“Even when I am talking to you, I am writing. Writing is a full time job”– Nawal El Saadawi
My relationship with Nawal El Saadawi had spanned over a decade before her death on March 21, 2021. I had brought her to the University of Michigan-Flint (March 28 – April 4, 2007), as the 5th visitor in a project I had initiated in 2003 as Chair of the Africana Studies Department titled, ‘Renowned African Writers Annual Visit’. Nawal was preceded by Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Dennis Brutus. It took me several months to get Nawal’s contact information so I could invite her to Michigan. But when I did, her response was quick and precise. ‘Dear Professor Ernest N. Emenyonu, I am happy to accept your invitation to visit the Department of Africana Studies, University of Michigan-Flint early next year and to accept the terms you have mentioned in your letter. You suggested my novel, Woman at Point Zero for this project and I think it is a good choice. Another alternative could be the first volume of my autobiography published under the title A Daughter of Isis since it covers my childhood, adolescence and the early years of my youth. However I leave this decision to you…’.
Elsewhere (2010), I have recaptured the impact and ramifications of this first contact with Nawal El Saadawi. It marked the beginning of a relationship which has been more than rewarding as it gave me a most enviable opportunity of knowing firsthand someone who is probably today not only the world’s most audacious, irrepressible, dissident feminist author, but also an amazingly charming and highly principled individual. Nawal would stand irrevocably by what she considered right, just, and fair, no matter the odds and risks to her personal life and security.
Indeed, there were risks! Shortly after her arrival in Flint, things turned tragically sour for Nawal in Egypt where she was facing the death sentence for her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting, which the Government had declared as seditious and treasonable. Flint became her home for an indefinite period. On May 13, 2008, she won her appeal against the death sentence. Informing me promptly about her mother’s acquittal of all charges in the case, her daughter Mona, added in her letter to me, “I hope that this case would be the end of Nawal’s battles. But knowing her, I say this is rather impossible. She becomes more vivid, more creative, much more challenging, more confident, and much happier, living in danger.” This was not just a prediction but also a statement of fact by the one individual who knew Nawal better than any other person on earth. As I met, interacted, and grew to? know Nawal more and more, I could not only affirm this but I was also able to unravel its genesis. As a novelist, playwright, socio-political activist, essayist, and psychiatrist, Nawal through her writings touched many lives, particularly the oppressed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised women not only in the Arab world but all over the globe. Her views on such issues as gender equality, social justice, religious fanaticism, abuse of power by rulers, and on patriarchy, resulted in acts of victimization and death threats on her life for over half a century.
In 2012, I was instrumental again in bringing Nawal back to the University of Michigan-Flint. I successfully nominated her as the first ever Jack W. Thompson, MD, Distinguished Visiting Professor. During her semester-long tenure, she delivered public lectures, held seminars, workshops, visited classes, and had several other formal and informal interactions with people inside and outside the campus. I coordinated all her activities. This gave me the opportunity of acquiring further insights into her major concerns as a writer (particularly, dissidence, feminism, and human rights), her values, and her message to rulers who abuse power and terrorize their subjects. Where does Nawal the person fuse with Nawal the dissident creative artist? How would Nawal El Saadawi like to be remembered by humanity in general? In my initial search for answers to these questions I had edited with a colleague, Maureen Ngozi Eke, a seminal critical anthology titled Emerging Perspectives on Nawal El Saadawi (2010;, Arabic Edition 2017). It became evident through the studies published in the book that Nawal deserved far more critical acclaim and attention than she had received from scholars. With over forty books to her credit, many translated into multiple world languages, most of the literary world (Africa in particular) did not seem to have adequate access to her writings. Much of that was because of who she was and how people in power perceived her. Nawal was an incurably courageous free spirit whose writings denounced political injustice, social corruption, gender inequities, and absolute patriarchy. She was a fearless mouthpiece for marginalized womanhood; a writer whose ‘message of truth’ was unbearable and offensive to men of fragile ego and twisted mindsets about the place of women in any world order. Why was Nawal uncompromising in her stand on these issues?
Nawal was simple but complex, known but without enough information for her to be fully understood. After Flint and a position as Cosby Chair (Professor and Artist-in-Residence) at Spellman College, Atlanta, Nawal finally returned to Cairo to stay but determined to continue fighting for her favorite causes. She participated in demonstrations during the Arab Spring and more. She maintained her contacts with us in Flint and renewed her invitations for my wife and I to visit her. Going to Cairo would be a wonderful opportunity to observe and interact with Nawal at close range in an environment that provided the themes, causes, and fury depicted in her writings. In 2018 (May 8–15), my wife, Pat (same field of African Literature) and I were in Cairo visiting Nawal. A colleague, Razinat Mohammed, joined us in Cairo from Nigeria (I had introduced her to Nawal on whose writing she did her doctoral dissertation). Nawal hosted us, pointed out locations that inspired the settings in her books, and opened up on several contentious issues that gave rise to her positions on feminism, womanhood, and patriarchy in particular. I wanted to find out what drove her dissident creativity and resolute attacks on abusive power in high places. When we sat down to chat, she spoke unreservedly, as she gave me a chronology of critical sad events that formed her life in writing.
As far back as 1972, she had lost her job as a medical director in Egypt. A magazine, Health, which she founded and of which she was its editor-in-chief was closed down by the government. In 1981, President Anwar Sadat put her in prison for views expressed in her writings. At various times, her name had figured on death lists issued by some fanatical and terrorist organizations. Several of her books were banned in Egypt. Sometimes the victimization went beyond the banning of her books. In 2001, she won her case in a Cairo court against forceful divorce from her husband (according to Hisba law). In 1991, the Egyptian government closed down the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association that she had founded and presided over, and, its magazine, Noon, which she edited. Nevertheless, she had remained undeterred and undaunted. In 2004, she topped all her dissident positions by presenting herself in the Egyptian elections as a candidate for the office of President!
In all, Nawal gave us enough motivation and inspiration to embark on a book project (in progress) – Nawal Speaks: Conversations with Nawal El Saadawi on Feminism, Literature and Dissidence. Nawal provided us with CDs, DVDs, tapes, some more than five decades old. Nawal had strongly advised that we must not leave Cairo without visiting some historic sites that confirm ‘Ancient Egyptian Civilization’. These visits happened in the last two days of our stay.
The visit to the pyramids was truly a privilege – the architecture of the pyramids, their mystery and the legacy-in-perpetuity of the Egyptian Kings, Queens, and Pharaohs, left us in awe! After the visit, we headed the next day for the Egyptian Museum – saw the mummifications in gold, and the artifacts from the pyramids that make Egypt the pride of Africa and the envy of the world!
Memories remain of our historic visit – meeting her daughter, Mona, a poet, whose poem ‘My Mother’ was published in Emerging Perspectives,Nawal’s driver, Hussein, and the cook, two people who had been with Nawal for over four decades! The last time I spoke with Nawal there was no laughter. Her words, ‘Ernest, I am dying … come and see me; tell the world I am dying, and, alone’. After her death, Menna Elabied, a journalist with Al-Ahram newspaper (who assisted Nawal in the hospital) told me: ‘Nawal talked about you a lot, she appreciated you so much … I miss her really’.
And so do I!
This guest post was written by Ernest Emenyonu, Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint, USA. Professor Emenyonu is the series editor of African Literature Today.
Conversations with Nawal El Saadawi: Feminism, Dissidence, Patriarchy & Contemporary Egyptian Literature from ALT 35: Focus on Egypt is available as a free download on the book’s product page.