Monday, June 23, 2014

Walking Through Fire by Nawal El Saadawi

"The gist of the report was that Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, the medical doctor in charge of the health unit of Kafr Tahla, had exhibited a signal disrespect for the moral values and customs of our society and had incited women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam."

"'Inciting women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam.' This became the accusation that was levelled against me whenever I wrote or did anything to defend the rights of women against the injustices widespread in society. It followed me wherever I went, step by step...irrespective of who came to power..."

I read and loved A Daughter of Isis - Nawal El Saadawi's first memoir - as a graduate student. It covers her female ancestry, her childhood, her adolescence, and young adulthood. The insight it gives into Egypt, female genital mutilation, feminism, sexism, etc as she grows up and becomes a medical doctor, an activist, and a novelist; it is wonderful for an ignorant American reader like myself. 

I ordered The Later Years but pushed it to the bottom of my stack. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I had a craving for this book. I wanted to hear about a culture that attempts to control women's bodies from the perspective of an insider of that culture. 

Unfortunately, I would not recommend this book as an introduction to El Saadawi or even for people who loved A Daughter of Isis. While it has many interesting insights and anecdotes of her life in Egypt after she became a doctor/activist/novelist and her life in exile in America after too many death threats, overall it doesn't stand up. The book has a spiral organization rather than a chronological or topical one. It starts with American exile, circles around to early medical career, circles back to exile, circles to first marriage, circles to medical school, circles to third marriage, circles back to first marriage, circles to exile, circles to second marriage, circles to third marriage, circles to first marriage, etc. 

It is sometimes hard to figure out where we are in time because of the three different husbands and the constant revolutions and wars. Perhaps that is the point - it's hard to tease out whether the scene is the revolution of the 50s or that of the 70s or the imperialism of the British or the Americans or whoever.

Finally, throughout the book El Saadawi expresses the frustration of not being able to very similar language...with very similar metaphors. 

This book just didn't have the staying power of her previous memoir. I do, however, want to read one of her novels and see that side of El Saadawi.

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