Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El Saadawi

Reviewed by Christina (pssssst! A BIG thank you to Sandra at Fresh Ink Books who lent this to me!)

Published: In serialized form, in Arabic, in the magazine Ruz al-Yusuf in 1957. In English, as translated by Catherine Cobham, in 1988

It's about: Don't be fooled by the title! Nawal El Saadawi is a doctor, but this isn't actually her life we're reading about in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. It's a novel about a woman who grows up in a traditional Egyptian family, raised to feel inferior to all males and to look forward only to a life of domestic servitude. This particular woman rebels against her family's way of thinking; she works hard in school and eventually becomes a very successful doctor, ultimately turning her back on the rigidly anti-feminist society in which she lives. Throughout her life, though, she struggles with her identity, at first hating her female body and shutting out everyone around her, but ultimately coming to know and love herself.

I thought: A few months ago I read and strongly disliked another of Nawal El Sadaawi's novels, God Dies by the Nile. So when I picked up Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, I wasn't expecting to fall in love. And, you know, sometimes it's nice not to have high expectations for a book. I'm not going to say I was pleasantly surprised and smitten or anything, but I did like this one more than the other. Forgive me for continually making comparisons between the two novels in this review; I don't know any other way to organize my thoughts. I think it'll still make sense, even if you haven't read either of them.

Memoirs still has Ms. Sadaawi's emotional, fragmented style, and I still don't like it. But I have to admit that it worked better here because the story is so much more focused. We are learning one woman's inner life and experiencing her memories as they pour out of her, so it makes sense for the narrative to be disjointed and emotionally charged. The effect wasn't nearly as disorienting as in God Dies, when an entire town's story was told this way.

Feminism is front and center here, and the news isn't new: Egypt was even worse for women in the 1950's than it is now. What was interesting to me was the medical establishment's total lack of respect for patients. ALL of the male doctors in this book are heartless and cruel. One doctor actually slaps a patient in the face for being reluctant to disrobe in front of a female doctor (the narrator) and I can't help but wonder whether that incident might be based on one of Sadaawi's own experiences. I'm sure she exaggerates the absolute badness of doctors; she's making the point that women may be better suited to be doctors than men. But still, it made me glad I wasn't a patient in Cairo 60 years ago.

The narrator reminded me a little of Dagny Taggart, another successful woman in a Man's World. They are both extremely intelligent and confident in their abilities, and both spurn the messed-up societies in which they live; it's presented as a simple fact that no one else is smart or strong enough to be worth their while. Another goodreads reviewer noticed a similarity between Sadaawi and Ayn Rand in the "forceful and self-righteous writing." I think it's that tone that bothers me about Sadaawi's novels and protest fiction in general, even when I know I have a tendency to preach about the same issues.

Verdict: In between. Definitely not a new favorite, but it's effective and worth the read.

Reading Recommendations: It's only 100 pages. Pick it up if you're interested in the history of women in Egypt.

Warnings: References to marital sex. Nothing graphic.

Favorite excerpts: "A vast new world opened up before me. At first I was apprehensive, but I soon plunged avidly into it, overwhelmed by a frenzied passion for knowledge. Science revealed the secrets of human existence to me and made nonsense of the huge differences which my mother had tried to construct between me and my brother.
Science proved to me that women were like men and men like animals. A woman had a heart, a nervous system and a brain exactly like a man's, and an animal had a heart, a nervous system and a brain exactly like a human being's. There were no essential differences between them! A woman contained a man inside her and a man concealed a woman in his depths. A woman had male organs, some apparent and some hidden, and a man had female hormones in his blood. Human beings had truncated tails in the form of a few little vertebrae at the base of their spinal columns; and animals shed tears.
I was delighted by this new world which placed men, women, and animals side by side, and by science which seemed a mighty, just and omniscient god; so I placed my trust in it and embraced its teachings."

What I'm reading next: Memoirs from the Women's Prison by Nawal El Saadawi