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Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi
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Zeina (original 2011; edition 2011)

by Nawal El Saadawi, Amira Nowaira (Translator)

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30None364,326 (3.19)17
lilisin's review
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I'll start off by saying that Zeina doesn't really deserve the two stars that I gave it. Those two stars aren't a reflection of Nawal El-Saadawi's writing style (always marvelous), her tackling of the plot (always difficult) or a question of her characters (well, okay, maybe). the two stars are more of a reflection on my personal reaction to the book which was point blank: I don't want to read this. Or rather, that's what I came to feel every time I tried to pick up the book. Why? Well, the topic and the content of the book is just so hard to read, especially as a woman.

Incest. Rape. Statuitory rape. Incestual statuitory rape.

All by men (not only directed to females as there are cases of rapes of young boys) despite claims of being religious and wanting to be a servant of God. I might not be religious but I'm pretty certain an ideal god would condone the rape of minors and such. You continue to read the book wondering how much is it exagerated. You want it to be exagerated but you fear that it isn't. And thus I couldn't finish the book. I just wasn't in the mood and postponed reading what I did manage to read for months. Months it took to read only 80 pages of what is probably about a 200 page book. It was merely impossible for me.

Now, who would I recommend this book to? Someone interested in women studies, religion in Egypt, the role of God in traditional life, etc... There is great information to be had from this book and much to learn. And Nawal El-Saadawi truly is a fascinating writer. I've enjoyed other of her books which is why I wanted to badly to read this one at first.

I simply realized that enough is enough. The world is terrible and I just am not in the mood to read about that right now. ( )
1 vote lilisin | Mar 25, 2012 |
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Showing 14 of 14
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Zeina is beautifully written and translated. The narrative snakes through the dreamlike prose, emerging and disappearing into the imagery, and readers are never quite sure whether any given scene is relating the history of the characters, or whether it's what they imagine has happened, might have happened, or might happen yet. Readers will definitely need to set aside the time and concentration to sink fully into the narrative in order to get the most out of reading this book, as it rewards readers in proportion to their investment in it. For all its quasi-stream of consciousness progression, the novel is unflinching in its depiction of the rot, despair, and social destruction created by religiously mandated misogyny. Zeina is a difficult read to be sure, but a rewarding one as well.
  Trismegistus | Apr 22, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I see I'm not the only Early Reviewer who has struggled to finish this book (and who also gave up trying). The previous review echoes my feelings. it's not that I don't know such terrible things are happening, but I just am not prepared to use my small amount of leisure time to read about them in this detail. Pollyanna? Probably!
  bookmess | Apr 13, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I'll start off by saying that Zeina doesn't really deserve the two stars that I gave it. Those two stars aren't a reflection of Nawal El-Saadawi's writing style (always marvelous), her tackling of the plot (always difficult) or a question of her characters (well, okay, maybe). the two stars are more of a reflection on my personal reaction to the book which was point blank: I don't want to read this. Or rather, that's what I came to feel every time I tried to pick up the book. Why? Well, the topic and the content of the book is just so hard to read, especially as a woman.

Incest. Rape. Statuitory rape. Incestual statuitory rape.

All by men (not only directed to females as there are cases of rapes of young boys) despite claims of being religious and wanting to be a servant of God. I might not be religious but I'm pretty certain an ideal god would condone the rape of minors and such. You continue to read the book wondering how much is it exagerated. You want it to be exagerated but you fear that it isn't. And thus I couldn't finish the book. I just wasn't in the mood and postponed reading what I did manage to read for months. Months it took to read only 80 pages of what is probably about a 200 page book. It was merely impossible for me.

Now, who would I recommend this book to? Someone interested in women studies, religion in Egypt, the role of God in traditional life, etc... There is great information to be had from this book and much to learn. And Nawal El-Saadawi truly is a fascinating writer. I've enjoyed other of her books which is why I wanted to badly to read this one at first.

