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At once appraised and anathematized among many of the scions of Arabic literary studies, the oeuvre of Egyptian writer and feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, her literary corpus, finds now in Men, Women, and God(s) an important and dynamic critical re-presentation. Fedwa Malti-Douglas draws out compelling connections that combine both the cultural controversies that El Saadawi has herself generated and the critical contributions that the writer has continually constructed. El Saadawi’s biography itself underwrites the organization of Malti-Douglas’s study, from her birth in 1931 in a Delta village, to her education at the University of Cairo and a degree in medicine, to her service in governmental ministries of health, through her writing career, punctuated by her period as a political prisoner arrested by the late president Sadat shortly before his assassination, the presence of her name on Islamist death lists, and to and through her participation in international conferences and meetings that convene to deliberate on the past, present, and future of women’s questions.
But as Malti-Douglas emphasizes, it is writing that has long grounded El Saadawi’s various commitments—indeed a former marriage ended when she chose her written engagements over her husband’s demands on her allegiances. And thus that writing organizes the presentation of “Nawal El Saadawi and Arab feminist poetics.” Eight chapters, each focusing on one of the writer’s works and framed by a dual introduction and conclusion, tell the ongoing story of the Egyptian [End Page 528] feminist’s scripted challenge to patriarchies, political oppressions, and religious domineerings—whether specific to the Middle East or generalized across global geographies. According to Malti-Douglas then: Memoirs of a Woman Doctor uses the fictions of autobiography to describe the “social politics of medicine,” a narrative that challenges the inherited binarisms of male/female, science/domesticity. Woman at Point Zero reads the relation between the “physician and the prostitute” in the doctor’s account of Firdaws in prison for murdering her pimp. In The Circling Song, it is still another question of honor, the issue of rape, and the narrative topos of “sinful sister and avenging brother” that continues to haunt Arabic literary conventions. The Fall of the Imam finds the patriarchies of political and religious establishments implicated one in the other, whereas The Innocence of the Devil emphasizes the pitfalls of theological orthodoxies. In the drama, Isiz, El Saadawi turns to that other tradition of domination, the Pharaonic, but insists instead on the female alternatives to the masculinist traditions. Finally, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison and My Travels Around the World describe, according to Malti-Douglas, both the liberatory compensations of confinement and the barriers raised—and razed—by transnational contacts.
Men, Women, and God(s) both catalogues and summarizes these representative works from the oeuvre of Nawal El Saadawi. In doing so, Malti-Douglas herself uses literary readings, socio-political historicizations, and feminist arguments in her strategic reassessment of El Saadawi’s exemplary biographical itinerary and literary career. If selected of these works are identified as drawing on the genre of Bildungsroman, so too does Malti-Douglas’s study. And that Bildung is one that draws together across El Saadawi’s corpus the critical fundaments and contradictions of contemporary feminist analysis, from debates over local authenticity and cultural identity to the “transnational circulation of cultural products,” with the continued administrations of Orientalism by its persistent representatives both Euro-American and Arab. The classical traditions no less than the contemporary critics (variously named and unnamed in the body of the text) are re-examined in the light and shadow of El Saadawi’s literary writing. The Qur’an and the hadith, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s own play entitled Isiz, the stories of that other Egyptian physician-writer Yusuf Idris, the classical journeys across time and place, and perhaps most importantly, [End Page 529] the model of Shahrazad, the sister storyteller of the 1,001 Nights, all participate in underscoring the significance of both writing and its criticism. From Shahrazad...