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Off Limits

Off Limits


New Writings on Fear and Sin

by Nawal El Saadawi

translated by Nariman Youssef



Published: May 2020
ISBN: 9781909942479


Published: November 2019
Pages: 171


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Well beyond the Arab world, El Saadawi’s fiction and non-fiction work, from Woman at Point Zero to The Fall of the Imam to her prison memoirs, have earned her a reputation as a refreshing voice of feminism in the Arab World. This series of essays form a selection of El Saadawi’s most recent musings, memories and reflections, considering the role of women in Egyptian and wider Islamic society, the inextricability of imperialism from the patriarchy, the meeting point of East and West, and the image and body politic of the woman in the intersections of those cultures. These musings leave no stone unturned and no view unchallenged, and offer the interested reader new insight into El Saadawi’s thoughts and reflections.

Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931. She is an Egyptian feminist author, activist, physician and psychiatrist, whose writings focus on the subject of women in Islam. She is founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights.

Nariman Youssef is a London-based translator working in Arabic and English. Her translations include The American Granddaughter and Cigarette No. 7, as well as prose and poetry contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, and Banipal magazine.


Publisher’s Note

Gravity and the Forbidden Apple

The Most Pious Men in the World

How Far from My Parents Have We Come?

A Sweet Murderous Woman

My Life’s Companion

My Cousin Naima’s Son

No Virtue Without Freedom

A Letter from a Woman Prisoner

The Girl Outside the Court

A Girl’s Death

Can We Not Even Wonder?

Not an Ideal Woman

Religion, Women and Cinema

Absolute Certainty and the Virus of Doubt

Taleq, Professor!

Hercules and Antaeus

Defamation of Religion and Al-Gama‘a in Ramadan

Reading Patriarchy in Egyptian History

Psychiatry and Atheism

Economics, Sex and Personal Status Law

How Costly is the Service of Religion?

Memories in the Mother Tongue

No Objectivity in a Violent World

Equality in Oppression

Political Islam

Between Two Seas

When Does the Fall Begin?

With Knowledge Comes Pleasure

The Price of Writing

An Old Friend

Nour’s Buried Memories

A Study of Philosophy and Change


A Letter from a Woman Prisoner

A few days ago, I got hold of a newspaper. Their photo- graph was on the front page. The girl’s thick wavy black hair, like mine before it started falling out, her features reminiscent of my mother’s before she died, reminiscent of mine when I smiled, before I forgot how to smile. It’s been six years since I looked in a mirror. They took away mirrors and pencils, since they were sharp instruments. Another prisoner had killed herself with a pencil.

I saw him in the photograph sitting like a lion perched in his lair, the coif of blond hair sitting on top of his head like a rooster’s comb. His face glistened under the lights, his muscles probably vibrating with an aggressive energy, made more aggressive by the fact that instead of mon- strous or predatory it appeared childlike and spontaneous.

The first time I saw a zebra in a primary school text- book, I thought it looked wilder than the lion. ‘A lion only attacks when hungry. Some people attack with full bellies,’ wrote my father in an article he published when I was nine years old. The ‘dawn visitors’ raided our home and took my father in his night clothes. His crime: infringement of the words of the ‘Supreme Divine’. I never saw him again.

My mother warned me against committing the same crime. I didn’t know exactly who the ‘Supreme Divine’ was, but I kept away from politics altogether. I graduated with distinction from the Faculty of Science and got a good job in a big corporation. One day in the month of March, I heard some of my former classmates talking about a women’s march on International Women’s Day. My mother said, ‘Go, my daughter! And I’ll come with you. Everyone is talking about empowering women. These are safe subjects that don’t interfere with politics or touch the Supreme Divine.’ My mother put on a new white dress and a green shawl and walked among the women with a confident step. She was a young woman again, enjoy- ing herself and laughing. It was the first time I heard her laugh. I walked next to her, my hand in hers, chanting with the others: A WOMAN’S VOICE IS REVOLUTION!

Then suddenly the police were upon us. And men wearing jalabiyas and carrying sticks. My mother got hit on her head and fell to the ground in the middle of the road. My friends and I gathered around her, trying to tie the green scarf around her head to stop the bleed- ing. Another strike hit my head and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in a prison cell with my mother and some of the girls. My mother’s head was still bleeding, and no one was helping. I was only half-conscious.

A few weeks after my mother was allowed to go home, she died. In prison, I was ‘medically examined’. No idea what exactly they were examining. I wasn’t brave enough to look at my body after they made me strip, especially not that area that had been off-limits since childhood, secured by the fear of sin. I stayed in my cell year after year, for six years, then I stopped thinking and I could relax.

I saw the photograph in the newspaper a few days ago. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a rusty plate holding the remnants of a lentil soup the colour of a baby’s diarrhoea, and a piece of stale dust-covered bread. I dozed off, my head falling onto my chest like it happens to old people, falling asleep sitting up.

I saw my mother in her new white dress, untainted by blood. She was joyful like a child, laughing and singing with the others: ‘A WOMAN’S VOICE IS REVOLUTION!’ I said, ‘But they told me that you died six years ago, Mum!’ She smiled, ‘They’re all liars. I’m alive my daughter.’ I asked, ‘Have you been released from prison?’ She said, ‘Of course. Didn’t you see me in the newspaper?’ But I didn’t see her face in the photograph. I must have spilled the lentil soup on the newspaper and smudged it.

His face was very clear, as if sculpted in stone. I remem- bered that I had seen him before, in other pictures and sculptures, going all the way back to Ramses I and Alex- ander and Bonaparte and the Sphinx who lost his nose to an invader’s bullet. But bullet-proofing techniques have evolved, as have techniques in warfare and sculpting. An artist is capable of portraying Hitler and make him look like Jesus.

The face before me in the photograph kept changing, its features wavering and teetering on the edges of various impressions until any real distinctions were blurred out of existence, the tension between crude tyranny and defenceless insecurity sank deep under the skin, and only pure power rose to the surface.

My mother whispered to me, ‘Sweetie, you should find a contact in the White House,’ and then she was gone.