Literary Postcard – Dissident Writer Nawal El Saadawi Sparkles At Kwani
By Khainga O’ Okwemba, 20 December 2012
In April 2010, Nawal El Saadawi, the celebrated Egyptian writer and dissident, was invited as a guest speaker at the PEN International Free the Word: A Celebration of World Literature Festival, in London.
As part of the activity, Nawal recorded the now famous conversation with her daughter, Mona Helmy, the well known poet, journalist and human rights activist, which she translated from Arabic into English.
In the conversation, the daughter tells the mother, “I began writing very early. I never showed my writing to you, though. You gave me a lot of freedom, but I felt you would be shocked by what I wrote!”
To which the mother responds, “Well, you are 25 years younger than I am. You belong to a new time and place, and as such you bring new ideas to the fore. If the new does not shock the old, it is not new enough.” Here, the grand old lady of letters comes across as sharp, witty and provocative.
Nawal El Saadawi is the acclaimed Egyptian writer, and one of the most widely translated (30 languages) female authors from the continent with over 45 published books. Among her oeuvre you will find Woman and Sex, Woman at Point Zero, God Dies by the Nile, Zina: The Stolen Novel, The Fall of the Imam in Cairo, God Resigns at the Summit Meeting, The Naked Face of Women, which was published under the title, The Hidden Face of Eve. Nawal has been imprisoned, exiled, denied Egyptian nationality, blacklisted by fundamentalist groups for murder, and her books banned in Egypt.
When I caught up with her at the Kwani Literary Festival in Nairobi last week, we had a truly interesting and illuminating discussion. “Many writers are afraid to touch on taboos – certain topics – so they prefer treading in comfort zones; they choose to write on safe subjects. I tell you, not every writer is creative, a creative mind must be critical,” she said. Writing in this column sometimes back, we said that if you carry a pen that does not scare anyone, then you have not earned the title of writer!
To those who want to join the profession hear: “A writer must be prepared to be ceased of a job, to be denied opportunities, and to go to jail.” Nawal might not be a consumer of our dailies, yet this was a swipe at writers and academics known to carry favour with the powers that be.
We have see how university lecturers are now knocking themselves silly, scrambling to catch the eye of presidential contenders with their skewed and distorted analysis.
The role of the public intellectual was articulated by Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his book, Representation of the Intellectual. Said avers that the intellectual should embody the principle of non-conformism, opposition and rebellion.
What do you mean by saying that you teach a course on creative writing, dissidence, and revolution, I am curious to know. And I add as an afterthought, I wonder if Kenyan universities can incorporate such a course in the syllabus! “You cannot be a good writer if you do not understand politics and economics.” Nawal El Saadawi is dangerous to capitalism and its Western apparatchiks, as she is to African governments, and their mandarins. As a medical doctor, Nawal is one of the most vociferous voices against circumcision, female and male because “you cannot separate sexual orientation from politics.”
She is a subversive writer: “Everywhere I go I am asked who I am; am I Egyptian, Arab, Muslim, or African? In other words, what is my identity?
Identity is a post-modern intellectual idea that has been forced on us. It is an old neo-colonial idea that is used to divide people by nationality, religion, gender, class, profession, work. Identity is not inherited as advocates of cultural relativism tell us.
I am what I do — I am what I write—I am a freedom fighter — I am a fighter for justice and dignity. Cultural relativism is what is used to justify FGM because you have to respect the authentic culture.
This is rubbish!” Ancient Egypt was a matriarchal society. FGM needs to be understood within the context of its vanquishing and replacement by the patriarchy.
Kwani MD Angela Wacuka, managing editor Bill Kahora, associate editor Kate Haines, founder Binyavanga Wainaina, and chairman Tom Maliti, bringing such a phenomenon name in the world of literature, is great, though I overheard some people say that, such an event should also be used to celebrate Kenyan writers and present their work to the outside world.
Khainga O’Okwemba is the President of PEN Kenya