Nawal El Saadawi is an internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist. Born outside Cairo, Egypt in 1931, she has published nearly 50 plays, novels and short story collections, translated into over 40 languages worldwide. Many of her works are taught in universities around the world.
While practising as a psychiatrist in the 1970’s she had the opportunity while conducting research into the causes of women suffering from neurosis, to meet with a woman who had been imprisoned for killing a man, a woman who was due to be executed. The woman had refused to speak to anyone until that point, and she had also refused to sign an appeal by the prison Doctor to the President so that her sentence might be commuted to life imprisonment.
The idea of ‘prison’ had always exercised a special attraction for me. I often wondered what prison life was like, especially for women. Perhaps this was because I lived in a country where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences’. My husband had been imprisoned for thirteen years as a ‘political detainee’.
After days of refusal, just as El Saadawi was leaving the prison for the last time, the Doctor told her the woman had agreed to meet her. They spent as many hours as were left of that day together, the woman recounting her the story of her life that had led to that moment.
El Saadawi left at the end of that day, never to see her again. She would be executed by hanging, her story absorbed by El Saadawi who would eventually put it to paper, in this telling of Firdaus or Woman at Point Zero, originally published in 1973.
From her early days, Firdaus was a child who was noticed, though rarely looked out for, instances of cruelty and neglect made up the patchwork of her childhood. “Rescued” by an Uncle who’d already crossed filial boundaries, her one respite was to have been sent by him to school, his new wife further insisting she live there, perhaps the only paradisiacal period of her life, the one time she was left alone to flourish, to evolve, gaining her secondary school certificate, her sole prized possession.
Finding no place for her in her Uncle’s home on leaving school, still a teenager she is forced to marry the more than 60-year-old Uncle of her Aunt, eventually runs from him and is taken in by another only to suffer worse abuse, a fate she seems destined to continue to live through until she meets Sharifa, who takes her in and teaches her how to recognise and extract her value, a turning point in her awareness which will change her fate.
‘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 realises you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’
She would learn the value of her flesh, of her person and how to ensure she was rewarded for it, she would find a measure of independence, and wished never to be beholden to man. She became an employee and discovered a world where women were held in even lower esteem, in many ways more a slave than a prostitute.
At various moments in her life, she experienced a feeling that might have been love, experienced like a poetic symptom, ‘two circles of intense black surrounded by two rings of pure white, expanding before my eyes’ but each time it fades to illusion, leaving a dark shadow on her heart.
But I expected something from love. With love I began to imagine I had become a human being…In love, I gave all: my capabilities, my efforts, my feelings, my deepest emotions. Like a saint, I gave everything I had without ever counting the cost. I wanted nothing, nothing at all, except perhaps one thing. To be saved through love from it all. To find myself again, to recover the self I had lost.To become a human being who was not looked upon with scorn, or despised, but respected, and cherished and made to feel whole.
Her story and those moments are narrated in spell-binding, lyrical prose with a compassionate sensitivity that underpins a tale of one woman’s life long oppression and desire to lift herself out of it, to put a stop to the cause of that injustice, to face the truth without fear, which she ultimately did so, through her fearlessness of death, in her absolute refusal to live.
Highly Recommended, a must read.