I seem to have come across a number of “essential” books summarizing works by great Egyptian thinkers and writers: I recently read The Essential Tawfiq al Hakim (2008) and The Essential Yusuf Idris (2009), both out from AUC Press, and I see they also will be putting out an Essential Naguib Mahfouz later this year.
And now Zed Books has come out with an Essential Nawal El Saadawi, as part of their “essential feminists” series. (The word “essential” is starting to look like nonsense to me; I’d better stop using it.)
Zed’s El Saadawi collection, edited by Adele Newson-Horst, ranges widely through El Saadawi’s work, but focuses more on her nonfiction and essays and less on her fiction and dramatic works, which I think is a proper assessment of the focus and importance of her work. While her fiction may be better-known in the English-reading world, it’s her essays that have made more of an impact (or at least been more widely read) in the Arabic-reading world.
From the first essay, “How to Write and Why”:
It was my mother, Zaynab, who taught me how to speak, then how to put words on paper or how to write. The first word I uttered was Mama, my mother. The first word I put on paper was Nawal, my name. When I went to school the teacher asked me to write my name on my notebook. I wrote the word Nawal. The teacher said I should write my full name, not just my first name. So I wrote Nawal Zaynab. The teacher was angry; he erased my mother’s name and ordered me to write my last name, El Saadawi. El Saadawi was a foreign name to me, the name of a grandfather who died before I was born.
I never liked the name El Saadawi; it was like a foreign body attached to me, but I had to write it all the time, on all my papers and books, until I was known as El Saadawi by everybody who knows me. However, deep inside me I never felt it was me or my real name.
Regular readers: I am still traveling, and later today will be venturing yet further afield, to places without Internet. Perhaps offline for three days?