FULL TITLE ·  Woman at Point Zero
AUTHOR · Nawal El Saadawi
GENRE · Fictionalized memoir, semi-fiction
LANGUAGE · English, translated from Arabic

PUBLISHER · (English) Zed Books
NARRATORS · Nawal El Saadawi and Firdaus, a female prisoner
POINT OF VIEW · The point of view is first person, but since the story is Firdaus’s story as told to Nawal El Saadawi, it seems as though there are two narrators: first Nawal, and then Firdaus. In the long section in which Firdaus explains her life so far, she is the narrator, and she is telling Nawal her story. In the explanations surrounding Firdaus’s story, Nawal is the first-person narrator.
TONE · Angry and bitter
TENSE · Past
SETTING (TIME) · 1950s to 1973
SETTING (PLACE) · Egypt (first Qanatir Prison, then a small town, then Cairo, then Qanatir Prison)
PROTAGONISTS · Nawal and Firdaus
MAJOR CONFLICTS · Nawal attempts to get Firdaus to relate her life story, and Firdaus struggles to attain some sort of dignity as she grows up.

In Woman at Point ZeroNawal El Saadawi describes her experiences as a psychiatrist in Egypt, studying the psychological effects of prison on female prisoners. She states in her introduction that when she was conducting these studies, she had no idea that one day she would be imprisoned by the government. On one visit to Qanatir prison, Nawal meets a doctor who tells her that there is a prisoner there who is truly remarkable. She is awaiting the death penalty for killing a man, but the doctor cannot believe that this woman is capable of killing anyone. He wrote out a request for a pardon, but the condemned woman refused to sign it. Nawal desperately wants to meet with this woman, named Firdaus, but Firdaus keeps refusing to meet with her. Finally, the day before she is to be put to death, Firdaus agrees to meet with Nawal.
Nawal goes to Firdaus’s cell, and Firdaus commands her to sit on the ground. Firdaus begins to tell her life story. She was born into an extremely poor family in the countryside. Her father often beat her mother; sometimes he beat her as well. Firdaus used to play in the fields with other children. A boy named Mohammadain was her special playmate, and when they were young, they used to play “bride and bridegroom.” Firdaus got pleasure from her sexual experiments with Mohammadain. One day, her mother performed a clitoridectomy on her, and after that, Firdaus is no longer allowed to play with Mohammadain, nor does she ever feel sexual pleasure in the same way. Soon, Firdaus’s mother and father die, and Firdaus is sent to live with her uncle, a sometime scholar, who lives in Cairo.
At first, everything goes well for Firdaus in Cairo. She and her uncle get along well, and she is allowed to go to school, which she loves. She and her uncle share a bed and are close. Her uncle gets married and the new wife does not like Firdaus, so Firdaus is sent to a boarding school. Firdaus is an excellent student and works hard. Unlike the other girls, she does not fantasize about boys and marriage. She spends most of her time at the library and in the courtyard, where she encounters a teacher named Miss Iqbal, with whom she forms a friendship. When Firdaus graduates, she is given an award, but she and her family are not at the ceremony, so Miss Iqbal accepts it for Firdaus. When school is over, Firdaus’s uncle comes to get her.
Back at her uncle’s house, Firdaus is miserable. One night, she overhears her aunt and uncle discussing whether they will marry Firdaus to her aunt’s old uncle, Sheikh Mahmoud. He is sixty and has a facial deformity. Firdaus runs away, but while she is on the streets, she is terrified by the strange men who approach her, so she returns home. They marry her to Sheikh Mahmoud. He is selfish and stingy and beats Firdaus. His facial deformity is a large swelling on his chin with a hole in the middle that leaks pus. After one bad beating, Firdaus runs away. She ends up in a coffee shop, where she meets Bayoumi, the coffee shop owner. She goes with him to his apartment. At first Bayoumi is kind to Firdaus. Then Firdaus announces that she wants to get a job, and Bayoumi is enraged. He beats her and begins to lock her in the apartment when he leaves. He brings his friends home and allows them to have sex with her. Firdaus escapes with the help of a neighbor and flees Bayoumi’s apartment for the city.
