"Black, not noir," is how our friend Adam Shatz describes Sonallah Ibrahim's groundbreaking debut novel Tilka El-Reiha, which has just been translated -- along with Ibrahim's early prison diaries -- by Robyn Creswell as The Smell and Notes from Prison.
Readers of the blog will know that I am a great admirer of Ibrahim's (I'll post a profile of him I wrote a few years ago, on the occasion of the English translation of his autobiographical novel Stealth, at the end of this post). Not only is he one of the most original and talented writers of his generation, but he is also one of its most principled. What marks both his writing and his politics is a startling, almost compulsive honesty.
Shatz looks at the relationship between Ibrahim's prison memoirs (he was incarcerated by Nasser, in his early twenties, for being a Communist) and his fiction, and at the literary, personal and political influences and traumas that find expression in both.
Only faint echoes of the cause that inspired Ibrahim can be heard in That Smell. An old comrade of the narrator’s rhapsodises about the masses, but seems to lack conviction, and this is the last we hear of the revolution. In occasional, italicised flashbacks, Ibrahim pays tribute to the solidarity the party created among its members, the small kindnesses that made prison life more bearable. On a visit to the wife of a comrade who died in prison, the narrator remembers sitting in the back of a police van while her husband sang ‘snatches of an old love song over and over’. He doesn’t share this memory, because just at that moment his friend was given a beating and taken away: ‘that was the last time I saw him.’ She asks if her husband loved her, and the narrator replies that he did, but also thinks to himself: ‘What could I say, what was the point of going into it after it was over, and who knows what goes on inside another person anyway?’
Apart from these flashbacks, That Smell takes place in the dead zone of the present, ‘after it was over’: ‘it’ is the experience of a generation of Egyptian leftists who rallied to Nasser’s revolution only to find they had nowhere to go other than prison or exile. ‘The narrator’s stupor,’ Creswell writes, ‘is the daze of depoliticisation.’ But the narrator isn’t the only one wandering around in a daze. The conductor on the metro stops to ‘put a lump of opium in his mouth and sip some tea. Lucky man, I thought. He’d found a way to live that let him put on a brave face.’ Images of death and disfigurement are everywhere: on the street, a dead man lies ‘covered with bloody newspapers’; a pretty girl the narrator notices on the train turns out to be missing a limb. Even those who have found happiness, or what they’ve been told is happiness, seem doomed: his brother’s wife won’t have sex with him unless he pays her; his friend Samia, now a wife and mother, is ‘stuck for ever. There was nothing to do but submit.’ Desire is consummated with something like satisfaction – or honesty, without the pressures of marriage or the need for cash incentives – only when members of the same sex are involved. Ibrahim has spoken obliquely of his own relations with men in prison, and writes in his story ‘The Snake’ that after prison one comes to see ‘everything as normal’. The lack of normalising judgment, much less homophobia, in his work stands in contrast to, say, Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, where gays are represented as sex-crazed, dandified predators.
For some reason reading about Ibrahim made me think of this very powerful (and fantasmagorical) piece of writing by novelist Youssef Rakha. It's in a completely different register from Ibrahim's affectless chronicle of alienation (and it uses global consumerism -- the destructive reach of which is a theme of Ibrahim's later work -- as an international vernacular). But it also captures a different moment of political disappointment, which in this cases produces enraged flippancy rather than numbness. I have to quote at some length:
You’ve been in Cairo six months, you say. So you know: first we agitated on Facebook. We set a date, a time, and a venue for a big demonstration. Tahrir Square, yes. The riot police killed some of us, and we had an even bigger demonstration. That day they killed so many we ended up occupying the place—millions of us, eventually—protected by the Army. And what were we protesting? Brutality and bureaucracy, control and corruption. Plans to make the presidency a hereditary post, the way it is in Syria. Not, you understand, the conditions of Islam. The plight of the Umma was not on our list of grievances; if anything, we were angry because we didn’t feel we were part of the non-Umma. When we realized something was happening we called it a Revolution, the second, must-see episode in the Arab Spring series.
