Interview by Stephanie McMillan, 1999.


SM: Can you tell a bit about the class you're teaching, "Dissidence and Creativity"?

el Saadawi: In my country they're not allowing me to teach it at all. The word dissident is a taboo. In any country. Even here. You know that the western democracy is false democracy. The power is of the military, the power of money, of the multinationals, et cetera, et cetera. If you really want to change the system, the capitalist system here, or in any country, you will be a dissident and you may land in jail, in prison, as happened to me in Egypt. Now here the system, the establishment is so strong, that writers can not change anything. In Bangladesh, in Egypt, in Africa, you know, you can make a revolution by an article. Sadat put me in prison because of one article I wrote. Just one article. It was not even critical of his policy; it was exposure of the contradictions in his policy and how he was ruining our economy and increasing the gap between the rich and the poor and how he was encouraging the religious fundamentalist movement. I was writing scientifically, objectively. But this article made him furious and that's why he put me in prison, because this article can change history. In our region poets can go to prison, writers. A piece of poetry can make a revolution. Because people are waiting for the revolution. And the government is weak. In our country the establishment is not as strong as here in America. Here the capitalist class is strong, protected by the military and nuclear power. So the people have no power here, actually. Though they think they have power, they don't have power. Only the military, the government, the media and the multinationals have power. In our country, because of the weak government, and the weak parties and the weak organizations, the people have a voice, they can go out into the streets because they are hungry, as happened under Sadat in 1977. The people went into the streets asking for bread. It was about to be a revolution, but they used the army against the people. So writers are very important in a crisis period, because they have an impact, they can affect politics. But here writers can affect nothing. There are good dissident books, but people don't read them or if they read, nothing happens, because the control of the system is so great.

SM: How are your books received here and in other countries? Do they reach the masses or is the interest mostly in academia?

el Saadawi: How can I reach the masses in English? I reach them in Arabic. My books are selling very well in the Arab world. My books are in the villages. They are read by people who can just read, because I use very simple language. So my books are read all over the Arab world. But how can I reach the masses in English? It's not my job, also, to reach the masses here, though I reach the masses of young people, of students. And my books are not academic. My books are published by Zed books, it's a progressive, revolutionary publisher in London. And my books are popular among a portion of, I can't say the masses, the illiterate no, but the people who read and write, students, young people, progressives. The left. Of course not the right, the right will never read my books. And some of the women's feminist groups, they read my books all over the world.

SM: After you taught at Duke University you went back to Egypt. Are you again in exile now?

el Saadawi: No, I am in Egypt now. I live in Egypt. Even when I was at Duke I did not consider myself in exile. I hated the word. The media said that. I said, well, I am in danger for my life in Egypt, and I have to leave, because I have to protect my life. And Duke offered me a post, so I came, you know. I could have stayed in Egypt. Duke offered me an opportunity for me to come outside of Egypt to do something else, to teach. Also I came here, to teach for three months, for the autumn semester and then I will go back to Egypt. I can not live permanently in the States. I have to be in Egypt most of the time. And then to come out for a while. For a change, to meet people, to teach, you know, for a change. But my life is in Egypt.

SM: What do you hope your students will learn from your class?

el Saadawi: You have to ask them. I don't teach, because I hate teaching. I'm not a teacher. You can not teach dissidence, and you can not teach creativity. What I do, usually, I say I undo what education did to them. Because education, and this is a universal phenomenon, it has nothing to do with the West or East, or North or South, the education system serves the political system, and the military, and the economics. Like the media, the education system, socialization, conditioning, religion - all serve the political power, the system. And this political power, with its education system, with its religious system, the economy - it ruins the creativity of people, and their courage, and their understanding of the self and the other. So what they do, I undo. What education did, what the media does, what the political system and power do to people, I undo that. And just open the way for the students to discover their own creativity from inside. Because your creativity comes form inside. Creativity is born with you. We are all born creative. So that's what I do. So I don't really teach.

SM: What is the connection between creativity and dissidence?

el Saadawi: Oh, that's a very good question. You can not be creative in a system that is very unjust, like the system we live in, unless you are a dissident. Because when you are creative you are for justice, for freedom, for love. It's by nature like that. You feel that you want to do something. You can not accept injustice. You become angry, if this injustice is happening to you or to others. If you are walking in the street and you see children who are begging, beggars, who are starving, they are dying of hunger, what do you do? You become furious. You want to change the system that created this hunger. You discover it's not national only, it's international. So I make the connection, I open up to understand the connection between international, national and family oppression. And why we have poverty. It's social, political. It's not a natural disaster. It's made by the political system, internationally and nationally. So if you are creative, you will feel these children who are beggars, you will be angry, and you'll fight to make them eat. So you find yourself active. So I do not separate between writing and fighting. So what I do is make the connections. To undo the fragmentation of knowledge. Because the knowledge we receive in university is very fragmented. So I try to undo this fragmentation.

