All sadness is eaten up by the night: Susan De Muth in bed with Nawal El Saadawi

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Nawal el Saadawi, 61, is a writer and campaigner for women's rights in her native Egypt. She moved to Seattle in the United States 18 months ago because she felt her life was in danger from Islamic fundamentalists. She lives with her husband, Sherif Hetata, also a writer.

I miss Egypt at night more than any other time. Night is the time of memories and Cairo comes back to me then. I think of my family and friends, my walks by the Nile in moonlight with the breeze dry and gentle.

I still have my flat in Cairo. My bed and my books, my dreams and my nights are waiting for my return. The Egyptian government gave me 24-hour bodyguards, but I didn't feel protected and I left for the shallow nights of Seattle where I have no memories and do not belong.

I have already been imprisoned for my writings. In 1981 I spent three months in one cell with 11 other women. My bed was the floor or a plank of wood. When I couldn't sleep I would compose my memoirs in my mind, turning the pages in my imagination. I wrote almost half the book in that way.

Dreams were a marvellous escape then and made me feel so much better about the two barred doors behind which we were caged. I often dreamed I could fly like a bird through the sky and, dropping into the ocean, swim effortlessly towards the horizon. Sometimes I was a child again, running through open fields.

In the morning my husband and I discuss our dreams and try to understand them. I don't follow Freud or Jung, I use my own way of thinking, and find the process instructive and enjoyable. Even nightmares present us with the opportunity to overcome our fears. Mine are always to do with real dangers in my life - for example that I'm in prison or being shot at.

I have always confronted my fears, all my life. When I was a child I was scared of the dark so I forced myself to go out and walk in the night. Then, when I was a teenager, my mother and I were attacked by a man on our way home. My mother was terrified, but I hit him - and he ran away] That incident really gave me confidence in myself and the option of fighting back.

I feel that my mental health is very strong because I can put all my negative experiences behind me and be cured. I was brutally circumcised when I was only six years old, but I have transcended that. Women all over the world are circumcised, either physically or psychologically.

Circumcision can be irrelevant if we realise that actually we have orgasms with the brain. The power of pleasure is related to our ability to undo inhibitions. I married three times to find my liberal husband and, together, we gradually worked this through.

We've been married 29 years. We work as a teaching team at the University of Washington and are good friends. But I wouldn't say that I can't live without him. I have trained myself to depend only on myself. I feel the same way about my son and daughter - you can lose anything any minute.

For the same reason I never keep photographs and rarely make notes. These things can be taken away from you. I try to store everything in my brain. Often I use dreaming to retrieve information. My children are in Cairo, but I can bring their images before me when I sleep. If I need to relive periods of my life for my autobiography, I can do so in my dreams.

I never fall asleep straight away. I lie for up to an hour in that lovely drifting between waking and sleeping. A lot of ideas come to me, which I also experience in the morning before I get up. I rise early and go for a walk. I like to breathe the air before anybody else has a chance to breathe it first.

I always feel so optimistic when I wake. All my pains and sadness have been digested by the night and by my dreams. As I walk I dream of my return to Egypt. I don't think fundamentalism will last - it's part of the power system, not a truly popular movement.

'The Innocence of the Devil', Nawal Sadaawi's latest novel, is published by Methuen ( pounds 14.99).

(Photograph omitted)