I was radicalized by Nawal el-Saadawi. That is to say that I learned Arabness and feminism at the same time, from work that brandished intersectionality and de-colonialism in 1981, long before the bourgeoisie of the academe began to hollow those terms.
Saadawi’s is the torch I bear with my book “When We Were Arabs,” a decolonial memoir of my Jewish Arab grandparents and a political theory of Arab liberation emanating from their lives. No man — not Messali Hadj, Abou Nadara, or Abou Elqassem Echebbi — will replace her as the mother of creation, in my mind, of the struggle for human rights that is the ever-growing Arab liberation movement, marvelous as our male giants of thought and verse are. I’ll always return to the introduction to the English translation of “The Hidden Face of Eve,” a clear-eyed and unflinching refusal of the neoliberalism of the very Western people who would read it.
Saadawi taught the world how to write in English about the struggles for life and dignity of an Arab people that traverses borders.
Saadawi taught the world how to write in English about the struggles for life and dignity of an Arab people that traverses borders, thousands of miles, vastly different experiences and simultaneous sorts of belonging, ill-fitting Western concepts of race-as-color-as-science, and yes, logically unsound religious divisions that continue to dispossess and kill.
I recently had cause to reflect on Saadawi’s indelible mark on my mind and what I’m trying to do. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), D.C. Metro chapter recently held a “When We Were Arabs”-themed Chanukah party over Zoom attended by scores of brilliant minds, advocating for Palestinian life and liberty. Among the people who honored me by speaking on their experiences reading “When We Were Arabs” was a woman whose face I hope to recall when I’m feeling blue. Ms. N remarked that “When We Were Arabs” had roused her in the same vein as the works of Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish. She asked that I contextualize my work together with theirs in the canon of writings on Arab liberation as a struggle for human rights.
To exist on a bookshelf in Ms. N’s mind with Said and Darwish is of course an unbelievable honor. But theirs were not the first works on the topic of Arab liberation that inspired me, I remarked reflexively, as decisive as they would become. My first was Saadawi’s “Hidden Face of Eve,” an Arab feminist treatise — and to be more specific, it was Saadawi’s preface to the English edition of her book that was the first piece of writing on Arab liberation I had read.
Because I am writing this article in English, I’ll endeavor to introduce Saadawi, an impossible undertaking: Nawal el-Saadawi is an octogenarian Egyptian icon of Arab and human liberation who has at various intervals been a giant of literature and political theory, a government official, a professor, a dissident, a physician, and a psychiatrist. She penned works in an array of genres — “Hidden Face of Eve,” an indictment of the continuities in violence against women across the Arab world, is among her best-known feats. Her literary work, including the celebrated short novel “Woman at Point Zero,” offers biting social critiques in the same vein. Her philosophy is made manifest through the vehicle of bare bones, fast-paced stories that honor the women whom Saadawi encountered in her work in medicine and associated travels.
Saadawi frequently found herself at odds with the authorities over her radical ideas. She was imprisoned for her dissidence under the administration of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and she found herself among the 2011 demonstrators in Tahrir Square who risked their lives for accountable government, life, and human dignity. There, she was as she has always been — a symbol of how women’s rights and Arab as well as human liberation are inextricably linked.
I first read Saadawi after my grandfather Oscar, an Egyptian of Jewish faith who raised me, died. I was 16, and he had left our family in Los Angeles — that is to say, very far from home. Almost immediately after the loss of him, I began to assess what he had been and where I would find him. I couldn’t make a trip to Egypt at the time, so I hoped to read something not on pharaohs, mummies, and the Western imagination of our homeland that casts it firmly in the death that lies in the catacombs of our pyramids, but rather something from modern Egypt — the living unit of people and land that endures. I happened upon Saadawi by chance, at a library. That’s how I was radicalized. What brought me to Saadawi is what, decades later, would bring me to write “When We Were Arabs”: I was looking for what was still alive about Oscar and found him in our determination to decide for ourselves what we are, how we find common cause with each other, and ultimately how to struggle together.
“Our past experience has always shown that any strengthening of the links that bind the Arab peoples to Western interests inevitably leads to a retreat in all spheres of thought and action.”
“The Hidden Face of Eve” in English is the only book I have read that requests upfront and rather abruptly that the reader keep her distance from the book’s subjects. “Our past experience has always shown that any strengthening of the links that bind the Arab peoples to Western interests inevitably leads to a retreat in all spheres of thought and action,” Saadawi writes. “Radical social change is replaced by superficial modernization processes that affect the elitist and privileged groups in society, and the women belonging to these groups are transformed into a distorted version of the Western woman, while the vast majority of toiling women in industry, agriculture, government administration […] find themselves victims of increasing oppression and a sharp decline in their standard of living.”
Perhaps because of the way that French and British imperialism blatantly capitalized on the struggles of Arab world women and minority groups – struggles that very much mirrored concurrent misogyny and bigotry in Europe, Saadawi anticipates how her arguments might be weaponized against the progress of Egyptian and Arab societies and cuts the imperialist feminist to the punch. In a similar vein, in her indictment of the role of religion in the subjugation and physical violence against women and despite her characteristic criticism of religion and religiosity, she underlines that Islamophobia is a tool of colonial intrusion in Arab societies. “Any ambiguity in Islamic teachings, any mistake by an Islamic leader, any misinterpretation of Islamic principles, any reactionary measure or policy by Islamic rulers can be grist to the mill of imperialist conspiracy,” she writes, “can be blown up and emphasized by Western propaganda and can be manipulated or born of intent in order to be used in fighting back against the forces of progress.”
Finally, she upholds the work of feminists from the so-called Third World, like herself, as integral to the liberation projects for all Arabs and indeed humankind. “Women have always been an integral part of the national liberation movement,” she writes. “They fought side by side with men in Algeria against French colonialism, and as a part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s struggle against Zionist and imperialist aggressive policies aimed at depriving the Palestinian people of their national right to self-determination.”
I often found it necessary to discuss the legacy of violence and discrimination against my ancestors in the Arab world in a way that did not further weaponize it against my homelands.
In the writing of my own book, I often found it necessary to discuss the legacy of violence and discrimination against my ancestors in the Arab world in a way that did not further weaponize it against my homelands — as many such accounts so often do. I recalled Saadawi in that writing — she was the guidepost of writing about the liberation of one’s people in the language of the imperialist. Because I am unable to write a book in Arabic, I very frequently found myself in a position where I needed to underline for people that these thoughts are in service of the Arab peoples and not a Western gaze. What’s more, I felt that I needed to be able to speak on the women and femme people in my book in tandem with principles on Arab liberation in ways that did not place the two at odds, as Western works on Arab femme lives so often look to do.
Wafa Hallam, Inside Arabia Editor-in-Chief and an Arab American woman, attended the JVP Chanukah event, and she invited me to answer Ms. N’s question in this space, devoted to platforming Arab voices. My answer to Ms. N is that Said and Darwish made “When We Were Arabs” happen. But Saadawi taught me to write.
That’s all to say that it would be the greatest possible honor for you to tell me that my work recalls to you the refusals of Nawal el-Saadawi, that my work is a son — or perhaps more fittingly, a daughter — of hers.