Nawal El Saadawi: “My identity is not fixed”
Africa Writes has in the past hosted some formidable women writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ama Ata Aidoo, and with women’s writing featuring prominently this year, Saadawi will be reflecting on being a woman writer and on the challenges faced by women living in traditional societies.
While in Egypt, Saadawi took time out to answer some questions around identity, African women writers and translation.
At 84 years old, Saadawi is one of the Arab world’s most pre-eminent figures – having published 60 works of fiction and nonfiction in Arabic, which have been translated all over the world. Saadawi’s books have challenged the status quo of patriarchal, religious and capitalist power structures. Saadawi has been described as a courageous woman who carries on writing and questioning in spite of the odds, dangers and threats that may come with it. This rebellious side, which has always been there since childhood, is as she explains “the effect of the rebellious side of my mother and paternal grandmother, and also my father”.
This is evident in her writings, which have tackled topics such as female genital mutilation, sex work, violence against women and religious fundamentalism.
As a feminist writer and activist, Saadawi has had a strong influence on the feminist movement in Egypt, and helped to raise awareness around women’s rights globally; and in an era of increased activism against different forms of oppression, it should then come as no surprise that she is so revered – especially among young women and men.
While Saadawi’s writings have had an impact on different generations, she points out that they have had the greatest impact on young men and women in Egypt, and other countries, who often stop her in the street and say “Your books changed my life.”
As she goes on to explain, before and after the Egyptian revolution [January 2011], young women and men worked hard to organise what they call today, the “Nawal el Saadawi Forum”. This comprises monthly seminars where her books are discussed in detail.
For Saadawi, then, through these forums “the younger generations are creating a cultural revolution in Egypt”.
Saadawi may be one of the Arab world’s most profilic writers, but describing her solely as an Arab writer does not suffice – she is “critical of Identity Politics”, which is part of the colonial capitalist language and so-called “post-modern ideas”. Indeed, Saadawi finds “pure identity (or pure blood) to be racism to my mind. My identity is not fixed, it is not an iron jacket, but it is changing and is multiple and multiplying.
“I have mixed blood from Africa, Asia and Europe to Iceland; from Ancient Egyptian polytheism to Hindu philosophy to monotheistic religions. All people are mixed blood, the more mixed you are the better it is.”
Beyond critiquing the notion of a fixed identity, Saadawi also wonders: “Why we are forced to be read in English or French?” This is a particularly pertinent question considering the increasing discussion around translation – particularly works in Arabic, as well as putting traditional African languages into English and French, for instance.
For Saadawi, “the question of translation from Arabic (or other languages) to English or French is a big problem”.
It is one that is linked to the fact that “the colonial capitalist powers are mainly English or French speaking”.
As Saadawi says: “There are billions of people in Africa and Asia not speaking English or French.”
This is a problem Saadawi herself has experienced. “I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers,” she says.
“The translation problem is universal and is related to all creative writing. Why? Because creative writing has music in its language, and you cannot translate music without losing something.”