A conversation with Nawal El Saadawi, activist, feminist, writer, doctor. She is the author of forty-seven books, including Women and Sex, Memoirs From the Women’s Prison, and God Dies by the Nile. Seventy-nine years old, she is one of the most outspoken agitators for women’s rights in Egypt.
Nawal El Saadawi: I am very angry today. Look at this silly magazine: they have misquoted me. It reads, “I am bigger than the president.” Who am I to say I am bigger than the president? Though, I admit, I do think that novelists are more important than politicians. No one knows who the president was during Virginia Woolf ’s time. Do they? Do you? This is a conspiracy or ignorance. I will call the editor of the magazine or write about it in my column in Al Masry Al Youm. I read the newspapers in the evening, because it spoils my mood. I must save the mornings to write.
Bidoun: The doorman asked me about you when i came up.
NS: What did he want to know?
B: He wanted to know why i was going up to see you. He said you have afkar moayena [particular beliefs]. He asked me what i thought about your particular beliefs, and if i shared them.
NS: They like to say Nawal El Saadawi loves absolute freedom. I’ve faced the Hezba law four times. Can you believe it? The state has taken my nationality, put me in prison, divorced me from my husband, and tried to kill me! What more can they do?
B: Why are they so sensitive to you, do you think?
NS: I think Suzanne Mubarak in particular tried to bury my name in history. She banned everything I did, including the Egyptian Women’s Union. We tried to establish it several times, and every time she banned it. Suzanne Mubarak wanted to win the Nobel Prize and to be known as the leader of the women’s movement in Egypt, and that is why she tried to bury the name of Nawal El Saadawi. I have forty-seven books in Arabic and they are in almost every home in the Arab world. Even the young people who started the revolution in Tahrir Square read my books… Suzanne Mubarak did not like my influence, and she certainly did not want a strong woman like me making a mark in history. She wanted to distort my image. So she and her husband and the system used the Hezba law.
You know, there is no difference between Sadat, Mubarak, Bin Laden, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat and the people who killed him were twins. Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are also twins. Many of my books were banned under Mubarak, and I was forced to publish them in Lebanon. Even my last novel, Zeena, was published in Lebanon.
B: Has anything substantive changed after January 25?
NS: The revolution came and we were very happy, but I believe nothing has changed. I am still censored on the television, for example. All the writers and journalists who are writing in the big newspapers are the same. They are Mubarak people! When you read Al-Ahram today or even Al Masry Al Youm, they have the same mentality: patriarchal, capitalist, classist. They are against women, against the poor. They are also hypocrites. They say they are with the poor, and they are not. They say they are not with the fundamentalists, but they are.
They even want to bring Mubarak back again; they want to forgive him. The army and the government plan to divide and rule, with the true power in America and Israel. You cannot exclude the external powers from this story. And they want to buy the young people, like Wael Ghonim! Or like Ayman Nour. Who is this man? He has no history. Or like Naguib Sawiris. How could he run the country? How could a billionaire run the country?
B: Is there any opposition you can believe in?
NS: I am going mad. There is no opposition. The political parties like Wafd, Tagammu, and the Nasserites, they are all working together. It seems that I am the only one who is outside of all that mess. Do you feel that? Do you agree with me?
I am with the young people but the young people are divided. I read yesterday that Wael Ghonim is writing a book about the revolution and taking two million dollars as a fee! I am the one writing for forty years and translated into so many languages!
B: What else are you angry about?
NS: Many things. When I was in Atlanta and a visiting professor the last three years, from 2007 to 2009, some journalists wrote something about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, and they put an image of Suzanne Mubarak in the New York Times. Some of my friends who have followed my work about FGM for forty years wrote to the newspaper and told them they were mistaken. They said, “How could you make a big page about FGM in Egypt and not mention the name of Nawal El Saadawi and instead include the picture of Suzanne Mubarak?” They didn’t publish their complaints or correct or even take one sentence from my work. You see, the New York Times censors me. Except when you have a writer called Nicholas Kristof. I was walking in Tahrir Square, and I met him by coincidence during the revolution. That was the first time that my name was mentioned in the New York Times by a writer. Same with CNN! Same with the mainstream American media. It is not different from Mubarak media. Now they are making Wael Ghonim the hero of the revolution.
