The power of storytelling

Zainab Magdy describes her journey as a young feminist writer in a storytelling workshop in Cairo. “Many people ask me about these storytelling evenings and I tell them very seriously about "patriarchal society" which is killing the person inside each and every man and woman slowly. They don’t usually appreciate it. A few sentences can never tell the story of the woman who remains in a marriage because her husband threatens to keep her children as far away from her as possible. But maybe a story will.
Zainab Magdy
6 December 2009


Writing is who I am. Or rather, it has become who I am. Until three years ago writing and I were separate beings. I tried writing short stories as a child, but three years ago, as a young Egyptian woman with more awareness of myself I realized that there was something called “feminism” and I had my first taste of storytelling evenings where I met someone who showed me a new way. That August I began writing women. I know women and I was full of stories of and about women that were waiting to be birthed. I haven’t stopped writing since.


As time moved forward, the writer inside me changed and developed. At the beginning there were no questions; it was a flow that I didn’t care to question. A new stage brought the desire and the need to write in Arabic. One day, it was the winter following that August, I woke up and wrote my first short story in Arabic. I felt that I had definitely done something that changed my world.


The storytelling evenings opened my eyes to many things. I listened to the stories rewritten from Egyptian and Arab folklore from a gender sensitive perspective and it felt that someone knew exactly what I wanted to say, but only said it better. A group of academics and writers re-read Egyptian folklore and One Thousand and One Nights from a feminist point of view and wrote their own stories: their own women. When I joined a workshop organized by those writers with the Women and Memory Forum I read the original texts and I was shocked at how grotesquely they portrayed women. I was angry and insulted. When I came to write my own stories, I tried to be objective and subtle as much as I could. I do not know if I succeeded, but in "Jack in a Box" I tried to give an image of the oppression many women go through in relationships. The jack in the box was the way I could show the double standards of our society, how some men in our society want their women to be beautiful but silent and of course controllable. When the protagonist realizes that his "doll" speaks it becomes clear that she thinks. I liked the idea of the jack of the box more than the ordinary doll because with jack in the box I could clarify the whole idea of "squeezing and forcing" the doll back in the box; the box would give the image of the restricted space assigned to the doll. All the time I was writing I kept thinking that I don’t want to resort back to stereotyping since it is one of the main causes that women are treated as inferiors, but it was difficult. Writing "Jack in a Box" felt like a way to vent anger. In "Owner of a Heart" I wanted to celebrate womanhood and sister hood. I also wanted to emphasize how Maleeka is able to use her intelligence to free her sister. Women are always portrayed as beautiful, never as intelligent.


Many people ask me about these storytelling evenings and I tell then very seriously about the "patriarchal society" which is killing the "person" inside each and every man and woman slowly. They don’t usually appreciate it. It is difficult to look at the "patriarchal society" when you live in a society that does not acknowledge you even as a citizen, but this patriarchy is here and will not go away until we acknowledge it. Other people ask me why we hate men; I simply say that these writers are daughters, mothers, wives and lovers. Some people dare me to tell them what rights women are really missing. To that, I never have anything to say. Not because there isn’t, there is a lot, but because I never have the energy to say it all. That is what that dare is about: saying it all. A few sentences can never tell the story of the woman who remains in a marriage because her husband threatens to keep her children as far away from her as possible. It can never tell you or me how a girl is told by her own mother that she has to make her bed as well as her brother's because men don’t do housework. A sentence will not explain what goes on in her head at that moment, nor will it explain why she says the same thing to her daughter 20 years later. But maybe, a story will, and I believe that this is what these workshops are all about: the power of the story. Now I am currently part of writing workshop initiative called "Ana el Hekaya" which is Arabic for "I Am the Story" begun by academics and writers Mona Ibrahim, Sahar ElMougy , Soha Raafaat and Seham Abd el Salam, where we re-read literary works from the Egyptian canon that deal with women - which will strike a note of familiarity with the audience.


Writing and I is a story that doesn’t go far back, but it is one which I want and need to continue. I try to define it sometimes, but I never really do get around to it. It is no longer a part of who I am – it is who I am. My writing is changing everyday and this change brings me – always – to the joy of writing. This joy that I feel when I've just finished a poem or when I can't sit still in a lecture or meeting because I am dying to have some time with "me" and write that person who is screaming in my head to get out. This joy comes always with the awareness that writing is a privilege and that I have to work at it. In addition to showing me a new way some years ago, the novelist Sahar El Mougy - showed me the weight and beauty of such a privilege. When I tell her I am not a writer she doesn’t shower me with praise, but tells me in very few words that the time will come when I will know on my own. I wait for that day, knowing that no matter what language I choose to write in and no matter what I say, writing is a power. It is the power of creation and that is the divine part inside each one of us. I wait, carrying inside me her words:

"There is magic in the world, still." Sahar ElMougy


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