A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Wrap-Up: God Dies by the Nile

Title: God Dies by the Nile
Author: Saadawi, Nawal El
Length: Varies per edition, approximately 175 pages
Genre: Fiction
Original Published In: 1974

I have to start by saying what a fantastic time I’ve had this month. Due to my life finally being in order I’ve been able to participate much more than I had been able to previously. Sadly participation was lower this month but hopefully my availability continues strong and participation increases as we read books that are more available!

I started the month with an introduction to Saadawi and to this book, continued with some possible discussion questions to think of when reviewing the book, and then mid-month continued with more information and news about Saadawi. In addition to reading this title I tried to learn more about Saadawi by searching out her political protest involvement (discussed in the posts linked above) and I also tried to read more of her works. Sadly due to the Canada Post strike and lock-out two of the titles I purchased have yet to arrive on my doorstep, but I was able to read both Woman at Point Zero and The Novel. I do think that these titles helped me get a better understanding of Saadawi’s work.

Now, my thoughts on this book. I really did like it (my review is also posted at Amy Reads). Although now that SilverSeason has pointed out some of the language (translation?) issues I can’t get them out of my head (everything being pale), I still really enjoyed the language of the book. I found it very sparse and simplistic, and the use of repetition, to me, really reinforced how little possibility there was of anything changing. Through the course of the novel we see the perspective of a variety of characters through the story which, I felt, gave the reader a true overview of the situation and the true extent of the corruption.

Another thing that I enjoyed about the book was the way in which the corruption and mistreatment affected every member of the village in some way. The powerful were on edge trying to keep their power, the women suffered at the hands of men, and the men also struggle as the powerful work at different ways to access the women and so get rid of the men. The treatment of men through the story, to me, showed clearly how improving the lot of women also helps men. If the mayor can’t simply kill the man to get the woman, then the man wouldn’t suffer as much either. I loved how Saadawi showed the effects throughout not only on women but on men – I can’t help but think (sadly) that seeing that their lot will also improve will get men to pay more attention.

Lastly, throughout the novel we see again and again how religion is used by corrupt officials to trick and subjugate peasants. I thought that through this Saadawi was showing that religion itself isn’t the cause of suffering but rather a tool being used. Her choice of title, I felt, owed more to the corruption. Allah can’t really be killed, unless someone else has taken over the role of Allah as we saw in the book.

What did everyone else think? Please share your thoughts!

A few participants have already linked their reviews so I will share a brief taste of their experiences reading the book. Do click through to read their full reviews and comment!

Christina of The Blue Bookcase showed reasons why she wanted to really like the book and explains why it just didn’t work, starting by asking:

There are important issues here, ones that often occupy the minds of bleeding-heart liberals like me. God Dies has class struggle, domestic abuse, arranged marriage, female circumcision, corruption in government and religion, and even PTSD. These huge, horrible things are as relevant now as they were when the book was written in the 1970’s. So why didn’t I get all excited and activsity when I read this?

Lauren of Underneath a Book did enjoy the book more. She compares it to another book (that I need to read!), Beloved, saying:

Both women, Zakeya and Sethe, live incredibly hard lives, surviving through their wits and hard, physical labor, and are constantly tormented by the inequalities that surround them. Both Morrison and Saadawi do an incredible job of rendering even the most violent, desperate acts understandable and those who commit them human.

SilverSeason, blogging at Silver Threads, had issues with the language and translation and also points out that:

I find this novel more of a protest against the injustice of Egyptian society than a feminist tract. There is not much to choose between the abuse of men and women in the story; each is abused in accordance with his or her gender. Men are murdered and falsely accused of murder. Women are deceived and seduced and cast out. Being male does not save the “son of fornication and sin” from death at the hands of the mob.

BeachReader talked about the same thing, saying:

It is so full of despair, anger, and violence that it keeps the reader on edge because you know as you read it there is no happy ending.  Not only is it about the subjugation of women on the most bases of levels, it is also about the confinements of a social class system that’s walls are impenetrable.

Melissa of The Feminist Texican [Reads] had a post that completely blew me away (seriously Melissa, your posts are always brilliant!). She talks about how she saw a review on GoodReads that talked about the anger in the book and this got her thinking about – and discussing – the stereotype of Angry Feminist. I’ll just include a short excerpt but I highly recommend reading the whole:

As Nawal El Saadawi is a Muslim woman of color writing about disenfranchised women in an African country, the Angry Feminist label assumes a messier set of baggage when applied to this book. The Angry Woman of Color label has racist roots in both feminism and society at large. Think of the anger-related stereotypes of women of color and how they’ve been used in delegitimizing ways, even though the anger that inspired these terms is often perfectly justifiable: Bitchy Asian, Angry Black Woman, Hot-Tempered Latina, etc. Now think of the mainstream anger-related stereotype for Muslim women…I don’t think there is one. By and large, the most prevalent stereotype of Muslim women involves silence and face-covering veils.

