I don’t agree with everything Nawal el Saadawi has ever said or written (I don’t think there is anyone who I agree with 100% of time), but I read “Woman at Point Zero” (a fictional novel about an Egyptians woman) and “The Hidden Face of Eve” (the English version of her Arabic book about women in the Arab world) and have great respect for her abilities as a storyteller and a feminist – particularly as a feminist who is greatly concerned with the intersections of gender, culture, and class. I think she is fabulous, and at 80 she is still fabulous. In this video, she talks about different things, including her relationships now with Egyptian young people, how the revolution made her feel, how people in other countries can help Egypt, the Palestine/Israel conflict, a play she wrote, and more.
I banged out a transcript for this, and I hope it helps. She is a fabulous speaker, but the transcript sounds way more awkward than she is. In the transcript below, I highlighted the parts I find particularly interesting, with the caveat that does not imply agreement or uncritical support. I knocked out this transcript pretty rapidly, so if there are errors or your ability to make out what people are saying is more precise than mine, I would appreciate the help! I hope you enjoy the mischievous look on her face when she giggles as much as I do.
[TW: discussion of violence against protestors, harassment of women, church-burning, mentions of death]
(A group of young men stand in front of a graffitied wall. One of them plays the Oud. Text on screen: The Brecht Forum presents… The young men start singing, visual fades to a shot of Nawal el Saadawi smiling. Text on screen: Nawal el Saadawi, Egyptian novelist and revolutionary. Cuts back to young men singing anti-Mubarak sentiments, then back to Saadawi)
NS: Thank you very much for this very warm, encouraging introduction. I was about to collapse outside, I don’t know why, but I am really really exhausted, because we had a hard time, very hard time, and it is the revolution of the young. Why should I join them, I am very old. I am eighty years now, eight zero. (applause) But I feel young, you know, I feel young, and I am living with the young people all the time, all my life. In fact, those who read me, in Egypt, are the younger, the young generations, and they are with me all the time. They come to my home, men and women, and even men are more than women, yes, who read my work, and they come to me with their fiancee, with the girl whom they choose to marry, and he comes to me and say “I want to thank you, because you made me a liberated man, and I chose a free woman, so I want to thank you for your books.” So you see I become very happy that it’s not only women that were affected by my work, it’s men! And he comes to my home with his fiancee, and this is repeated all the time, and they are with me, with me, all the time. We meet regularly, in Cairo, after I came back from Atlanta in August two-oh-oh-nine, I am now in Egypt for good.
And we discuss many things, they called, they started a forum called Nawal el Saadawi forum, and they come to me the first Wednesday of every month, and my apartment is small, so they are so crowded, but they sit on the floor and I like that, I feel I have a big family. And when the revolution started on the twenty-five January, I had to the be there, you know. It’s natural, I felt. My daughter and my son, they told me “Don’t go, it’s so dangerous” but I went. It’s an impulse, you know, something natural that you cannot be at home while everybody’s outside. So I went with them, and since then I couldn’t leave them. In fact, the revolution is so infectious, it is like a virus, a strong virus, that affects you, and you become another person. In Tahrir Square, I felt I am young like them, I could fight a horse.
The day, I don’t forget that day, of Wednesday, second February, we call it the Bloody Wednesday. Mubarak sent his gangs on horses and camels, in the Tahrir Square, invaded the Tahrir Square, and we were crowded, so I was about to be knocked by a horse, so a young man carried me away. And many people were killed on that day. Many young people lost their eyes, because there were sneepers? (she looks to audience members, who provide the correct pronunciation) snipers, who pointed at the eye of the young man, and some were killed. But what happened, at the number, the many number of the, and their courage! They conquered the horses, and they captured the horses, and they captured the men on the horses, and they looked at their ID and they found that they were policemen disguised in civil clothes. But this is, was like a dream, you know. I didn’t feel the danger.
I don’t know whether you were in such a situation before. When you are in war, when you are in the front, in the battle, you don’t feel. You fight, you die, you don’t feel. So I was not feeling. And that night I stayed till midnight, because I didn’t want to leave them. I felt I belong here, this is where I belong. And I went home, because there was a curfew, there was no taxi, nothing, so one of the young men had a motorcycle. (Audience laughs and Saadawi’s face takes on a mischievous expression as she giggles) So I went home from Tahrir Square to Shubra, which is quite a long distance, on a motorcycle, but what happened, there were two men on the motorcycle. The driver, which I was hugging like that, and another young man volunteered to hold me from the back. So I was like a sandwich between the two young men (audience continues to laugh, as does Saadawi). And I went home, you know the streets of Cairo are horrible, not so smooth like here, and the motorcycle (she bounces her arms up and down), and I have a problem with my back. I have a prolapsed disc, they call it a writer’s disease. So you can imagine how I went home almost dead, you know. But next day in the morning I was there. You know, it’s like, it’s something I cannot describe, the happiness of being among people.
