Nawal El Saadawi - She Has No Place in Paradise
The women in Nawal El Saadawi's story collection, She Has No Place In Paradise, are generally complex, intelligent, sexual beings who find themselves, sometimes unhappily but often not, in situations where they have no power, little respect, and no way out other than an unhappy death at the end of an unfulfilled life. The situation? Marriage in Egypt, and the tyranny of masculinity that comes with centuries of tradition and oppression.
The stories are sad, it is true, but the women within the stories are often not. They question the claustrophobic prison of their situation – again and again, wives and daughters will think to themselves that they have never once raised their eyes to meet that of their husband or father – and they wish they could be more open, but the extreme internalisation their silent lives force upon them allows, Saadawi implies, a freedom of thought that remains unavailable to the males of the culture. Here we read of women questioning religion, and the promise of heaven with its male-focused rewards; there we see a young girl throwing aside her mother's warnings of damnation and hellfire for a sip of cool soft drink.
Sexuality plays an important role in the stories. In 'The Picture', Nirjis, a young girl, discovers to her amazement that Nabawiya, the family servant, has buttocks and a body, just like she is beginning to develop. Nirjis “pulled up her dress to be completely naked from behind, planted her feet firmly on the ground and twisted her head, turning her eyes to the back of her body. But her head could soon move no further and her eyes could not complete the circle around her. She tensed her muscles and tried again. Whilst she was turning her head in front of the mirror with her back completely naked, she suddenly saw her father's eyes and trembled.” Her 'father's eyes' are from a picture of her father in the bathroom, but even a picture is enough to scare her. Nirjis is deathly afraid of what her father might do to her if he discovers she is interested in the changes happening to her body. A chance encounter late in the evening has Nirjis discovering her father and Nabawiya embracing, and suddenly, immediately – Nirjis becomes a little more free than before. Her father, and it is implied like many Egyptian men, use shame and the threat of punishment both by their hand and by God's, to force certain behaviour on their daughter's and wives. But what if the father is himself flawed? What possibility! Nirjis, in a perhaps too blunt example of symbolism, blows away some cobwebs from her father's picture, which falls out of its frame and collapses in pieces on the ground. She is liberated, and can explore her body and her sexuality without him watching.
There are other stories in which married women wonder idly if perhaps sex could be pleasurable, though they know they will never find out, because their husbands insist that they have sex in the dark, and quickly, and painfully. One woman sleeps on a lounge unless her husband calls her to the marital bed, where she is allowed a sloppy embrace and must endure clumsy caresses. But then there are stories from the male's perspective, which show that they, too, are frightened by the role that is expected of them, and the scorn their wives might heap upon them if they dare to suggest anything exciting, anything new.
The saddest, and best, story is the second to last, 'Two Women Friends', which follows a young girl as she grows first small, and then large, breasts, showing the shift from the love her mother shows her as a child, to the jealousy she feels for her when she becomes a beautiful young woman. Breasts remain the central focus of the novel, breasts as a symbol of the heart, and of desire, and of the freedom a woman can find by restricting and allowing access by touch and sight to her breasts. The young woman becomes a married woman, and experiences her breasts become heavy with milk, and then sagged with age, until she, too, watches her young daughter as she blossoms and becomes beautiful, and the cycle of jealousy starts anew.
Aside from the stories concerning sexuality, Saadawi has written a few on the complex, almost caste-like system of Egypt's social hierarchy, where appearance is everything, and status and perception is more important than results. Sound familiar? Of course, this happens in the West as well, though Saadawi captures a particularly Egyptian expression of this problem. The men of Egypt, she shows, are shackled to the expectations of those above them, and the manner in which they are able to treat those below them like the inferiors they surely must be, and nobody is happy and nobody can take satisfaction in a job well done. In the aptly titled 'Man', Saadawi writes, “When the chief attorney was settled in his office, there were other minute details which Ashmawi had come to master. He had learned to understand the meaning of any movement of any of the chief attorney's limbs without a need for words. A shake of his head, for example, he had grown to understand immediately. A shake of the head was not always a simple shake of the head. There was a shake which meant that the chief attorney was satisfied; there was a shake which meant that he was dissatisfied. There was a shake of the head which that meant that Ashmawi has to remain where he was and place himself fully and squarely in front of a visitor; and a shake which meant that Ashmawi had to leave.” And on it goes, the crippling, ridiculous minutiae of bureaucracy, a system that inevitably grinds away at the hearts and minds of good men and makes them a nub, powerless within their own spheres and without recourse anywhere but in the home – where their frightened wife and cowering children await.
Nawal El Saadawi is compassionate toward the men and women of her stories, but she cares most for the women. These women are intelligent, and capable of questioning both their role in the home, and the greater role of women in the spiritual and social areas of their lives. But they are bound, too, by the tradition of their people and the culture of their time, and mostly, they are not unhappy with this. They accept it, though they would like an orgasm or a kind word. They understand it, though they wish they could have a job or share their opinion with their husband. Saadawi's Egypt (one is tempted to simply write: Egypt) is complex, like any other nation, and the answers are not easy – indeed, there are none provided. But the log has been overturned, and the pale, wriggling worms are uncovered and helpless in the stark sunlight. A problem is not always solved by revealing it, but perhaps it can be better understood.
List of Egyptian authors under review
Author Website (Includes some full length works in Arabic)