Embracing the rays of the sun with Youssef of Egypt and Nawal the Unnamed Goddess
There are moments in our life that we encounter and they make history of what our life is and can or should be about.
Whatever is happening is still beyond the comprehension of my own mind. One of those instances of life that are by themselves the whole aspiration of your hidden or far reached dreams.
How much of coincidence has it been that I was asked twice in this very same instant of this miraculous happening “ what are your dreams? Your plans for life?
Sitting at a kitchen table opposite a window that overseas Cairo from the 26th floor in a modest apartment, on my left Youssef Zeidan and on my right Nawal Saadawi. \In my normal everyday life. I cannot even dare to think, that I may be having such an encounter.
I have been enjoying all my life my hallucinating ideas in a relationship and a conversation I hold with the writers and thinkers that I fall in love one after the other within the edges of the pages of their books. The world that I loved flirting with on my own, with its stars of men and women who would become my mentors, lovers, boyfriends, gurus … whatever the choice of the book may hold me with.
I have been following the novelist Youssef Zeidan for years, out of admiration and the amount of inspiration he seemed to be providing to this generation of young people. It was embarrassing that his book Azazeel was given to me many times and recommended tens of times, and I was never able to read it in six or seven years. He caught my attention however with the Shadow of the Snake, and I was thinking. Here stands a man of a daring mind.
In the absence of everything that connects us with culture and literature without the pretentious abuse of literature and culture in our world, this man seemed a glow that lightens a path of darkness. I was watching him with admiration and cautiousness, taking into consideration of all the misfortunes that continue to invade the Arab world. He seemed to be hanging on. A man who looks so much in love with his people. A good caregiver for the well-being of his people and humanity.
I quickly grasped the opportunity to meet him when chances allowed upon the recent debates that he stirred causing an avalanche in the cold mountains of our minds.
Starting to read him to fill in the gap of my ignorance about his work was by itself a journey that will definitely stay for a very long time to come. It could be an exaggeration from my side. It could also be my intensive digging in the caves of the medieval era that makes me overwhelmed. It could be the lack of serious and real people that can still talk the same language I look for. But this man is nothing less than a genius that history will definitely save him a place among those immortal thinkers of all times. I could imagine while I was listening to him surrounded by the overwhelming warmth and amount of books that decorate the shelves of his apartment from corner to corner. His translated works. His tens of books that continue or are bestseller year after year. The encyclopedia, documents, and treasures of books that make the great mind he carries on his shoulder.
Listening to him was like sitting in front of a spring that pours into falls of gold. While trying to show my intelligence reading four of his books that were obvious not the smartest way to know the man. There is no way one can catch the trend of his writing. You cannot predict what could be happening as you turn the next page. Yet it is not suspense you are reading. A continuous journey in the existence of man from within his very self. A public defender for women and her rights is the only trend that one can trace in every piece of his writings. A non-stop digging and shaking in molded believes that we take as a God given only truths.
Being allowed the entry to his own haven. The privacy of his own home. The circle of his closest friends and people. Listening to him and listening to him and listening to him, and with every possible break: “ Aren’t you hungry?” “ What can I do for you?” “ You are too skinny I cannot even see you, you must be underfed.” And of course the charming Egyptian tongue that is enough to make you feel that you are the most and only beauty that earth has ever created, until you hear the same words said with the same passion and seriousness to realize that beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, with as many creatures He has beheld.
I would need forty days to empty the amount of knowledge and inspiring feelings I received in those four days.
That was all according to the supposedly expected more or less plan. I was planning my Cairo tour that will include the pyramids and meeting friends. But who would need to see the monument when he has the Youssef himself. I felt fulfilled, and those trips to the coffee shops in the street where other writers as prominent as he is sitting. His aura is superior he overshadows all … one of the sweet, pleasant gifts of those settings was seeing the Syrian actor Jihad Saad. One of the most beautiful eighties stars of Syrian drama. Age only gained him more glamor, and I was sitting opposite him watching the beauty that shines on his face not knowing for sure why he looked so familiar. When realizing it was he, Youssef asked the waiter to ask if he was an actor. When jihad knew it was Youssef Zeidan asking he jumped off his chair to come and greet. Of course, the man forgot all the charm I was sending him and all the flirting our eyes were exchanging, and he came to Youssef hopping, and after a courtesy hello to me he continued with the big man. At some point I felt jealous, and I was: well it is me who knew you, “ and he politely responded I am sorry are you Syrian? And I was like no I am Palestinian. And this was the magic word. And if Palestinian wasn’t magical enough the word Jerusalem made him give me his phone number. I became the Holy Grail at that moment.
Every single moment I was experiencing was enough for me to carry back with care and gratefulness and dwell upon writing about for a long time to come.
We were exchanging some talk when I asked if he knew Nawal Saadawi. He quickly said: “of course she is a friend of mine even though we never actually met, but we often talk on the phone and we mention each other. She actually said once in an interview that she raised me. Referring to the ideas, I reflected in my writings according to her”. When I stated that it is a pity she is in Alexandria. He said: “no she is here.” I told him about my thesis that she is part of it, and he asked me if I wanted to meet her. I said of course. He called her, and he was his usual glamorous flirt. Giving sweetened warm words to the 86 years old WOMAN, who was blaming him for not showing up for a meeting that they scheduled some time ago. As they were exchanging such words, he told her that he would like to see her with a Palestinian writer who is having a research about her. And I was thinking:” Oh my God these people are dangerous I am screwed.” I was worried because I heard once that she was very rough and arrogant. Not to mention her reputation around this patriarchal system that makes sure to pull down women, imagine when it is Nawal Saadawi. As the world of these people was growing into planets in my tiny stars of existence. I felt this anxious feeling with responsibility maybe.” Take yourself seriously girl” I reminded myself. To make it worse, she said: “Oh. Of course, you and she are welcome. What is her name again? Bring your books and hers when you come”. And I was like “oh my god. I am dead”.
It didn’t finish here, he said later: “Prepare all your questions to her and be ready.” I was like. “Oh yes of course. My questions. I don’t have questions. I just want to see the woman”.. I murmured inside me.
We took a taxi the next day to her apartment in a very popular area that is very unlike the Zamalek area. Everything is, of course, full in Cairo. But sensing the difference is obvious. And somehow people seemed okay. It wasn’t the impression I had when I came almost three decades ago. I left back then with the feeling of smoke and pollution in my own skin. Things were not as bad as I expected. Maybe my Abuja experience also remains as a trademark after all what took place earlier this year. Apparently, nothing could be worse.
Nawal lives in this complex of apartments that has tens and dozens of floors and being on the 26th seemed only a small number. The elevator was old, and I felt weird.
She opened herself, and she was very welcoming. Unbelievable warmth. Nothing strange from Egyptians in this sense. But it is overwhelming. She was very excited about seeing Youssef, and I realized later that yes it is true this is a dangerous historical moment. These two pyramids were meeting for the first time, and I was with them. Of course, no one watching the conversation would think this way. Only the two of them emphasizing many times how it is that it is the first time they met face to face.
I swear I was taken in a trance. I still couldn’t believe this is happening. I am sitting in the house of Nawal Saadawi. Nawal herself is there asking me friendly questions caring so much about my comfort as if I was a little princess that she has just found. And Youssef; That giant man in his presence. Suddenly became just a man sitting opposite the queen of all women.
Of course, it wasn’t too long until his aura took over the presence of the setting. There is unbelievable power in his presence. His tone and voice are very pleasant to the ear.
They were busy talking about them. About Egypt. About her. About him. There was this race of a conversation that could last for three days not three hours. Her eyes talk faster than her mouth. So keen. So intelligent. So much every word of every book she wrote. Somehow I knew her. What she was saying wasn’t new to me. The fact that she told it all to me was enough to keep me quiet and in that state of non-belief.
The shine in her eyes is as daring as that of the sun. So much power of one person that can be enough to give light to the whole universe. I was taken with her and remained in a state of disbelief. I kept reminding myself. Oh god, this is happening. As the conversation was developing, I was feeling the need to go to Youssef and embrace him and thanking him for making this happen. It was too much. After all. Nawal Saadawi is the phenomenon of a woman that I grew up following. She told me: you are so beautiful. You look like a real Egyptian goddess. You are Fardos the heroin of “woman at the point of zero.” Luckily I knew Fardos. What she doesn’t know is that I lived my life seeing myself in the shadow of this woman..Nawal and all her women. A woman that should lead the world. A woman that reflects man’s cruelty within patriarchal systems like hers and mine, and yet she carries the tenderness of a human that is so great she can be as great as a Goddess…. Each time she said I looked like her I panicked. This cannot be happening. I barely talked in the first two hours. Listening to the two beautiful people sitting opposite to me enjoying every single moment of it in disbelief that it was happening. It felt like a dream. I was afraid to wake up to realize it wasn’t real.
She is so down to earth and all that she needs to give you her sharp look to grasp every bit of you. All that she told me was beyond my believe that was happening.
I am sitting there before Nawal Saadawi telling me that I was an adamant woman. That my strength is way beyond what I show. That I am not weak, but like her, at some point in her life covered her strength under her feminine side.
Of course, I like compliments. But this wasn’t a compliment. This was Nawal Saadawi talking to me. When she asked me what the books I read to her were, I was able to remember three or four, and I totally was blocked from the Reader that I read two years ago and A woman stirring in the eye of the sun. At some point I remembered the title, and I said: you’re mixing in the eye of the sun. She didn’t notice what I said. The discussion was going from one turn to the other so interestingly. Some words of mine wouldn’t have made a difference.
