For my book from Egypt, I read Woman at Point Zero, by the acclaimed feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. It took me much longer to get around to reading this thin volume than it should have. I knew it was based on a true story, and that it would not end well for the protagonist, so I had a hard time convincing myself to delve into its pages.
My intent in creating this project, however, was not to be entertained, but to be educated, and so I read about the life of a woman in prison, condemned to die for stabbing a pimp to death. Most of the book is written from her point of view, as told by a woman psychiatrist who visits the prison to do research on the personalities of women prisoners.
The condemned woman, Firdaus, has spent a lifetime experiencing the bad treatment of women by men. Her father beat her mother, her uncle molested her, she was married off to a much older husband who beat her, and when she left him, she was held captive by a man who raped her and passed her around to his friends. At some point, she realizes that being a prostitute will tilt the balance of power in her favor, as she can charge as much money as she wants for performing the same acts she was previously forced to do for free, and she can maintain an emotional distance from the clients who pay for her services.
As a prostitute, Firdaus has a very good life for quite some time. She lives in a nice house, eats good food, has servants to look after her, has a healthy bank balance, and has leisure time to go to the movies, read, or discuss politics with friends. She is content, and feels as though she’s in control of her own destiny. But then one of her clients makes an offhand remark about how she is not respectable, and that causes her to question her chosen profession. She decides she prefers respectability to comfort, and she gives up her luxurious life to begin working as an assistant to the chairman of a local company. She does her job well, but as a woman, she will never rise very high in the company’s power structure. She falls in love with a fellow worker, and believes he feels the same, but then she learns that he has become engaged to the chairman’s daughter.
Disillusioned, Firdaus returns to her life of prostitution, believing that “[a] successful prostitute was better than a misled saint.” She is able to reestablish herself and regain her creature comforts, but things take an ominous turn when a pimp forces himself into her life. Eventually, she reaches her breaking point and kills him, which lands her on death row. She faces her execution with no fear and no remorse.
The book’s author, Nawal El Saadawi, met Firdaus at Qanatir Prison near Cairo while conducting research about women and neurosis in Egypt. At the time, she had no way of knowing that she herself would be sentenced to spend a few months in the same prison, sent there by then-President Anwar Sadat because of her feminist activism.
Of Firdaus, Saadawi says: “Firdaus is the story of a woman driven by despair to the darkest of ends. This woman, despite her misery and despair, evoked in all those who, like me, witnessed the final moments of life, a need to challenge and to overcome those forces that deprive human beings of their right to live, to love and to real freedom.”
Either the scarcity or the abundance of food was mentioned frequently in Woman at Point Zero, but no dishes were described that were suitable for this blog. When I searched the Internet, I found a recipe for vegan kofta from a blog called “One Arab Vegan.” The recipe uses Field Roast Fieldburger patties as the base. For some reason, I could not get the kofta mixture to stick together. I tried adding more liquid, which made the mixture too wet, and then I added more bread crumbs, which made it too dry. The first picture below shows the four kofta fingers I was somehow able to piece together. The picture below that shows what happened when I gave up and just decided to fry up the mixture into a kind of hash and serve it on a bed of rice. It was actually quite good!
Since the mistreatment of women was pretty much the entire theme of Woman at Point Zero, I looked for a project that would help to address this problem. On the GlobalGiving website, I found a project that provides sexual abuse prevention curriculum to middle school students and teachers. According to the project description, “[t]his curriculum aims to intercept children at a young age to instill anti-abuse values, allowing them to refuse, advocate and report sexual abuse.” It is hoped that providing this training to students will cause a ripple effect in the community and raise awareness at both the local and national level. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/anti-sexual-abuse-training-for-200-egyptian-students/.
NEXT STOP: EL SALVADOR