28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jessica Cobb (whose internship at Open Letter just ended) has added a review of Iqbal Al-Qazwini’s Zubaida’s Window, which came out last year from The Feminist Press, translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira.

According to The Feminist Press, this novel the first in English by an Iraqi to focus on the 2003 invasion. Sounds like a very interesting book, in part because Al-Qazwini has led such an interesting life:

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

Click here for the full review.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

The imagery found in this novel is quite remarkable. As Zubaida, the main character, is continuously haunted on a daily basis, through daydreams, flashbacks and asides, she always snaps back to reality with the intoxication she receives from the images through the screen of her television set.

The country is burning in front of her now, and she doesn’t know the extent of the invisible flames. The screen exposes a limited blaze, but she knows that the fire outside the frame of the screen is greater. These are flames beyond Baghdad, extending to her room, kitchen, balcony, and moving on to the world.

Along with the intensified, singled out imagery, the explosiveness of the past and present recollections that Zubaida experiences, closely connects to the explosiveness and tragedy of every event that has led Iraq to its current situation. A downfall of this novel is that it is too descriptive with the mellow dramatic accounts of Zubaida’s present conditions. The stereotypical female is one who over dramatizes her feelings and is over emotional, which further limits her strength because reality is too hard for her to handle. Without a doubt, this novel demands expression and feeling, just not so overbearing.

It’s no surprise that Zubaida’s Window is part of the Feminist Press’s prestigious series of “Women Writing in the Middle East.” Joining Al-Qazwini on this list are some heavy hitters, including Assia Djebar, Huda Shaarawi, Alia Mamdouh and Shahrnush Parsipur. Zubaida’s Window is a notable addition to this series, a series that is one of the best sources for information about Middle Eastern women novelists avialable to English readers.

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