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Memoirs from the Women's Prison
The Circling Song


"Memoirs from the Women's Prison" offers a firsthand account of women's resistance to state violence. El Saadawi describes how political prisoners, both secular intellectuals and Islamic revivalists, forged alliance to demand better conditions and to maintain their sanity in the confines of their cramped cell. Recognized as a classic of prison writing, these are her haunting words...

On the arrest:
I heard a knock at the door.
I was sitting at the small desk in my bedroom, absorbed in writing a new novel. The clock hand pointed to three. It was the afternoon of Sunday, 6 September, 1981.
I ignored the knock. Perhaps it was the concierge, or possibly the milkman, or the man who does our ironing. Or it could be anyone else, but if no one were to answer the door, the steps would surely recede. The fourth rapping, and the fifth, and the knocking on the door went on and on...I got up and went to the door. Long black shadows behind the glass pane, and the sound of heavy breathing. A shiver ran over my body. I was all alone in the flat...
Thieves, perhaps. But thieves don't knock on doors...
With shaking fingers, I opened the little opaque glass pane set in the door. My eyes widened in alarm: a large number of men armed with rifles and bayonets were out there, sharp eyes piercing the narrow iron bars, as a rough voice said in a tone of command:
"Open the door!"
A dream, perhaps? Reality mingling with imagination, the world of the conscious with the realm of the unconscious. My mind still did not believe that any of this was really happening.

The arresting officers told Nawal "Nothing at all! Just a question or two, and you'll return to your home" but instead, drove her out of Cairo and to a remote prison...

On the lock up:
Her voice rang out in the darkness, remote, as if it were coming to me from beneath the earth or from an era long past.
"Go on in"
The key turned in the door three times and the silence, like a single continuous scream, invaded my ear...On the ceiling was an electric light staring like a strangled, bulging eye. Metal bunk beds. Bodies moving inside black cloaks. Heads wrapped in white or back...
Had I fallen to the bottom of a well? OR sprung on to another planet? OR returned to the age of slaves and harems? Or was this a dream? Was I asleep?
No, I'm not sleeping. I'm awake, standing up, totally conscious that I am inside prison. This is the cell. Four walls and the steel-barred door.

On survival and the prison experience:
From the moment I opened my eyes upon my first morning in prison, I understood from the motion of my body as I was rising and stretching the muscles of my neck and back, that I had made a firm decision: I would live in this place as I had lived in any other. It was a decision which appeared insane to me, for it would cancel out reality, logic, the walls and the steel doors.

I tossed and turned upon the wooden board, unable to close an eyelid. I became aware that torture in prison does not take place by means of the bars, or the walls, or the stinging insects, or hunger or thirst or insults or beating. Prison is doubt. And doubt is the most certain of tortures. It is doubt that kills the intellect and body - not doubt in others, but doubt in oneself…The baffling, crushing question for the mind: was I right or wrong?

In prison I came to know both extremes together. I experienced the height of grief and joy, the peaks of pain and pleasure, the greatest beauty and the most intense ugliness… In prison I found my heart opened to love - how I don't know - as if I were back in early adolescence. In prison, I remembered the way I had burst out laughing when a child, while the taste of tears from the harshest and hardest days of my life returned to my mouth.

On freedom of expression: To this moment, I don't know why I am in prison. I have seen no investigator or prosecuting attorney or lawyer. I hear the shawisha (female warden) say that she heard they were saying I entered prison because of my writings…my crime, therefore, comes under the rubric of crimes of opinion.
Is free opinion a crime? The let prison be my only refuge and my final fate!
But does free opinion really merit the hardship of prison? The fatigue and hunger and illness and the harsh life in this tomb-like cell?

My chest filled with air, my heart with blood, and I heard my heartbeats, pulsing strong and free. I prefer my place here on the ground, in the dust, to that of the Internal Security officer on his elevated threshold bound by the fetters of his position, or to the place of my colleague the great writer, sitting on the pinnacle of literary achievement with a frightened heart in his chest and a salary in his pocket...which remains meager beside the loss of his free opinion.

On letters:
She preceded me, her gait fast and her stride long, to the toilet. She raised her white gallabiyya and extended her hand beneath to under a sash around her abdomen. My heart jumped from beneath my ribs when I saw the folded piece of paper between her fingers. I threw my arms around, almost choking her. "Read it quickly" she whispered "then throw it into the toilet".

Amnesty International is a worldwide campaigning movement that works to promote all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards. In particular, Amnesty International campaigns to free all prisoners of conscience; ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners; end political killings and "disappearances"; and oppose human rights abuses by opposition groups. Nawal El Sadaawi's memoir demonstrates the power of letters for a prisoner. If you would like to participate in a current campaign go to:

On the examination...
The investigative session dissipated the final glimmer of hope that justice might exist. It confirmed that there was no law, no jurisprudence, and no justice. As for this apparatus called the Public Prosecutor, or the Socialist Public Prosecutor, it was no more than an instrument to cancel the law, efface one's rights and the truth and erase the facts.

I began to sense the weight of imprisonment...the secret of the Public Prosecutor had been revealed: there was no hope of release as long as Sadat was in power. How long would he remain so?

