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By Nawal El Saadawi
SAQICopyright © 2011 Nawal El Saadawi
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Chapter OneHer image was engraved in my memory, and her features were etched in my brain and in the grooves of my subconscious. Her picture reminded me of myself, looking in the mirror at the age of eight. I walked down the street carrying my school bag, my feet stomping on the ground with the sturdy square heels of my shiny black shoes. I walked steadily and proudly, for I was the daughter of the eminent Mr Zakariah al-Khartiti, whose photograph appeared inside a large square frame in the morning paper on top of his daily column called "Honoring Our Pledge".
Her features at the age of nine had an uncanny resemblance to mine, except for the eyes. Her eyes were large, and their pupils radiated a blue light that verged on nightly blackness. I was hopelessly drawn to them. They broke through the crust of my face and thrust deep into my hidden soul like knives.
She looked much older, as though she had been born a hundred years before me. in fact, she seemed almost ageless. She had no father or mother, and no home or even a bedroom. She had no honor and no virginity that she could possibly fear losing, and possessed nothing worth guarding in this life or in the hereafter.
She was just a girl, like myself and the other girls at school. She was tall and thin, and her body was as sturdy as if it had been made of more than flesh and blood alone. When she walked, her figure was like a spear cutting through the air. With her bare feet, she trod on the pebbles, the stones, and the thorns without feeling any pain, without a single drop of blood.
I wrote my full name on the blackboard. Mageeda Zakariah al-Khartiti. The teacher gazed at me, full of admiration. He told the other girls that I would become a famous writer like my father. The morning papers, the magazines and the silver screen would carry my picture. He told the girls that my grandfather, al- Khartiti Pasha, was a famous nationalist leader. The roots of my illustrious family went back to Saad Zaghloul and Orabi Pasha, and reached back to the great city of Mecca and the Prophet Muhammad.
Every girl had an identifiable father, whose name she wrote next to hers on the blackboard. Each girl was proud of her father, grandfather, uncle, or any well-known male relative.
Except for her. She stood proudly erect in front of the blackboard. The teacher ordered her to write her name. She held the piece of white chalk between her long, pointed fingers and turned toward the blackboard. We saw her straight back, the patch sewn with black thread on her uniform, and the flat sandals she wore. On the blackboard, she scrawled her name with large childish letters: Zeina.
The teacher hit her on the behind with his cane, over the patch sewn on the coarse material of her uniform.
"Write your full name like the other girls," he ordered her.
She held the piece of chalk and wrote: Zeina bint Zeinat.
She turned to face us, her eyes large and their pupils glowing with a black flame.
"Write the names of your father and grandfather, asshole," he shouted at her.
A blue light shone from the two black orbs. She threw the piece of chalk on the ground, stamped on it with her feet, and walked with her head held high back to her seat in the back row of the classroom.
The teacher taught us the basics of language and religion. He said that the girl who carried her mother's name was a child of sin.
He taught us the singular and plural of words. The plural of "word" was "words", "greeting" was "greetings", and "sin" was "sins". On the walls of the school bathroom, we wrote her name: Zeina bint Zeinat. but she never read our graffiti, for she did not come to school every day as we did. She came only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to attend Miss Mariam's music lessons. Later, a decision was taken to expel her from school. I never saw her again, except by chance on the street.
Miss Mariam taught us how to play the piano. She held up Zeina bint Zeinat's fingers, raising them high for all of us to see. She was immensely proud of Zeina's fingers. She said they were created for music and that Zeina's talent was unique. There was no one to match her in class. The tears glinted in the corners of Zeina's eyes, but not a single drop fell. Only the glimmer in the eyes intensified and seemed like tears. but we were proven wrong when we saw her pale, lank face beam with a smile. Light radiated from beneath her dark, chapped complexion as it turned soft and pink.
I peered at Zeina's long, powerful fingers as she played the piano, moving over the keys with the speed of lightning. Her voice rose high, singing the national anthem. My voice, in comparison, was raucous, grating, stifled, suppressed. Next to hers, my fingers seemed short, fat, and gelatinous, like those of my mother, Bodour Hanem, the wife of the eminent Zakariah al-Khartiti. She was also a great professor, occupying an equally eminent position.
During the night, Zeina's image came to me in my dreams. I saw her sitting on the little backless stool, playing the piano without looking at her fingers. Her eyes were riveted to her music book as she turned the pages, one after the other. She had learned the music by heart as though the tune were her own and the words of the song belonged to her. Her fingers moved as though of their own accord.
