Nawal El Saadawi on beating George Orwell and being banned from Qatar
Nawal El Saadawi has never been afraid of provoking controversy. Now aged 83, the Egyptian writer, scientist and political activist was on typically outspoken form at a recent appearance in Dubai.
Invited to speak for the Festival of Literature’s annual commemorative George Orwell lecture, she was asked how she would greet Orwell today.
“I would beat him,” she replied. “Because he is very patriarchal, the way he treats women – I would never be his lover. I would beat him very much.” She questioned why it was Orwell’s name she was speaking under. “Why George Orwell? Why not an Arab? Why not a woman? Why bring a British man for this culture? “There’s a lot of similarity between me and George Orwell. I read a couple of his books and I thought he was writing something I was living.”
El Saadawi was famously imprisoned for political reasons in 1981, writing the important Memoirs from the Women’s Prison covertly while behind bars. “I am always against the government, wherever I am in the world – when I was in the USA I was against the government. If I was in Dubai, I would be against the government here. I came here without being paid to speak to you – creative people don’t care about money.”
She claims to have been widely censored when making similar public appearances across the the region. “I’ve been censored in all the Gulf countries – maybe it’s only Dubai that can tolerate me, and invite me. I went to Doha and I spoke against the government there, and I’m never allowed to enter again. The same in Saudi, Kuwait and Bahrain. I gave one talk in Bahrain and the police escorted me to the airport and I can never go back.”
At this point a college teacher from Bahrain spoke up in the audience, saying she teaches the writer’s work to her students .“Maybe you aren’t allowed to be there, but you should know your books are there, and they are affecting people’s lives,” she said.
Returning sporadically to theme of Orwell, El Saadawi said that the level of surveillance which citizens of the world are currently under outstrips even what the author of 1984 could imagine. “Now spying is greater than George Orwell could have imagined, in every sense. This spying is so [governments] can understand the people and repress then.”
Before starting she bemoaned the fact the lecture was programmed in English. “Why am I speaking in English in an Arab country?” she demanded, asking the audience for a show of hands before agreeing to continue in her non-native tongue. “I’m not inspired by English, but I’m forced to speak English now.” Her next point was to praise The National. “I was just yesterday reading in The National a very intelligent journalist saying we should teach in the mother tongue – creativity is very much related to the mother tongue. I can’t write in English.”
When the floor was opened to questions, a total of three published authors stepped forward to share their books with El Saadawi, and each were asked to write their email addresses inside.
“Whether the book is good or bad, I will email them,” she promised.
Updated: March 9, 2015 04:00 AM