Resting by the Nile, Firdaus feels hopeless until an wealthy-looking woman approaches her. Her name is Sharifa, and she is a prostitute. She takes Firdaus in and teaches her to become a high-class prostitute. Sharifa makes money from Firdaus’s body until one night when her friend Fawzy comes over. Firdaus overhears Sharifa and Fawzy fighting over who will get to keep her, so she runs away again. Still a prostitute, Firdaus becomes her own boss and eventually has a beautiful home and expensive things. One night, a client named Di’aa tells her that she is not a respectable woman, and Firdaus is devastated. She gives up her nice apartment and beautiful things, moves into a shack, and begins working as an office assistant. There, she realizes that the life of an assistant is in many ways worse than the life of a prostitute. She meets a man named Ibrahim, and falls in love with him. They have a relationship, and Firdaus begins to feel that the world is not so horrible, until she discovers that Ibrahim has become engaged to the boss’s daughter.
Firdaus leaves the company and becomes a prostitute again. She is very expensive and very popular. Many powerful men come to her, and she turns some of them away to prove that she has power over her own body, and because she despises them. Ibrahim comes to her, and she realizes he never loved her; rather, he just wanted free sex. A pimp tries to take over Firdaus’s life, and for a little while, she lets him. Then they fight and she kills him. Shortly after that, Firdaus meets an Arab prince who takes her home and offers her $3,000. She sleeps with him, rips up the money, and slaps him. Terrified, the man calls the police. They come and arrest Firdaus. Firdaus is tried and sentenced to death.
She is, she tells Nawal, just waiting to die, because she is excited to go somewhere new. She knows that the men who sentenced her want to kill her because they’re afraid of the truth she has to tell, not because they’re afraid she’ll kill again. After she finishes her story, police come to her cell and take her away to be executed. Nawal leaves the cell and is ashamed of the world. Everywhere she looks, she sees lies and unhappiness. As Nawal drives away from the prison, she thinks about running people over with her car, but she doesn’t. She realizes that Firdaus is braver than she is.
Nawal El Saadawi -  The author and narrator of the book. Nawal is a psychiatrist who interviews women in prison. She meets one prisoner, Firdaus, and decides to tell her the sad story of her life.
Firdaus -  The narrator of most of the book. Firdaus is a young woman who flees her abusive husband and becomes a prostitute, then an office worker, and then a prostitute again. She finally kills a man who forces her to accept him as her pimp. When Nawal El Saadawi meets Firdaus, she is in prison waiting to be executed.
Firdaus’s Uncle -  The man who takes Firdaus in after her parents die.
Bayoumi -  The coffee shop owner Firdaus meets after she flees her husband’s beatings. Bayoumi is kind to Firdaus at first, but then he begins to beat her. Eventually, he locks her in the apartment and allows his friends to have their way with her.
Di’aa -  The journalist and onetime client of Firdaus. Di’aa becomes her friend, and then tells her she is not respectable, prompting Firdaus to give up prostitution and begin working at an office.
Fatheya - Firdaus’s friend from work. Fatheya suspects that Firdaus is in love with Ibrahim.
Fawzy -  A male friend of Sharifa’s. Fawzy wants to take Firdaus with him and become her pimp, but Sharifa is already making money off of Firdaus and won’t let him. When Firdaus hears them discussing this, she flees and sets up her own prostitution business.
Hala -  A toddler. Hala is the youngest of Firdaus’s uncle’s children, and the only one who is kind to Firdaus.
Ibrahim -  One of Firdaus’s colleagues at her office, and a “revolutionary.” Ibrahim joins Firdaus in the courtyard of the office compound one night, where they cry together. Firdaus falls in love with him, and they have a relationship that ends when she overhears that he is engaged to be married.
Iqbal -  Firdaus’s teacher at secondary school. Iqbal joins Firdaus at the school playground one night, and they cry together.
Mohammadain -  The little boy from Firdaus’s childhood, with whom she used to play “bride and bridegroom.” This is the first time that Mohammadain and Firdaus experience sexual pleasure.
The Prison Doctor -  The doctor at Firdaus’s prison. The doctor filled out an appeal for Firdaus (to commute her sentence from death to life imprisonment), but she refused to sign it.
Saadia -  Firdaus’s uncle’s servant girl.
Sharifa Salah el Dine -  A high-class prostitute who takes Firdaus in and turns her into a prostitute. Sharifa makes a profit off of Firdaus’s body until Firdaus runs away.
Sheikh Mahmoud -  Firdaus’s husband for a brief period of time. Sheikh Mahmoud beats Firdaus and she flees to Bayoumi’s home.
Wafeya -  Firdaus’s friend at school. Wafeya suspects that Firdaus is in love with Miss Iqbal.

Nawal El Sadaawi is both the author and the narrator of Woman at Point Zero. As the author, she presents a fictionalized version of two real people: Firdaus and herself. Though the fictional characters closely resemble the two real people, they are distinct. The fictional El Sadaawi struggles with feelings of insignificance, and by the end of the book she is consumed with helpless rage over the condition of women, including herself, in her country. Undoubtedly, the author El Sadaawi also has these feelings, but by the time she wrote Woman at Point Zero, she had long been a significant figure in her country’s consciousness, as well as a crusader for women’s rights.
The fictional El Sadaawi is first introduced when she visits the prison in which Firdaus is awaiting her execution. El Sadaawi approaches her meetings with Firdaus with desperation. Firdaus is an imprisoned prostitute, and El Sadaawi, an educated and wealthy doctor, occupies a much higher social position. Still, El Sadaawi is devastated by Firdaus’s initial refusal to be interviewed; it makes her feel insignificant. When Firdaus finally agrees to meet El Sadaawi, El Sadaawi approaches her like a petitioner. This is because El Sadaawi, despite her education and status, is still subject to discrimination and feels insignificant most of the time. Because the imprisoned Firdaus refuses to be “put in her place,” El Sadaawi suspects that Firdaus might have some sort of strength or knowledge for which El Sadaawi is desperate. The doctor therefore approaches the prisoner for wisdom and guidance.
El Sadaawi’s reaction to the end of Firdaus’s tale—the helpless fury and sorrow she feels after Firdaus goes to her execution—further demonstrates her feelings of insignificance. The truth of Firdaus’s story, which shows so starkly the position of women in El Sadaawi’s society, is such that El Sadaawi feels her own lack of power all the more keenly. She has spoken to someone who had been oppressed for much of her life before finally seizing power. Yet El Sadaawi does not act on violent impulses to destroy the oppressive forces in her society after Firdaus is killed, and she is disappointed in herself. The book ends with character El Sadaawi’s realization that Firdaus has more courage than she, El Sadaawi, has. Here, again, it is important to separate the fictional character from the figure of the revolutionary author. The real El Sadaawi was galvanized by her encounters with the woman who inspired the character of Firdaus. Among other things, the encounter inspired her to write the book,Woman at Point Zero, to illuminate the sufferings of Egyptian women for a larger audience.

Firdaus is a woman struggling to live a dignified life in a society in which women have limited options. Throughout the book, Firdaus fights not just to be in control of her own destiny but also to figure out who she is. But she has little time to devote to self-exploration. The scene in Bayoumi’s coffee shop is an example of this. Bayoumi asks Firdaus whether she wants oranges or tangerines, and Firdaus is unable to answer him, having never considered whether she might like one thing more than another. For most of her life, it has never been important what she wanted. What was important was what the men around her wanted. And as Firdaus tells it, all of the men around her are brutes who exult in the power that they have over women. To some extent, Firdaus’s life becomes about living in opposition to the men in her life. Taking pleasure from a relationship with men is never really an option for her. This is partially because she needs to be treated like an equal, which never happens, but also because of her clitoridectomy. This procedure robs her of pleasure during sex.
By the time Firdaus becomes a prostitute, she has discovered that she can exploit the desire that many men have for her by getting money for it. She learns that people with money can also command respect. But having money and commanding respect do not make Firdaus feel respectable. To someone who dreamed of studying and becoming a scholar, the life of a prostitute is disappointing and demeaning, yet Firdaus also suggests that the life of a prostitute might be a surer path to dignity and self-determination than the “respectable” life of an office assistant. At least as a prostitute Firdaus need not show deference toward even the most powerful of men.
Firdaus’s uncle is a complicated figure in her life, and in many ways her relationship with him forms a template for her relationships with the other men in the story. When Firdaus is a young girl living with her mother and father, her uncle represents a kind of freedom. He is a scholar, and he lives in Cairo, far away from the rural world of Firdaus’s immediate family. Yet he also sexualizes young Firdaus, as shown in the way he caresses her thighs. Though Firdaus is uncomfortable with the way in which he touches her, she does not object because it doesn’t occur to her to do so. As a result of this and her father’s behavior toward her mother, Firdaus learns to think that men own women’s bodies. Despite this, her uncle is still her savior. After Firdaus’s parents die, her uncle brings her to Cairo, where they sleep in the same bed and live like a married couple, though it isn’t clear whether they have a sexual relationship. Firdaus’s uncle sends her to school and consequently provides her with a much better life than the one she lived with her parents.