SM: Have you ever been attacked for your views in this country?

el Saadawi: By philistine people. People who are capitalists, right wing, Christian fundamentalists, and their media. Oh, some of them have written, some of them spoke, and some of them have censored my thoughts in the media. Whenever I give a talk or something and the media is there, they censor it. They cut the parts they don't want. Of course, here they don't encourage dissidence at all. But in some universities, like here at Florida Atlantic University, they are happy with the course I am doing, especially the PhD Public Intellectual program. It's a very, very progressive program. It is based on integrated knowledge and interdisciplinary studies. That's why they invited me to come and teach here.

SM: Have you heard about the political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal?

el Saadawi: Oh yes, oh yes. He is on the death row. In fact I took part of what he said in one of my keynote addresses at the college of New York at Stony Brook. I was invited by the African Literature Association to give a keynote address and I referred to him. This was two years ago. It's not him only. There's no democracy here. I follow the presidential campaign, and you know nobody can be in the campaign unless you are a millionaire, unless you have money, unless you have much money to spend on this campaign. That's how they attract the media. So you can not really be in politics unless you are rich like Ross Perot and George Bush and all them. Also the right wing, they have a lot of money, and the christian fundamentalists, the Christian Coalition, they have a lot of money. So where is democracy? Since the majority of people are silent, and can not speak. So it's a false democracy.

SM: What would you say to a woman in this country who assumes she is no longer oppressed, who believes women's liberation has been achieved?

el Saadawi: Well I would think she is blind. Like many people who are blind to gender problems, to class problems, to international problems. She's blind to what's happening to her. Like many housewives who are happy because they are staying at home, and because their husbands provide for them. In psychiatry we call it "Housewife's Happiness Distress." Because it creates depression after that immediately. A housewife will also have what we call the syndrome of Housewife's Depression. And it comes from that false happiness. She thinks she is happy but deep inside she feels unhappy. So those people are blind. Deep inside they know there is something wrong in the system, but they are blind because they didn't receive the correct knowledge. They just receive fragmented knowledge. And they can be professors in university. During the Gulf War I was in Duke University. I asked one of the professors of political science at the university about the Gulf War. He didn't know about the Gulf War. He said we are liberating Kuwait. (Laughter). He didn't know anything. He said America is liberating Kuwait. So I told him about the oil. He was teaching political science, but he was blind to the real cause of the Gulf War. You find highly educated people who are blind, because they received fragmented knowledge. They become very good physicians, especially physicians. I am amazed here that I meet physicians, medical doctors, who are so self-centered. They think about their profits, their money, their clinics, that's all, and know nothing about what's happening.

SM: How can unity be achieved between women of imperialist countries and women of oppressed countries, and what are some obstacles that must be overcome?

el Saadawi: First of all, obstacles abound, such as how can we meet? How can I meet women in Bangladesh, meet women in America? We need money to meet. We need tickets. We need to meet. We need to translate our work to indigenous languages. We need to discuss together, because without that it can not work. We have to exchange, we need exchange. And we need to act together. We need to go beyond our nationality and our gender and our color and our religion, because we are united. You are a Muslim, you are a Christian, you are Jewish, you are Hindu. We are divided by religion, by culture, by the so-called "multi-culturalism." You know, imperialists encourage multi-culturalism, diversity, to divide people. To divide people, not for real multi-culturalism or democracy. And in fact religious fundamentalism is very liked by imperialism and neo-colonialism. They work together. And globalization and all that. So how can we go beyond all these barriers and meet? That's why I travel, that's why I meet women everywhere, and men. We have to combine women and men's efforts. So we should get together, men and women. And working class, intellectuals, middle class - we have to go beyond our class, our gender, our nationality, our color, our religion - and then to meet. It's important. I believe in that. That's why I travel, that's why I attend conferences, that's why I speak, and I think without that we can not win. Bangladesh alone can not win. Egypt alone can not win. We need transnational. Because our enemy is global. So we must establish a global movement. But we have to start locally. Global movement does not mean I don't do anything locally. I have to start from my base. But how to connect the village, the grass roots with the international, that's important. It's happening! All the time. I am from the village. We encourage people, first of all not to leave their country. That's why I say I have to stay in Egypt all my life. I have to organize in Egypt. That's why I never stop organizing in Egypt. We have to work and write and fight locally. But we have to extend and exchange globally. We shouldn't break our connection globally. We need both, from the very, very local, to the very, very global.

SM: How do you see the future?

el Saadawi: First of all we have to trust ourselves that we can change the system. I'm very optimistic. I never lose hope. Even when I was in prison, I never lost hope. Because hope gives us power. So I believe the future will be better. That's number one. We have to trust that we are going to change. The future will be better, and the lives of children will be better than our lives. And to work on that. That's how I deal with life. I don't believe that the revolution will come in one night. The revolution is a process, it's a continuous process that starts from here and now. Some people they say, 'Oh, we'll perform the revolution when the situation is okay" - no. You have to start the revolution from here and now. It's a process, and we go on step after step. And we can unite like that. We have to work together and organize, organize all the time, because there is power in unity. And to unveil our minds. There is power in unveiling the mind and begin to drink of knowledge. So we have to work on that. All the time. To work on it. And not to discourage any small effort made by the people. And we have to turn the silent majority into the speaking majority. Who speaks in the media: the minority. I consider myself the voice of the silent majority in Egypt and the Arab world. But I should do something to make the silent majority speak up. Young women, young men, young people, writers, students, so that more and more individuals of this silent majority speak up. Release the silent majority by my voice.

SM: In addition to writing, you participate in other forms of political struggle, such as your campaign against female circumcision, against the US aggression of the Gulf War, and recently defying the UN sanctions against Iraq. Can you discuss what you are currently involved in right now?

el Saadawi: Yes. We established the Arab Women's Solidarity Association in Egypt to bring Arab women in unity, so that we could have connection with Arab women from different countries. Now I'm concentrating on Egyptian women. Locally. We have to get the power for Egyptian women through the Egyptian Union. Because the Egyptian women's movement is fragmented. There are many organizations and we need to bring them. Because if we have a powerful Egyptian Union, then we will have a powerful Arab union. So this is the latest struggle.

SM: Since every form of oppression comes from a single global system, and there are so many possible avenues of struggle, and everything is urgent, how do you decide what to focus on in particular?

el Saadawi: You start with what you can. You start here and now, from your local position. Because your feet are on the ground. You have to start from yourself, from your ground, not to be in the air. That's why struggle starts locally, and it expands, and it connects globally. You have to start locally from your soil, from your village, from your country, from your state. To liberate yourself.

SM: What are the differences you see between oppression here and in Egypt?

el Saadawi: Differences, oh, yes. Here the oppression of women is very subtle. If we take female circumcision, the excision of the clitoris, it is done physically in Egypt. But here it is done psychologically and by education. So even if women have the clitoris, the clitoris was banned; it was removed by Freudian theory and by the mainstream culture. Also women are oppressed economically. There is feminization of poverty everywhere. Women are becoming more and more poor, more and more unemployed. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing and that's why women suffer more. Women are suffering from the capitalist economic system. They are suffering, they are becoming more poor. But of course poverty here is less harsh than in Egypt. You don't see it. Sometimes it's visible, you see people in the street, but you don't see beggars like in Egypt. Here oppression, economically, psychologically, it's more subtle. It's hidden. Women everywhere are all victims of the class patriarchal system. The sexual problems are much less here. In my country if a girl loses her virginity, it's a scandal. If she's pregnant outside marriage, outside wedlock, it's a scandal. Her name may be put on the death list, as happened with me, if she attacks, or is critical of religion or mainstream beliefs. But here, no. No. Here you can lose your virginity, you can give your name to your child if you don't have a husband. In Egypt, never. It's the name of the father. The name of the mother does not exist in Egypt. You can not choose the name of the mother. It's very harsh on women. Here we can say that the personal life of women is more relaxed. They have more freedom in their personal life. But in their political and economic life, they are suffering, you know. You have to also study each class. Because maybe the women in the working class here are suffering much, much more than women in the middle class in Egypt. So you have to compare classes.

SM: Here, exploitation is more hidden; it's not sharp.

el Saadawi: It's not very visible here, because it's psychological. It's hidden. Also the country is more rich. Here you can see poor people having a car, for instance, who don't have work. But in Egypt poor people are in the street. They don't have a home, much less a car. Of course, Europe and the States, they are having many of their riches because they have exploited other countries, because of colonialism and neo-colonialism.

SM: In that case, isn't it very hard to create a movement here against the system?

el Saadawi: There are, there are people here who are quite aware and they are against the system. During the Gulf War, thousands of people were in the streets, demonstrating against the Gulf War.