I simply realized that enough is enough. The world is terrible and I just am not in the mood to read about that right now. ( )
1 vote lilisin | Mar 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The pain of women living in a brutal patriarchal society is not an easy subject but this author writes with passion and courage and I was grateful to have received this book from early reviewers.
From time to time, the author quotes from the Koran, the Torah and the Bible and such filth and hatred would be difficult to match in your local pornographic bookstore. I shuddered to read it. The women in Zeina live in a twilight world similar to the dystopian Christian world in Margarat Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale".
Egypt is one of the more civilized midddle-eastern countries but women live in the shadows and as we are seeing, the Arab spring was certainly not about freedom for women.
As others have ably described the story, I will not do that, but only say that there is a good story along with the pain. I will certainly look for more books by this author. ( )
1 vote bhowell | Mar 10, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Set in Egypt as a modern revolution is about to explode but looking back to a previous revolution, the characters drift between reality and fantasy, past and present, sanity and insanity. Only Zeina seems at home in/with herself, and much of the time the reader is unsure whether or not Zeina is real or a fantasy. Bodour, may or may not be Zeina's mother (unknown to Zeina) . . . or is Bodour merely projecting onto Zeina her guilt about abandoning her child long ago? And what to make of the novel within the novel and characters (Badreya) that drift in and out of their fictional status?

The novel explores idealism and compromise, hypocrisy and revolution, the role of the artist/writer in revolution, religion, sexism, violence against women, how guilt over sexual longing can transform into hatred and violence toward women . . .

Most of the men are portrayed as either jerks or martyrs, which is unfortunate. They may be immersed in the Three Books of God (the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur'an), but what they take from religion is full of contradictions (and often hatred toward women). In several sections the novel quotes from the three books, illustrating the source of the men's attitudes towards women. Only the chauffeur seems to see things as they are rather than through a set of ideological lenses.

Many years ago I read Nawal El Saadawi's earlier classic novel, Woman at Point Zero, and excerpts from The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World; many of the same themes are at play in Zeina. I wish I knew more about the history of revolutions in Egypt. My sense is that much of this novel has a basis in that history. I have been reading quite a bit about the current revolution in Egypt (2010-2012, but generally dated as starting January 25, 2011) and am struck by how prescient this novel (written in 2009) was.

Below I quote some of the passages I marked as I was reading the novel. They will likely give you a better sense of its style and main points . . . I hope they will encourage you to read Zeina.

Noted passages:
"Yet something attracted me to the streets. Inside our home, the walls were painted bright pink, but the air was heavy as though it were filled with invisible smoke which the eye couldn't see and the nose couldn't sniff. I felt it seep softly through my body, saturated with hatred, silence, depression, and an imperceptible sadness." p. 11

"I had no idea then what love between a man and a woman meant. I often scrutinized the faces of my father and mother to detect a look of love in their eyes. But I never succeeded in discovering the presence of a single loving glance in our home, until I grew up and understood things I hadn't known." p. 11

"Hypocrisy had become the hallmark of the age. It was an epidemic that infected all, including doctors. There was no remedy for it except a revolution or a volcano erupting from the earth." p. 74

"The knife was moving as if of its own accord. Bodour might have been sleeping and dreaming and not sitting at the breakfast table. since she had started writing her novel, the lines between reality and dream had become confused. the novel could have been the source of the ghosts chasing her, the voices she heard as she sat writing in her room, the shadows that moved over the walls, assuming human and non-human shapes." p. 76

"Bodour stared at her daughter Mageeda, who was eight years old. But she drove the memory out of her mind. She remembered that she was her age. But she didn't tell her daughter the secret, and it stayed buried within her, locked inside an iron cage under the ribs. she didn't have the courage or the daring to open it without splitting her heart in two or tearing her liver out of her body with the knife." p. 103

"As far back as she could remember, she heard women repeat the saying, "Trusting a man is like trusting water to stay in a sieve." p. 136

