252. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi
God Dies by the Nile* (Zed Books, FP: 1976; 175) by Nawal El Saadawi is a compendium of political, cultural, social, and religious oppression of a people by a demagogue through a supposed ruling class whom he gets to do what he wants. In this book, Nawal El Saadawi, whose subject of interest revolves around [religious] oppression in a patriarchal society, discusses how a people blinded by religion could become delusional in their depravity and even deemed it the will of God.
In this story, set in the village of Kafr El Teen, the Mayor is God, his word is law, and his passions reign supreme. And when this lascivious Mayor set his eyes on the children of an old woman, Zakeya, there was nothing anyone could do but to submit, even if it had to take the Sheikh to turn the words of Allah around to deceive the masses and an unfortunate and helpless woman. Everyone was blinded to the Mayor's deeds and all worked to not only protect him but also praise him to the hilt so that in grovelling before him, their daily bread would be assured. After a girl - Nefissa - in his household got pregnant, delivered and deserted the town and the baby entirely, the Mayor descended on the girl's younger sister. And for a man who felt incomplete and who would do anything to show his invisible superiority to anyone in the village and in his family, there was no settling for a negative responses or giving up.
This book documents the impotence of the people in dealing with this one individual who considered himself the purveyor of their daily bread but who also made their lives horrible and made them do things against their will. He set people up, falsely accused them, had them jailed or killed in the realisation of his needs. And even though the people were unhappy about this glaring abuse, they were crippled and incapacitated by the fear of the repercussions that would ripple through the village should any attempt be made; for he had the capacity to increase taxes, take away farm lands, and even to ostracise recalcitrant offenders. Consequently, no one tried.
There is a lot packed within this novella. However, there are too many characters for this thin book that hardly any character was completely developed. There was a sense of detachment and no emotional affinity towards the characters even though a very despicable and grief-laden story was being told. In addition to this, most of them were extremely wicked. They worked against their own people, turning their heads away from whatever was prevailing, if they were not contributing to it. Even Zakeya's nephew who had come from a war he had described as useless to witness the wickedness being heaved upon his family could do and think of nothing other than marriage. In the end, he was framed up for theft and whisked away without resistance, for being the obstacle between Zeinab and the Mayor.
Also the men were like automatons, they only did what they were asked to do. For instance, Nefissa's father beat him upon the advice of the village barber - Haj Ismail - who had come to convince him to allow his daughter to work at the Mayor's house; this was after he had hold the Haj Ismail that his daughter was not in agreement with that decision and Haj Ismail had in turn asked him who was the head of the house. This was repeated again with Fatheya's father - again for a similar action: refusal to marry the Mayor.
As a final cap of the 'male-bashing' literature, men were accused for the nude pictures of women on posters and advertising boards in Cairo when Zakeya made the journey to visit the mosque she had been directed to.
In addition, there was a lot of depravity in this story and this emboldened Nawal's relations with her male characters. Mostly, these were threads that could have been trimmed to improve the punch of the story if not for her affinity for the portraying men in such light. There was a man who had a personal sex life with an Ox; another with dead bodies; the Sheikh himself was raped by his uncle when he was young and he in turn married a child; and the Mayor was sexually abusive. The story of the man who slept with dead bodies was superfluous to the story. It just hanged in the story and linked to nothing. Same could be said for Kafrawi's sex life with the Ox. In fact, this bestial encounter was so descriptive that the reader is likely to be deceived that it was in reference to a lady. As if these depravities were not enough, the woman - the Sheikh's young wife - who had adopted Nefissa's daughter was beaten to death with the baby when she stood against a mob - made up entirely of men - who had accused the baby of being the cause of their recent problems; the problems being the social dissonance the Mayor had caused with his actions.
The story was also predictive in a way. Every chapter begins with a confusing description or narrative but it ultimately came down to a man who was doing evil, or a woman who was being abused. There were also some repetitive descriptions and phrases [too close to each other]. For instance, the way the sun set, the way a father beat the daughter and others, were so similar that the reader might wrongly think that he or she was repeating a page already read. For instance:
His fingers let go of his whiskers, and he gave a sudden gasp like a drowning man when he comes to the surface. 
then on the next page
She gave a sudden gasp of relief like a drowning woman who unexpectedly finds herself a the surface 
However, Nawal El Saadawi managed to send her message through, in the midst of these structural deficiencies. One could not help but frown upon such issues as Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage that were forcefully brought to the fore.
Religion played a strong role in this story. For instance the question of who is 'God' in the novel is important for the overall appreciation of the story. First, God could be a metaphor for the Mayor, who took upon himself certain key characteristics of God: infallibility, purveyor of human provisions, the law maker, and incontestability. Thus, his death - which occurred at the stroke of a hoe - is what the title encapsulates. However, the Mayor could be the personification of Islam (or Allah), which the author vituperatively spoke about. Thus, in this interpretation, the abuse of the people will be the direct outcome of Islam in practice. There are several places that this was directly or indirectly suggested. For instance, in his quest to get Zeinab into his household the Mayor and his coterie of friends deceived Zakeya through a Sheikh in a Mosque in Cairo. Here, prayers [a certain number] and recitations [a certain number] were used to deceive Zakeya into believing that she was being healed by Allah and that for it to be complete Allah had requested that she sent her daughter Zeinab to the home of the Mayor. In another situation, when Zakeya was imprisoned for the murder of the Mayor and she realised all that had occurred she suddenly had an epiphanic moment:
But every now and then the men around her could see her mutter, like someone talking to herself. She kept repeating in a low voice, 'I know who it is. Now I know him.' ... She stared into the dark with open eyes but her lips were always tightly closed. But one of the prisoners heard her mutter in a low voice, 'I know who it is.' And the woman asked her curiously, 'who is it my dear?'And Zakeya answered, 'I know it's Allah, my child.''Where is He?' sighed her companion. 'If He were here, we could pray Him to have mercy on women like us.''He's over there, my child. I buried him there on the bank of the Nile.'
This alternative explanation leads to the total repudiation of Allah as the overseer of life and the provider of compassion as shown subtly in the response: 'if He were here, we could pray Him to have mercy on women like us.' There is a sense of disbelief and mistrust in that statement.
Could the current Egyptian crisis therefore be, not necessarily a repudiation of religion, a repudiation of all the numerous Gods (Mayors) who had stifled the people? Could it be a spontaneous outburst of withheld emotions? However, this must be answered as cautiously as possible since Egypt is not a religious state and therefore an extrapolation of Kafr El Teen to Egypt cannot be linearly made. Also note that when Zakeya left her village to Cairo, she was amazed by the unbridled life the people lived to the extent that she became dizzy.
The book is not Nawal's finest, though I had problems with Searching, her only other book I have read. The problem with Searching was her description of men. Not the prose. In this book it is both. It is important that anyone who intends to read Nawal El Saadawi understands that she is not charitable with her male characters. They are as bad as they could possibly be and most of the time caricatured. This book is therefore cautiously recommended. If not for the buzz that surrounds this book, I would have suggested a skip, but it is important for one to read to come to a personal conclusion.
*A selection of the Book and Discussion Club for the month of July. Follow discussions on the book on twitter by clicking on the #wpghbookclub.
About the author: Read the author's profile here