 

Finally, please do add your review to the InLinkz collection below to create an easy database for participants to use to find your review and keep the discussion going!



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More on Nawal El Saadawi

I apologize for the lack of structure in my post today, but I had a number of different items that I wanted to discuss with you.

1.

For anyone who is interested, Lauren who blogs at Underneath a Book has offered her copy of God Dies by the Nile to anyone who is interested. She mentioned in a comment on the introduction post to send her an email if you are interested. I found a link to her email address on her profile page. (This copy has been spoken for already!) Thank you so much for helping out this month Lauren! (You can also check out her thoughts on the book while you are at it.)

Christina of The Blue Bookcase also offered her copy up to another participant this month (this copy was already spoken for) so I want to say a huge thank you to her as well. I love the sharing that is going on, especially for this title which sadly isn’t available free online.

2.

I want to talk briefly about my effort to read more works by and learn more about Nawal El Saadawi. To this extent I recently finished Woman at Point Zero which was really another really interesting book. It was similar to God Dies by the Nile in that it explores issues of corruption, violence against women, and the lack of rights held by women in Egypt. It was completely different, however, in that the story is narrated by an unnamed psychiatrist who visits a woman who is set to be executed the following morning. The bulk of the novel is the story of the woman in prison’s story, as told to the psychiatrist. I really liked how the story examined issues of women’s sexuality and liberation and the different ways in which women sell themselves.

Definitely a lot of food for thought in this book.  I especially loved the way in which Saadawi uses repetition to show the ways in which Firdaus was constantly falling into the same traps. The use of repetition also underscores her slowly finding herself and learning to extricate herself from the situations in which she ended up. Although she starts off incredibly naive and trusting, she comes through the book to realize the folly of trust in anyone but herself. For more you can check out my review.

Lined up I have The Novel, Saadawi’s most recent publication, which I am hoping to read this week. I also just placed an order for The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, and Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi. I am hoping that these two books show up soon so that I can read them and discuss them this month. I am also hoping to read the former this week. After reading two of her books and finding out more about her political activism online, I wanted to know more about Saadawi herself which is why I ordered her autobiography. I have a feeling that she is an author whose entire catalog I will be reading my way through in the coming months and years!

3.

I received a really great email from a participant / follower, Cosima Green, about some points I made in the introductory post for this month. Cosima is reading Daughter of Isis and her points to me were about things that she had read in that book (this is a large part of why I ended up ordering the book myself, so thank you!). I had responded asking if Cosima would be willing to write a post but I haven’t received a response as of yet, so thought I would talk about it briefly here.

I learned what I talked about in the introduction on Saadawi and God Dies by the Nile from the introduction to that book, what I had seen online about political activism by Saadawi, and the Wikipedia entry. One thing that Wikipedia mentions and that I mentioned as well in the introduction is the fact that apparently she was raised by her father to be strong and independent. According to her biography, however, her father didn’t figure nearly as strongly in her life as her mother did. Rather, her mother was the largest influence on both her character, her life path, and her education.

Cosima mused (if I may paraphrase loosely what I really picked out of her discussion) on the fact that we identify strongly that fathers have more of a say over the lives of their children, and it is especially noteworthy when they value the education of their female children. But why is it that we then reward them and mark them down in the history books more than the woman who oftentimes (and in this case especially) had so much more of an influence? While her father was definitely an important figure in her upbringing, he wasn’t the most important, according to Saadawi but in direct contrast to what one can learn online.

First of all I have to say a huge thank you for emailing me about this because it was really interesting to read and to think on. I think that very interesting discussions could be had both about the ways in which we reward fathers for doing the minimum, and also the ways in which we disregard the exceptional deeds of mothers. Because the Wikipedia entry leans toward discussing her father, until this email I had no idea that her mother was so much more influential. I’m interested to know – what do you, the readers, think of this? Do you think there is a solution that would have us recognize both parents equally?

Discussion Questions: God Dies on the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi

I finished reading this book on Saturday and wow, there is so much to discuss in it. I thought I’d start a post here with a few general questions for discussion either in the comments, via email (if you email me at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com I will put them in a post), or on your own site if you have one. If you have more questions do comment with them or email them to me and I’ll add them in.

I know that the book is harder to find and so there will be less of us discussing the title this month, but I do hope that there will be a few who join in 🙂

Overall, did you like the book? Do you think the point was to like it? Do you think Saadawi (and her translator) conveyed the ideas she meant to? There are a large number of really graphic violent and sexual acts discussed or mentioned in the book. Do you think these contributed to the story in a positive way or did they sometimes detract from it?

There was a really interesting quote that read, on page 51, “Men have always been immoral. But now the women are throwing virtue overboard, and that will lead to a real catastrophe.” I thought this was an interesting double standard that is very rarely actually acknowledged. What did you think of this?

The title, God Dies by the Nile is explained in the ending chapters of the book. Throughout the book religion is shown as corrupt but it seemed to me it was shown as corrupt in how it was practiced rather than in its true form, and that the corruption of government led to and bolstered the corruption of the religion. And it isn’t really God who dies but rather the main cause of corruption in the town. In other books we’ve discussed this month authors used the Christian religion to bolster their feminist ideas. In this one Saadawi shows the corruption of religion and how women are being oppressed and mistreated through the religion. Do you think this is a generational thing that there is a now a dissatisfaction in the thought of religion helping, or is it the fact that the book was written as a novel rather than non-fiction, or (an idea I don’t agree with but I’m interested in hearing other views!) is it because she is talking about Islam as opposed to Christianity?

Saadawi was a big presence in the recent uprisings and protests against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. She says that democracy and women’s rights go hand in hand and can’t be separated. Do you think this is a true point? The book we are reading this month ties the corruption in the government to the oppression of women in various ways, how do you think she shows it most? Do you think her current statements fit with her earlier ones (i.e. the book)? (For more, Afirca is a Country has numerous videos with her: an interview with Newsweek, a question and answer with Al Jazeera on the link between democracy and women’s rights, and a speech by her on her books and the uprising.)

An Introduction to God Dies on the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi

Many of the ‘standard’ feminist classics that we can name off the top of our head when asked to are written by women from Europe or North America. As part of this project it was pointed out that we should expand our horizons and consider those classics coming from other parts of the world as well. (And can I just remark again how grateful I am that this suggestion was made to us!) As I’d heard quite a little bit about Saadawi and her works I thought she would be a great choice and so she was added to our list.

Saadawi is a fantastic woman to read about. I admit that I am going in to this project a little blind and know almost nothing about her except what I’ve managed to find online. She was born in 1931 outside Cairo and was actually sent to school – which was unusual for a girl at the time. Raised by her father to be strong and independent but forced at a young age to take care of her younger siblings when her parents died, she still managed to graduate medical school in Cairo in 1955. She spoke her mind and wrote about the issues that she saw affecting women even though it caused her to lose good jobs and be persecuted by the government. (Read more on Wikipedia.)

She has a long list of works to her name ranging from autobiographies of her time in the Egyptian women’s prison to non-fiction on the status of women in the Arab world to fictional novels. According to Wikipedia it is her 1972 Women and Sex that was seminal to second-wave feminism but alas, it seems to be harder to find. Instead we chose for this month her novel God Dies by the Nile which was written in 1974 as Death of the Only Man in the World  and published under the new title when translated from Arabic in 1985. The original title was meant to be God Dies by the Nile but no Arabic publishers would print the title either in Lebanon where it was first printed or later in Egypt because they said, according to the foreword, that “God cannot die” and that they didn’t want their shops burned down by fundamentalists.

The novel that we will be reading together (and I do hope that you all join in with us! I know this is a harder book to find but I think it will be very worth finding if you can), God Dies by the Nile is set in a small village on the Nile river. The cover of my edition (published by Zed Books and purchased online at Book Depository) reads:

Nawal El Saadawi’s classic attempt to square religion with a society in which women are respected as equals is as relevant today as ever.

Some of the other books that we’ve read have been very focused on Christianity (Mary Wollstonecraft for example), so I think it will be an interesting change to read a novel now that tries to square feminist ideals with Islam. The novel deals not only with religion but also with corruption and, obviously, the mistreatment of women.  I think that we will have a lot to discuss in its pages.

Saadawi also says of the book that it was inspired by stories she heard as a young girl of peasants committing suicide or running away because they become pregnant as servants to mayors and other big men, and how there is no retribution or justice for them. She says also “I finished the novel in two months. Writing it gave me enormous pleasure, a pleasure which sustained me inside prison, and which is more essential to me than breathing.”

Because I know so little about Saadawi and her works and we kind of picked this title at random, I’ve also picked up two other works by her – The Novel and Women at Point Zero to read as well through the month. Is anyone else interested in reading some of her other works and talking about them here? I would love to host anyone who would like to discuss any of her other works or her political activism! Please send me an email at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com or at amy[dot]mckie[at]gmail[dot]com.