That was January–February, 2011. And, until February–March, 2012, when it became obvious that our protests were playing into Islamists’ hands and I fell prey to despair, I was deeply involved: as a tweep, a chant-author, a maker of improvised anti-tear gas masks, a field hospital doctor (because, even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m still a medical student hoping to graduate some day). I was there for every demonstration, every portable slaughterhouse. I saw bodies dismembered by corrugated wheels and blunt swords gashing heads. I hurled stones at people in uniform. I chanted. And that’s how I got the name Che Nawwarah, after the Communist icon Che Guevara. He too was a failed physician. Though now that I’ve read about him, I suspect he was only a fanatical psychopath, a serial killer with pretensions.
The protests started to feel like voluntary sacrificial rites to help the bearded bastards get more power, and I stopped going. I didn’t even try to warn my comrades because I knew they wouldn’t listen. In my despair I could tell the mini-inquisitions were round the corner. Already strangers ruled over us, worse than the tyrants of before. Now that the Islamists were identified with the Revolution, there was no one that would deliver us out of their hand. We would be getting our bread with the peril of our lives because of the thug’s sword. Good Muslims would hang by their hands—not only metaphorically, either—and, by sexual harassment, premature marriage, and female genital mutilation, the women of Cairo would be ravished, so would the maids of the Nile Delta. The faces of true human beings who spoke out would not be spared—but wait! I should explain the difference between Muslim and Islamist in case you’re not an operative and don’t know.
Most Egyptians are Muslim by birth. Many practice, but until the hijab became ubiquitous in the nineties, you could hardly tell. The Islamists are the ones who carry Islam on their person the way you carry an electronic gadget on the subway. From months of study I’ve decided that they don’t stand out in any other way, except maybe by hating women and Christians, foreigners like you and so-called liberals like me. They just have pre-cultural Bedouin beliefs that they call Islam. And they flaunt those beliefs in a range of brands: Nokia-Jihadi (kill the infidels), Samsung-Salafi (kowtow to the autarch and marry as many as four circumcised nine-year-old girls at a time), Apple-Muslim Brotherhood (win elections, win more elections, and win still more elections). . . . The Islamists were the ones who, unbeknown to us, somehow, inherited the Revolution.
Finally, here is my profile of Ibrahim, who better than any other writer in Egypt articulated what was rotten in the land:
“I spent forty years trying to write it,” Sonallah Ibrahim tells me. We’re talking about his novel Stealth. This intimate, unusual family portrait by the renowned Egyptian writer is his first work to be translated into English since his 1992 masterpiece Zaat. It’s also—in its understated way--one of his best.
Just minutes earlier, I had arrived to the top (sixth) floor of Ibrahim’s elevator-free building, in a northern suburb of Cairo. I guess correctly that his door is the one with the faded Kifaya (“Enough”) sticker--Ibrahim was a regular at the opposition movement’s demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.
The author opens the door. Largely unknown in the West, Ibrahim is one of Egypt’s most respected men of letters. The great writer and satirist—scourge of corruption and hypocrisy, symbol of unfaltering commitment to both political principles and art—is a small, smiling, gentle-looking man. The large glasses he wears give his thin face an owlish look. Above it rises an unruly, vertical tuft of gray hair.
He waves me into his small, book-crammed apartment while apologizing for the climb I’ve just had. After he’s offered me a cup of tea and turned on a fan, he settles in on the cushions on the floor across from me. And tells me how he first thought of writing the story in Stealth over forty years ago, when he was a young political prisoner who had only just started dreaming of becoming a novelist. He’s turned the subject over in his head ever since.
“What really decided the matter is that I reached the age of my father, at that time,” says Ibrahim, who is 73. “So I was able to understand him—what kind of motives, what kind of feelings [he had].”
