Dr Nawal El Saadawi is free. This was my first impression of the 84 year old renowned and sometimes controversial writer, psychiatrist, and activist from Egypt as she took her seat on stage and received the admiring cheers from her audience last Saturday July 2nd at the Africa Writes festival, British Library.
Dr Nawal El Saadawi is free. What does it mean to sit a few rows in front of the stage and view another human being as free?
What does freedom mean for a woman from a patriarchal society who has been imprisoned for her written words? As Dr Saadawi has penned so famously; “danger has been part of my life ever since I picked up the pen. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies”.
Dr Saadawi was miraculously clear about some of the most complex issues of our time, especially for my generation. We are faced with a moving world; a world of travelling cultures. This in itself is not a new phenomenon of course; but the scrutiny and normatively that is placed on the shoulders of those who are nomads are heavy judgments. Who are we to make of ourselves when we are confined by the parameters of societies that we should belong to and societies where we are not permitted to belong to?
As the conversation progressed, it was further evident from Dr Saadawi’s personality that her aliveness comes from her calling as a writer. However, I also saw a physician on stage; more so, a psychiatrist as she invited members of the audience to sit next to her, and offered her seat, which was such a warm gesture.
She listened, she looked, she heard and she saw. She reflected on the questions that were curiously placed upon her, some of them were conflicted or confused or had long been suffered through. Yet Dr Saadawi’s containment of these snippets into a stranger’s life narrative was wholesome and compassionate. Most of all, they were freeing.
Even as a silent member of the audience, I felt myself feeling freer as Dr Saadawi told us that her “identity is not fixed” and the “more mixed blood the better”. Identity, she firmly told us, is about division; about divide and rule. We can see the irony here clearly; we need to unite more than ever yet we are demanded to identify who we are, where we come from, or, what our religion is. On her own identity, Dr Saadawi told us “when I’m in Egypt, the homeland, the motherland, I must be Egyptian, but I resist it because I don’t want to be in a jacket. It is fanatical”. Instead she encouraged us to remember that we are mixed blood.
“Mixed blood is honesty with yourself – why should you cut part of yourself; its rich and real democracy”.
Dr Saadawi challenged every boundary of our modern day prisons; she broke down the borders of religion and science, and the mind and body. She reminded us that these divisions are forced; they are products of colonialism.
How to set ourselves free? Through creativity. As a physician, Dr Saadawi linked creativity to health; they walk hand in hand.
It was when Dr Saadawi talked to us about her experience as a writer though that I could feel her freedom the most. She explained “writing is like an urge, it is physical. You follow your body, your mind. There is no split between body and mind. This is creativity. The split is forced – it is politics, it is slavery”.
Perhaps Dr Saadawi’s instinct towards freedom is because her own life narrative is also embodied with imprisonment and prescription of thought. Her creativity is the tool she used to transcend these artificial constructs of life.
I will remember as I continue to read and to write to be creative. To be free.