Tuesday, May 10, 2011

80. Searching by Nawal El Saadawi

Title: Searching
Author: Nawal El Saadawi
Translator: Shirley Eber
Original Language: Arabic
Genre: Novella/Women Issues/Politics
Publisher: Zed Books
Pages: 114
Published: 1968 (English, 1991)
Country: Egypt

Searching, by Nawal El Saadawi, is a story about a woman in search of her vision and purpose in life - for that something she was created to discover - and for his boyfriend who had suddenly disappeared in a politically corrupt, myopic, shambolic and patriarchal state. Fouada is a trained Chemist. She works on nothing at the Ministry of Biochemistry. And this sinecure work is depressing her, pushing her off her vision. Fouada thinks that 'she could not live and die without the world changing at all' but the Ministry is doing nothing to help her contribute or discover something new in terms of laboratory research. Fouada meets Farid 'every Tuesday, at eight in the evening in that small restaurant when the weather was warm, or at his house on cold winter nights' except that this Tuesday Farid did not appear nor would he ever appear. Devastated by his absence and the silence of the telephone and, consequently, the absence of any apologies or reasons, Fouada becomes depressed.

Through her depression, the story of Fouada's life - her fears, her past and her visions are told: her hatred, her love, and her ambivalence towards her father, her vision to add something to the world, and her fears of what might have happened to Farid and even to her state of mind. Through this simple story, Nawal El Saadawi, portrayed the plight of women (and men) in Egypt and the lack of vision of the state. For instance, Fouada was described as hardworking even when she was doing nothing at her workplace. To worsen the situation, Saati - the landlord of an apartment she later hired to establish her own laboratory - told her he would hire her to work with him. There, there would be less to do.

As Fouada searched 'for Farid amongst the people she encountered' in buses on the streets, her frustrations and depression built up. She realised that she knew nothing about Farid - none of his relatives, his parents, the work he did and many more. The only connection between the two is the phone, his apartment and the restaurant. Every phone reminded her of Farid. The five-digit number was virtually sitting on her fingertips ready to be punched. Every thought she thought was linked with or was said by Farid. Things reached a crescendo when the restaurant was broken down by the municipality because the owner lost money and left the place. In its place was to be built a wall with the municipal's name on it. Thus, one of the connections between Fouada and Farid was broken to be replaced by the 'state'. Was Farid real? Was he a person she had met and known? Was he a phantom? As her search for him turned up nothing, she became disillusioned and isolated, bordering on mental breakdown. She questioned her mentality and the reality of Farid: 'maybe he was an illusion, a dream?' Finally, Fouada's source of encouragement, of financial support - her mother - also died.

As is characteristic of the Arab Women writers I have read, men were not spared in this short piece. Fouada's loathing for her father was palpable. I almost stopped reading, when I thought the pedantic and trite use of male characters was going too far; though the prose was excellent. Besides, though not the caricatured features of men but the inherent lordly nature they pose was seemingly real and not necessarily trite even in the twenty-first century. About Fouada's father, Nawal writes:
Her father was dead and she had perhaps been a little happy when he died, although not for any particular reason; her father had been nothing particular in her life. He was simply a father, but she was happy, because she felt that her mother was happy. Some days later, she heard her say that he hadn't been much use. She was totally convinced of her words. Of what use had her father been.
She continues
Her father flooded the bathroom when he took a bath, soaked the living-room when he left the bathroom, threw his dirty clothes everywhere, raised his gruff voice from time to time, coughed and spat a lot, and blew his nose loudly. His handkerchief was very large and always filthy. Her mother put it in boiling water and said to her: 'That's to get rid of germs.' ... That day, the teacher had asked the class: 'where are these things (germs) to be found, girls?' ... 'Do you know where germs are found, Fouada?' Fouada got to her feet, head above the other girls, and said in a loud, confident voice, 'Yes, miss. Germs are found in my father's handkerchief.' (Page 14)
And in this vein all the men, except Farid whose representation is more symbolic of the subtle fights against the government than a real character, were described. Both the Director at the Ministry and Saati - her landlord - were portly with grave descriptions. When Fouada saw the Director emerging from the car, she first saw
the pointed, black tip of a man's shoe, attached to a short thin grey-clad leg, then a large, white, conical head with a small, smooth patch in the centre, reflecting the sunlight like a mirror; square, grey shoulders emerged next, followed by the second, short, thin leg ... This body, emerging limb by limb, reminded her of a birth she had seen when she was a child. ... She saw the body laboriously climb the stairs. On each step, it paused, as if to catch its breath, and jerked its neck back. The large head swayed as if it would fall ... (Page 8/9)
Seeing Saati through the pin-hole in the door, Fouada saw his
Portly body was leaning against the window supported by legs that were thin, like those of a large bird. His eyes - now like a frog's, she thought - darted behind the thick glasses. It seemed to her that before her was a strange type of unknown terrestrial reptile - that might be dangerous. (Page 82)
At a subliminal we could reduce all the characters into symbols. The caricatured men are the overlords, the dictators and their laws that coil around the young and stifle progress. Couldn't young Fouada and Farid themselves represent the youth whose energy and vibrancy do not permit them to sit and partake in the rot of the society? Or the rusty old Ministry itself a representation of a nation that is fast losing its grandeur to corruption and laziness? Could this be the interpretation of Saadawi's novella?

At only 114 pages, this novella packs  a lot within its pages. Recommended for all.
Brief Bio: Nawal El Saadawi - Egyptian novelist, doctor and militant writer on Arab women's problems and their struggle for liberation - was born in the village of Kafr Tahla. Refusing to accept the limitations imposed by both religious and colonial oppression on most women of rural origin, she qualified as a doctor in 1955 from University of Cairo and rose to become Director of Public Health. Since she began to write, her books have concentrated on women. In 1972, her first work of non-fiction, Women and Sex, evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities, dismissing her. Later, in 1980 as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women's social and intellectual freedom - an activity that had closed all avenues of official jobs to her - she was imprisoned under the Sadat regime. She has since devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and worldwide speaker on women's issues. (More here)

ImageNations Rating: 5.5 out of 6.0


  1. I loved reading your thoughts on this book Nana, and think it sounds extremely interesting. The plight of the main character, and the way she is so productive, yet does so little work is really intriguing to me. I would love the chance to read this one as see what I make of it. Fantastic review!

  2. Thanks Zibilee... you would love this...

  3. I like the storyline. Where did you get your copy? I guess it's published by Heinnemann.

  4. @Geosi, I got it from EPP, the Trade Fair branch. It was a single copy and a slightly used one. Published by Zed Books. It's very interesting.

  5. Interesting review, I somehow missed it when you first posted about it. Saadawi is a pretty remarkable lady isn't she? From her writings, her imprisonment and exile, her activity in the recent protests, she has done a lot. I think she writes about certain experiences to show them for what they are and you are right - it's men vs women and the way culture distorts the relationships, as well as the old / dictators vs the youth who have been excluded. She manages to put so much into so little words. I want to read this one now!

    We are reading Saadawi this month for the Year of Feminist Classics. Do check it out if you get a chance and let us know your two cents from having read this one :)

  6. @Amy... seems I am talking about men-women lately. Yet, this is a novel that tells a lot. I would pass by to contribute. I am back from the field, at least for some time I would be around.


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