That time is Egypt shortly before the 1952 Revolution. The young narrator of Ibrahim’s affecting, autobiographical novel is -- like the author -- the son of an elderly man who, to his grown children’s horror, has married a much younger woman of humble origins. The novel details the daily routine of the old man and the young boy—their household arrangements, their outings, their small arguments, their dependency on each other.
The boy’s mother is missing, and throughout most of the novel we have little idea why. The child and the father’s longing for her shadows the narrative. Meanwhile the boy’s world is mysterious, precarious, unsettled by the absence of his mother and the puzzling needs of his father. The story is told from his blinkered point of view, as he tries to keep up with and make sense of events. To do so, he peeps at keyholes, eavesdrops on conversations, goes through drawers.
The book is written in Ibrahim’s typical short-hand--photographically detailed, emotionally subdued. “My father stops for a second at the door to the house before we step into the alley. He raises his hand to his mouth, twisting the curved ends of his grey mustache upwards. He makes sure that his fez tilts slightly to the left. He removes the black, burnt-out cigarette from his mouth.”
Translator Essam Aboul-Ela does a fine job but falls short of the limpidity and concision of the original (especially compared with the superb French translation by Richard Jacquemond). This is a book whose foundation is the minute description of everyday scenes, in a language that draws no attention to itself. Aboul-Ela’s translation hues too close to the words on the page--rather than on clearly rendering the sequences of actions into English—leading to awkward constructions and, in a few instances, to misapprehensions about what, exactly, is going on.
We nonetheless fall into the flow of this childhood world precisely recollected. Only to be brought up short, every so often, by a small revelation; a sharp observation; an intimation of great, contained emotion. The boy, pretending to sleep, overhears his father recount how he fell in love with his mother; he watches through a crack in a door as his uncle harasses a maid; he discovers that the couple living next door aren’t actually married; he remembers—in one of a series of sudden, evocative flashbacks--happier times: “The lamp of the living room shines over the table top. It’s messier than usual. Smell of sautéed liver. Olives. Pistachios. A small bottle with a clear liquid. Her voice comes from the bedroom. She’s singing the Ismahan song over and over. “When will you know it’s true? That I love only you.” Laughter. Her voice again to a different beat. “Darling don’t let me be. See what’s happening to me.” My father’s voice finishes the song. “Loving you is destroying me!”
No explanations are offered and no judgments are passed. But we begin to see how complex and un-childlike this story is. The writer is engaged in a melancholy, masterful and very adult investigation of his past.
“When you get old you start to look back,” Ibrahim tells me, and “memories of the early years are more alive than recent ones.”
The emotional charge of this story comes from the tenderness of the father-son relationship. After a difficult day, the boy narrates one of many poignant but comforting homecomings: “We go into our dark apartment. The lamp in the hallway is burned out. I cling to my father’s clothes until he can open the door to our room and light the lamp inside. He heats a cup of sugar and water. He puts a tray on top of the bed and we sit next to it. We dip the cookies in the water. He says our house is the best place in the world.”
When I ask Ibrahim what writing this book taught him, he stares out the window at the surrounding sun-baked rooftops and then tells me—with visible emotion—that it gave him a greater understanding of “the father character.”
The work’s intellectual edge, meanwhile, comes from its layered study of voyeurism. All the grown-ups in Stealth also spy on each other and sneak around. More than once, the father uses the son as his eyes and ears, tasking him with gathering information about the neighbours. All of us, Ibrahim maintains, “sneak into the life of others”—whether we are watching TV or making art. As for children, “this is the main thing in their life—to know what’s happening, what’s behind this door, what’s inside this drawer.” And the same goes for writers, perhaps? “Of course.”
