Originally posted on May 4, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog (they removed the title)
According the arguments put forth by Nawal El Saadawi at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, nobody in the world is truly free. "We are all prisoners of the system, but we are not aware of it," she boldly claims. Social revolutions are needed, and they must grow from criticisms of authority coupled with the creativity of the artistic class.
Saadawi let her witty and sometimes provocative barbs fly, much to the delight of the audience who responded with sporadic bursts of laughter and applause. How refreshing it is to hear someone speak so openly about the need for radical action, not just to overturn dictatorships but to speak truth to power in places with greater democratic freedom-namely the United States. To criticize regimes around the world for their generally oppressive behavior and restriction of basic rights (e.g. freedom of speech) is low-hanging fruit. Saadawi's intrigue stems from her criticism of state authorities and those with power (namely those with money) in the West who manipulate their populations, albeit in ways subtler than those of militant dictators. In the United States, Saadawi says, freedom of expression is censored in the most sophisticated ways by the Media and Academia especially.
Take our language choices for example. The persistent use of the place-name "Middle East" reinforces an image that sets the UK in the center of the world map (in colonial times, India was the Far East). Saadawi, an Egyptian whose home country occupies spaces in the realms of Africa and the Middle East, encourages people in her region to push back by calling the UK the "Middle West" (thus placing the Middle East in the middle of the map). (Incidentally, I happen to be writing this while staring at a small map above my computer that places Mecca at the center of the world-it certainly changes one's perspective.) Likewise, the uses of "Third World" in popular language or "post-colonialism" in Academia are problematic. "Post" infers colonialism is over, an idea Saadawi finds laughable. Instead, she argues for a more accurate term to be used in the universities-neo-colonialism-to describe the ways in which colonialism has evolved (rather than dissolved). Such careless language use, wittingly or unwittingly, masks reality and perpetuates a dangerous brainwashing of false concepts. What then is the role of the writer in the face of direct and indirect oppression? In stark contrast to some of the arguments I heard from Petina Gappah and Raja Shehadeh yesterday, who argued to varying degrees the individual writer must choose whether or not to insert him/herself into a conflict, Saadawi takes a forceful stance: "If I am free, I am responsible" for the liberation of the self and others. It is the duty of the illuminated writer to put pen to paper and unveil the minds of the ignorant, even if prison, torture and death are threatened. "We have to spark our minds and pay the price because freedom is not free" (a great turn of phrase on a tired Republican trope!). "If writers don't speak up, who will do it?"