I didn't understand the meaning of the word "sin", which the teacher pronounced with the tip of his tongue as if he was spitting. For some reason I imagined that musical talent had something to do with it, for how could the child of sin be superior to all of us in music?
Deep down, I envied her. I saw her walk with her upright gait down the street, moving her arms and legs with perfect ease, and dancing with other street children in total freedom. She wasn't afraid of returning home because she had no home to speak of to return to, and she didn't have a mother or a father to scold or slap her on the face for arriving late.
In the dead of the night, before falling asleep, I heard my father and mother quarrelling. I was fifteen then, a student at the secondary school. I recalled the words of my teacher when he said that I would turn out to be a famous writer like my father, Zakariah al-Khartiti.
I saw my father's published framed photograph. He had a bright smile I never saw at home, for he was silent most of the time. After coming home from his work at the newspaper, he went straight to his study, a large room with walls lined with bookshelves. His desk, which was made of carved ebony, stood near the glass window overlooking the Nile. its top surface was covered with newspapers and magazines. The photograph, hung on the wall inside a gold frame, showed him bowing in front of the president while receiving the Great Merit Award on Art and Literature Day.
My father warned me against going out on the street. He told me that girls from good families didn't play with street children, that there were numerous rapes reported in the papers every day, and that crimes increased with the rise of poverty and unemployment. The young men who graduated from universities could find no jobs and no means of earning a living, let alone finding a wife. Living in total deprivation, they assaulted the girls walking on the streets.
Yet something attracted me to the streets. inside our home, the walls were painted bright pink, but the air was heavy as though it were filled with invisible smoke which the eye couldn't see and the nose couldn't sniff. I felt it seep softly through my body, saturated with hatred, silence, depression, and an imperceptible sadness.
The windows of our home were always secured with double glazing and curtains, to prevent the street dust from coming through, and to keep out the escalating noise from the loudspeakers hung on minarets, the drumbeats and cheery sounds of weddings, nightclubs and discos, and the sirens of police cars and fire engines.
As a child, I once asked my mother why she married my father. "it was love, Mageeda," she answered. I had no idea then what love between a man and a woman meant. I often scrutinized the faces of my father and mother to detect a look of love in their eyes. but I never succeeded in discovering the presence of a single loving glance in our home, until I grew up and understood things I hadn't known.
My father was mostly silent. if he spoke, it was about his daily column in the paper, the editor, the minister, or the president. He would talk about anti-war demonstrations abroad, the fall of the regime in Iraq, or the problems of poverty in Egypt, the Sudan, or Ethiopia.
Like my father, my mother was also a great personality, perhaps even greater. She was the head of the Literary Criticism Department at the university. She obtained her PhD with flying colors and received the Great Merit Award before my father did. A photograph was hung inside a gold frame in her study, showing her bowing courteously as she received the award from the president of the country on the Art and Literature Day.
When I was fifteen, I realized there was something perplexing about the relationship between my father and mother. At night, I heard them quarrel. Their voices began low, slow, and harsh. but the tone grew higher and was sometimes accompanied by the sound of things crashing on the floor, or the sound of kicking or slapping on the face. My heartbeats would quicken with the rising tempo of the fight. My body would shrink under the covers and I would hold my panting breath lest they should hear it and discover that I wasn't fast asleep.
I carried this heavy burden in my heart year in year out, for twenty-four long years. This was our skeleton in the cupboard that nobody in the whole world knew about. I dared not tell anyone, as though telling would be a sign of disloyalty to my parents.
In front of people, my parents were perfectly happy. They spoke to newspapers and the media about married bliss and about their perfect union based on love and high culture.
I concealed the truth inside me, and it grew and multiplied against my will like a malignant tumor, pressing on the cells of my soul and mind simultaneously. I went to a well-known psychiatrist who was one of my father's schoolmates. I imagined that he would cure me of my depression, but, like my parents, he had two faces that were at variance with one another. He wrote books on brain cells and on neurology and its connections with the mind and the psyche, but at the same time he suffered from depression himself. Sometimes he prescribed drugs for me, while other times he prescribed something different altogether.
I graduated from the Faculty of Arts with a general "Pass" grade because I wasn't fond of literature or writing, and preferred mathematics and figures. I was indifferent to what they called the literary imagination, perhaps out of resentment for my parents, or perhaps for the teacher who predicted that I would become a great writer. Since childhood, I have hated that teacher and wished to prove his predictions wrong. I loved music, dancing, and singing. but my short fingers, like my mother's, were incapable of producing any music. My body, like hers, was also short and stout. Although my father was just as short as my mother, he was thinner and often went to the club to play golf. I saw him walking in the distance, with his diminutive stature, his small triangular head, and his angular chin underneath his full lips, the upper fuller than the lower. Whenever he was engrossed in deep thinking or saw my mother walking past, he would pout his lips in dismay.
In my dream while I lay fast asleep, I saw the image of Zeina Bint Zeinat. This image had never left me since I was a child. I wished I could be in her place, even if they called me the child of sin.
They called her "duckling". She wore high pointed heels and walked through the university corridors to get to her office next to that of the dean. She was a little out of breath as she walked, carrying her short, stout body, swaying slightly over her pointed heels. Her neck was short and fleshy and it upheld a small, square-shaped head surrounded by short black hair. The hair was sparse and shot through with some white that quickly disappeared under the sophisticated hair dye applied with special care. She wore a blue skirt suit, with white collars that looked like the collars worn by little girls before they got married or lost their innocence.
She was in her middle years, just before the menopause. Although she was her husband's junior by nine years, he looked younger by a year or two. This was perhaps because he was a man. Women's lives, in contrast, are often consumed more quickly, for men do not bear children or give birth, and never carry the responsibility of home, children, or ill repute. No part of their bodies carries the stamp of virginity and they don't have to deal with the menopause or senility later in life. Nothing, in fact, detracts from a man's honor or worth except his empty pocket, not even consorting with prostitutes.
Ever since she was a child, Bodour had always been mindful of her reputation. She had the responsibility of upholding the family honor. Her father, Ahmed al-Damhiri, was a general in the armed forces. When the 1952 revolution took place, he was an officer in the army, and although he wasn't among the revolutionary commanders, he had a family connection with one of them. He was later appointed as the director or the secretary of the New Cultural Organization. As an adolescent, he read novels on platonic love. in his mirror, he saw himself as the hero of Romeo and Juliet. He wrote love poems to the neighbor's daughter. in his dreams, he imagined himself a well-known poet or novelist. Some of his dreams seeped through to his daughter, Bodour, when she was a child. She read the books she found in her father's library. Her heart beat hard as she read in bed before going to sleep, tempted by the image of Prince Charming, who made love to her until she orgasmed. Her body trembled under the covers with the sinful pleasure. She woke in the morning, her cheeks flushed and her eyes swollen. She took a bath with warm water and soap, cleansing her body of its sinfulness, but her heart remained heavy with vice.
Six months before the revolution, the fires blazed throughout Cairo. Bodour al-Damhiri had already obtained her BA in literature and criticism. Her body trembled with intense pleasure whenever she heard the acronym BA. A pleasure akin to sex overtook her wholly, body and soul together, in one wild moment of ecstasy. Her short stout figure swayed above her pointed heels. She wished she could jump in the air, dance, and sing. Had it not been for the earth's gravity which pulled her down forcefully, she would have flown. but her voice was muffled and she struggled to keep her feet on the ground. Her father saw the tears in her eyes and mistook them for tears of joy for having obtained her degree. Totally ignorant was he of his daughter.
Deep down, Bodour had an overwhelming sense of sadness, especially in moments of joy. it might have been her short, stout body, her narrow, lustreless eyes, her suppressed mind, despite her literature degree, or her soul imprisoned inside the confines of literature.
Her chains were never loosened except during sleep, when her mind, soul and body dozed off, when her parents and everyone else went to sleep, when God shut His wakeful eyes, and when everything and everyone dissolved into darkness. it was then that a secret cell buried in the deep recesses of her mind arose from sleep, yearning for love and for the sinful pleasures of the body.
Before the great fire of Cairo, huge demonstrations had broken out. Strong patriotic feelings passed from the father to his daughter, Bodour. He recited for her the clumsy, artless lines of poetry he used to read out to his colleagues in the army. He sang of martyrdom for the sake of the homeland, provided that neither he nor his own daughter were the martyrs in question. He was as certain of his love for his country as he was that Bodour was his own flesh and blood and not somebody else's. He was confident of the existence of God, the angels, the Devil, and the Day of Judgment.
Excerpted from ZEINA by Nawal El Saadawi Copyright © 2011 by Nawal El Saadawi . Excerpted by permission of SAQI. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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