I wanted to like this book, one of the books for discussion at Feminist Classics, but I just couldn’t warm to it. In this novel Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi depicts the miseries of peasant life. The focus is on Zakeya and her brother and is set within the confines of a peasant village. The contrast is strong between the lives of the workers and the powerful. The powerful are the Mayor and the Chief of the Village Guard and, sometimes, but not secure in their positions, the Sheikh and the local barber.
I found the language of the book unappealing. This is a translation, so perhaps what seems stilted and repetitious in English is poetic in Arabic. The burning disk of the sun makes too many appearances. Certain adjectives grate on the understanding. Zakeya’s face is described as “bloodless” (pale?) and only a few sentences later the face of the buffalo is also bloodless, a confusing image. There may be a sense of the original Arabic word which relates the face of the woman and the face of the buffalo better than the English equivalent does. Time shifts are sudden and unexplained and some references to he or she are unclear.
I find this novel more of a protest against the injustice of Egyptian society than a feminist tract. There is not much to choose between the abuse of men and women in the story; each is abused in accordance with his or her gender. Men are murdered and falsely accused of murder. Women are deceived and seduced and cast out. Being male does not save the “son of fornication and sin” from death at the hands of the mob.
The tone of the book reminds me of some of the early novels of Pearl Buck, like The Good Earth. An educated woman who has lived in the culture (Pearl Buck grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries) tries to depict the lives of people she perceives as abused. Because she has observed the peasant class but is not one of them, her interpretation of their thought processes is somewhat simplistic.
The powerful in the village think the people are unable to understand their situation:
The Chief of the Village Guard hastened to refute this possibility. ‘No, absolutely not. Suspicion requires that a man be endowed with a brain that can think. But these peasants! They have no brain, and when they do have one, it’s like the brain of a buffalo.
The author does little to show that she thinks the peasants understand matters any more than the Chief does. The villagers know who is good and who is bad and do not trust authority, but theirs is not a reasoned reaction.
Instinctively they felt that Kafrawi was not a killer, or a criminal. They hated the policeman and his dogs, hated all policemen, all officers, all representatives of authority and the government. It was the hidden ancient hatred of peasants for their government.
The hatred is hidden, for they are obsequious when confronted by authority, superstitious and violent when aroused.
Finally, the title God Dies by the Nile conveys that, although the people constantly evoke Allah, it is the mayor who controls their lives. The Sheikh says,
They don’t have faith in God nor do they worry their heads about what will happen either in this world, or in the next. In their hearts they don’t fear God. What they really fear is the Mayor. He holds their daily bread in his hands and if we wants, he can deprive them of it.
Allah is eternal. They Mayor can die by the Nile.