Nawal el Saadawi, in her seminal account of oppression of women in Egypt, stated:
in any society it is not possible to separate religion from the political system, nor to keep sex separate from politics…The trilogy com¬posed of politics, religion and sex, is the most sensitive of all issues in any society. This sensitivity is particularly acute in developing countries with rural background and culture, and where feudal relations are predominant.
(from The Hidden Face of Eve, 1977).
And she has illustrated these points perfectly and brutally in God Dies by the Nile (1974). The story is set in Kafr El Teen, a village on the banks of the Nile, where peasants toil the land for its meagre harvests. Zakeya’s family is under siege and is exploited by a most oppressive patriarchal system. Her family members are raped, falsely imprisoned or disappeared. The supremely powerful Mayor of Kafr El Teen rules and controls this system.
“We are God’s slaves when it’s time to say our prayers only. But we are the Mayor’s slaves all the time”
The portrayal of patriarchy and its devastating effects in God Dies by the Nile is the most remarkable that I’ve encountered in literature. The Mayor is assisted by the Iman of the village mosque, the barber and local healer and, the Head of the Village Guard; all three combined control the religious, social and political spheres of the Kafr El Teen. These men use their power to sustain the Mayor’s control through coercion and fear. They procure young girls for the Mayor. They hatch a cunning plot, involving a mosque, to convince Zakeya that she is the cause of her family’s problems.
An important facet of this book is its demonstration of the use of religion and sex to oppress women. But it’s not only women who suffer under the Mayor’s rule; men who do not tow the line, who are vocal in their opposition are likely to be silenced or killed. In Kafr El Teen, the majority of the villagers, who themselves are the Mayor’s victims, through cultural and religious socialization, sometimes act as oppressors. They come to believe in and also advance the various manifestations of the Mayor’s power. This often results in scapegoating and even mob violence. There is a most harrowing example of mob violence in the book. Quite scary, it was. This self-oppression is most apparent in the role that Om Saber plays in the village. She performs genital mutilations and verification of virginity among other functions. Other villagers populate this novel and they are all fascinating yet profoundly ignorant and unaware of how the Mayor manipulates their economic, emotional and psychological states in his interest. The heroine of this novel, Zakeya, simmers with a quiet rage. Her faith is unwavering and throughout her ordeals, she appeals to Allah to be just, to show mercy and to restore her family to her.
God Dies by the Nile is a powerful political novel. Yet it is not didactic. El Saadawi’s writing is passionate yet controlled. She is very direct; no word is wasted for the novel is all of 138 pages. She is relentless. There is forward momentum to the narrative although the novel begins deceptively slow. It delivers Zakeya to a most startling yet unexpected awakening. The book is a feminist classic for its depiction of one woman’s ordeal, her strength and her sense of agency. A highly recommended read.
(The book is translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata)