The Fall of the Imam (Nawal El Saadawi)


Another book club book, and one that caused some puzzlement.  It comprises a number of short chapters relating incidents from the life of Bint Allah (= Daughter of God), an illegitimate child who is raised in an orphanage and then killed while trying to escape what we take to be the forces of order, together with other stories about the Imam, formerly an impoverished and inarticulate schoolboy who now represents God’s will on earth; the Great Writer, who imbibed talent with his mother’s milk and then lost it under the influence of his philandering father; the Chief of Security, the Body Guard, who may or may not stop a bullet meant for the Imam and certainly wears a rubber face to resemble him; and some others.  There were certainly plenty of metaphors, such as eyes = stars (repeated many times) and some facts about the position of women in Islamic countries (a buffalo is more valuable than a wife).

People were generally confused as to why the author hadn’t just said what she meant.  I made some remarks along the following lines in an attempt to be helpful:

i)  since the Islamic credo includes the statement that Allah is neither begotten nor begetting, the name Bint Allah would indeed be shocking;

ii)  the Hizb Allah (Party of God) and Hizb Al Shaitan (Party of Satan) would normally be taken to be the saved and the damned, so it was strange to see them as the names of the two official parties;

iii)  you could see bits of particular Islamic states, with the inarticulate and assassinated Imam resembling Sadat and the mention of buffaloes (Egypt); the Imam being an Imam (Iran); Katie resembling Queen Noor (Jordan); and no doubt many others;

iv)  perhaps the repetition of the same incidents (in particular, the death of Bint Allah, which happened very many times) showed that as a woman in such a society you never got anywhere and kept on falling into the same impasse;

v)  or it could be a rejection of linear male narrative (but the women making up the rest of the members present said they wanted linear male narrative–perhaps they were suffering from a colonised consciousness);

vi)  or it could be an opposition of continual pagan birth-death-rebirth to the linear end-directed history of Abrahamic religions;

vii)  or perhaps a comment on the 1001 Nights, which of course depends on unresolved narratives–there was a lot of explicit parody of the 1001 Nights in the book as well.

Anyway, I was rather interested by many of these themes, and would happily have read a separate work on Arab-Islamic onomastics; the uses of the Qur’an and other traditional texts in contemporary Arab literature; the life and opinions of Nawal El Saadawi and so on; but I didn’t really feel they were combined into something that worked here.

There are some interesting articles/chapters online here, here, here, and here.

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