SM: Do you find it difficult to find a balance in criticizing Islam without pandering to western prejudice about it?

el Saadawi: I am critical of all religions. So you see, I criticize Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism. When you criticize your own culture, there are those in your culture who are against you, who say, "Oh, don't show our dirty linen outside," you know? But I don't believe in this theory, the dirty linen, et cetera. I speak one language, whether inside the country or outside. I don't change my language, because I believe in what I'm saying. I'm critical of Islam, Christianity, Judaism. I speak about all of them with the same belief and the same courage. So that's number one. So I'm not really threatened by people who say, "Oh don't criticize your religion outside your country." No, I have to criticize everything. I must be honest with myself. So I have one language, which I say. And we shouldn't be afraid of being blamed of being westernized. Some people say, "Oh, you are westernized, that's why you criticize Islam." But I criticize Christianity too. I criticize Judaism. And Buddhism, and Hinduism and everything. But some people try to defame you, to ruin your reputation by saying you are westernized. Taslima Nasrin, she was a victim of that, people said, "She shouldn't criticize her culture in the West." I think this is trying to sabotage writers and women, and to intimidate them. And I don't care. I say my opinion anywhere. Locally, internationally. Because when you believe in something, you do.

SM: Do you write differently for different audiences?

el Saadawi: No! I write in Arabic. All my books in Arabic. And then they are translated. Because my role is to change my people. That's my role. I can not change people here in America and leave my country. So that's why I write in Arabic. I never write in English. And then my books are translated.

SM: You have written that at other times in history, some religion had progressive aspects, but that now it is used by those in power to retain their power. Is it possible today for religion to be in any way progressive, or for a religious person to be progressive?

el Saadawi: It seems a very difficult question, because what do you mean by religion? Because what's god, the conception of god? God, to me, is justice, freedom and love. My grandmother was illiterate. She never read the Koran. She believed, she told me, god is justice. That's real religion, that's the true religion of the people, that they believe in justice and god to them is justice. God to the poor people is justice; it's not a book. God is not a book or a text.

SM: Do you think of it as a supernatural being?

el Saadawi: No, I believe it's a force inside us. What's divine, to me, is the collective power of people. That's divine to me. The collective power of people. It's historical. Because god as he is described in books is a historial being, he is fixed. My conception of religion is very different. My conception of god is that god is inside us, and if god is outside us, it is the collective power of people, when they act, when they revolt against injustice. So god to me is justice. The revolution of people is divine. God as an external power, I don't believe in that. No, I don't believe in any external power, except the collective power of people. My power comes from inside here. And from outside if there is an organization and I am part of it, and we change the system. So that's the real power to me. If it is external, then it is the collective power of the organization of the people. If it is internal, it is my creative power. So how I integrate my creative power, that's my god inside me, and the god outside that's the people. You see?

SM: Why do you feel that you have to say that justice, the struggle of the people, all that is god? Why do you have to call those things god?

el Saadawi: Because some people don't understand. You have to make a link with the people. Because millions of people believe in the word "god," and if you tell them there is no god, they will be shocked.

SM: It's tactical, then.

el Saadawi: It's not tactical. It is explaining, using a language that people can understand. If the people believe in god and you tell them there is no god, then… But if you tell them, wait, like my grandmother, who said god is justice. My grandmother said it; she was illiterate. So the people say, already, that god is justice, and freedom and love.

SM: But when you work in that way, the fundamentalists, Christian or Muslim or whatever, at a certain point they will say, "at last god controls our lives. You can't destroy this social relationship, this class relationship, because god made it."

el Saadawi: No, what I mean is that revolution is a process. It's not done in one night. You can not do anything in one night. And knowledge comes gradually. Like a piece of light. Because the brain sometimes is so dark. There is a thick veil on the brain. That's why we say we need to unveil the mind. So I have to understand, first, the audience to whom I am talking. And I don't believe in shock treatment. In psychiatry that they make a shock by electricity and they say the patient will be all right: no, no, no. I believe in knowledge to be given in a very peaceful way and calm way, so the people will start to open their eyes to new facts. So I have no problem if I tell them, "you already believe that god is justice. God is justice, god is not a book. You are illiterate and you said it: 'god is justice,' so we don't need this book. We don't need the Koran. We don't need the Bible. We don't need the Gita. We don't need all those books, those are old books. We can read them as historical books, like any book, and leave it. But we have to think about justice. This is our god, our new, real god." I agree with you, that we have to change the language. We have to not use the word god. Why don't we say goddess? But we have to do it in a really gradual way. Because when you shock people, sometimes they don't listen.