Woman at Point Zero

Revisiting my Nobels always also includes guessing and hoping for a favourite to receive this year’s award. Nawal El-Saadawi has been on my wish list for the Nobel Prize in Literature for many, many years, ever since she dragged me into the scary universe of Two Women in One, showing the double life of women in Egypt, conforming to rules set by men while letting their creativity and independence gain power within their own minds.

The Swedish Academy being what it is, it would be completely unheard of to award women two years in a row, but I keep hoping! (view spoiler)[ Well, yes, looking back on my thoughts in September – really only a few months ago – I can say Pandora’s Box is wide open, and hope left with the rest! (hide spoiler)]

Why Nawal El-Saadawi?

She was a psychiatrist before she became an author, and she is a politician and a human rights activist, so one might argue that she is not dedicating her whole body and soul to literature and therefore not a valid aesthetic choice. However, Nobel’s will clearly states that the prizes should be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.

“Woman at Point Zero” makes the case for women in the Arab world, shows their vulnerability, their strength and intelligence, and at the same time, it is a harrowing work of fiction, of classical
drama. Awarding El-Saadawi the Nobel Prize would officially recognise the voice of women in oppressive societies, while adding a compelling storyteller to the list of laureates.

Similar to Drakulic’ As If I Am Not There in the depiction of regular, institutionalised abuse, “Woman at Point Zero” adds the dimension of internal striving for freedom.

The book begins on the night before the main character’s execution in a prison. The basic facts of the story are true, and Nawal El-Saadawi recounts the original circumstances in her preface, explaining how she came to know the real woman the novel is based on:

“Firdaus, however, remained a woman apart. She stood out amongst the others, vibrated within me, or sometimes lay quiet, until the day when I put her down in ink on paper and gave her life after she had died.”

This story is an act of catharsis, using the creation of art to survive the pain of reality. Again, the similarity to Drakulic is striking. She also focused on the therapeutic, cathartic power of art in her novel Marble Skin.

El-Saadawi does not simply record the story she listens to, in the way of the journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her documentation of the Soviet Union and Russian life post communism, she creates a setting, not unlike Sheherazade’s nightly storytelling atmosphere in the face of imminent execution. There is urgency in the voice of the woman who cuts her visitor short:

“Let me speak. Do not interrupt me. I have no time to listen to you. They are coming to take me at six o’clock this evening. Tomorrow morning I shall no longer be here.”

Then she starts talking, and the story unfolds with terrifying logic. We encounter a young girl full of curiosity, loving school, devouring books:

“I developed a love of books, for with every book I learned something new. I got to know about the Persians, the Turks and the Arabs. I read about the crimes committed by kings and rulers, about wars, peoples, revolutions, and the lives of the revolutionaries.”

At this point in her life, she has already experienced sexual abuse by her uncle, and she relates the stories she reads to her own life and concludes:

“I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy.”

As a grown-up, she works as a prostitute and learns to suppress all feelings. She becomes an automaton, brutally shaken awake when she falls in love:

“When I was selling my body to men, the pain had been much less. It was imaginary, rather than real. As a prostitute, I was not myself, my feelings did not arise from within me.
They were not really mine. […] With love I began to imagine that I had become a human being.”

Her humiliation and hurt are so intense because she had begun to hope. Let down even by the man she loves, she is devastated.

After that experience, she frees herself from all male domination and acts on her own. She strikes back, and returns the violence she has been subject to since childhood.

The result eventually is her arrest for murder and ultimately her execution, which she celebrates:

“They said: “You are a savage and dangerous woman”.
“I am speaking the truth, and truth is savage and dangerous.”

With pride she leaves for her last encounter with oppressive society, leaving the shocked and deeply touched narrator behind:

“I saw her walk out with them. I never saw her again. But her voice continued to echo in my ears, vibrating in my head, in the cell, in the prison, in the streets, in the whole world, shaking everything, spreading fear wherever it went, the fear of the truth which kills, the power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as the child that has not yet learnt to lie.”

Those words speak for themselves, and that voice deserves to be heard, along with the many other voices creating a chorus singing of freedom of choice for oppressed people around the world, a chorus in which I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban chimes in, or Virginia Woolf in her A Room of One’s Own.

Maybe it is time for the academy to make a statement by awarding women the Nobel Prize in Literature twice in a row, after a century of lopsidedness, missing out on women of Woolf’s caliber?

Says the bookworm cheering on her favourites, well aware that the election process is complicated, political, and sometimes quite random. And that her taste is not universal, but personal!

I have other favourites to cheer on as well, but I keep my fingers crossed for this author of savage truth in a political landscape recently labelled the “post-truth era” by The Economist!

Woman at Point Zero

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