"As Bodour was engrossed in writing, Badreya whispered in her ear. "You're a hopeless coward. Nothing but writing can cure you of cowardice. Only the letters on the page can cure you of your pain and sadness. With black, blue or red ink, shed your blood on paper, Bodour, cut your chest open with the knife and open your heart. Only the knife can cure you. Don't keep your tears locked inside, let them loose the way you scream out in the face of God and the Devil. Don't fear death or hell fire. You've had enough hell on earth." " p. 140

" "But God, Badreya, told me I would die if I ate from the tree."
"That was the voice of the Devil, Bodour, and not God. If it was God's voice, it wouldn't be any different from the Devil's I ate from the tree, Bodour, and so did all the creative men and women in all the areas of knowledge, from philosophy and art to science. Human civilization was built on their ideas. We've never tasted anything better than the fruit of this tree. We enjoyed the pleasure of knowledge and the exuberance of life, and not a fake dead life. If God stopped you from enjoying life, then He was not God but the Devil. Satan's pointed finger stole your life and your novel, Bodour."" pp. 145-146

"Mahmoud, the driver, walked on the sand wearing bright bathing trunks colored red, green, blue, yellow, and purple. It was the Islamic bathing outfit which covered men's thighs down to their knees. But the esteemed masculine member often stood out from underneath the colorful rubber trunks. However, it was no shame for a man to have a rebellious member that had no piety or fear of God. It was no disgrace for a man to swim in the sea. It was forbidden for women to show their faces, let alone their thighs, legs or arms. The emir issued a ruling that women's voices were a source of shame. Every part of their bodies, in fact, was a shame, including the head, the seat of thought and intellect." p. 174

"The emir urinated like all other mortals and the chauffeur heard the sound of the urine as it dropped into the luxurious ceramic toilet bowl imported from Europe, the land of infidels and unbelievers. The chauffeur often drove the thoughts that Satan whispered in his ears out of his mind. But when he heard the sound of the emir urinating, he couldn't help noticing that it was peculiarly similar to his own. Princes and common folk were equal when it came to urinating, for God in His infinite wisdom didn't discriminate between a poor man and an prince." p. 175

"Bodour shook her soft white hand in Badreya's face, chasing her terrifying black spectre, raising her pen to gouge her eyes out and stop her voice. But Badreya had no eyes and no tongue. she was a roaming spirit, appearing at night on the walls like a phantom, peering like Satan's finger from between the pages of the novel, like God's finger, and as real as God and Satan. She was the great truth of her life. Bodour might doubt the existence of Satan or God, but Badreya was the only irrefutable truth in her life. She was authenticity itself, and everything else was untrue, unimportant, unnecessary, and unreal." p. 209

"Zeina Bint Zeinat is an exceptional artist par excellence. Her genius is revealed in the simplest movement she makes. As soon as she enters the auditorium or appears on stage, her presence annihilates everything else around her. Eyes never tire of looking at her. Her spirit lifts our souls to the high heavens. Her ingenious voice assumes a palpable shape in our ears. We can tough it and taste it like red wine, because it can remove distances between hearts. Her tunes throw light on the dark corners of our minds. We become intoxicated with the joy of knowledge and overwhelmed with an unparalleled kind of ecstasy." p. 213

"Her eyes were wide with astonishment. It was beyond her comprehension why this small piece of flesh had such devastating power and importance. States and religious were built on it. History carried it as a banner and marched with it since time immemorial. It was this piece of flesh that placed women in the jail of serfdom and humiliated men. It led elderly men to rape little girls, and pious men to lose two thirds of their minds when it was aroused. This piece of flesh deprived three million children in a single country of their human rights. Born on the streets, they lived and died there. the little shrunken mouse between the thighs pronounced the verdict of untimely death on millions of girls. It took away their joy and their smile and their hope and the dreams of their childhood. This little mouse swallowed Viagra in the darkness of the night in the hope of being resurrected and reborn once again." pp. 229-230

