, how she was betrayed by one man after another and sometimes by a woman too (when Firdaus says – “The street was an endless expanse stretched out before my eyes like a sea. I was just a pebble thrown into it, battered by the waves, tossed here and there, rolling over and over to be abandoned somewhere on the shore” – it breaks our heart), how her fight for survival as a single woman in a conservative, patriarchal society forced her to become a prostitute, how that, surprisingly, gave her freedom and power and independence and status, how her lifelong harrowing experiences revealed to her some bitter truths about society and the way it is structured and the way it exploits women, how she ended up in the prison she is now in.

When I finished reading the book, I felt that I was close to drowning and came out of water in the last moment for a breath of air. Firdaus’ story is hard to read – it is dark, bleak, powerful and sinks us further and further into the abyss. Throughout the sinking, we hear Firdaus’ calm, brave voice narrating the story in a matter-of-fact way, slamming society and its evils clinically. Through Firdaus’ voice, Nawal El Saadawi offers deep and insightful commentary on the human condition and on how society has treated women across the ages. It is powerful and stirring. It makes us angry, it makes us sad, it gives us goosebumps, it makes us bitter, it makes us ponder on how to change things. When the story ended and I read this passage in the final pages –

“I saw her walk out with them. I never saw her again. But her voice continued to echo in my ears, vibrating in my head, in the cell, in the prison, in the streets, in the whole world, shaking everything, spreading fear wherever it went, the fear of the truth which kills, the power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as the child that has not yet learnt to lie. And because the world was full of lies, she had to pay the price.”

– it was heartbreaking and made me cry.

I loved ‘Woman at Point Zero‘. It is a brilliant book. Firdaus is one of the great literary heroines and this book is one of the great feminist novels. Nawal El Saadawi is one of the great feminists of the twentieth century and it is a shame that she is not more well known internationally. I wish more readers read this book and give it the love it deserves. It is inspiring, stirring stuff. I can’t wait to read more of Nawal El Saadawi’s works.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

A Distant Feeling

“I held her eyes in mind, took her hand in mine. The feeling of our hands touching was strange, sudden. It was a feeling that made my body tremble with a deep distant pleasure, more distant than the age of my remembered life, deeper than the consciousness I had carried with me throughout. I could feel it somewhere, like a part of my being which had been born with me when I was born, but had not grown with me when I had grown, like a part of my being that I had once known, but left behind when I was born. A cloudy awareness of something that could have been, and yet was never lived.”

The Joy of Freedom

“It was midnight and the streets were quiet. A gentle breeze was beckoning softly from the Nile. I walked along, enjoying the peace of the night. I no longer felt any pain. Everything around seemed to fill me with tranquillity. The gentle breeze caressing my face, the empty streets, and the rows of closed windows and doors, the feeling of being rejected by people and at the same time being able to reject them, the estrangement from everything, even the earth, and the sky and the trees. I was like a woman walking through an enchanted world to which she does not belong. She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it. She experiences the rare pleasure of having no ties with anyone, of having broken with everything, of having cut all relations with the world around her, of being completely independent and living her independence completely, of enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage, or to love; of being divorced from all limitations whether rooted in rules and laws in time or in the universe…She no longer hopes for anything or desires anything. She no longer fears anything, for everything which can hurt her she has already undergone.”

Becoming Free

“I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedom I enjoy fills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more.”

The Nature of Truth

“I am speaking the truth now without any difficulty. For the truth is always easy and simple. And in its simplicity lies a savage power. I only arrived at the savage, primitive truths of life after years of struggle. For it is only very rarely that people can arrive at the simple, but awesome and powerful truths of life after only a few years. And to have arrived at the truth means that one no longer fears death. For death and truth are similar in that they both require a great courage if one wishes to face them. And truth is like death in that it kills. When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or hunger, or nakedness, or destruction. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”

On Men

“I became aware of the fact that I hated men, but for long years had hidden this secret carefully. The men I hated most of all were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading. I used to hate them more than the others because they thought they were better than I was and could help me change my life. They saw themselves in some kind of chivalrous role – a role they had failed to play under other circumstances. They wanted to feel noble and elevated by reminding me of the fact that I was low. They were saying to themselves:
‘See how wonderful I am. I’m trying to lift her out of the mud before it’s too late, that slut of a woman.’
I refused to give them a chance to play this role. None of them was there to rescue me when I was married to a man who beat me up and kicked me every day. And not one of them came to my help when my heart was broken because I had dared to fall in love. A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off. I was able to convince myself that I had chosen this life of my own free will. The fact that I rejected their noble attempts to save me, my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and that I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”

Conversation between Firdaus and Sharifa

‘Who are you?’
And she replied, ‘Your mother.’
‘My mother died many years ago.’
‘Then your sister.’
‘I have neither sister, nor brother. They all died when they were small, like chicks.’
‘Everybody has to die, Firdaus. I will die, and you will die.The important thing is how to live until you die.’
‘How is it possible to live? Life is so hard.’
‘You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’
‘But you are not hard, Sharifa, so how do you manage to live?’
‘I am hard, terribly hard, Firdaus.’
‘No, you are gentle, and soft.’
‘My skin is soft, but my heart is cruel, and my bite deadly.’
‘Like a snake?’
‘Yes, exactly like a snake. Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realizes you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’

Have you read Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘? What do you think about it?

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