‘Zaat’ and her bathroom – and television

On Mada Masr, Dina Hussein reviews the television adaptation of Zaat, Sonallah Ibrahim's great novel about rising consumerism of Intifah Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s:

Watching “Zaat” on television today subjects viewers to this alternative representation of history. The series interrupts Egyptian lives to provide the historical background to their struggle today. One could say that Zaat’s story is the historical preamble to Egypt’s revolution. In the novel, Ibrahim describes the transmissions that surround Zaat as the “march of destruction and construction.” And I honestly do not see a better description of Egypt today other than a continuation of this march of destruction and construction. But there is another more basic reason for why the series succeeded in grabbing people’s attention today: empathy.

Ibrahim’s choice of Zaat as the name of his protagonist is not accidental. In her 1994 book, “Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction,” Professor of modern Arabic literature Samia Mehrez tells us how “Zaat” is Ibrahim’s “ultimate objectification of the self.” She explains how Zaat in Arabic means an indefinite self; it can mean multiple selves and/or one self. This “objectification of the self”, she adds, is a strategy that Ibrahim uses to break the boundary between the private/individual and the public/collective. Zaat resembles the ordinary; her life reflects the mundane in Egyptians’ everyday life. Ibrahim succeeds in making Zaat’s private life a representation of the collective identity of the nation. This is precisely why her story, especially when televised, has grabbed people’s attention. Watching “Zaat,” particularly the episodes taking place in the 1980s, triggers an intense sense of empathy from viewers who see her as a reflection of themselves.

The serial went beyond the timeframe of the novel and into the 1990s and 2000s, ending just before the 25 January 2011 uprising.

Sonallah Ibrahim, taking stock

Sonallah Ibrahim in his home, June 2010 (Victoria Hazou)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Egyptian man of letters Sonallah Ibrahim. The interview--and discussion of his novel التلصص (Stealth), recently translated into English--was fascinating. Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most formally interesting and politically uncompromising writers and although there was a melancholy note to a lot of our conversation, he is a kind, charming and funny man. 

Also as it turns out, Stealth--an affecting, autobiographical novel that deals with Ibrahim's unusual childhood--is a story he has been turning around in his mind for the last forty years. 

It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey, the never-finished forerunner of what would become Stealth. After his release, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less painstaking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”

You can read the piece here.

When I went back a few days after the interview, with photographer Victoria Hazou, to take Ibrahim's pictures for the article, I brought along the Proust Questionnaire to entertain us while Victoria snapped away. We got through most of it. 

What is your favourite virtue? Telling the truth.

What is your favourite quality in a man? Tolerance towards women.

What is your favourite quality in a woman? Beauty (laughs)...and mind. 

What is your chief characteristic? Being very fond of women. And persistence. When I start something--whether it's washing the dishes or writing a novel--I  have to finish it.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends? That we can understand each other quickly and laugh together.

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