B: Who made this revolution?
NS: Twenty million people were in Tahrir Square on February 11. The real revolution started after February 2, when the horses and the camels came. We were sitting in Tahrir Square, and suddenly horses and camels came in with weapons. I was about to be knocked over by a horse. Many people were killed in front of us, and bullets passed behind us. I was right in the middle of the square. We used to meet every day at the Omar Makram statue — you know the Omar Makram statue? We were a group of young men and women and we were moving toward this meeting point when the horses entered… and the camels. It was medieval; it was like a bad film. They passed like that [makes hand gesture], so the young people took me away, and they said, “We have to leave this place immediately.” The people were falling down around me and it was like a nightmare. This triggered the revolution. After this event of the camels and the horses, twenty million people came to Tahrir Square until Mubarak resigned on the 11th. So I cannot say who is responsible for the revolution. It is those twenty million people, of course, those people who showed up on the 25th — what do you call them? The Facebook people. They started it, they triggered it all. But who obliged Mubarak to step down was the twenty million.
B: Tell me about anxiety. Are you anxious?
NS: Today I am worried. I am not scared. I have immunity to fear. I am worried about the revolution. I feel that we are fighting big powers, America and Israel. And Saudi Arabia is paying billions of dollars to Salafists and fundamentalists so that we would say, “Oh, Mubarak, we need you.” It is all planned to bring the old regime back. Everyone is talking about the insecurity… Oh, the insecurity, the insecurity, we need security so that the business people will come and the foreign capital will come.
But we are not beggars to take US aid. We need to produce our own food. We need agricultural production, intellectual production. We have millions of young people ready to work, but no one wants them to work! We import ful medames from California. I eat ful from California! We import bread from California. And wheat. The textile factories — the best textile factories were closed for the benefit of what they call the free market. This is colonialism. We drink Israeli beer. They are replacing Egyptian production with American-Israeli production.
And the fruits! We once had the best fruits. Now the vegetables and fruits have no taste. None. I cannot eat a simple salad! I am worried. I have been fighting since King Farouk. And I am still censored by the media. Why does the media continue to try to make me quiet?
This is what makes people say I have afkar moayena. Like the doorman downstairs, or that stupid magazine. I don’t care. I am eighty years old. I have been struggling since I was ten. Since I was a child I have dreamed of this revolution. I am disgusted. We don’t have good lawyers and judges who can be really fair. The judges will be against me in the end. Because they are religious and with the mainstream.
B: How much further must we take this revolution?
NS: We should be in the street all the time. We have won the first phase only. Now we have gone back home and we are divided. We should have continued. They divided the revolution. Each party took a group and said, “This is the revolution.” They bribed them. They put them on the CNN, took them to New York, and gave them two million dollars!
There are more than fifteen hundred people who lost one or both of their eyes. No one wrote about them. They do not have the money for medical treatment. No one remembered them. They were here in the nearby hospital, they were here, I used to pass by them. The police of Mubarak pointed at their eyes. They wanted the young people to be blind. The rubber bullet was pointed directly at the eye… and that is why in the statistics they say fifteen hundred lost an eye, but I think it is much more. It is symbolic; they don’t want to kill them, they want them to be blind.
Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei: All the political parties represent the same thing. We have to depend on the millions again.
B: Tell me about dreams.
NS: During the eighteen days in Tahrir, I was remembering when I was a child. I used to close my eyes and hear the millions chanting, “Noorid esqat el nezam.” We demand the fall of the regime. This was my slogan when I was a child! My dream was to change the system. When people asked me what I wanted, I said, “I want to change the system.” When I was a student in high school and also later in the faculty of medicine, I wanted to change the system. Now people ask me what my dream is and I say, “I want to change the system.” Maybe this is because I came from a poor family, or because I was a girl.
B: Tell me about jokes.
NS: I think there are beautiful jokes everywhere. Even in America. To get rid of frustration, humor is essential. You need creativity. Egyptians have a very creative nature. I think this is because of slavery. Egyptians have been oppressed since the Pharaohs. We were colonized because of the Nile. Egypt is a very strategic country and all colonizers came to Egypt, up to today. We were colonized, and that is why we are funny.