A bond of hearts and words

A lot of Christians (as well as adherents to other religions and the general mass of non-believers, of course) would envy the ease with which Muslims are allegedly able to terminate marriages that have passed their sell-by date. The casual impunity with which a male, in particular, is able to dismiss a spouse by the simple use of the thrice-uttered word “talak” (I divorce you) is the envy of

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millions of Western men suffering from the seven-year itch, or simply from the discovery that the woman they have married is not the same one they had previously thought they were dreaming about when they initially pledged their troth. Or whatever.

Well, many fallible human interpreters of Islam who insist that their version of the philosophy of Islam is the only true one have a few more marriage-busting tricks up their sleeves, when called upon. The venerable Egyptian writers, thinkers and activists Nawal el Saadawi and Sherif Hetata have come across more than a few of these in the course of their long marriage.

The most dramatic of these threats against their marital bliss has been the call from some sectors of the Cairo clergy for Saadawi’s beheading ? a call that, if it had been heeded, would certainly have put a dampener on some of their more intimate conjugal activities.

The mildest (but still pretty alarming, if you think about it) is that they should be forcibly divorced by Shar’iah law.

Divorce, in most cultures, usually favours the man. In many modern cultures a woman’s infidelity, or simply her failure to prepare the evening meal in a suitable way, is sufficient grounds for a man to achieve a ruling against his wife, terminating their relationship and giving him custody of the kids.

The Saadawi-Hetata case, however, produced a bizarre reversal of the usual scenario. In their case, a rather zealous Cairo lawyer with fundamentalist tendencies took it upon himself to advise Dr Hetata, through the Egyptian courts, that Dr Saadawi, the woman he had been happily married to for 37 years, was not, in fact, the girl of his dreams. If he, Hetata, did not have the simple good sense to leave her of his own accord, the Egyptian civil courts should be obliged to help him on his way. Hetata, the claimant said, was married to an unIslamic woman and should get out while the going was good.

In the event the case was dismissed. But it was only one of many examples of the rise of a vicious fundamentalism that is gnawing away at the idea of civil liberties and intellectual probity in the Middle East and North Africa, as much as in post-Taliban North America.

Of the couple cited in this bizarre divorce-by-proxy case, Nawal el Saadawi is the more famous, having achieved international recognition for her championing of the cause of Egyptian women, among others, through her work as a medical doctor and psychiatrist, and as a novelist. But both have fought, suffered and been recognised for their political activism, articulated through their medical work and their extensive literary output.

It was in their literary capacity that they had both been invited to participate in the recent Time of the Writer Festival in Durban.

Saadawi, unfortunately, was unable to attend at the last minute. But her husband was there, in his own right, and, inevitably, in her place.

Naturally everyone had wanted to see, touch and hear Saadawi. But, perhaps in an ironic way, her absence gave us a chance to get closer to her soft-spoken, self-effacing husband than we might otherwise have been inclined to do if the legendary feminist herself had been present in the flesh.

Hetata is quite happy to walk in his wife’s shadow. He willingly attributes to her, without being prompted, the very fact of his becoming a novelist.

He met her some time after he came out of prison, jailed first by the regime of the feudal King Farouk of Egypt, who was backed by British colonial forces, and then by the revolutionary, socialist-inclined Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who overthrew him. As a democratically minded egalitarian, a man of science whose heart was with the poorest of the poor, Hetata found that he was everybody’s enemy. And so he had been slung in jail.

Once back in the real world, Saadawi, apart from sharing love and a firm political commitment, inducted him, among other things, into the ideas of feminism ? ideals to which he has adhered ever since. Not only that ? she taught him, against his own better judgement, to become a novelist.

Impressed by her burgeoning skills as a writer, he started telling her stories about his own experiences, which he hoped she would incorporate into her novels. But, he says, her interpretations never quite matched up to what he had wanted those stories to convey. They always came out differently from what he had intended. And so, like normal married couples, they argued.

Finally, Saadawi asked him why he didn’t write his own novels to reflect those deep passions in the way that he himself saw them. And so, reluctantly, he became a writer ? and a novelist and essayist of some note, with some nine volumes of fiction and documentary reminiscence published in several languages.

The love and respect that runs through these reflections of a man now in his late seventies are unaffected and clear to see. They are an expression of love and commitment, of enduring intimacy, comradeship and affection that would be the envy of most individuals, couples, new-age partners, mah-jong groups, political parties, book clubs, religious sects and granfalloons of every kind in the quarrelsome, modern world that we happen to live in.

Yet it is exactly this intricately perfect bond that the global fundamentalists of the modern age are determined to break.

What a privilege, then, to have brushed, ever so briefly, against the liberating life of the extraordinarily modest Dr Sherif Hetata.

Archive: Previous columns by John Matshikiza

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