She kept asking me as she started to hear me: “ what is your dream?”
On the first day of meeting Youssef, he said: “I read some of your writings, and you are afraid. I saw some of the photos that show you with a glow. But there is something that scares you what it is”. Then he said,” what are your dreams.” I answered:” I am afraid to dream… if this explains my fears”…
When Nawal asked me about my thoughts. I was looking at her and him, and I said: “this moment was beyond my dreams. What has been happening in the last quarter of this year has been beyond my reach of ideas. Having my son accepted in a university with an idea he was as well afraid to dream was a wish I cannot be thankful enough to have achieved. But meeting Youssef and she was something that I could only hallucinate in my thoughts about.”
That was all I could dream of.
While we exchanged ideas about Mernissi (which Yousef didn’t know), I was proud to realize that my intuitive reading was right. I was actually right in my thesis. I was right about how I have perceived Nawal Saadawi all my life. And how I felt about Mernissi and the restless sensation of her not totally holding on to the fight of a survival of a woman.
But how can she know? \How can she know what it is to live and be like Nawal Sa’dawi?
She told me that I should write. That she is ready to help me. That she wants to help me. She looked at Youssef and said “we should help her. Let us help her”.
Just hearing those words made me feel that the whole universe is within my reach.
Towards the end of our conversation, she held my hand and said: “I want to tell you something. I am seeing you for the first time. We may not meet again. But I want to inform you that seeing you from the first moment I saw a powerful woman standing before me. You reminded me of me. You actually reminded me of my features when I was 25. Write. Write what we are saying. Write what we didn’t write about. You have to write. Do what I couldn’t do.”
I said:” ever since I was a child my mother was telling me that I am the future Nawal Sa’dawi.” Being opinionated maybe. But Nawal Saadawi has been living in me since the woman at the point of zero and the fall of the imam. Nawal Sa’dawi has been a phenomenon in what marks a woman in the twentieth century in the Arab world. I am just beyond words… beyond feeling honored….
I felt like holding her forever …
I was just falling in love again and again with Youssef for making this happen…. Until…
Until he started again with his beautiful flirts telling her that she was gorgeous and then he said the same thing to me. That was the moment when the two “Ns” united on the poor man. I felt maybe the power she gave me. And I was thinking if she is thinking the same let’s do it.
We said: “you know this is your problem. You are after all a man …
He said: I believe that all women are beautiful. I see beauty in everything in a woman. In every single lady.
We said: that is the point. We don’t have to be all beautiful. We aren’t or all beautiful. Your attitude towards us the position of the superior.
He said: “I want women to be the same as men.”
We said:” but we are not the same. We don’t want to be then same”.
We both actually took him back to a sentence he said earlier when we were discussing our personal lives in marriages and divorce. Of course, it was a golden opportunity to me because Nawal asked Youssef all the questions I didn’t dare to ask and very much wanted to know about him. She was doing the same to me. I actually wanted to tell him my personal life stories, and he didn’t seem interested, and that was an opportunity I enjoyed grasping of course.
He didn’t change his mind in repeating what he was telling me the previous days before: you have a clearance in your heart and a real soft nature. Something he and Nawal kept repeating.
So in his preceding sentence, he said:” Motherhood is an instinct and fatherhood is culture.” This was the time Nawal, and I jumped on that phrase and bringing it to the last chapter of our meeting. We both said:” we don’t think you are right in your view. Motherhood is not an instinct for women and a culture of man”.
He quickly resisted. He built the “shadow of the snake” on this discussion. Assured….
The two of us insisted to un-assure…
The last remark to be saved by the bell….
Somehow, he didn’t feel well with that …
Of course, it was as honorable of a feeling as that of the challenge of the discussion… but somehow I found a partner in debating Sufism and gender with a counterpart that is un-defeatable…
I felt so powerful…
A discussion I held with me to our last evening with a discussion that Youssef wasn’t necessarily in control. I kept saying. “Now I can discuss all my ideas that I didn’t dare to do with you earlier …
I wasn’t alone after all”…
But somehow with the magic of it all… Youssef closed with me the circle of Youssef of Egypt … the great myth mix of the biblical and Quranic story of Youssef the charming man and the women of Egypt who gathered around him and lusted on him. The women who cut their fingers as he entered the room where they gathered….
This is a “Youssef of Egypt” who is charming the women of the Arab world. With the beauty of his words and gentleness in trying to shake a culture of denial and inferiority to women. That makes him a: Youssef of an eternal beauty”…
…..with a Nawal in an Egypt that always created gods made of women…
To be continued …