However, her uncle soon abandons the life of a scholar to become a civil servant. At this point, Firdaus learns that men value power above all else. She also learns how insignificant she is to her uncle when compared to his thirst for power. In order to advance, Firdaus’s uncle marries above his station. Because his new wife does not care for Firdaus, Firdaus is sent to boarding school. Firdaus’s uncle turns out to be just as selfish as all of the other men in her life. When he eventually marries Firdaus off to his wife’s old and disfigured uncle for a large sum of money, he confirms Firdaus’s belief that she is alone in the world, and that men are horrible hypocrites who will do anything for money and power.


Sharifa is the high-class prostitute who finds Firdaus sitting by the Nile after her escape from Bayoumi’s house. Sharifa takes Firdaus to her luxurious home, and it occurs to Firdaus for the first time that she could one day have a home of her own and be surrounded by nice things. Sharifa, through her confidence and the skillful application of makeup, helps Firdaus see that she has beauty and strength. Unfortunately, Sharifa shows her these things in order to make her more appealing to the men to whom Sharifa hopes to sell Firdaus’s body. Though she takes Firdaus under her wing in order to earn more money, Sharifa does act as a mother figure to Firdaus, and it is under Sharifa’s care that it first occurs to Firdaus that she might be able to live without the protection of a man. Like Firdaus’s own mother, Sharifa both supports and undermines Firdaus. Under Sharifa, Firdaus is reborn as an attractive woman aware of the power that she has over men. But like Firdaus’s mother, Sharifa is jealous of the attention men give to Firdaus, and seeks to control her.
Eventually, Firdaus realizes that she has to leave Sharifa. This realization comes because she needs to make her own money and determine the course of her own destiny. In addition, Sharifa’s imagination is constrained by a patriarchal society in a way in which Firdaus’s is not. Sharifa only wants money and a comfortable life, and is willing to play the game that powerful men have set up in order to attain these things. Sharifa is more charming with the men who come to visit, and more eager to please. This is because she still believes herself to be, in some respect, a supplicant, lucky to get whatever money men throw her way. Firdaus wants to be comfortable, but she also wants power of her own. Firdaus begins by emulating Sharifa, but it is only after Firdaus leaves Sharifa that she realizes that as a prostitute, she commands power over men, not the other way around.
Throughout the telling of her story, Firdaus describes the act of seeing as akin to an act of possession. One of Firdaus’s earliest memories as a child is the memory of her mother’s eyes watching her, holding her up when she struggled to learn how to walk and negotiate the world. For the young Firdaus, this sense of belonging to her mother and being watched over by her is very comforting. She feels that being a possession of her mother is what protects her. Later, though, the act of being surveyed takes on a very different meaning. When Firdaus grows older, she no longer feels her mother’s eyes supporting her. From then on, whenever Firdaus senses someone’s eyes watching her, she feels threatened. When Firdaus first runs away from her uncle’s house, she encounters a terrifying man who runs his eyes up and down her body, making Firdaus feel invaded, and as if her body were not her own.
Firdaus’s life-long struggle is to claim her body as her own. When Firdaus marries Sheikh Mahmoud, his eyes never leave her dish at mealtimes, and he watches every morsel of food she eats with jealous intensity. Firdaus becomes self-conscious about eating. Firdaus describes almost all of the men she encounters in the same way—they rake their eyes over her body and, in doing so, act as though her body exists only for them. It is not until she is in prison that Firdaus learns to feel at ease during other people’s examinations of her. This is because Firdaus has proven to herself that she owns herself and that she is in control of her own destiny.
For the young Firdaus, the nature of power seems at first to be very simple: men have it and women do not. Her father has power over her mother. Her uncle has power over her. When she is married, Sheikh Mahmoud has power over her. Even men on the street have power over the women they pass, merely by turning them into objects with their eyes. Bayoumi, who locks Firdaus in his apartment and lets his friends have sex with her, has power over her. It isn’t until Firdaus meets Sharifa that her ideas of power begin to change. Sharifa is a wealthy, independent woman. Rather than allowing men free use of her body, as married women do, Sharifa uses the power of the desires that men have for her to her advantage. She teaches Firdaus how to command the power of her physical appearance. Still, Firdaus doesn’t know what it means to possess power of her own. She learns that women can have power, too, but she cannot fully wield her own power while living under Sharifa’s control.
