The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Nawal Saadawi at PEN

Egyptian feminist author and activist Nawwal Saadawi spoke with writer and philosophy professor and critic Kwame Anthony Appia on the last night of this year's PEN festival. The account of Saadawi's talk will strike anyone who has met her as accurate--the author is moved by her considerable charm, and by respect for her obvious personal courage, but is also "put off by her lack of nuance." Here are a few excerpts:
Throughout the evening, El Saadawi spoke far more as an activist than as a writer. The courtly Appiah tried to draw her out about her early reading and beginnings as a writer — almost without result.


Perhaps feeling it kinder or more appropriate to address her as a political thinker than a novelist, Appiah avoided asking about her fiction but patiently tried to get her to admit that religion was not always a roadblock to social progress. What about Gandhi? he asked. What about Martin Luther King? What about the pacifism of the Quakers? But she would not be moved.

Saadawi is in a strange place where she is considered an icon of feminist resistance to oppression in the West, and a beyond-the-pale kook or crank in her own country. While government hostility, media campaigns and nasty lawsuits are greatly responsible for her marginalization in her home country, her own black-and-white views and unwillingness to engage with the realities (such as the religious beliefs) of Egyptian society have also had a role to play. (I'm not arguing that she shouldn't have the legal right to express any opinions she wants--just noting that she does not express them in very subtle or constructive ways). In the focus on her politics, her work usually isn't discussed, and in the West it isn't critiqued as it should be--some of her early books are interesting and daring, but much of what she's written since then is repetitive and heavy-handed.