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.
The fact that El Saadawi chooses journalism, literary criticism and entertainment as the professions for her characters seems no mistake. It is difficult to escape the cult of media in our current society and it’s control over our perceptions. Oddly enough, the disdain that El Saadawi shows for literary critics is the profession she gives to two of the female characters in the novel. Mageeda hates the cache of her family name as well as her profession, which she considers “parasitic on real literature and art, like tapeworms living off the human body.” El Saadawai also gives Mageeda and Bodour short and thickset bodies and harangues the reader with their disgust and shame at their body shapes throughout the novel. The happiest character in the book, Zeina, is tall and slender and, as the entertainer, she captivates audiences wherever she goes. Although Zeina doesn’t give much thought to her appearance nor does she attempt make it more than what it is, her plain and simple appearance defies the expectation that to make herself up to be an object of beauty for men. Perhaps trying to impart upon the reader the depth and breadth of male influence on body image of women, El Saadawi aims to present Bodour’s and Mageeda’s self-loathing as a representation of the damage done. Yet she stops short of either character exploring this idea or overcoming it.
Along with the hatred of their own bodies, El Saadawi examines the effects of genital mutilation as a manifestation of society’s hatred of women’s bodies. Bodour suffered genital mutilation at an early age and “since the day she was born, she had been repressed and oppressed.” Bodour experiences shame at her own sexual feelings as well as resentment towards her husband who seeks physical satisfaction from prostitutes. Since the patriarchal society in Egypt teaches women to be shy and submissive to their husbands, disgraced by their own sexuality, the culture inherently builds a dynamic of infidelity into the institution of marriage. Clearly, Bodour and Zakariah al-Khartiti are an unhappy couple, but both are painted with such broad strokes, al-Khartiti is loathsome and Bodour falls into a role of victimization. Without the nuances of a complex relationship, it’s difficult to empathize with Bodour besides the obvious oppression she experiences due to her culture.
In the end, there is a sense of resolution, of hope, but the means of each character’s journey to get there is murky. The main character of Bodour’s novel—Badreya—is the person Bodour really longs to be. The narrative jumps frequently between Bodour and Mageeda’s childhood memories and the present day and since parts of the novel are told through dreams and scenes, determining storylines is a arduous task.
Also, even though Zeina’s name is the title of the novel, she is the character who El Saadawi treats almost as a goddess who manages to withstand rape and molestation without much thought and floats in and out of scenes as a dancing, singing phantom. As an adult, Zeina is not married nor does she fall prey to the overtures of forceful men. Her talent has freed her from the oppression that most women face on a daily basis.
As for the translation itself, one wonders the extent of the challenge and about the role of the translator. There are many repetitive descriptions, passages and clichéd phrases and it would need a bit of restraint to not alter the words of the author. Irrespective of the skill of Amira Nowaira as a translator, El Saadawi’s prose doesn’t lend itself well to highlight her competences.
With all the contributions that El Saadawi has made to her country and to the rights of women, her novelistic efforts is one of her many accomplished pursuits. The goal of Zeina is to raise the awareness of the unfair treatment of women in society. Although her novel may not represent her tireless devotion to the equality of women and the end of their oppression, her life does and that is enough.