First Novel Still Relevant

By Judith Gabriel

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor
By Nawal el-Saadawi Translated by Catherine Cobham
London: Saqi Books, 2000, 101 pp. 

Nawal el-Saadawi wrote "Memoirs of a Woman Doctor" 30 years ago, when, as a young woman in her 20s, she had just graduated from the School of Medicine in Cairo. Considered a revolutionary feminist novel from the time of its 1957 debut as a serial in the Egyptian magazine Ruz al-Yusuf, it was heavily censored, as were subsequent publications in book form. Since then, the novel has been reprinted several times in both Cairo and Beirut, but was never to be published in its entirety, because she had lost the original manuscript.

Written in the first person, "Memoirs" is a novel, and the author has repeatedly insisted it is not autobiographical, although the heroine is a young Egyptian woman studying and then practicing medicine. El-Saadawi herself studied psychiatry in Cairo, going on to become director of public health in Egypt. The narrator's life, like Saadawi's, is a series of battles, and she is from the beginning a rebel who challenges the restrictions on the role of women in the family, society and the world of the mind.

Since the publication of "Memoirs of a Woman Doctor", Saadawi has gone on to write 32 books, mostly dealing with Arab women, colonialism, fundamentalism and globalization. She writes in Arabic, and her books, including novels and studies of women in the Arab world, have been translated into more than 30 languages. Her views on women, such as those she discussed in "Women in Sex," in 1969, led to her being dismissed from the Ministry of Health, and even to being imprisoned under Sadat in 1981, which inspired her 1984 work "Memoirs from the Women's Prison." In 1992, she fled Egypt for five years after her name appeared on a death list issued by an Islamic fundamentalist group. She has now completed writing her autobiography.

Yet she looks with fondness on this, her first opus, as she notes in the author's preface:
"I still consider 'Memoirs' like a first daughter, full of youthful fervor and expressing a reality which is still relevant today. It is a simple, spontaneous novel in which there is a lot of anger against the oppression of women in my country, but also a great deal of hope for change, for wider horizons and a better future."

In flowing narrative that often verges on stream-of-consciousness, the nameless heroine of "Memoirs" deals with the issues that implode on her young mind. The body and its functions becomes the spine of the heroine's evolution from a young girl who is denied the privileges and freedoms her brother has, to a woman medical student, the only girl in a class of men.

The physical body becomes symbolic of societal gender roles. The young heroine is disgusted at her own physical signs of emerging femininity because they seem to doom her to an oppressed, secondary role, while those born male will be elevated, merely because of their bodily form. In the dissecting room, the young heroine notes the glaring contrast between man's elevated status when he is alive and his equality with that of a woman corpse, proof to her that it is society alone that elevates the man. Ultimately, she will encounter many of society's tragedies through her medical work, yet she always looks beyond the physical, for she finds much of the sickness is not in the human body, but in society.

As she experiences death and birth in her patients, she struggles with issues of existence. "The focus of the struggle inside me widened out from masculinity and femininity to embrace human-kind as a whole," the narrator notes, as she tracks a failed marriage, and a subsequent rise to medical success that still leaves her feeling empty. It was not until years after she completed medical school, during a retreat in the countryside, to a country villa, that she finally lets herself feel, which Saadawi describes in moving prose, chronicling the journey from imprisonment to freedom.

The Academy Encounters Popular Culture

Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond
Edited by Walter Armbrust University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000 


This collection of academic essays intends to fill a gap in the literature on Middle Eastern culture. Scholars from the fields of anthropology, history, and ethnomusicology, among others, analyze various aspects of popular culture (defined as "art and 'entertainment' . . . in their mass mediated forms") in the Middle East, Pakistan, Morocco, and two diasporic Middle Eastern communities in the U.S. Editor Walter Armbrust, in his introduction and in his selection of articles, hopes to challenge the prevailing academic paradigm of globalization with other critical perspectives, such as transnationalism and modified forms of modernism, postmodernism, and nationalism. The articles examine texts and performances with a nuanced explication of the social conditions surrounding their production and consumption."

