walking through fire

November 29, 2008 § 3 Comments


i first read nawal el-saadawi’s writing in hebron, palestine.  the book: the woman at point zero, is about a woman who is on death row for killing her pimp.  the writing is sparse, eerie, precise, breathless, moving, and quick.

and with that book alone she became one of my favorite authors.

i just finished one of her memoir, named: walking through fire.  it follows her through her young adult life and three marriages, her career as a medical doctor and writer, the development of her political engagement.  and her two children.

i am stunned by her life.  it reminds me that so much is possible in this world.  that there are incredible barriers to what we can do and yet, and yet, and yet, there is also a way.  here is a woman living in egypt in the 1950s and 60s (the time in which most of the memoir takes place) who had two divorces in her 20s, had a young daughter and worked as a doctor and writer on the frontlines of various wars in egypt and jordan.  her family was recently middle class and part of her salary went to supporting her parents and her brothers and sisters.

and we think of middle eastern women as being some how other, so much further behind that the west in terms of freedom or possibility.  how many women today in the west feel comfortable being twice divorced by their thirtieth birthday?  how many women would have felt confident doing so in the west in the 1960s?

how did she do all this with a child?

alot of her choices were enabled by the presence of om ibrahim.  when she firsts moves from cairo to a rural village to run the village medical facilities om ibrahim comes to her door and asks to be taken into her home as a servant.

I bestowed the name Dada Om Ibrahim on her and she took over everything, the keys of the house. The care of my baby daughter, the cleaning, washing, and cooking.  I even left my secret diary with her.  I taught her how to read and write, gave her a big wrist-watch and a small notebook in which she used to note down my appointments, and all the running expenses.

om ibrahim was invaluable.  she became family and took over many of the duties traditionally thought of being the mother’s or the wife’s.  thus giving nawal the time to be able to work, to write, to leave her children in excellent care as she traveled to the palestinian refugee camps. in this memoir, om ibrahim is backgrounded by the incredible work that nawal does.  it is easy to see nawal as a revolutionary mother.  but equally om ibrahim is one.  she takes on the caretaking role, massages nawal’s feet at the end of a long day, wakes her up with breakfast and incense and even holds a more ‘irrational’ or ‘superstitious’ view of the world in comparison to nawal’s disbelief in djinnis and demons; all of these are stereotypically feminine characteristics and acts.

without om ibrahim, or someone like her, i do not know if nawal could have accomplished all that she did.   knowing that your children are taken care of, that the everyday details of your life are taken care of is a powerful gift of time and energy that frees you not only to work outside the home and imagine inside the mind but to create that ‘room of one’s own’ that woolf writes so eloquently about.

that ‘room’ at times in her life was invaded by her husbands but not by om ibrahim.  so this is my thank you to om ibrahim.  and caretakers like her.  om ibrahim was able to respect nawal’s space and time, to care for her without needing to control her, to respect them…and the acts of revolutionary caretaking creates the spaces in which others can be revolutionary as well.


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§ 3 Responses to walking through fire

  • Renee says:

    I must admit that I have never heard of this woman but her story sounds fascinating. I specifically love the idea that it breaks down the image western women have of middle eastern women.

  • maia says:

    oh do check her out. she has written several novels. and is a strong outspoken feminist. she was a political prisoner at one point and was viewed as dangerous political dissident by one faction or another for decades in egypt…

  • Sarah says:

    Thank you for writing about her. I discovered her books at Pendle Hill and was immediately blown away. Her writing is incredible, and the women she writes are profound. Reading about her own life is, thanks to this, again a priority.

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