Egypt's 'woman rebel' back in the line of fire

Egyptian author Nawal al-Saadawi has always had a bumpy relationship with her country's censors. Recently, her own publisher stopped printing two of her books because they were deemed blasphemous by some. MENASSAT's Cairo correspondent has this in-depth look at Al-Saadawi's story.
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Egyptian author Nawal Al-Saadawi with her banned book, "The Fall of the Imam." R.R.

CAIRO, July 2, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Egyptian newspapers recently began publicizing statements from a Cairo-based publisher who claimed to have "executed" two books by famed author Nawal Al-Saadawi.

The story was in fact over a year old and had fallen off the media radar until it was dug up again in May when an Agence France Press (AFP) wire story quoted Madbouli Library owner Mahmoud Madbouli saying he "killed" two of Saadawi's books for "blasphemy."

It prompted a media backlash locally in Cairo and sparked a debate as to whether the books were simply being withheld or had been shredded. But the story didn't last long in the Egyptian press.

Nawal Al-Saadawi, an outspoken critic of religious authority and of Egypt's patriarchal cultural traditions, criticized both the Egyptian publishing world and the intellectual establishments for their complicity in the censorship.

According to Al-Saadawi, Madbouli's stance has reinvigorated a debate about whether the destruction of the books was unique to her case or whether it was part of a larger censorship campaign throughout Egypt.

Publisher lost

The two works that were destroyed were the novel "The Fall of the Imam" and the play "God resigns for the Summit."

Publisher Madbouli said he told Al-Saadawi about his decision not to print the books before she left for Belgium in April.

"She said she completely understood my motives and decided to cooperate with other publishing houses," he said.

"We will not publish anymore of her books in this chaotic period because it would affect the sale of all her books in the long run," Madbouli told MENASSAT in an exclusive interview.

Al-Saadawi has made her reputation by defending women's rights and criticizing political repression in Egypt. She has been sent to jail more than once. Last week, she said that she feels sorry for Madbouli.

"He has been the victim of a society that imprisons writers and artists because of a narrow-minded vision of religion and Islam," she said.

When asked, Madbouli said that he calls for freedom of opinion except when it comes to religion. Madbouli admitted to destroying the books last year in the presence of Egypt's book controller, adding that he lost $14,000 in related costs.

During the eighties, Madbouli Library was among the most important publishers for Al-Saadawi and for many progressive Arab writers, due in large part to the shrinking publication options in Lebanon, a country in the throes of a civil war at the time.

Al-Saadawi's first book, published by Madbouli in 1948, was "Al-Insan - 12 women in a cell". Her last book to be published by Madbouli was "Kasser al-Houdoud" (Breaking the Boundaries) in 2004.

Madbouli told MENASSAT, "We didn't read the text of the story or the play because Al-Saadawi sent us a CD and we sent it straight to the printers. About a year ago, a journalist told us that the two books were blasphemous, so we decided to destroy them. The novel was already printed so we gathered the copies that we had left. As for the play, we had all the copies (3,000 copies) at our headquarters.”

"We didn't burn the books. We only shredded them in the presence of a security official, because we don't want to be accused later of selling the books," Madbouli said.

Asked if his publishing house would consider publishing or distributing any other books by Al-Saadawi, Madbouli said, "We have published more than 12 of Al-Saadawi's books and we have distributed the books she didn't print with us. But now, she is free to search for another publishing house, and many would welcome her."

Al-Saadawi confirmed to MENASSAT that the destruction of the two works has effectively meant the end of her cooperation with Madbouli. It has been a painful split, bringing an end to a 50-year-long publishing relationship between Al-Saadawi and Madbouli.


Egypt's main guardian of Islamic orthodoxy, the Islamic Research Academy, anticipated the release of the play, "God Resigns from the Summit." The Academy immediately announced a complaint would be filed with the Attorney General against Al-Saadawi for blasphemy.

The court is currently waiting the complete charges being leveled against Al-Saadawi by the Academy.

Critics of Al-Saadawi have said that the writer defamed God and the angels when she depicted "The Creator" as a king in his sixties who rarely left his palace without guards or soldiers accompanying him. Other descriptions have "The Creator" sitting by a pond surrounded by rivers of wine, a scene critics have said depicts heaven according to the Quran.

Al-Saadawi also characterized the devil as a handsome man in his thirties, and described several characters related to religious figures in the Quran – including Saint Peter, described as the Creator's assistant. All of these descriptions have fueled the wrath of her longtime detractors.

Regarding these objections, Al-Saadawi told MENASSAT, "I don't answer to the ignorant."

Women's opinion

38-year old Samia Bakri is an Egyptian journalist for the Dar al-Tahrir newspaper. She read Al-Saadawi’s works in university, and told MENASSAT that she dealt with subjects that touched a large audience for how she dealt with the abuse of women by family members.

"If I read her works now, I would be just as interested because life and relations between men and women are that much more complicated," Bakri said.

"The issue of the destruction of the two books was exaggerated by the media and not by Al-Saadawi", she added.

Aya Mohammad Saleh is a 17-year old from Cairo. She told MENASSAT that her mother banned Al-Saadawi's books from their house two years ago "after she noticed I had been reading them during summer vacation." Since then, Saleh said, "I have been keeping up with her  through the internet. But I haven't been able to read her actual work, only stories about her."

An Egyptian journalist living in the Emirates, Hanan Kamal, told MENASSAT that in much of the Arab world, Al-Saadawi is viewed as a courageous rebel against the Egyptian regime, rather than as a writer or an intellectual.

"I know the women's situation is getting worse in Egypt," Kamal said. "But if we take a closer at the relation between Egyptian society and the ideas of Al-Saadawi, we notice that there is a complete disconnect between the two."

"Nawal Al-Saadawi cares a lot about what shocks people, and she likes to focuses on sexual taboos. But the main concern in the lives of millions of working women in Egypt is not sex. The reason might be because Al-Saadawi was raised in a middle class family with a distorted image of the Egyptian woman and her role in society. But today, the Egyptian middle class is struggling with different crises, and I feel that many of Al-Saadawi's ideas have become out-dated."

In March 2007, a progressive website called on Al-Saadawi's supporters to sign a petition supporting her battle against the publisher's decision. So far, 800 people have signed, including several high-profile personalities.