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Latest Review: "Zeina" by Nawal El Saadawi

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Nawal El Saadawi’s Zeina, which is available from Saqi Books in Amira Nowaira’s translation.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, and runs the wonderful Saloncia World Literature. She lives in L.A., and you can read all of her Three Percent reviews by clicking here.

As Monica alludes to in her review, El Saadawi is an incredibly important figure (see her Wikipedia entry) who is not just a writer, but also a psychiatrist and activist. She’s been jailed for her views, and fled to the U.S. at one point to avoid harassment and political prosecution. She’s taught at Duke University and the University of Washington in Seattle, and is probably most well known among English readers for her novel Woman at Point Zero.

Monica’s not completely sold on this new novel, and it sounds like it runs into some of the trappings that come with writing an explicitly political novel.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In terms of contemporary Egyptian history, there is no doubt of Nawal El Saadawi’s positive impact on the rights of women in Egyptian society as well as her impact on the human rights movement in general. She has been imprisoned for her beliefs and forced to flee her country due to threats from Islamists. As an accomplished medical doctor and a high profile political figure in Egypt, not only has she cast a light on the various forms of oppression plaguing Egyptian women, but also her reach can be felt worldwide in terms of establishing the basic tenets for feminism. Throughout the years, she has written works ranging from stories to memoir with significant success.

In her latest work, Zeina, El Saadawi weaves her beliefs into a story of two women, Bodour and Zeina, who are forced to confront the patriarchal oppression of the society in different ways. Though this is a noble aim, the danger with writing novels that are tethered so strongly to a belief is that the story usually suffers. This is the case with El Saadawai’s novel.

Bodour is a prominent literary critic imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. But before her marriage, during her university years, she fell in love with a political activist, Nessim. After a night of illicit passion, Nessim is taken away as a political prisoner and later Bodour discovers that she is pregnant; she has the baby and abandons it. The child, named Zeina Bint Zeinat, is destined to live life on the streets. Bodour marries Zakariak al-Khartiti, an ambitious journalist. Zakariah and Bodour establish successful careers and they give birth to a daughter, Mageeda. As life would have it, Zeina and Mageeda attend the same school and become best friends. Mageeda grows up to be a literary critic like her mother and Zeina grows up to be a famous singer and entertainer. Meanwhile, Bodour continues working on her novel, The Stolen Novel, which is really her attempt at self-understanding. The novel, strangely enough, is stolen. This novel comes to a close when Zeina ultimately becomes a symbol for the people during the revolution in Cairo and Bodour attempts to live the life she truly wants to live.

Click here to read the full piece.



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