"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: