“George Bush and Bin Laden are twins.” So said the Egyptian activist, psychiatrist, and writer Nawal El Saadawi not once but twice last night at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, one of the larger, ticketed events from the weekend’s PEN World Voices Festival in New York. But those weren’t the only applause lines in a 90-minute conversation with PEN America president K. Anthony Appiah at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall. “Some people think we’re living in a democracy in the West. It’s not true,” Saadawi said. “We’re living in a jungle here. We are imprisoned by individualism.”
What would a highbrow arts and literary festival be without a dose of good, old-fashioned radicalism?
What would a highbrow arts and literary festival be without a dose of good, old-fashioned radicalism? And I do mean old-fashioned. Saadawi’s repeated calls for “collective revolution” in last night’s talk seemed the rhetoric of a distant (like, 40 years distant) past. Not that Saadawi has lost touch with the times; she signaled she’s aware of the resurgence of progressive politics on the American scene—and she remains unimpressed. “You have to have a lot of money to be elected president here,” she said. “You have to have a lot of money to be Barack Obama.”
Well, let her say what she wants. She’s certainly earned the right. Saadawi was born in 1931 in a small village on the Nile and subjected to the barbarous practice of female genital circumcision at the age of six—still the fate of a vast majority of Egyptian women. (Saadawi, an outspoken critic of the practice, put the figure last night at 97 percent). She was educated as a medical doctor at the University of Cairo and published her first of many works of fiction in 1957. Her nonfiction publications and her fervent advocacy of women’s rights in the Islamic world got her dismissed from her government position in Egypt as Director of Public Health in the early 1970s and subsequently imprisoned by then-President Anwar al-Sadat. She’s since withstood death threats from several fundamentalist Islamic organizations, seen her books banned in her home country, and lived away from Egypt in exile. She’s also won a number of honorary doctorates and literary awards and been translated into more than 40 languages.
Despite the best efforts of interviewer Appiah, Saadawi seemed uninterested in lingering on this biography in any detail. She told a few amusing anecdotes about her childhood—about, say, writing a letter to God at the age of six to complain about her parents’ favoritism toward her brother—but provocation is more her style. Though she’s appealingly grandmotherly at the age of 78, with a head of white hair and a warm, wide smile, her views had an unwavering firmness. Dictatorship and censorship in her country may be overt, but Americans experience a no less dangerous brand of dictatorship and censorship. “We are brainwashed in a subtle way by the big media,” she said. And if you think she meant Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch empire, you’d be wrong. The New York Times received cannon fire, as did the academic world (a purveyor of “false knowledge”), as did all forms of religion.
All forms? Appiah, bless him, pressed her on this last point: don’t some religious organizations do good work? Aren’t the Quakers, for instance, estimably anti-war? Saadawi was unmoved. “Religion,” she said, “encourages pragmatism. We need to stick to principles: justice, peace, liberty. The holy books are political books. Religion, in fact, is politics.”
In such comments “religion,” of course, is so general a term as to be meaningless. Does Hinduism encourage pragmatism? How about Buddhism? I rarely engage an audience q & a, but a few questions did spring to mind last night. This wouldn’t, however, prove to be much of a debate. Saadawi delivered her provocations, and the evening concluded with a long, hard, and sustained round of applause.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.