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Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi.

March 28, 2015

Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi.

4 stars

A compelling novel by an Egyptian feminist about women’s suffering and revenge.

Nawal El Saadawi became internationally known in the 1970s as one of the first Arab feminists. She has written extensively and often angrily in both fiction and non-fiction about women in Islam. I had read and been impressed by her factual account of the problems of Arab women, The Hidden Face of Eve, (See my review. ) and wanted to sample her fiction.

 El Saadawi was born in Egypt in 1931. She studied medicine and, for a time in the 1970s, directed national health projects in her country. In this capacity, she worked with women prisoners with “mental affections,” and encountered a compelling woman who was to be executed after having killed a pimp. That story was the inspiration for Woman at Point Zero which was written Arabic in 1975 and published in Lebanon in 1985.

I was swept away with the stark, intense beauty of this novel’s language. El Saadawi is a very accomplished writer who uses a variety of literary devices to convey both the suffering and anger of her central character. Her language is poetic rather than literal; the story she tells often moves from stark realism to dream-like states. Repetition of key phrases in different circumstances heightens their power. I am not sure I share El Saadawi’s version of feminism, but I have high respect for her passion and her ability to tell a moving story. I am not surprised that she is a controversial figure.

Woman at Point Zero opens and concludes with El Saadawi’s subjective responses to Firdaus; her unscientific awe and admiration for a woman she views as exceptional. The body of the book is narrated by Firdaus herself as she tells the story of her life and explains her attitude toward her approaching death. Firdaus begins with the dangers and mistreatment of women in Islamic Africa. As the book develops, her anger and desire for revenge grows. When she killed a pimp, she felt she had found her own freedom. In her own eyes she was being executed not for killing a man but for speaking the truth about how all men are criminals for how they treat women.

As a child Firdaus experienced genital mutilation and sexual abuse. When her parents died she was taken in by an uncle who had abused her. Entry into his westernized life was a revelation to her. She was sent to a boarding school where she was successful and happy for a time. Then she was forced to marry a repulsive old man who beat her. She ran away and began a life of prostitution. She earned enough money to live comfortably, but she was told that she was not “respectable.” Quitting prostitution, she took a secretarial job only to realize that how much better she was treated as a prostitute. Briefly falling in love, she was rejected and painfully returned to her more luxurious life. A pimp tried to bring her under his control. When he pulled out a knife, she grabbed it and killed him. Although proud of her life and deed, she was arrested and was to die the morning after having told her story.

Into this grim plot, El Saadawi weaves details that intensify the book’s emotional impact. Firdaus repeatedly focuses on the eyes of those with whom she interacts. Her mother’s eyes held her up when she was learning to walk.

Two eyes to which I clung with all my might. Two eyes that alone held me up….All I can remember are two rings of intense white around two circles of intense black. I only had to look into them for the white to become whiter and the black blacker, as though sunlight was pouring into them from some magical source neither on earth, nor in the sky…

But afterward, her mother seems to disappear for her. Although physically present, her eyes become dull and dead, no longer “the eyes that held me up when I was on the point of falling. They were not two rings of pure white surrounding two circles of intense black…” Over and over, Firdaus describes seeing eyes just like her mother’s, and over and over, she is abandoned by those she turns to for support.

This is a very sensual book, shockingly so when it was written.  At times, Firdaus could be passive with the men who bought her body, but she also has intense feelings, described with similar language, engaging with women and men.  Her accounts are not physically explicit, but she emotionally articulates how sexuality can move a person beyond the rational world into spiritual or transcendental places.

Deep inside my body I felt a strange trembling. At first it was like pleasure, pleasure akin to pain. It ended with pain, a pain that felt like pleasure….It seemed to go back further than my life, to some day before I was born, like a thing arising out of an ancient wound, in an organ that ceased to be mine, on the body of a woman no longer me.

One of the striking elements of this story is the way in which Firdaus finds prostitution better than marriage for women.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows. Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering of women.

By writing in the voice of Firdaus, El Saadawi cannot be said to advocate violence and revenge. Instead, she asks us, male and female, to understand the depth of women’s pain and anger.

Woman at Point Zero is a radical, disturbing book. Intentionally so. I did not empathize with the main character or even the author. But I think it is an important book because it forces us all to face our often buried anger. Perhaps then we can use that anger to better purposes than Firdaus does.

I highly recommend this book of all who dare face the inner violence it displays.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2015 4:02 pm

    Love the sound of this one. Although I do enjoy poetic writing, I find it doesn’t always work for me. But the quotes you shared from the book are quite beautiful. Hope my library has this one.

  2. April 12, 2015 4:05 am

    This line of yours: “the story she tells often moves from stark realism to dream-like states” aptly describe el Saadawi’s writing. My favorite among her bibliography is God Dies By the Nile. She’s unflinching in her assessment of women’s place in society. Thanks for the review.

    • April 21, 2015 11:48 am

      Thanks for validating my response and for the suggestion for future reading.

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