Cover of The Fall of the ImamNawal El Saadawi is a formidable force in the international world of literature. She is an activist, a politician, a writer: she has produced dozens of plays, short stories, novels, as well as essays and non-fiction, and has won countless awards and prizes. She even, in 2004, stood for the presidential elections in Egypt. This is her seventh novel, and was originally published in Cairo in 1987. Now, translated elegantly from the Arabic by Sherif Hetat, it comes out here under the aegis of the redoubtable Telegram Books.

El Saadawi evokes a terrifying world. It is a nameless place, an identikit Muslim country which is ruled by the Great Imam, who leads Hizb Allah (the Party of God). The Imam is a vindictive figure: born a peasant, he was so poor as a child he had to walk around with his hands behind his back to hide the holes in his trousers. Those richer and more intelligent than him he despised, and he holds those grudges still. He wishes to control the world, to make it into a rigid place: everything is in order, even the party of the Opposition (Hizb al-Shaitain), which he himself funds with the intention of making himself look democratic. He steals wives from his supporters – he marries a beautiful, blonde ex-Christian graduate so that she can look good opening bazaars and hospitals. His head of security is like Argus; his bodyguard is an unthinking hunk. The Imam is a hateful figure, full of spite and rage, who even betrays his own mother, and Saadawi is excellent at showing the horrific hypocrisies that can be thrown up by such situations.

The narrative is layered and experimental, a dream-like cut-and-paste affair that jumps from mind to mind, character to character, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third. Sometimes people morph into others: the Imam’s bodyguard is a double, wearing a mask to look like his master; the stoned mother metamorphoses into a buffalo. The novel mimics, successfully, the action of one’s own brain: the same two events are told over and over again, but, whilst the facts remain the same, more and more details are added, or things that you thought were true elide or are made false by new developments.

The first of the two brutal events concerned is the stoning to death of the mother of a young girl: “they cut out her tongue first. Later came the rest. For the Imam ruled according to the laws of God’s Shari’a.” The second is the final assassination of the Imam. Though repetitive, the effect is haunting and often mesmerising. El Saadawi’s main vehicle is Bint Allah, an orphan: “We know nothing about our fathers or our mothers. We were called the Children of God, and I was called Bint Allah, the Daughter of God. I had never seen God face to face, yet I thought He was my father and that my mother was His wife.” It is her mother who has been stoned. The orphanage is a grim place, guarded by fearsome bearded men who think nothing of conferring the most stringent of punishments for the most insignificant of transgressions. In one nightmarish yet all too plausible scene, Bint Allah finds her friend lying in the dark, blood trickling down her legs. She had been raped by one of her supposed protectors. The children are indocrinated in Shari’a, but Bint Allah imagines “black eagles hovering in the sky over my head”.

These black eagles are a potent image in the book. They haunt everybody and everything: the inescapable, ever present guardians of the law, who swoop and pounce on anything out of the ordinary. The black swathes that women must wear, trooping in line behind their unfaithful, violent husbands. The blackness of night, enveloping and secret, in which time the Chief of Security still has his eyes on you, watching and waiting for insurrection.

This is a powerful and moving exposé of the horrors that women and children can be exposed to by the tenets of faith. It ought to reach a wider audience.

The Fall of the Imam is published by Telegram Books