The child narrator and the adult author of Stealth are both (in their different, overlapping ways) after the truth, and the truth in Ibrahim’s books is invariably unsettling and unflattering. Ibrahim is a particularly acute observer of the small humiliations of genteel poverty and old age, of the hypocrisies, subterfuges and unkindness that surround sex and class—the tone of voice of a shopkeeper when he asks “Put it on your bill?”; the father’s conviction that a maid will steal food in the kitchen; the strained welcome at the house of affluent relatives. Not to mention the bodily activities that Ibrahim makes a point of including: menstruating, masturbating, going to the bathroom, plucking lice, having sex.
“Why cover up reality?” says Ibrahim. “I believe we shouldn’t be ashamed of what we do. It’s normal.” Ibrahim wants to make his literature as unliterary as possible, to plainly saw what is usually left off the page, and to startle his readers into acknowledging some small truth about their own lives. Leaning forward with animation, Ibrahim sums up his attitude towards his readers as: “Look! You must know! You must realize these things! I know that you are infuriated and trying to ignore [me] but I want to remind you.”
Ibrahim has always approached his profession with a sense of mission. He turned to writing during the five years he spent in prison, from 1959 to 1964, for being a member in the Communist Party. In his untranslated prison memoir Youmiyaat Al-Wahat (“Oasis Prison Diary”), he recalls how he filled the long days in jail by summoning childhood memories, exchanging stories with other inmates, and—when all narrative sources had run dry—weaving elaborate daydreams. Pretty soon he had decided to become a writer, and was busy hiding smuggled books in underground caches and using empty cement sacks and cigarette papers as writing material.
In his prison diary—finally published in 2005 with an introduction and copious, sometimes rueful notes by his older self—the young Ibrahim quotes Tolstoy, Gogol and Graham Greene and earnestly discusses “the role of the writer in Egypt today.” Perhaps the greatest influence on him at that time was Hemingway. “I liked very much the way he stands far from his subject, with no evident emotion,” Ibrahim remembers. To this day, he explains that in his writing he tries “to be neutral, to create a space between myself and the characters’ feelings.”
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 fore-runner of what would one day become Stealth. After his release from prison, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less pain-staking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, Ibrahim was becoming one of Egypt’s most influential and innovative writers. His work is a remarkable combination of old-fashioned political commitment and formal originality; an inspired blend of the surreal, the satirical and the documentary.
Only three of Ibrahim’s many novels have been translated into English. His 1966 debut, The Smell of It, follows a benumbed young political prisoner who has just been released from jail. The work’s bleak, unliterary style, near lack of plot and shocking (at the time) reference to masturbation and other bodily functions caused a furor in Egyptian literary circles. The Committee is an indictment of authoritarianism and globalization whose narrator is subjected to increasingly bizarre and humiliating tests by the committee of the title (to conclude, he is instructed to eat himself). Zaat—whose hapless heroine hallucinates Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat redecorating her kitchen--is a rollicking, ferocious satire of Egypt from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Ibrahim was also becoming Egypt’s reluctant literary conscience, what literary scholar and close friend Samia Mehrez calls “an autonomous anomaly” in a cultural field that is extremely vulnerable to social pressure and political manipulation. His status rests not so much on the fact that some of his books have been banned or that his work is underpinned by such explicit critiques of imperialism, authoritarianism, and global capitalism, but on the way he has so doggedly avoided almost all forms of compensation and compromise. He has accepted no government sinecures; publishes almost exclusively with a small, leftist publishing house; and makes a habit of turning down literary prizes (three so far). His reputation for being incorruptible was cemented by his last, dramatic refusal, in 2003, when he stepped up to a podium surrounded by government officials and famous Arab writers and declined Egypt’s most prestigious and remunerative literary prize because “this government doesn’t have the credibility to award it.” It was a rebuke not just to the government but to every writer and intellectual who has reached an accommodation with it.
Such possibly pointless gestures of revolt are the kind Ibrahim’s protagonists often make. One could say that each of his books has been one too. Ibrahim has written two novels since Stealth; he is always writing, starting a new project before he has finished the last--to avoid the depression that he says besets him the moment he completes a book. “Even though,” he admits, “now I am tired.”