"She used to think of loneliness as a punishment or a pain she should avoid, and not as a pleasure she should look forward to. Before leaving she asked Badreya, "Was it through loneliness that I left the world or went deeply into it?
Seeing her dragging the suitcase behind her, Badreya whispered in a low voice, "Loneliness isn't a pleasure in itself, but it may create new pleasures. You may write a new novel or live a bigger love than your first stunted love. You may write using the first personal pronoun, I, instead of hiding behind another woman and using the third personal pronoun, she. You may abandon literary criticism and stop polishing other people's shoes, including those of your husband. You may begin to polish your own shoes and see your real self on the page . . ." pp. 232-233 ( )
  LucindaLibri | Jan 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book provides an interesting backdrop to the events of 2011--the "Arab Spring"--particularly as it occurred in Egypt. The novel charts the life of a successful woman, Boudour, married to a successful man in contemporary Egypt. Their individual successes, however, do not make up for the troubles that plague their marriage and society as a whole. The title character, Zeina, is the daughter of Boudour who was given up for adoption because she was born out of wedlock. Boudour ends up in a "respectable," marriage, but she suffers as she watches her daughter become a famous musician, and she cannot forget the love she had for Zeina's father who was killed for his involvement in anti-government protests.

El Saadwawi uses this plot to address the struggle women face in modern Islamic cultures, particularly women who are also artists. Her main character, Boudour, is a successful literary critic who longs to be a novelist. Zeina is a kind of "natural artist," born with talent that makes her music teacher proclaim that she is destined for great artistry. At the same time, there are men who long to "tame" Zeina and make her take her "rightful" place in Islamic society.

El Saadawi's feminism in this novel comes across as a bit heavy-handed, but she may need to be that obvious and forthright to make her point in Egypt. To a person accustomed to feminist thought and writing, though, it tends to detract from the characters and the novel. Still, I think this is a good book that provides an interesting view into the recent history of Egypt which led so recently to revolution. ( )
  wrmjr66 | Dec 6, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Nawal El Saadawi’s Zeina focuses, like some of her other books, on the plight of women in Egypt. In Zeina, she uses the stigma of an unwanted, abandoned girl child who becomes an entertainer, to play out the drama of the lives of the girl as well as a those of a host of other characters, both male and female, who orbit her life.

There are several powerful themes which work together to provide a picture of the characters’ lives. These include the women’s powerlessness – even those who have some education and standing; the men’s hypocrisy – particularly those with power and standing; and religious hypocrisy – the use of “God’s word” to justify everything. These may seem to be somewhat stereotypical and monotone – all the women are beaten down (except Zeina) and all the men are hypocritical perverts – but I think they were deliberately used that way for emphasis.

Zeina is not the main voice of the novel, but the story revolves around her impact on the lives of many of the characters. She is, of course, Boudour’s abandoned child, but how and when Zeina becomes integrated into the lives of her mother’s family are an integral part of the story. Less integral, but no less fascinating, is Zeina’s impact on the other characters with whom she interacts. She is almost a foil against which much of the story plays out.

El Saadawi utilizes a drifting sense of what is real and what is fantasy and also moves back and forth between the past and the present. Thus the reader is not always sure which is which at any given point in the narrative. It gives an almost dreamlike quality to the book. The story moves without pause from the viewpoint of one character, for example Bodour who is real, to that of another, Badreya, who is actually a character in a novel being written by Bodour. While this serves to show the reader, in this case, that Badreya is an aspect of Bodour herself, the style does not make this an easy read.

There are few breaks in a long, continuous narrative. It requires concentration and sometimes re-reading of particular parts in order to understand what has taken place. This style may not appeal to all readers, and was difficult for me in the beginning, but I found that after I persisted, I was able to follow much better and began to truly enjoy the book.