Nawal remained in prison until President Sadat's unexpected assassination. If Sadat had not been killed, she might still be in prison today.

In the afterword Nawal writes:
Writing: such has been my crime ever since I was a small child. To this day writing remains my crime. Now, although I am out of prison, I continue to live inside a prison of another sort, one without steel bars. For the technology of oppression and might without justice has become more advanced, and the fetters imposed on mind and body have become invisible. The most dangerous shackles are the invisible ones, because they deceive people into believing they are free. This delusion is the new prison that people inhabit today, north and south, east and west...We inhabit the age of the technology of false consciousness, the technology of hiding truths behind amiable humanistic slogans that may change from one era to another...Democracy is not just freedom to criticize the government or head of state, or to hold parliamentary elections. True democracy obtains only when the people - women, men, young people, children - have the ability to change the system of industrial capitalism that has oppressed them since the earliest days of slavery: a system based on class division, patriarchy, and military might, a hierarchical system that subjugates people merely because they are born poor, or female, or dark-skinned.


The Circling Song was written in 1973, when Nawal El Sadaawi's activism and writings had led to her dismissal from her job as Director General of Health and Education in Cairo, her books and articles had been confiscated, and her name added to the government's blacklist. It is this period of what El Sadaawi calls "internal sadness", that led to creation of her most poetic and allegorical novel. Based on a traditional children's "song in the round", the novel is circular in nature, with repeated imagery and themes, and no clear beginning or end. It follows the lives of the twins Hamida and Hamido, one boy and one girl, in hypnotic and dreamlike circles, as they leave the village for the city, finding, losing and finding each other, in a grim cycle of corruption and cruelty that reflects El Sadaawi's views on sex, class, gender and political violence.

The children would repeat the song, so rapidly that the first line sounded before the echo of the last had died down, and the last line seemed to follow fast on the tail of the first. Because they were circling and singing uninterruptedly, it was impossible to pick out the song's beginning or end by ear. And since they were grasping each other tightly by the hand as children are wont to do, one could not tell by looking where the circle began and where it ended.

I fancied…that one of the children who were circling round as they sang in unison suddenly moved outside of the was the face of a little girl...

...Like all children, when Hamida woke up each morning her mind was clear of the previous night's dreams. Sparrowlike, she would hop up from the mat and run to her mother with the happy cries of a child who greets the new day with a well-rested body and an empty stomach, eager for even a morsel of bread baked to such hardness that it can crack baby teeth, or a single gulp of milk straight from an udder, or a lump of old, fermented cheese scraped from the bottom of the clay jar...

...Hamida settled the tarha over her head so that it hung down over her body, covering her neck, shoulders, chest, back and belly. Now she looked just like one of the village women. As her mouth formed its question, the train whistle sent a shiver through her mother's body...Again, her whispering voice was lowered almost to a hiss: "The train doesn't wait for anyone. Go on, run away!"...

...He was just meaning to open his mouth to ask the question in his mind when his father came to a halt at a squat wall which separated the main country road from the railroad…His father handed him a long object, rigid and sharp, which gleamed in the darkness like a knife...[His father's] coarse voice, kept low, came out once again like a hiss: 'Only blood washes out shame. Go on, follow her!"...

...At that time, Hamida had found her way to an honorable profession (for in those days, 'honor' meant domestic service)….She became aware that her master and mistress grew more satisfied with her the lower she hung her head when passing before them, and her upper half began to take on a permanent stoop…

...Hamido was not a killer. It was he who had determined the point halfway between the two eyes and sighted, and he who had pulled the trigger, and he who had killed. But he slayed without becoming a slayer. For the slayer it is who carries the shame, yet whose own hands remain unsullied. This shame was not Hamido's shame, though. All he had to do was to wash it away. (The disribution of special areas of expertise was one of the marks of progress, and so some managed shame and disgrace while others took care of the washing procedure.)…

...She sat down on a stone bench by the Nile and filled her chest with the river's sad and sluggish air. The sadness entered her chest with the night-time gloom, and she knew that she had been born motherless, that her paternal grandmother had been a slave in her master's court and had died by her father's knife...

...He filled his chest with the night air, and realized that he had been born motherless, that his paternal grandfather had been a soldier in the army of Muhammad Ali and that he had been slain in prison...

...She recognized the black stains on the finger, and whispered: 'Hamido!" But Hamido heard nothing, and remained stiffly upright, his head raised to the sky and one black finger to his ear. (Those travelling abroad used to see this memorial to the unknown soldier erected at the entrance to every capital city.) Hamida stretched out her had and grabbed his. His fingers were like hers, and the lines on his palm resembled hers. In a rush of sympathy - for their lot was a shared one - she tried to bend his arm downwards. But the stone arm, raised wearily, would not move. She raised her eyes and noticed that the wide ebony eyes shone with a real tear, a childlike one...

...When Hamido opened his eyes, daylight was filling the room. He thought for sure that what he had seen had been nothing but a dream. He jumped up from the mat and ran out into the street. His friends…were playing as usual in the narrow lane extending along the mud-brick façades. Each child grasped the next one's hand, forming a ring that circled round and round...Because they were circling and singing uninterruptedly, it was impossible to pick out the song's beginning or end by ear, just as it was impossible to tell by looking where the circle began and where it ended...

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