On July 25, 2011, I sat down for a conversation with Egyptian writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi while she was in London for a workshop as part of the Edgware Road Project at the Serpentine Gallery. It was a beautiful July week in London and an equally bright time for the ongoing revolution in Egypt that had begun only a few months before, and I found Nawal full of the ferocious optimism she is known around the world for. As darker clouds now loom over the horizon in Egypt, Nawal’s reflections on the role of creativity, literature, dissident work, and feminism are absolutely crucial to return to now. Published here for the first time, a different version of this interview will be published in the third volume of my Pars Pro Toto series of books with artist Susan Hefuna.
—Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich Obrist: What encouraged you to start writing? Was there an epiphany that brought you to literature, or literature to you?
Nawal El Saadawi: What encouraged me to write? Well, since my childhood my dream was to be a dancer. To express my feelings in dance. I loved to see dancers perform. Then, I wanted to be a musician, to express myself on the piano. However, dancing wasn’t possible, nor was the piano, because we were not rich. I would have needed to have a piano at home to be able to practice. I loved writing, too. I love any creative form of self-expression, be it dancing, music, writing. I didn’t dream of being a doctor at all. I never dreamt about that—I hated doctors! I hated teachers and professors and all that too, and I ended up being both a doctor and a professor. But I’ve written all my life. What really encouraged me to write was my dissatisfaction with my surroundings. I was angry with society. As a girl, I felt there was something wrong in the world around me, in my family, school, in the streets. I also felt there was something wrong with the way society treated me. So I can tell you writing came from dissatisfaction, from anger.
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