El-Saadawi and Hatata: Voyage of a lifetime

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 24 Apr 2014

A new book reflects on the shared life experience of controversial writer and women's rights advocate Nawal El-Saadawi and political analyst Sherif Hatata, who struggle for years against set ideas

Nawal El-Saadawi wa Sherif Hatata – Tagrobat Hayah (Nawal El-Saadawi and Sherif Hatata – A Life's Experience) by Amal Al-Gamal, Dar Al-Mahroussa Publishing, Cairo, 2014. pp.251

Both the writer and staunch women's rights advocate Nawal El-Saadawi and Sherif Hatata, the well-known leftist writer and leader in the ranks of the communist movement since the 1940s, have stirred controversy and been engaged in fierce battles against long-standing and stable ideas and practices. This drove their opponents to attempt to force their divorce through the courts, similar to the case of Nasr Abu-Zayd and his wife in the 1990s. The attempt failed. Indeed, Saadawi and Hatata have continued to spark debates and be involved in battles against cultural and intellectual institutions that suffered from stagnation and plunged in a sea of backwardness for about half a century, according to their points of view.

As for the book's title, A Life's Experience, which its editor, Amal Al-Gamal, chose, it is in fact "A Writing Experience." For perhaps the first time in culture criticism, an editor conducts lengthy dialogues with both of the subjects of a book at the same time. These heated dialogues entailed the experience of their marriage, which has continued for four decades, and what both of them wrote and the issues they raised. The book is also made up of dialogues conducted with each alone, in order to cover sides the joint dialogues didn't.

Amal Al-Gamal, the book's editor, got her PhD in the philosophy of arts in 2013, on a dissertation titled "The Cinematic Language in the Writings of Sherif Hatata – A Comparative Study with Andrei Tarkovsky." Al-Gamal conducted her dialogues between March and April 2006 where she used to meet the couple thrice weekly. Each meeting would run for three to four hours.

Although it was ready for publication, as the book's introduction mentions, in January 2008, the editor waited a whole six years before publishing it. That's astonishing and raises a number of questions. The editor doesn't explain the reason for the delay.

The editor narrates in the introduction how she got acquainted with the writers. The first time she glimpsed the name of Nawal El-Saadawi was when she was in secondary school. The book Women and Sex was being circulated among female and male students. Female circumcision is a pivotal topic El-Saadawi discusses in Women and Sex. In this context, Al-Gamal reveals her own harsh experience concerning circumcision during her childhood, an atrocity that many Egyptian girls undergo.

Since then she searched for El-Saadawi, her books and essays. When she worked as a journalist, after graduating from the faculty of mass communication, her knowledge of El-Saadawi increased, but through reading only. The same goes for Hatata, who she encountered in his novel The Net in 2001. Al-Gamal met the pair in person in 2004.  

Al-Gamal devotes the first pages of her book to presenting condensed portraits for both El-Saadawi and Hatata. Born in 1930, El-Saadawi witnessed uprisings and political protests against the British occupation and the king in the late 1940s after enrolling in the faculty of medicine. This faculty specifically was teeming with political activities encompassing all kinds of currents. Her first marriage experience was formative. For Ahmed Helmi, her husband, returned from fighting with the fedayeen (freedom fighter volunteers) in the Suez Canal as an addict of maxton fort, a locally produced liquid amphetamine. There was no way for them but to get divorced. She married a judge in 1960 but they were divorced after only three months when he made her choose between either continuing to write or sustaining the marriage. She chose writing.

In the winter of 1964, she met Sherif Hatata, the leftist activist and doctor, who had just been released after a long detention of more than 10 years. What brought them together was art, culture and the attempt to understand society and the world. From 1964 they lived together until 2010, when they were divorced. Due to her political activism and her shocking books on the topics of sex, female circumcision and women's oppression, El-Saadawi was arrested and detained in the September 1981 crackdown ordered by President Anwar El-Sadat and that included 1,536 detainees from different political currents.

As for the dialogue meetings, whether joint or with each one alone, they deserve special focus, not only because it is totally new in the field of cultural criticism, but because it gathers between two characters who are contradictory on several levels and concordant in other issues. El-Saadawi belonged to an ordinary peasant family while Hatata is a scion of a feudal family that is connected to Saad Pasha Zaghloul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution. El-Saadawi started her life as a writer; Hatata began writing when he was 43 years old, due to the insistence and encouragement of El-Saadawi. Although both of them are doctors, but they didn't practice this profession for long. Even the years they passed as UN experts and not doctors is far longer. They also spent some years in teaching in European and American universities.

The dialogue meetings reveal details of their personal life as a couple and the "rites of writing" where Hatata asserts, for example: "The virtue of Nawal is that she didn't only get me back to life but she got me back to a better life because she let me enter art and women's issues. She gave me her experience. She gave me her experience so I could began to a live natural life."

While El-Saadawi acknowledges the enormous effort Hatata exerted in translating most of her works into English faithfully and competently, she says: "Each one of us has his own style and his own way, which is the same as his character. That's from the angle of writing. I see that we are equal in creativity but on the character side. Sherif is little bit courteous, maybe he is more humane than me. I am very strong. My relationship with myself is very strong. What I mean to say is that I am frank ... I say that the only true love in my life is towards myself."

Life between them wasn't smooth. But they overcame what they faced for more than 40 years until their ship halted in the middle of the sea and they separated eventually. Their experience in life, writing and defending their persuasions will remain one of the most significant experiences in our contemporary cultural life.

Short link: