"We're not living in three worlds, we're living in one," says Nawal el Saadawi in front of a rapturous crowd at a poky radical North London bookshop. One of the Arab world's most important living thinkers, Saadawi has a talent for seeing things holistically. She does not, for example, delineate between her professional roles: a doctor, an author and an activist. Nor does she extricate women's rights (or lack of) in her home country, Egypt, from the neo-colonial imperatives of Western powers. She sees religion and politics as two sides of the same coin, since both are instruments of control. And she believes that we are all – from Egypt to the UK to India to America – subjugated within one big fat "postmodern slave system".
At 83 years old, Saadawi has spent her entire life labouring these points. Her literary output spans 56 books – books that have unceasingly challenged the status quo of patriarchal, religious and capitalist power structures. Her 1972 manifesto, Women and Sex, was a revolutionary questioning of the double standards in certain Arab cultures that legitimise honour killing, genital mutilation and various other types of violence. When the book was published, Saadawi's life was threatened by Islamists. She was also dismissed from her post as a doctor and member of the Ministry of Health for the Egyptian Government. And so she just carried on writing and questioning.
How, asks 1974's God Dies By the Nile, has Islam come to be so widely corrupted and misread? Why, asks her 1975 novel, Woman at Point Zero, are women treated like objects to be owned and fucked and debased by their husbands, pimps and employers? Should, asks 1977's The Hidden Face of Eve, Arab women be made to wear the veil, expected to uphold monogamy and be silenced, but all the while treated unequally under law?
I meet Saadawi while she's over in the UK to promote the republication of these three books translated into English – a book tour that she begrudges. "I am here for the market," she tuts. "I am marketing my books. I'm not here for the ideas."
In reality, Saadawi is here for both – something that becomes obvious at her Q&As, where she invites audience members on stage to join her in discussion. Particularly welcome are people who disagree with her, mostly – it seems – so she can beat them in an argument. However, for someone who obviously loves sparring so much, and flies off the handle easily, Saadawi is extremely sweet; she writes down the names of everyone she meets on a small piece of paper to help her memorise them and grips your arm tightly while she speaks to you, as though (a little hard of hearing now) she is trying to channel what you are saying through touch.
Five minutes into our first meeting, Saadawi asks me whether I am happy. She doesn't mean right at that moment, but generally. It's a big ask. "I don't know about the UK, but I closed my clinic in Egypt recently because of how many young people come to me and say they are depressed," she interjects, after I've paused too long on her question. "Young people are all unhappy. Do you know why? Because the system is bad, not you. Capitalist, patriarchal, religious systems kill people. We are living in a jungle, not a human society. We are still slaves to the nuclear military power. To the market. We are all in the same boat; men and women, the poor, young and old. We need a revolution."
That revolution very nearly took the form of the Arab Spring – although Saadawi won't call it that herself: she prefers "Egyptian Revolution", "Tunisian Revolution" and so forth. As one of Egypt's most defiant left-wing voices, and as someone who firmly opposed President Hosni Mubarak, Saadawi went out and protested in Tahir Square back in 2011. However, she now concedes that the Arab Spring did not have the effect it should have. Sure, Mubarak was deposed, the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who she seems to support, or at least prefer to past leaders – came into and remains in power. But the Egyptian people were not emancipated from the chokeholds of religious fundamentalism, nor the West.
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"What's the result of the Arab Spring? Chaos!" says Saadawi, banging her fist on the nearest surface. "The fragmentation of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. Who is benefitting from that?" This fragmentation, says Saadawi, was all part of a plan: "The US-Israeli plan. Forged with the European Union." According to Saadawi, these are the three powers that work together deliberately to suspend the Middle East in an ongoing state of conflict. "All governments collaborate; the governments don't work for us – they work together against us. They divide and rule. They inherited it from the British. From the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the British colonial power wanted to divide Egypt by religion – Christian versus Muslim. It's a tactic that today's American neo-colonialists inherited."
If the US is the world's biggest superpower – one that has colonised the Arab world over the last 50 years through privatisation, free markets and the guise of "global development" – Saadawi maintains that we can't possibly take this out of the wider context. "We have to look at history to understand what is happening now – that's why I studied religion," she tells me. "It is how the patriarchal, feudalist class was able to emerge." Saadawi says she spent 15 years of her life learning about Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. "I wanted to know: what is this male god saying? I compared the Qur'an, the New Testament, the Torah and the Gita – and what did I find? Slavery! Religion is slavery to women and the poor. It is the basis of capitalism and feudalism. And now all religion is based on money and the market." She slams her hand on the table again. "Ridiculous!"
"Would you call yourself an atheist?" I ask tentatively. "In order to be an atheist," says Saadawi, "you are refusing religion. I'm not an atheist because although I am outside of religion – I don't believe in them or not believe in them – I look to them as a social phenomenon like medicine." And a Marxist? Would she call herself a Marxist? Saadawi positively explodes: "This Guardian journalist made an interview with me recently… she was talking more about herself… she called me a Marxist! I don't like these labels because they put me into a box. A patriarchal box. Marx was a man and he was very patriarchal. He was progressive in relation to capitalism, but he was blind to gender. So how can I be Marxist? How?"
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We settle on "anti-capitalist" and revisit the time that Saadawi lived in America as a professor at Duke University in North Carolina. This was 1988 and she had wound up on a death list of radical figures who threatened Mubarak's regime. She claims she went to America in exile. "How did you fair in the world's most hyper-capitalist culture?" I wonder. "America is not the government. It's like the UK… you are not the government. I am not the government of Egypt. The American people are wonderful people and some universities are very progressive. In America you find everything: the ultra-Marxist and the feudal capitalist." She hesitates, then grins mischievously: "But, yes, some universities confiscated my contract because I was teaching creativity and dissidence."
Saadawi returned to Egypt in 1996. "I cannot live anywhere except Egypt because I have to change things from inside, and also it is my home," she says. "In my country I have a role." She ran for presidency against Mubarak in 2004, mostly just to make a point – as a woman and as someone on the left-wing – but was forced to stand down after she received threats. On the subject of whether she is still in danger in Egypt, Saadawi says, of course. "All my life, I was either in exile or at prison or shut at home – I am always marginalised, even today. But now I am supported by the young people more than ever. Before the revolution, people used to read my books and come to me. Now even more do."
Nawal smiles again, and this time I ask her if she is happy. "Of course I'm happy!" she says. "I'm happy because I'm doing what I want. When I don't like you, I tell you! When I want to quarrel with my publisher, I quarrel. That's why I'm happy: I have no secrets. I am happy because I express myself. I am a psychiatrist. Do you know why people become depressed? Because they cannot say what they believe."
Saadawi's books are available to buy on Zed Books.
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