Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: Memoirs from the Women's Prison by Nawal El Saadawi

Reviewed by Christina (once again, a shout-out to Fresh Ink Books. Thanks for the bookloan, Sandra!)

Published: In Arabic, 1983. In English, as translated by Marilyn Booth, 1986.

It's about: Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian writer, physician, and feminist. In 1981 police barged into her home in Cairo, arrested her, and took her to a squalid prison outside of town. She was held there for almost three months with about 12 other women and girls, all political prisoners. None of them were informed of the charges against them and they had no contact with the world outside the prison.

In Memoirs from the Women's Prison, Saadawi records the events related to her incarceration and reminisces a little about her family and childhood. She also muses about free speech and democracy.

I thought: First, some background info: I've read a couple of this author's fictional works: God Dies by the Nile and Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. I wasn't crazy about either of them, but I admire Nawal El Saadawi herself so much that I still wanted to learn more about her. So I was still willing to read what she has to say about her own life, and I'm so glad I did. I feel like I understand her fiction better now that I've come to understand her personality, her voice.

I was delighted to find that the prose in MftWP is beautifully descriptive and yet clear and concise, journalistic. It's a million times more effective than the extreme emotionalism of Saadawi's fiction. The tone is fairly even-handed and less fire-and-brimstone than you might expect from an activist's memoir, especially as she describes her cellmates. The inmates themselves were what I liked best about this book- they are diverse and fascinating. I loved learning about the backstories and group dynamics of these women: conservative Muslims, prostitutes, beggars, professors, a communist.

Despite the rational, unmanipulative style, I found myself far more emotionally engaged when I read this book than I did with either of the fictional ones. I felt shuddery disgust as she described the living conditions, impotent anger at the total lack of even a pretense of justice, and admiration for the prisoners' kindness toward each other. I found inspiration in Nawal El Saadawi's strength of character and determination to remain optimistic under these debasing circumstances.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: Despite its being about prison, I found this book pretty uplifting. Check it out sometime when you need to be reminded how great your life is (you're not in a filthy Egyptian prison!) and/or you need to be reminded that humans can bond under the worst of circumstances.
I'd especially recommend Memoirs from the Women's Prison if you liked Zeitoun or The Hiding Place.

Warnings: a couple of swears

Favorite excerpts: "In prison I came to know both extremes together. I experienced the height of grief and joy, the peaks of pain and pleasure, the greatest beauty and the most intense ugliness. At certain moments I imagined that I was living a new love story. In prison I found my heart opened to love - how I don't know - as if I were back in early adolescence. In prison, I remembered the way I had burst out laughing when a child, while the taste of tears from the harshest and hardest days of my life returned to my mouth."

What I'm reading next: Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro