CAIRO // Nawal el Saadawi, the "priestess of secular feminism" is back. She returned to Egypt last week, bringing with her a new novel that is set to reignite all of the controversial issues she had left behind more than two years ago while going to the US on a self-imposed exile.
"I came back because I have a cause," Dr el Saadawi said. "Who else is going to speak out against corruption, lying and the hypocrisy ... in society? I will be 79 next month; I'm not afraid of death, the devil or the authorities." A feminist writer, activist and physician, Dr el Saadawi has been in the opposition camp since the days of the King Faud II, and all three presidents after him. She has also been at odds with Muslim religious authorities for her secular views.
"I'm against the governments and never worked for any of them," she said. "I never belonged to any political party either. I don't respect political work because it's not clean." She was harassed under the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, dismissed from her work at the health ministry and imprisoned by his successor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981 for her opposition to the peace treaty with Israel and his close ties with the United States.
"I'm against the capitalist, patriarchal, racist system that is ruling America and Europe, and is ruling us also, but that doesn't mean I'm a communist. I'm a critic of the communist thought as well as all religions, as nothing is holy for me," Dr el Saadawi said. The US and Europe have been her safe havens whenever militants or radical Islamists forced her to leave Egypt. She fled to the United States in 1993 following reports that her name was on a militant hit list, and took the opportunity to teach for four years at Duke University in North Carolina, where she wrote her autobiography. In 2007, she went back to the US, where she held a chair at Spelman College in Atlanta, and taught creativity and rebellion in the literature department. She also attended several literary conferences in Europe at that time.
Her passion, however, lies in writing. Dr el Saadawi is planning to write a new book, My Life Beyond the Ocean, about her 16-year experience of living abroad. "I wrote 47 books in Arabic, which have been translated into 30 languages. Twenty-seven of my books have been translated into English," she said. Like most of her other works, her latest Arabic novel, Zeina, which was published in Lebanon in July and was translated into French last year, is likely to reignite the controversy that has characterised her unique career as a feminist provocateur.
She penned the French edition under the pseudonym Nawal Zeinab el Sayed, using her mother's maiden name, but kept el Saadawi for the Arabic edition. She dedicated the novel to street children, many of whom are born out of wedlock, and who are banned from taking their mothers' names. She has been calling for naming babies, especially illegitimate ones, after their mothers, instead of putting an imaginary father's name in their birth certificates, which is a common practice in Egypt.
The novel is about one such child, a girl living in Cairo's streets, who manages to become a famous musician, envied by other women who are unable to live like the eponymous, free-spirited Zeina. Many cultural critics in the Arab world, including women, have taken issue with what they consider to be the demagogic simplicity of Dr el Saadawi's work. "Men are evil in Zeina, Nawal el Saadawi's latest novel," wrote the critic Sanaa el Khouri, in the Lebanese daily newspaper Al Akhbar. "The man in this novel is synonymous with all forms of repression: political, religious and sexual," she wrote, adding that the book was more "a direct lecture than a novel, similar to Dr el Saadawi's early controversial books such as The Woman and the Sex, in 1969 and The Fall of the Imam, in 1987".
"The problem with el Saadawi is that she can't imagine herself [as anything] but a reformer, feminist fighter..." wrote Ahmed Zein el Din in the pan Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat, last month. Dr el Saadawi embraces the accusations that conservative Arab commentators level at her activist art. "My books are appreciated all over the world. In my novels I'm portraying the corruption of men who are immoral in our countries.
"We have no literary criticism in the Arab world," she retorted. "There is no critical mind here if they refer to me as controversial, which they consider to be a negative trait, while it's very positive for me and I'm proud to be controversial," she said. Two of Dr el Saadawi's more controversial books - God Resigns in The Summit Meeting, published in English in 1996 and translated into Arabic three years ago, and The Fall of the Imam - were both condemned as blasphemous by clerics at al Azhar University in Cairo, which urged the Egyptian government to ban them. This was one of the reasons for her to take up the teaching post in the US.
Madbouli, Dr el Saadawi's Egyptian publisher, destroyed the remaining copies of the books last year. In 2001, a lawyer filed a case to separate her from her husband, Sherif Hatata, to whom she had been married since 1964 on the idea that a Muslim man cannot remain married to an infidel. And last year, Dr Saadawi - in a rare triumph - won a case against another lawyer, who had sued her in February 2007 to have her citizenship annulled for defaming religion in the two books and in other statements.
Sheikh Youssef el Badri, a radical cleric in Egypt, said that a law office was considering how to pursue Dr el Saadawi legally, now that she is back. "I have to chase her legally because she transgressed God in her books and interviews," Mr el Badri said yesterday. "She has insulted Islam, the religion of one-third of the world's population. "People like her, who are attacking religion, will encourage other people to become daring on God and Islam. We are not trying to take revenge, we're hoping to lead her back to the right path."