We are so isolated in our homes, in the four walls of the family, of the nuclear patriarchal class family. We are isolated in our, with our one or two children, in our husband, or no husband, but we are prisoners of the family, of the patriarchal family. But in Tahrir Square I felt I got rid of the family, of this nuclear family, and this is a new family, which is much better than the biological family. (applause)
So the happiness, this reminds me of writing a novel. You know, sometime they tell me “Nawal, how can you survive this life, your life?” I say because of the pleasure of writing. Also in revolution, the pleasure of the revolution. It erases all pain, all fatigue. You are not tired at all. Now, I am not tired. I was collapsing. Now I lost my fatigue, because I am talking to you. You know the energy of human beings is amazing, amazing, how you are dying in your home and suddenly you have another life, you become another person, younger. So the revolution really gave me another life, I became another person. I was writing a novel before the revolution. I stopped it. I couldn’t continue now, because I am another person. So I have to start again, a new novel, inspired by the revolution. So, I was asking, who was interviewing me, from, just (searches crowd) Yes, yes. I was asking her about why don’t the American people make a revolution? (applause) Yes, Why? Why Wiscon- yes, because I read about Wisconsin people union, because here there is poverty there is capitalism, there is suffering, working class people are suffering, women are suffering. Of course the suffering here may be less than in Egypt or in other countries, but still, this is a very patriarchal, capitalist society. And why people do not revolt? Because your revolt here, against your government, is the real support to us. People ask me here, “Nawal, how can we help you?” You help yourself! This will help us, this will help us. (applause) This will help us! Because the US government is a huge government, with a lot of power, [indistinct] power. They support Israel 100%. They use the veto in the UN to stop any rights to the Palestinian state. So, we need solidarity, we need global solidarity, solidarity between American people and Egyptian people, and people everywhere. And I am happy that every day there is a new country, new nation revolting. The revolution is like a virus everywhere.
So that’s the point I wanted to speak about, that we need that. And I am happy to talk, I talk now for 10 minutes, I think is enough, 10 minutes? (Another woman, presumably an organizer, says “I’m sure we can here you for a long time.”) I can stop maybe, anybody who would like to ask me questions, because I have to leave, after that. I will have your questions and then leave, because it would be very difficult for me to stay for one hour or so, because I have to take care a little bit, about my health. Tomorrow morning I will be up for other commitments. So I have to rest tonight. So I welcome any question or comment. Yes, somebody have to moderate…
Woman in audience: Would you assess the impact of President Obama’s speech in Cairo?
NS: No, I was in Atlanta in my exile, because maybe you heard about my play “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting?” I wrote a play in two…I wrote it, in fact, while I was in Duke University, in nineteen-ninety-something, and nobody wanted to publish it, at all. So I kept it in my home, in my papers, and when I went to Cairo, my publisher in Cairo wanted to publish all my work, collect all my work for the International Cairo Book Fair 2007, so during two-oh-oh-six he asked for all my books to republish them, to send them to the International Book Fair in Cairo that starts January 2007. So I gave him, I wrote forty, forty-seven books in Arabic, so I gave him the forty-seven books, and in between them I put secretly my play, “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.” (audience laughs, and Saadawi grins mischeivously) It was in my handwriting. It was not in a computer because at that time I write on the, in my hand. When I was in Duke, I used to write with my hand.
So, my publisher in fact, Mad Bouley [many apologies, I can’t find the name to spell it properly!], is illiterate, so he doesn’t read the books. Yes, he was a brilliant man, but he couldn’t read and write. And he loved books. He was creative, because creativity doesn’t need reading a lot. In fact, the less you read, the better. Anyway, so I put the play in between the books, so he took them all, and he wanted to publish the collected works of me, and to put it in the Book Fair. And he published the play, and the play, I don’t know, because it’s now in English, it was published in English in London, two years ago, who read it? It’s called “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting,” and it was published by SAQI Books, under the title The Dramatic Work of Nawal el Saadawi. And it contains Isis and God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.
Audience member: I love it. I read it in Arabic, actually.
NS: You read it in Arabic, oh! How, how? Ah please. (camera scans over to the speaker, whose face is obscured by light-colored hair.)
Audience member: I’m an American citizen. Originally I’m Palestinian. I came into the United States fifteen years ago. I’ve read all your books, you’re my idol. I love you [indistinct] Everything you said I agree with. I have a question. How can we convince people in United States that Palestinian, they’re the victim, not terrorist, we lost our country, we lost everything, but they still look at us like terrorist. [Something] I’m a victim, why they look at me like terrorist. How can we do for that?”
NS: Yes, I think something, it’s a shame – and that’s why I say we live in a jungle, a post-modern slave system. We live in a post-modern slave system. How can the world really accept what’s happening to the Palestinian people? How the United Nation, how – The United Nation issued how many resolutions against Israel? So that the Palestinian people have their rights, and just, this is ignored! And the US, the US support and use the veto. Just few months ago, US government used the veto against the Palestinians, what’s that? How can the Americ- why don’t you go in the streets in a revolution? Why? I think it’s very very strange. And then, one, Mubar…Obama, I mix, in fact, Obama, Barack Obama and Mubarak the same. (audience laughs and claps) I always mix Barack with Mubarak, you know. But anyway, when Obama speaks, I become nervous, or Hillary Clinton, because they speak about democracy. And tonight, in this women’s summit in the Millenium Hotel, I attended a session with Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, the two – horrible, horrible. (Laughter, indistinct commentary from audience) They were on stage, and somebody moderating them, and they were speaking about democracy. And I, I wanted to explode.
