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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