This book will probably not appeal to the reader who is just looking for the ‘story’. It will however, appeal to one who enjoys prose with an almost poetic slant. Overall, it’s a beautifully written novel, which managed to make me angry at times, while simultaneously making me admire the resilience of the human spirit.
  sangreal | Nov 30, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I found the story of Zeina difficult to follow. The author transitions from one character to another, from one time to another with no clarification. Although it is a perspective of the unequal standing of women in Middle Eastern cultures, and in Egyptian culture where it was set, I found it more difficult to grasp the point of the story. I did put my difficulties in this respect down to not knowing enough about the plight of women raised in this culture. The character I had the most respect for, and who I might have wanted to learn more from, Zeina, seemed more a bit player...a supporting role, even tho the book is called Zeina. Some will like this book...some will not. I leave it to you to decide. ( )
  Neverwithoutabook | Nov 23, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I read another Nawal El Saadawai book, The Novel, for a book club so the changing perspectives and story within a story was similar to me. Her writing style is incredibly fluid, moving from one thought to another person very easily and without clarification. I found this one harder to get into as the tone and voice were so similar between The Novel and Zeina. I felt as if Zeina was a bit more pedestrian in its subject matter and did not enjoy it as much.
  yhaduong | Nov 7, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Although I had heard of Nawal el Saadawi, this was my first time reading her writing. I think I wish I had read it in a class or some other setting that would give it more context because I couldn't help feeling that I was missing significant portions of the novel. It might have been nice if there had been some sort of essay introduction to help with this. I will also admit to having a little bit of trouble following the shifts, especially early on. In spite of this feeling, the story was quite affecting, especially the ending. I also feel that I ought to warn the reader that there is quite a bit of rape/sexual abuse of girls. It wasn't written in a tawdry manner, and I believe that its inclusion was legitimate as an expression of the unequal position of women in Egyptian society, which was a theme in the novel. I mention it because I know some readers would prefer to be warned before reading novels with abuse or rape.
  legxleg | Oct 30, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Nawal El Saadawi is a leading spokeswoman on Arab feminism and an excellent writer.

In this latest novel to be translated into English, readers are given a glimpse of the status of women in the Arab World as we step into their lives.

Interesting characters and storyline but a little cliched at times. ( )
  IamAleem | Oct 30, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is the story of Bodour, an Egyptian woman who gave birth out of wedlock and abandoned her child. It's also the story of that child (Zeina) and of Bodour's legitimate daughter Mageeda. It is the story of women oppressed by a patriarchial society and religion.

The narrative is hard to follow. The author shifts among different characters' perspectives, from first person to third person, and forwards and backwards in time, often within a single page. There are no chapters and few "breaks" in the text to help guide the reader.

In spite of that, the writing is superb. Images of the lives of women and street children come through vividly and the story of Bodour and her daughters manages to emerge from all the confusing narrative. ( )
  LynnB | Oct 24, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I admired this book, although I didn't necessarily enjoy the experience of reading it. It tells the story of a group of Egyptian women who struggle with the social and religious constraints placed on them. The story of this struggle is heartbreaking and infuriating. The narrative style is challenging; reality and dreams often merge into one, and characters from novels seem to come alive. It's a dreamy, murky world where the perspective shifts and finding firm ground is difficult. El Saadawi captures the nightmarish quality of her characters' lives extremely well.
  rhussey174 | Oct 18, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book looks great - and I love reading translated books and books about other cultures. However, I just couldn't get through this one.

I was often unsure who was speaking - seems like the author switches narrators/narration often and sometimes it is first person from the daughter Mageeda, sometimes it is third person about the mother, Bodour. Also, the mother has written a novel that parallels her life, and sometimes the book goes off on a long tangent about the main character of the book. I couldn't make any sense of it.

It's possible that it is a translation problem...? ( )
  psychomamma | Oct 5, 2011 |
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