When she sets out on her own as a prostitute, Firdaus finally learns what it means to have something that other people desire. This is power. She learns that she can command higher and higher prices simply by denying people what they want, or exercising the power that she has over them. Because of this, she feels that money is power. When she possesses money of her own, she has power over the people who slander her, and she can give herself a respectable name by hiring a lawyer and suing. Her brief stint as an office worker only serves to reinforce this idea, and when she goes back to prostitution, she charges more money than ever and uses her money to mingle with more powerful people. Firdaus comes to believe that she has attained real power. But the pimp who claims her proves that this is not the case. He threatens to defame her or kill her, proving that no matter how much money she has, Firdaus is still vulnerable to men because she has something to lose. When she kills the pimp and later tears up the prince’s money, Firdaus finally proves that she has control over herself.
Attaining respect does not become one of Firdaus’s goals until Di’aa, who has engaged her services as a prostitute, points out to her that in spite of her financial security, she is not respectable. Until Firdaus has money of her own, the way that the world views her never really enters into her consideration. This is in part because the world has never paid her much attention before. She was just an invisible person occupying the role of daughter or wife. When she finally accumulates some wealth and power, the world takes notice. Men take notice because, in Firdaus’s world, men don’t want women to have power over them. By condemning her work as a prostitute as shameful, they try to minimize her power, though they are also involved in the exchange of sex and money. For the men in Firdaus’s story, respectable women are women who are submissive and live under the protection of a powerful man.
When Di’aa tells Firdaus that she is not respectable because the work she does is shameful, she is deeply hurt. In an effort to become a more respectable woman, she gives up her nice apartment and prostitution in order to work in an office. Indeed, she becomes a “respectable” woman by placing herself under the power of men again. Firdaus’s relationship with Ibrahim is a part of this quest for respectability. She’s playing by the rules and, for the first time, she feels as though she’s met a man she can trust. The sacrifices she’s made to become respectable seem worthwhile. However, when Firdaus discovers that Ibrahim was using her for sex, she once again realizes that “respectability” is a trap that is designed to put women at the mercy of men. By quitting her job and taking up prostitution again, Firdaus rejects the pursuit of a “respectable” life in favor of a life of power and self-determination. Firdaus has come to see that respectability in her world means playing by someone else’s rules.
During her childhood, Firdaus experiments sexually with a local boy named Mohammadain. They play “bride and bridegroom,” meaning that they take off their clothes and rub against one another. Firdaus describes the sensation of pleasure she gets from her encounters with Mohammadain, which end when her mother forces her to undergo a strange surgery. It is not fully explained in the book, but Firdaus undergoes a clitoridectomy (the removal of her clitoris). After this procedure, Firdaus never again experiences sexual pleasure the way she once did. Though her mother forces her to undergo the procedure as a matter of tradition and doesn’t seem to think about it politically, Firdaus considers the tradition another attempt to suppress women. By removing the clitoris, sex has become an act in which only men take pleasure. Firdaus believes that if women were equal to men, then both would find pleasure in sex.
Pleasure is out of the question in her sexual encounters with her old, deformed husband. To Firdaus, these encounters are horrific, and she describes the stench of his open wound and the lack of joy she feels during sex. She also describes with contempt the way men who come to her as clients will demand, during sex, to know whether or not she is taking pleasure in the act. For these men, the act is not about two people enjoying each other, but instead about proving their physical prowess. They are determined to wring pleasure from Firdaus, whether she wants it or not. Firdaus tells the men that she enjoys sex (though she does not), which stops them from asking. When Firdaus overhears her uncle and his wife having sex, the idea of it warms her, but she is unable to take pleasure in it herself.
As a woman from a poor family, Firdaus has never had to make many choices. Her clitoris is removed and she is married to a tyrannical older husband without anyone ever asking her opinion. The first real choice she has ever had to make comes when she flees her husband’s home. When Bayoumi asks her whether she prefers oranges or tangerines, Firdaus is struck by the fact that nobody has ever asked her to make a decision like that before. She realizes she does not even know which fruit she prefers, because she has never had to think about what she wanted. Other people always told her what would happen. After this, choice becomes an obsession for Firdaus.