He mentions his age several times during our interview and although he actually looks sprightly, younger than his years, and laughs often, there is an autumnal undertow to our conversation. He is clearly taking stock, these days, of both personal and national history. The latter, in particular, makes for a dispiriting study.
There’s a baffled melancholy in his face as he says that in Egypt today, “We are all unhappy, all the time.” Asked what he expects in the coming year, as Egypt heads towards parliamentary and presidential elections, he shakes his head and says: “More chaos. I can’t think what’s going to happen.” Right now, he notes, “There is some kind of equilibrium between the different forces in society: They are all weak.”
Ibrahim illustrates his view of the country’s progress under Mubarak by an eloquent, steep, downward hand motion. Even basic services have collapsed, he says. Cairo’s streets are strewn with uncollected garbage. Entering a hospital is the equivalent of “putting your life in God’s hands.”
“Sometimes,” he goes on, “I don’t know what should be done…there are a lot problems in every sphere. Where to start? How can you change the morality of the people and the way of life and the values? Either you have a kind of volcano or a fire, which will destroy everything, and start again…” he muses, without really seeming to be joking. He only laughs when he adds: “But maybe we will start over the same way!”
Of course Ibrahim himself is probably the foremost chronicler of Egypt’s malaise—of the violence of political oppression, the rise of superficial piety, the wildfire spread of corruption that many lament here today.
Ibrahim’s literary landscapes are built on meticulous research. The writer is famously dedicated to his personal archive of press clippings, and he often interpolates these documentary materials into his fictions. In Zaat, Ibrahim alternates the stages of his heroine’s life with suggestive collages of newspaper headlines, shifting back and forwards between an individual and a historical perspective. Sometimes the avalanches of information in his novels can be deadening. But most often they dramatize the difficulty of either absorbing or expressing the real nature of political and economic power. In his prison novel Sharaf, when the intellectual inmate Dr. Ramzy uselessly harangues his bored fellow prisoners about global corporations and political corruption, he stands in for the engagé author himself, and the effect is pathetic, sardonic and enervating all at once.
In Stealth, the writer reconstitutes his childhood world as meticulously as, in other works, he describes life in prison or the workings of Egypt’s economy. He researched exactly what brands of toiletries would be in a bathroom, what headlines in the newspapers. Yet here the accumulation of detail serves to probe a personal rather than political truth. “This is just a simple, intimate story,” he says.
But that is its strength. Ibrahim’s dry style, here, crackles with restrained emotion. The child narrator is an antenna, picking up every hint of desire, regret and hostility in the adults around him, storing away these mysterious and fascinating broadcasts to decode them decades later.
In the introduction to his prison memoir, Ibrahim describes his father as his school, and his time in jail as his university. Clearly, as he enters old age, the author’s thoughts are turning to his early education. He decided to publish his old diary because he thought it might be useful to “shed light…on the difficult and complicated beginnings of a writer’s development.” It is indeed fascinating to witness Ibrahim’s writerly emergence, to follow his process and his philosophizing. Stealth reaches even further back in the author’s life for its material. It is a final, tender act of reckoning with some of the most fundamental influences in Ibrahim’s life.
And while this book may strike some as quite different from Ibrahim’s others, in some sense it sheds light on all the rest of his oeuvre. We may all be sneaks, as the author believes--but some of us are much more willing than others to take things at face value. Ibrahim, it would seem, has always been a nosey parker. It’s tempting to trace the writer’s powers of observation to the anxious sleuthing of his childhood years. To guess that—born, like the boy in Stealth, on the fringe of ease and propriety—the author developed an ear for disingenuousness, a sympathy for losers (every one of his protagonists is resoundingly defeated) and a compulsion, in his writing, to sneak up on the truth.