So begins Firdaus’s story, leading to her grimy Cairo prison cell, where she welcomes her death sentence as a relief from her pain. Born to a peasant family, Firdaus suffers a childhood of cruelty and neglect. Her family ignore her passion for education, and on leaving school she is forced to marry a much older man. Following her escapes from violent relationships, she meets Sharifa, who leads into a life of prostitution. Desperate and alone, she takes drastic action.
Going into this book I had nothing but the highest expectations because of the legend that is Nawal El Saadawi. The premise of the book was one that immediately caught my attention because I have always appreciated the effort that it takes to construct a story that starts with the end, and so, going into this, I was already salivating at what I expected to be a very gradual and slow built up to an already enticing end.
I will say that in the first few pages, meeting Firdaus, I had already been able to deduce the majority of her story in my mind. As readers, we meet a young girl, born into a world that would treat her badly because of her gender and social status. And so, the repetition of pain is what I saw coming and was not taken aback nor thrilled by how Firadus’s life story unfolded.
The perceived lack of a gripping plot denouement is why I felt that the writing in this book had to carry the story. Luckily, I found that the writing definitely kept me reading even though the pain experienced by the main character and the repetition of that pain was one that I had read many times before. There was something very poetic about the writing of Firdaus’s story and I was drawn in by the fact that as a reader, I was able to see the pain and trauma the main character goes through, but also be part of the sadness in this book in a very raw and poignant way.
A theme that I did not expect to be focused on in this book was the exploration of freedom and what it is to self-determine through the prism of wifehood, prostitution and the different confinements that exist in both those titles. I found it fascinating how Firdaus, even at the height of what would have seemed like material freedom, chased after the liberation that she thought respectability would bring her. As a prostitute Firdaus seemed to be powerful, even though she was at the mercy of her customers and therefore, as a reader, I led into thinking about what her power actually meant and the limitations it had.
There were points in this book where I felt as though the character of Firdaus was not growing in a way that the reader would expect her to grow and I think that may have taken away from the story overall. For example, Firdaus’ desire to be respected caught me off guard because I did not think that the character, having lived the life she had, would have come back to such a decision. It felt as though the story was given to us in order to explore respectability as a theme in and of itself and I think that could have been done in a way that would have felt to stay truer to the overall characterisation of the protagonist.
This book did a great job at giving us a depiction of what it is to be poor and a woman, and what the world looks like when the choices you are given are confined by the those two circumstances of your birth. I really enjoyed those explorations and the reading experience was made even more pleasurable by what I think was a poetic and lyrical way of telling a painful story. I think in the end the question that Nawal Al Saadawi left us with through writing Woman At Point Zero was a one about womanhood and freedom and whether those two things can coexist or if they can only be found in death, as was the case in Firdaus’s life story. I found this question to be confronting of my own definition of what it means to be free and what the world sees as ‘free’, and therefore I think this is the book to pick up if you are looking for a story that has been told before but you would love to read something that is beautifully written and will force you to examine your own notions about freedom, power and respect.