The will to live
Exiled Egyptian feminist and novelist Nawal El Saadawi
looks backwards to look forwards.
Every morning when I go for my usual walk I meet her face to face. Like me she walks deep in the forest, follows the narrow trail as it rises and falls, twists and turns. On either side there are tall slim pines, conical cedars, flowering dogwood and an occasional burst of lilac. My walk, like hers, takes me round and back to where the trail begins.
Each time we meet she smiles and nods. Her face shows wrinkles but her back is straight and the muscles of her legs are taut under tight blue jeans. Once she stopped and asked which country I was from. When I replied Egypt she drew a deep breath and said, ‘What a coincidence’. She was going to Egypt at the beginning of the coming year. She had always dreamt of going there ever since she was a child of ten, over 80 years ago.
My eyes opened wide in amazement. You, 90 years old?! She lifted her head up higher and said, ‘I am 93’.
I had never met anyone who was 93 years old. My mother had died when she was 45. When I turned 40 I thought that, like her, I had only five more years to live. But the years went by and now I am over 60, walking through the forest every day, continuing my life and my activities as though I were young and nothing had changed.
When I was ten years old I read in my schoolbooks that a woman reaches the ‘age of despair’ (Sinel Ya’as) when she is 40 and stops having children. At this age most women died one form of death or the other. They were either physically buried in the earth or socially buried behind a black veil, their heads bowed down to the ground as they prayed to God for forgiveness and got ready to leave for the other world.
When I was ten my imagination was unruly and had no bounds. Yet no matter how far it went it could never get beyond the next decade. I would close my eyes and try to imagine what I – and the world around me – would be like when I was 20.
I saw myself as a musician strumming the oud and singing and dancing. The world around me sang and danced too and everyone lived in peace and love. There was no poverty or sickness or ignorance. No discrimination between boys and girls.
At that time Egypt was called ‘the society of the two per cent’ because 80 per cent of the land was owned by 2 per cent of the people. At school every morning we would chant in praise of the king, God preserve him. Then the teacher would read out a sacred verse which told us to obey those who were our mentors – the provincial governors, the princes, the kings, who ruled over us. Then he read another verse which said that a woman’s duty was to obey, and that obeying her husband was obedience to God and to the ruler, for they were all linked. There would be another verse explaining that God had created people to be at different levels, had made some rich and others poor. If they submitted and were patient, poor people would go to paradise and be rewarded there.
My father also taught Islam but he explained the sacred verses in a different way. Obedience to the ruler was a duty if the ruler was just, for justice was the cornerstone of Islamic government. There was no difference between a man and a woman or between an Arab and a non-Arab. And God had not created poverty or disease, or ignorance. These three blights had been inflicted by the British colonisers, the corrupt monarchical rule, and the religious leaders who traded their teachings for money and power.
When I was ten I thought the world would change in less than ten years, and I would be living in a world where both women and men enjoyed justice, love, freedom, health, knowledge, creativity and beauty. Ten years passed and the British and the King were overthrown. In the mirror I saw a tall, slim young woman, a student in the school of medicine at the University of Cairo. I could see the girls around me, their heads held up proudly as they thronged into halls to learn about science and art.
Even at 20 no matter how far my imagination leapt I could never see myself except as a woman of 30 or at the most 40. I could not think of myself as 50. But since the day I met the woman in the forest I have realized that I might live to the age of 90 or longer.
The wrinkles in my face will increase, grow deeper. But the gleam in my eyes will not fade. Why should it? That woman I saw in the forest was 93. Her eyes shone with youth and she had the bubbling laughter of a child when she asked me how I saw the future. I closed my eyes for a moment and recalled my dreams as a child of ten. I flew up like a bird and looked down on a world of peace and joy and love and freedom, on people beautiful with health. My land was free.
I opened my eyes and found myself standing in a thick forest. In Egypt there are no forests. Where was I? I remembered that I had left my country three years ago, that my land had become free only to revert to being once more ‘a society of the two per cent’. Now instead of the older colonialism we have a new colonialism and corruption has grown worse than it ever was before.
Today I find myself outside the country where I belong, forced to leave by threats of death. I used to think my land was my home where I would live and where I would lie when dead. It was the land I fought to liberate when I was young. Is history repeating itself or is it true that it goes back to where it was? At 20 I used to go to university with no veil around my head. I looked at the world with an open face, for all to see. Now I see columns of female children in primary schools, their heads covered as though in shame, their eyes lowered to the ground.
Meanwhile, the dominant powers in the world support those who rule the Arab countries. The result is a widening gap between the rich and the poor and between men and women, and the growing strength of so-called ‘religious fundamentalists’.
But what will the world be like 30 years from now? I believe that the capitalist, military and patriarchal system will have disappeared along with religious fundamentalist movements. They will not be able to hold out against the growing movements of those who resist: the poor, young people, women and all those struggling for a better world.
In society every force that moves in a certain direction ends up by producing and reinforcing its opposite pole. The concentration of power and money in the hands of the few who rule the world market and seek to expand it, will only unite those who resist it and strengthen relationships of solidarity from below.
The world will not retreat into more chaos, poverty and violence. The prophecies of a Christian scholar I met in Oxford last August will not come true. With his eyes half closed and looking down his pointed nose, he told me that in the year 2025 all women will be back in the home. Women’s liberation will be a thing of the past, the Church will once more occupy a prominent role, and no woman will dare abort the child she carries in her womb.
He spoke with an arrogance and a disdain which reminded me of one of my professors in medical college back home. It was exactly 25 years ago that he pressed his thick fingers around my breast in a hospital clinic where I’d gone to be examined and told me: ‘You have a tumour in your breast and it is malignant. I am sorry you’ve left it too long. You might be able to fight it for another two years but after that I can’t be sure.’
I was seized with anger, with a feeling of rebellion against the way these male doctors manipulated the knowledge and tools they had at their disposal. I put on my clothes, said, ‘I will live until I am 100 years old’ and walked out of the door.
Deep inside I decided to live. I rejected my professor’s words. I said to myself: this swelling is benign and nothing can make me think that it is not so.
Twenty-five years have passed since I took this irrevocable decision to risk all. I am alive and my professor is dead. I saw his name in the obituaries published in the daily paper Al Ahram. The swelling in my breast gradually shrank until it was no more. How, I do not know. Are not the cells of one’s body subject to the will, to our passion for life? If we reject death can they decide not to go along the path of life which we choose?
I closed my eyes, lifted my face to the sun showing between the forest trees, and listened to the rustle of tiny leaves emerging with the hidden sap of spring. I could see myself at the age of 90 walking along the Nile near my home in Giza, covering five miles from one bridge to the other, stopping for a moment to feel the morning breeze as I rested my hand on the parapet and watched the fisherman move his oars. I could see myself strumming the oud and singing songs of my childhood. Around me people were on the move, going to work in a city radiant with sunshine and liberation from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, structural adjustment, Aid, aids, transnational corporations, neo-colonialism and religious fundamentalism.
I could see women marching forward once more, young people finding creative work to do. There was no poverty, no disease, no killing. The merchants of death had lost their voice and somehow people felt that tomorrow held a promise of growing freedom.
For is not society like the human body? When there is the will to do so it may overcome even a cancerous growth.
Translated by Sherif Hetata.
Nawal El Saadawi has written many books including Woman at Point Zero and Circling Song and is currently working on an autobiography. She set up the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association in Cairo, but fell foul of fundamentalists. The organization was closed down by the Egyptian Government and she went into exile. She and her husband Sherif Hetata are now teaching at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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