Nawal El Saadawi is known for her activism in Egypt and has many times been threatened by the Islamist forces there due to her championing of women’s rights. Her novels tend to reflect this struggle, as in the previous novel I had read of hers called “The Novel.” In “Zeina” she takes these themes forward and what you have is a very disturbing read.
A young Egyptian woman - Bodour - abandons an illegitimate child on the streets of Cairo, a child she had during an affair with a Marxist revolutionary who is eventually beaten and jailed. As the years move on, she marries an ambitious journalist and they have a daughter. Coincidently, their daughter, Mageeda, winds up befriending a “child of the streets” named Zeina, who, as you may have already guessed, is the abandoned child of Bodour.
Bodour is in a loveless marriage and is consumed with guilt for abandoning her first child and her mind is slowly coming apart. Frequent visits to the psychiatrist and the writing of a novel called “The Stolen Novel” (which is repeatedly stolen by her husband) seems to be the only way for her to confront herself and deal with her immense guilt. But little by little, she is spiraling into psychosis, represented by a repetitive narrative which returns to the same obsessions and the same themes throughout the novel. Zeina, meanwhile, becomes a famous pop star and eventually becomes a symbol of freedom for the people and a symbol of freedom for the life that Bodour wants to live.
The novel is rife with symbolism, mainly about Egyptian culture and women’s place within it. It is filled with religious hypocrisy, corrupt politicians and patriarchal oppression and this makes for a very dark read. The repetitive nature of the narrative may be something of a turn-off for some (and I too, frankly, found it a little annoying at times) but it doesn’t take away from the power of the story being told here and the insights into a society that many Westerners truly don’t understand - particularly in light of the recent revolution there. Written a couple of year before the recent uprisings, it definitely gives a little insight into the lives of the average Egyptian citizen and the social dynamic taking place there. Recommended.