I have just finished reading “Zeina” by Nawal El Saadawi (translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira).

Zeina - Nawal El Saadawi

Zeina – Nawal El Saadawi (via Amazon)

The book description reads as follows:

 “Bodour, a distinguished literary critic and university professor, carries with her a dark secret. As a young university student, she fell in love with a political activist and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Zeina, whom she abandoned on the streets of Cairo. Zeina grows up to become one of Egypt’s most beloved entertainers, despite being deprived of a name and a home. In contrast, Bodour remains trapped in a loveless marriage, pining for her daughter. In an attempt to find solace she turns to literature, writing a fictionalised account of her life. But then the novel goes missing. Bodour is forced on a journey of self discovery, reliving and reshaping her past and her future. Will Bodour ever discover who stole the novel? Is there any hope of her being reunited with Zeina?”

The plot sounds quite interesting and i was intrigued by the social and cultural issues which affect the characters in this book.

Bodour is quite likeable as a character, particularly when she is young and in love. I felt sorry for her having to abandon her daughter on the streets, unable to acknowledge her because she is illegitimate and has no father. Bodour is constantly haunted by the event of abandoning her child, and in her dreams she searches for the lost child. Her waking life revolves around writing and her loveless marriage. She secretly writes a novel about her life and her lost daughter, and her fictional self seems to be a stronger and more confident character than she. At times through the book, it gets confusing who is talking, Bodour or Badreya, her protagonist. It is a shock for Bodour when her novel is stolen, the one thing that was keeping her sane in her unhappy life.

Bodour has another daughter, from her marriage: Mageeda. Mageeda has grown up with her parents fighting in private, and has grown up through school alongside her mother’s lost daughter, although she is unaware of this fact. She follows in her parent’s footprints and becomes a writer herself, although she secretly hates writing. She represents the next generation and is a contrast to her half-sister, Zeina: Mageeda is short, plump and from an affluent background, with a talent for writing from her parents, despite her dislike of it.

Zeina is the abandoned daughter, brought up on the streets by a woman she called her mother – Nanny Zeinat, a servant of Bodour and her family. Zeina is described as having her father’s blue-black eyes, which have haunted her mother Bodour ever since she was born.She is clearly more like her father than Bodour, as no-one seems to associate her with her real mother. Zeina is a musically gifted child and grows into a beautiful woman, untouchable by any man, yet touches the heart of all who hear her sing and play music.

Zakariah al-Khartiti is Bodour’s husband, and he is a unpleasant character in my opinion. It is clear to see why Bodour is repulsed by him in the way he is described physically and by his behaviour. He cheats on her constantly, and finds sex in many places, from prostitutes to even raping young boys and girls. He writes a column in a newspaper and has an egotistical pride in his writing.

The book gets confusing, switching from one character to the next every couple of paragraphs, from the points of view of the characters i have described above, to other characters such as the psychiatrist, Bodour’s best friend, and Bodour’s cousin. I find there are many repetitions of the same scenes over and over again, and the repetition of the same lyrics of the song sung by the street-children. These get annoying after a while. I find this book very hard to read because it goes around in circles and goes off on a tangent every now and then, and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. We don’t really find out answers to our questions throughout the novel, and what could be classed as an answer is hard to decipher as being real or not. Each character thinks about themselves all the time, which gets boring after a while, although the exception is probably Zeina, who we don’t hear much from: we only hear about and see her through other people, be they kind or cruel.

The only thing i like about the book is the contradictions between the religious, social and cultural beliefs of the Arabic world: the outsider thinks that everything is black and white, with men acting a certain way, women acting another, and certain things being unacceptable, when actually things happen in the Arabic world just the same as the Western world, except they are hidden from public view. Everything on the surface is a lie.

I give this book 5/10 because it doesn’t answer the obvious questions, it is confusing, and most of the characters, while they are believable and well-written, are just too self-absorbed and self-loathing. I have never read anything so repetitive. It’s not boring by any means, it’s just got no obvious direction, and i can’t imagine what would happen next.


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