Review: My Travels Around the World by Nawal El Saadawi (Minerva, 1992)

In My Travels Around the World, a collection of eleven short essays written in the early 1980s, Egyptian writer, Nawal El Saadawi brings a forensic eye to the places she visits, using a novelist’s tools to revivify them and a journalist’s skill to frame them in a broader, historical context.

Drawing links between the physical enslavement of the past and the economic (read: capitalist) slavery of the present (i.e. the 1960s and 70s, the time during which she travels), she handles the political with a light yet powerful touch, leaving the reader in no doubt as to where she stands. Her storytelling is all the better for it.

Sadaawi is skillful at evoking place. Her descriptions of settings and landscape, whether in Libya or Thailand, Ethiopia or Tanzania, take the reader to the heart of the ‘where’ while her rich, elucidatory prose digs deep into the ‘why.’

Through her journeys, Sadaawi is on a search for the truth – in her own country, where she was imprisoned and her work banned, and in the world at large. She eventually finds that truth, of herself, at least, on her own, unfamiliar continent. Her account of her first encounter with Africa, a continent of which she, as an Egyptian, is geographically a part of, but which she has been taught to shun, is fascinating. “…Our eyes and our faces were always turned towards the Mediterranean, Europe, and America,” she writes at the beginning of Part Nine, “our backs towards Africa, away from ourselves.”

At the end of the book’s Introduction, which I tend always to read last, Sadaawi writes, “…I do not separate the liberation of women from the liberation of people or from the oppression of local and international patriarchal class systems. This will be clear in My Travels Around the World.” And it is. In each chapter, the fact of Sadaawi’s gender is indivisible from the fact of her ethnicity which is indivisible from the fact of her politics.

Though written over 30 years ago, the essays in this collection continue to resonate and ask humbling questions of the reader: about our willingness to accept the status quo and be victims of history rather than shapers of the present and future.

Review by SA

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Reading list for Zimbabwe

With all the dramatic change that’s been happening in Zimbabwe over the last few days, here’s a list of fiction and nonfiction that will give you a deeper understanding of the social and political context in which events are taking place.

These books highlight the human toll that political and economic oppression places on a people, from loss of identity to displacement and migration.

    • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Random House, 2013)
      A coming-of-age story, We Need New Names tells of the life of a young girl named Darling, first as a 10-year-old in Zimbabwe, navigating a world of chaos and degradation with her friends, and later as a teenager in the Midwest United States, where a better future seems about to unfold when she goes to join an aunt working there.
    • The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe by Peter Godwin (Picador, 2010)
      In mid-2008, after thirty years of increasingly tyrannical rule, Robert Mugabe lost an election. Instead of conceding defeat, his supporters launched a brutal campaign of terror – Zimbabweans called it, simply, The Fear. Peter Godwin travels, at considerable risk, to see the havoc raging at the heart of his country, but what emerges from the brutality are the heartbreaking tales of resistance and survival, the astonishing moments of humour and goodwill, and the unforgettable characters who will not be subdued.
    • An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber, 2009)
      In this astonishingly powerful debut collection, she dissects with real poignancy the lives of people caught up in a situation over which they have no control, as they deal with spiralling inflation, power cuts and financial hardship – a way of life under Mugabe’s regime – and cope with issues common to all people everywhere; failed promises, disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. Compelling, unflinching and tender, An Elegy for Easterly is a defining book, and a stunning portrait of a country in chaotic meltdown.
    • Can We Talk and Other Stories by Shimmer Chinodya (Heinemann, 2001)
      A collection of Zimbabwean stories following the transition from childhood to adult life. Youthful desires for prosperity, love and a purpose in life are undermined as the characters grow up, reflecting the decline in post-independence Zimbabwe.
    • Harare North by Brian Chikwava (Vintage, 2009)
      In this revelatory debut, Caine Prize winner Brian Chikwava tackles head-on the realities of life as a refugee. This is the story of a stranger in a strange land – one of the thousands of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants seeking a better life in England – with a past he is determined to hide. From the first line the language fizzes with energy, humour and not a little menace. As he struggles to make his life in London (the ‘Harare North’ of the title) and battles with the weight of what he has left behind in a strife-torn Zimbabwe, every expectation and preconception (both his and ours) is turned on its head.

All these books are available for members to borrow from Libreria.

Reading list for Catalonia

  • The Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past by Giles Tremlett (Faber and Faber, 2012)
    Spaniards are reputed to be amongst Europe’s most forthright people. So why have they kept silent about the terrors of their Civil War and the rule of General Franco? This apparent ‘pact of forgetting’ inspired writer Giles Tremlett to embark on a journey around Spain and its history. He found the ghosts of Spain everywhere, almost always arguing. Who caused the Civil War? Why do Basque terrorists kill? Why do Catalans hate Madrid? Did the Islamist bombers who killed 190 people in 2004 dream of a return to Spain’s Moorish past? Tremlett’s curiosity led him down some strange and colourful byroads, and brought him unexpected insights into the Spanish character.
  • What’s up with Catalonia? Edited by Liz Castro (Catalonia Press, 2013)
    35 experts explain the causes which impel them to the separation through essays on Catalan history, economics, politics, language, and culture.
  • Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin (Pan Macmillan, 2002)
    Written with deep knowledge and affection, Homage to Barcelona is a sensuous and beguiling portrait of a great Mediterranean city. This book celebrates one of Europe’s greatest cities – a cosmopolitan hub of vibrant architecture, art, culture and nightlife. It moves from the story of the city’s founding and its huge expansion in the nineteenth century to the lives of Gaudi, Mir , Picasso, Casals and Dali. It also explores the history of Catalan nationalism, the tragedy of the Civil War, the Franco years and the transition from dictatorship to democracy which Colm Toibin witnessed in the 1970s. Written with deep knowledge and affection, Homage to Barcelona is a sensuous and beguiling portrait of a unique Mediterranean port and an adopted home.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (Penguin, 2000)
    ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it’. Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War, chronicled in Homage to Catalonia. Here he brings to bear all the force of his humanity, passion and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the bright hopes and cynical betrayals of that chaotic episode: the revolutionary euphoria of Barcelona, the courage of ordinary Spanish men and women he fought alongside, the terror and confusion of the front, his near-fatal bullet wound and the vicious treachery of his supposed allies. A firsthand account of the brutal conditions of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia includes an introduction by Julian Symons in Penguin Modern Classics.

All these books are available for members to borrow from Libreria.