In 2019, I was invited to present a love letter to a book at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Nawal El Saadawi’s seminal creative non-fiction book, Woman at Point Zero, edged out any competition. No other book I have read, which centres a flawed but authentic heroine, has affected me as deeply, a fact that played into my own understanding of how we talk about women, their issues and the cultural differences that influence how these manifest. I cannot dilute the significance of the book’s exploration of an Arab woman’s life. This is a book that did not just point out injustice, it ripped it apart, exposing the bones of our broken humanity.
I have revived this love letter because today I awoke to the sad news that El Saadawi has passed away at 89 years old. She was without doubt one of the most significant voices for Arab women in the Arab world and beyond. She was truly courageous in her expressions of injustice, a lyrical feminist writer but also a physician and psychiatrist with real-world experience. Her unapologetic but nuanced discussion of the treatment of women, the abuse of their bodies, and the poisonous approach to policing their sexuality has influenced the generations that followed her.
Nawal El Saadawi was the original ‘dangerous woman’, long before it became a pop culture catch-cry. May she rest in power, and may her legacy continue to encourage evolution in the lives of women.
To the Woman at Point Zero, also known as Firdaus,
While some books made me want to write, you made me want to create a new way forward.
You’re not a romance novel, or as lyrical as book of poetry, but you are a love story.
With you, I exhaled, when I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath.
You didn’t just slide in, you already existed in me.
You didn’t reach in, you burst alive, and I was looking at myself in a new way, like I had gained a second skin.
You didn’t just affect me. You revealed.
You, the proud heroine on death row, who knows true freedom, who understands why people in power can still fear an enslaved or imprisoned woman.
You tell us:
‘They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman”.
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.’
I quoted you on this. These words now rest in my book about Arab women, an imprint, an invisible energy. I’m glad you’re there. Your simple truth a reminder of how small we can be.
You are not for me alone. You are for every woman who has not always felt like herself. For every woman who has felt she is not allowed to be herself. You tell the truth but deliver a sermon on liberty that can apply to anyone.
You show us what patriarchy looks like in its worst forms.
You speak of life and disintegrated suffering.
You remind me of perhaps the most significant fact of our existence: our freedom is not determined by others when it’s something that we must claim within ourselves.
‘How many were the years of my life,” you said, “that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?’
Who does this not speak to? In a time when women are still raising their voices but not being heard? When we are repeating the same oppressive stories about women and the lives they should lead? When women, as disconnected as we can be, suffer universally because from a young age, we are burdened with how others see us: women who must be protected on the one hand, because we are weak; women, on the other, who must be controlled because we are a temptation.
You understood this. You experienced life’s variations. You fell in love. You experienced betrayals. You gave your body to men so that you could live. And you killed a man. You paid for the sins of others. And yet, you rejected any offer to stay alive. Death, to you, was not an end.
Terrible things happened to you. Too many things … trials that would break anyone. And yet, you surrendered into yourself when you saw the truth: freedom of the mind is something quite significant. It scares people when you don’t need them to approve of you. It turns people to violence when you reject their expressions of power. They become small in their anger, because their authority is not real. Their power is like a fume, ready to dissipate at any moment.
‘I knew why they were so afraid of me,’ you said. ‘I was the only woman who had torn the mask away, and exposed the face of their ugly reality. They condemned me to death not because I had killed a man … but because they are afraid to let me live … My life means their death.’
I know people criticise your voice for what it says about your society. For what it says about men when so many false ideas about Arabs and Muslims exist.
I know how hard it is to tell the truth when people hate you for where you come from. When people only connect to you because they see you as weak, as someone to be pitied.
I know what it takes to rise above the noise and be an individual story in a collective tale. To find your threads of existence in a larger tapestry that does not want you to stand out.
Your story is not about bad Arab men. It’s not about religion. It’s smarter than that. It runs deeper than these basic realities. It trawls the depths of humanity to demonstrate how much fear rules our lives. You boldly explore what it means to be stripped bare and meet with your truth, to realise your soul is stronger than the body that gets abused.
You’re not speaking of stereotypes, you are challenging them. You are not simplifying people, you are getting to the heart of our troubles.
‘I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live,’ you said, ‘nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free.’
Your story is much harsher than mine. Your world larger. But somewhere in the pages of your story, I met you and felt connected. How could we not see ourselves in you, Firdaus, who discovers under the worst of circumstances, that no matter how oppressive life is, strength boils within when you not only see the truth of life, but know your own truth?
Even in all of the brutality of your story, you words are like light in a dark space. Your words drill down into our frail humanity, our insecurity and our restless need to control each other.
Thank you, Firdaus, for the power of your truth. That it is our desires, our fears and our hopes that enslave us. That freedom cannot be given to you, it can only be attained from within.
‘Everybody has to die,’ you said. ‘I will die, and you will die. The important thing is how to live until you die.’
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based author, screenwriter and performer. This is an edited version of a love letter to a book presented at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2019.