But in fact, I felt that I am out of place, out of place, people are very very rich, it is a contradiction, it’s different. So I was there, and then I came here, so…It is a world, two worlds, the Millenium Hotel Conference, and here, in Brecht Forum. Two classes, two worlds. And they are speaking, they are so comfortable, and I am so tired. They are so well-dressed, and I am like that, you know. (throws hands up) so I was out of place, and they were speaking nonsense, nonsense, about women issues separate from class, from invasion, from capitalism, from imperialism. As if women’s issues are just like that, in the air, you know. Something, ya, it’s very very strange. And then they opened for some questions, and the questions were more idiot [?] than the talks. Silly questions. So anyway, um, what I would like to say, going to your question, the Palestinian problem, the Palestianian – what happened to the Palestinian nation is, is a shame, to all of us. And also, speaking as an Egyptian, because we are 80 million. If the 80 million just to march, march to Israel and say something, we can do something. But, there are also big powers, the military, we would be controlled by it, so that and Mubarak, and also the US. Who supported Sadaat, who supported Mubarak? Who, it’s the US! Who is supporting the Saudi Arabia king?
Saudi Arabia is a horrible country. We call it the fifty-one state, the fifty-one American state, yes, Saudi Arabia. It works with the US all the time, against their people. And in fact the Saudi Arabian nation is revolting now. So, I hope I answered your question. But also the Palestinian people has to help themselves, because nobody liberate anybody, that’s my feeling. Nobody. Nobody liberate anybody. And this applies to women. We have to liberate ourselves, not our husbands or our sons. And also we should revolt, and they are revolting now, even against your government, against Mahmoud Abbas, this silly Mahmoud Abbas, what he is doing? You know, I’m sorry to say that, because, yes, because even Hamas, because you are exploited as a nation by your governments. And you are controlled so you cannot revolt. So we are all in the same boat. We are all tied up. Yes?
Fawzia Afzal Khan: Please stay. There are so many questions but we have to move with the program a little bit, so stay for a little bit. Yes, because you are energized now, and we have, Everybody ask Nawal to stay with us!
NS: No, I can’t. No, no I cannot, because I…
FAK: No, we understand.
NS: Can I tell them somebody has to take me?
FAK: Somebody will.
Audience member: Can you tell us what happened with women on May 8th? Marching on the International Women’s Day? Marching, International Women’s Day?
FAK: Nawal, please answer this one question.
NS: One question? One question and I will leave. I’m sorry, I wanted to stay all the night with you, but in fact, it’s physical. I cannot, I cannot continue, and you can understand, yes. Yes, what’s the last question?
FAK: What happened on March 8th?
NS: Ah, yes, to be brief, women were killed in Tahrir Square as men. Women did everything as men in the revolution, and then suddenly, after Mubarak left, the army came, and they established a committee which they called Committee to Reform the Constitution, not to change it.
Because our demand was to change the Constitution radically to be secular and to, that all Egyptians are equal in front of the law, etc. So they established a committee formed of eight men, eight old men, like me. And traditional and men of law only, as if the Constitution is something written to law only, it’s not a social contract or a way of life. So they were all men, and all limited to law, traditional, not a single woman, and not a single young man. So we revolted, men and women and young, and we said no, we should refuse this committee, we do not accept its work, and we must establish, or reestablish, the Egyptian Women’s Union, which was banned by Suzanne Mubarak. And we made many meetings, and we established the founding members of the Egyptian Women Union, and we decided to have a march on the 8th of March. And it went on, it was very good, but at the end, the gangs of Mubarak, and the men of the military and the government they invaded Tahrir Square, took some women and beaten them, put them in prison for one day or so, and there was a lot of chaos, because they didn’t want women to go out, and also it was not women, because most of them were men. But, but the revolution is going on, because the more they use force, the more people come out.
So now we are, the revolution is continuing, they can’t stop it. No one can stop the revolution now, it’s a great revolution, nobody can abort it. Because they are powerful, they are united. And what’s very good that the women and the men are united, there is no conflict between men and women, there is no conflict between Christians and Muslims. And they burned a church so, during all the days of the revolution, not a single church was burned, not a single girl was harassed. They harassed the women after the march of, of the 8 of March, so now everything’s clear, and we discovered who was burning churches, who was harassing women, who was dividing, divide and rule, this was the philosophy, you know, they want to divide Egypt between Christians and Muslims, they want to create conflict all the time, but we discovered that and we will continue, and I hope that the American people will make a revolution and join us. Thank you very much. (She poses for a picture with the Palestinian woman who asked a question, and chats with the organizers as she puts her coat on and then leaves.)