As a prostitute, Firdaus has the money and the power to make choices for herself. She chooses her own apartment and clothing and also begins to choose which men she will and will not sleep with. Because of this, she begins to believe in her own independence. The power to choose for herself is intoxicating. And soon, the fact that she has rejected powerful men makes her even more alluring to them. By exercising choice, Firdaus commands more and more money and gets an increasingly prestigious clientele. However, the pimp who moves in and demands control over her shatters the illusion of choice for Firdaus. Firdaus realizes that no matter how powerful she might seem, she is still a woman, and men will still attempt to exercise control over her. In Firdaus’s world, there is no way for her to make real choices. Though it seems to some that a female prisoner has less power than even the lowliest wife, Firdaus feels that waiting on death row is the most liberating thing that has ever happened to her. She chooses not to appeal her sentence; she would prefer to die in order to escape the control that other people have over her. Only when dead will Firdaus be free.
Firdaus explains that all of her life until the time she spends in prison has been spent in captivity. Though as a child, a wife, and a prostitute, she had some degree of physical freedom, she did not attain mental freedom until she got to prison. Captivity, for Firdaus, means living under someone else’s power. It means not making choices for oneself and agreeing to be deceived by those in power (whether those in power are presidents or fathers or husbands). Though Firdaus is waiting to die in prison, she considers herself freer than anyone else in the world. She certainly feels freer thanNawal El Saadawi, who hopes to interview her. Nawal senses this, and it is for this reason that she is so devastated when Firdaus refuses, time and time again, to be interviewed.
Firdaus looks forward to death because it means that she will have a chance to start over. Though she is enclosed in a cell, she feels free. She refuses to work with the system, sign an appeal, or visit with the doctor because she does not want to feel like a captive. Signing appeals would only serve to entrap her again, as she would have to appeal to, and thereby recognize, the power of men. When she finally agrees to meet with Nawal, it is only in order to spread a message of truth and to do further damage to the world that abused her before she dies.
Firdaus grows up in a poor family in a community of poor families, and she further recognizes the power of money when she moves to Cairo. As Firdaus tells it, she never really had money of her own until she started prostituting herself. Before this, she was at the mercy of her stingy father, uncle, husband, and Sharifa—because they had money and she did not. All of them recognized this fact, and they were careful not to give her any money of her own, lest she escape their grasp. When Firdaus first ventures out on her own—after leaving Sharifa’s house—and learns that her body has a monetary value to men, she also learns that she can command more money from them because she has something they want. To men, her body is a commodity, just as food and clothing are a commodity: the more difficult it is for them to obtain, the more money they will pay. In this way, Firdaus begins to amass money of her own. She despises her work, and she loathes the men who come to see her, but she greatly values her newfound power. She is not at the mercy of men anymore.
When she is slandered in public, Firdaus uses her “shameful” money to pay a lawyer to clear her name. At this point, money is everything to Firdaus. It even has the ability to cleanse her public image. But by the time Firdaus kills the pimp and demands $2,000 from the prince, money has come to mean something very different. It becomes just another symbol of the hypocrisy of her society. It gives power to the unworthy and makes the despicable seem respectable. It allows men to rule over women, and makes the prince think that he can buy Firdaus. When Firdaus tears up the $2,000, she demonstrates to the prince that his money has no power over her. Because of this demonstration, the prince declares that she must really be a princess—i.e., one outside the reach of money’s power. Because of Firdaus’s newfound understanding of the treachery of money, the prince is right. Firdaus is truly outside the reach of money’s power.
Firdaus’s uncle gives Firdaus her first taste of the power of books when he secretly teaches her how to read. Books become a symbol of the kindness of her uncle, who takes an interest in young Firdaus and tries to teach her. Through reading, Firdaus comes to realize that there is more in the world than her poor village and humble family. Even before her uncle teaches her to read, she views the books he brings with him from Cairo as a kind of passport to a life in which she, too, could be a scholar. When she moves to Cairo and goes to school, Firdaus spends the few happy years of her life immersed in books and learning. The time that they spend reading together is a time of bonding between Firdaus and her uncle.
When her uncle gives up the life of a scholar and marries his boss’s daughter, he sends Firdaus to boarding school. Essentially, her uncle gives up books in exchange for wealth and status. This feels like a betrayal to Firdaus, but boarding school proves more advantageous for her than living with her uncle and aunt. She soon develops a reputation as a bookworm, and often spends long evenings in the library. She becomes an excellent student and wins many academic prizes. Books become more important to Firdaus than people. Yet when Firdaus is married off to Sheikh Mahmoud, books virtually disappear from her life. Firdaus has to fit herself into the role of submissive wife, and there is no room for her to be a prize pupil or a reader. Books, which represented her uncle’s kindness and the potential for a better life, disappear.

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