Viragee Vilasini - the translation of the Egyptian Novel- Woman At Point Zero (Emra'a enda noktat el sifr) by Nawal El Saadawi

Reviewed by our special correspondent

Viragee Vilasini - the translation of the Egyptian Novel- Woman At Point Zero (Emra'a enda noktat el sifr) by Nawal El Saadawi was recently presented to Hon. Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka, Chamal Rajapaksa, MP by Milton Fernando along with three of his previous translations.

Having presented the Sinhala reader over 60 translated stories from award winning international writers in 3 volumes Sathkulu Pawwa Mathin (2000); Sammana Sandama Volume 1- (2002) and Volume 2- (2003) Milton who aims to shower the Sinhala reader with writings by eminent international novelists has presented the Sinhala translation of this Egyptian Novel.

Initially, Egyptian publishers rejected the book and the first edition was published in Lebanon in 1985. Following the English language translation published in London and New York. Woman at Point Zero has now been published in twenty-two languages. The Sinhala Translation of Nawal El Saadawi’s novel is perhaps the first and only translation of an Arabic Novel, from the rich reservoir of Arabic women writers. The closest so far is the autobiography of Somalian Model Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower, into Sinhala as Kantharaye Kusuma.

Eighty year old firebrand feminist Nawal El Saadawi, nominated for the Noble Prize several years is a trail-blazer. Since the founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union (1947) by Huda Sharawi the controversial El Saadawi has been active as many other avant garde Arab young women writers, Ahdaf Soueif, and Salwa Bakr (Egypt), Hanan al-Shaykh, and Leila Balabakki (Lebanon), Liyanah Badr (Palestine), Collete Al Quri (Syria) Assia Djebar, Malika Mochadem (Algeria), Leila Abozeid (Morocco). Undeterred by a string of court cases involving blasphemy and heresy El Saadawi wielded her pen. The veteran writer contested the then President, Hosni Mubarak twice. Anwar Sadat put her in gaol for her openly hostile feminist attitudes and her vehement protests against the Camp David Accord. Prison was no strange place for her. 

Vragee Vilasini, itself unfolds from a prison cell in Cairo. Firdaus, the woman awaiting the hangman’s noose for the murder of her pimp and the attempted murder of an Arabian Prince even refused to sign the appeal placed before her to seek a Presidential Pardon. But the day before she was taken to gallows, she agreed to tell her story to the Prison’s psychologist, character modeled on the author herself. Firdaus, the young woman of 25 years confesses with no shame. The reluctant prostitute in Viragee Vilasini professes “I knew that [prostitution] had been invented by men, and that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven. That men force women to sell their bodies at a price… “  

The story then slowly unravels her tragic life history, a lifetime rife with abuse, oppression, abandonment, being taken advantage of on all levels, and of consistent rejection- by nearly every human she encountered from her childhood to adulthood. From her childhood friend Mohammadeen, to her uncle, her lover, the rich madam Shariffa to the pimp, Marzuok who she killed, pitilessly took advantage of her.   

Firdaus takes the readers through her turbulent childhood, from being abused and witnessing the abuse of her mother by her father, to her mysterious female circumcision as a young girl, to the twisted molestation by her uncle, betrayal by lovers, and on to bitter exploitation by pimps, and last and possibly the most ruthless- the persistent taunting of men, women, and law enforcement- as she struggles to live an adult life she has been given no tools to live.

In the first person narrative Firdaus takes us through her poverty and neglect. After being orphaned she is sent to secondary school, where she excels, but upon graduation she is forced into an arranged marriage with Sheikh Mahmoud, a disgusting man who is emotionally and physically abusive. After a brutal beating she leaves and eventually becomes a high-end prostitute, encountering abusive and manipulative men throughout. When a man named Marzouk forcibly becomes her pimp, she resists his control.

When Firdaus decides to leave, and Marzouk pulls a knife to prevent her escape, she stabs him to death. She later confesses the murder and is imprisoned. Firdaus concludes that all men are criminals, refuses to submit an appeal on the grounds that she has not committed a crime, and goes to her death a free woman, without fear or regret. In fact in her confession she recollects a childhood verse: Kisiwak Ma Nopathannee; Kisiwak Netha Mata Oone; Kisiwakata Ma Biya Netthie; Nidahasya Maa. No wonder if a reader familiar with Theri Gathas is reminded of one. Indeed, Viragee Vilasini the story of the reluctant prostitute begins with a translation of Vimala Therigatha-a pithy poem of renunciation by a prostitute in the Gautama Buddha’s times.   

The novel explores the issues of the subjugation of women, female circumcision, and women's freedom in a patriarchal society. Its contents are powerful, although it would be best examined in terms of the political, social, personal, and economic contexts under which her story took place.

The faithful translation of the novel has captured much of the denouement and the delineation of character while the beleaguered feminist dominantly portrays the violation of enclosures of all kinds-the enclosures of the house, of religion, of the family, and most powerfully that last enclosure of the female body, the hymen, symbolic of a woman’s honour or disgrace and too often the determiner of woman’s fate, very significantly in male-domination entrenched society.

Viragee Vilasini, the story of the passive prostitute is a true story: it is not a story confined to the limits of Egypt. It is the story of every woman, then, now or tomorrow. El Saadawi claims in her preface that while it is not easy to view a story out of facts she did put in a little fiction in to it: only 20 per cent is fiction, she says. Indeed, the Wikipedia categorises the novel in the genre-creative non-fiction. Yet there are flights into surrealism or magical realism, as in the works of Noble Laureates Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (Midaq Alley), Migel Anjel Asturias of Guatemala and Gabriel Garcia Marque of Columbia.

Being the story of a woman written by a woman with a feminist point of view, it is good reading from cover to cover. Indeed, the collage-craft cover picture is by Chitra, Milton’s wife who had created attractive book covers for his earlier 3 books. 

Milton has captured the Arabic and Islamic nuances in his translation. He embellishes the translation of the Egyptian novel with somewhat a long, but well researched narrative, an analytical piece about the awakening of women’s liberation in the Arab world, Arabic literature through Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates and the crop of Arabian women writers of fame. As the earlier three publications Viragee Vilasini-the story of the passionless-  prostitute is a Sarvodaya Vishwa Lekha publication.

In Sri Lanka the novel is available for sale at the Sarvodaya outlet at 77 Methmdeura, Rawathawatta, Moratuwa, the Gunasena Bookshops and Sarasawiya outlets. In Australia copies may be called for from Milton, now in Brisbane, (5, Janmore Place, Parkinson QLD 4115-) Telephone 07 3272 6191 and mob. 0433 198497 email: milton.fernando@bigpond.com.

 

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