Title: God Dies by the Nile
Author: Nawal El Saadawi
Publication Date: 1985
Call Number: PJ7862.A3M313
There’s a lot more to talk about in this book, but… this is what struck me about it. I have to admit, I didn’t answer any of the discussion questions and I didn’t address the many, many forms of violence that exist in the book, or the disturbing (and disturbingly casually deployed) moments of bestiality and necrophilia. But I hope this is interesting all the same…
God Dies by the Nile is a story about oppressive, inescapable power in a small, poor town in Egypt. Throughout the book, it becomes more and more clear that the god of the title is actually the mayor of the town, who has the power to get rid of people who displease him, to enrich or impoverish the town’s citizens as he wishes, and to force women he finds attractive to work in his house, where he rapes them. If the results of any of his actions are bad, he easily escapes responsibility for them. When one woman becomes pregnant, he finds a man in the village to blame it on. When her aunt has PTSD, she is sent to the city to pray and told she must atone for her sins—if there’s any human responsibility, it must be hers. Furthermore, he is hardly divine; in fact, he is deeply corrupt and also petty and vicious. The one humanizing thing about him is his envy of his brother’s political successes. So, not only is he an oppressive, controlling rapist, he’s also petty and insecure.
And yet, he believes his power is unquestioned and unquestionable:
He was above suspicion, above the law, even above the moral rules which governed ordinary people’s behaviour. Nobody in Kafr El Teen would dare suspect him. They could have doubts about Allah, but about him… It was impossible.
Why is this? How does he wield this power? Obviously, he has help. Three lackeys follow him around and enforce his wishes—the Chief of the Village Guard, the religious leader Sheikh Hamzawi, and the village barber, Haj Ismail. The social commentary here is fairly transparent: he can rule because he is supported by police, religion, and local social structures, respectively. Of course, none of them will rebel against him because of the benefits that this arrangement confers on them, and when one of them steps out of line, as Sheikh Hamzawi does by reluctantly adopting an abandoned child, the mayor quickly removes him from power and substitutes someone more useful.
Nothing here is surprising. What is a little more interesting is the way that patriarchy seeps into each family’s existence and upholds the influence of the mayor. There is a scene in the book that is repeated twice, but with different characters. In each scene, a woman is asked to commit herself to the supposed benevolence of a powerful man, with rewards promised. In the first case, Nefissa is invited to work at the Mayor’s house instead of working out in the fields all day, but she is afraid of him. In the second case, Fatheya is asked to marry Sheikh Hamzawi, and although her father consents, she refuses. Each of them hides above the stove (I think a diagram of the architecture would help here, but in any case…) This scene is the same for both of them, so I’ll quote the first incidence of it here:
“I am all for accepting, Sheikh Zahran, but as you can see it’s the girl who refuses,” answered Kafrawi.
“Then it’s the girl who decides what is done in this household, Kafrawi,” exclaimed Sheikh Zahran heatedly.
“No, it’s I who decide. But what can I do if she can’t see sense?”
“What can you do!? Is that a question for a man to ask?” responded Sheik Zahran, even more heatedly. “Beat her. Don’t you know that girls and women never do what they’re told unless you beat them?”
So Kafrawi called out to her in a firm voice, “You, Nefissa, come here at once.”
But Nefissa showed no signs of doing what he told her, so he clambered to the top of the oven, struck her several times, and tugged at her hair until she was obliged to come down. He handed her over to Sheik Zahran in silence.
About ten pages later, Haj Ismail has the same conversation with Fatheya’s father, using many of the same phrases.
What happens here? The rhetorical move that the fathers in these scenes find convincing is based on their ability to establish authority over their households—in service of allowing outside powers to control their family decisions. Here, the mayor has decided that he wants Nefissa and, while his request for her to work for him is phrased as an offer, it is really an order because her refusal is not honored. Kafrawi may claim that he is making decisions for his household, but it is clearly the mayor who is making decisions here. However, letting the mayor make these decisions saves face for Kafrawi, while upholding Nefissa’s refusal and standing up for her is somehow made to seem like a loss of control. So it’s okay for the mayor to make decisions about the employment of people in Kafrawi’s family, but for women to make these decisions is considered unacceptable and emasculating.
I can think of two reasons for this scene to be repeated. The first is merely emphasis—it’s so important to realize that the mayor’s power is supported not just by his avowed supporters, but by every man who upholds the patriarchy that you need to see it happen twice. The second is to show its ubiquity. This is not to be understood as a problem with Kafrawi as a person, or Fatheya’s father as a person (although they are clearly in the wrong). Rather, this is an integral part of the way the mayor maintains control. The men in families feel obliged to assist him, even to enforce his decisions with violence. They are more closely allied with him than with their own families.
Of course, the men also live under real threats from the mayor and realize that resistance has consequences (and of course, nobody helps Kafrawi when he is arrested, either). Still, this scene stayed with me. It’s called the patriarchy for a reason—the mayor and his friends have a representative in every family in Kafr El Teen.