Several of the articles are successful in this enterprise, and Armbrust's article on Egyptian cinema before the 1960s is one of them. A few of the ideas reinforced throughout the volume include the importance of nostalgia in creating notions of an "authentic" and identifiable national culture; the influence of global marketing on representing non-Western cultures to the metropolitan West; and the difficulty of applying Western standards of "classical" and "folk" to many Middle Eastern art forms. Roberta L. Dougherty's chapter on Badi'a Masabni, an Egyptian cabaret performer in the 1930s and '40s, and the carnival court in the satirical magazine al'Ithnayn is particularly excellent. 
Other chapters fare less well: a writer may give personal anecdote too much weight in making his argument; or mistakenly interpret a select upper-class phenomenon as popular in appeal. How does one determine which art or entertainment form is popular? This is a dilemma addressed by Armbrust, but not sufficiently addressed in some of the articles.

Though "Mass Mediations" no doubt presents new approaches to its subject matter, it is definitely a book aimed at an academic audience. It is unfortunate that several of the writers were not able to present their ideas in more readable prose, communicating their new perspectives to an audience beyond their own academic enclave.

Poems of Truth: Contemporary Arab Women Speak

THE POETRY OF ARAB WOMEN: A Contemporary Anthology

Edited by Nathalie Handal. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books 2001, 355 pp.


This rich anthology goes a long way toward introducing contemporary Arab women poets, Arab-American women poets writing in English, and a few other women poets of Arab origin writing in French and Swedish. Its main virtue is that in one handsome volume it presents 209 poems of various lengths and styles by 83 women, some born in the Arab world and some elsewhere, but all rooted in Arab culture and experiencing the modern world as they carve their own identity.

The editor, Nathalie Handal, a well-known Arab-American poet represented in the anthology by three poems, is to be congratulated for compiling this useful volume, mostly from already-published English translations. She also commissioned many translations from Arabic in which she made editorial changes, worked in full collaboration with the translators on eight poems, and provided the translated text with substantial amendments in eight others. All in all, there are 40 translators.

Only someone who knows the complex work of editing, making wise selections, seeking qualified translators, and identifying and contacting copyright holders in many countries can fully appreciate Handal's efforts. In addition, she wrote a 62-page introduction providing a good historical overview of contemporary Arab women's poetry, outlining its major themes and trends, and demonstrating its creativity and diversity.

The poets are arranged in alphabetical order, from Arab-American Elmaz Abi-Nader to Lebanese Sabah al-Kharrat Zwein, and included among the poets one finds Abu-Dhabian Dhabya Khamees, Iraqi Nazik al-Mala'ika, Arab-American Naomi Shihab Nye, and Palestinian Fadwa Tuqan. Biographical notes on each poet are given at the end of the book, where the poets' names are also listed under 16 Arab countries even though some poets were not born there or do not live there. Andrée Chedid and Iman Mersal are listed under their birthplace Egypt, for example, rather than France and Canada respectively where they live. Handal herself and Lisa Suhair Majaj both live in America but are listed under Palestine, although neither was born there. It is "one's claim and profound sentiment that creates one's identity," explains the editor.

However, on reading these poets from A to Z, one is impressed by the symphony of their voices, singular yet united, expressing Arab hopes but also individual personal experiences that are unique and feminine. There is revolution in their themes, their techniques, their ideas and images. There is also love and tenderness and vision. But there is pain too: a passionate craving for a place under the sun, for equality and justice, for peace, for things natural to be natural and not as changed by man. These voices are distinctive, articulate, authentic, and they dare to say what men poets sometimes dissimulate. Despite their uneven quality as poetry, as a whole they are appealing.

Understandably not comprehensive, this anthology is however quite representative of the powerful poetry of Arab women and is a visible confirmation of its effective existence.

These short reviews appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid