In October of 2003, on the occasion of Egypt’s annual Conference of the Arab Novel, an independent jury selected Sonallah Ibrahim for the government-sponsored Arab novelist of the year award; the most significant literary prize for the Arabic novel by way of prize money. The winner was to receive a cheque for 100,000 Egyptian Pounds at an awards ceremony held in the Cairo Opera House. It came as a surprise to the public that Ibrahim had accepted the award considering his history of dissidence and frequent boycotting of government-endowed conferences and prizes. On the evening of the ceremony, those in attendance were even more surprised that the writer actually showed up.
In his characteristic manner, Ibrahim walked slowly, pensively, onto the stage. But what followed was not an acceptance speech. The 66-year-old Egyptian novelist began by reading a list of the “literary comrades” more deserving of the award. He then spoke about Israeli leaders being received “with open arms” in Arab capitals at a time when Israeli troops were “invading whatever remains of the Palestinian land” as part of a “methodical and systematic genocide against the Palestinians.” He proceeded to lambast the government for a series of other offenses, then, deftly, turned around and refused the award:
“We have no theatre, no cinema, no research, no education. We only have festivals and conferences and a trunk full of lies. I publicly decline the prize because it is awarded by a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility of bestowing it.”
The audience erupted; loyalists to the regime in anger, but a majority of those gathered in rapturous applause. In local newspapers that week, columnists wrote of the incident as “the bomb,” “a political bombshell,” and “a true and final expression of the rejection of this era and a genuine reflection of the Egyptian yearning for change.” A group of writers and intellectuals drafted and signed a statement in support of Ibrahim, saying: “This position gives the Arab intellectual his dignity back.”
By way of its courage, Ibrahim’s public rejection of the prize was among the most invigorating events to occur in the political and cultural sphere in years, and catapulted the already widely-respected writer to a different kind of stardom (young writers now clamored at him), even if it did, in part, eclipse his just-released San Francisco-centric novel, Amrikanli [American-ish]. But it wasn’t the first bombshell the writer had dropped. Ibrahim had been something of a revolutionary since his student days, when he was imprisoned as part of a roundup by president Gamal Abdel Nasser of members of the Communist Party. They were charged with “political conspiracy,” and Ibrahim, who was just twenty-two at the time, would serve five years of a seven-year sentence (1959 to 1964).
Like many Arab writers, whose fights against oppressive regimes have found their breathing spaces in the making of literature conceived behind bars, it was during his years in prison that Ibrahim made the decision to dedicate himself to writing. He has said often, “I was with these extraordinary personalities—leaders, intellectuals, professors, workers—who were able to influence others. I realized I lacked some of the characteristics that are necessary for such work, such activism. I felt that writing was the only way for me.” (In his prison diaries he wrote: “The mouth, like the prison, contains when closed, living things.”)
His prison days were, in a sense, the formative years of his literary schooling—he read what he could of literature, in the form of the pages of Cairene journals, with reviews of literature and literary experiments from around the world (Soviet poets were favorites given Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union at the time), and what few books made their way past the guards and into the cells of Al-Wahat prison in the Western Desert. Two books on the writings of Ernest Hemingway (including Carlos Baker’s The Writer as Artist, translated to Arabic by the Palestinian literary critic Ihsan Abbas) made the greatest impression on the young Ibrahim.
Upon his release from prison, and under house arrest that required him to be at home from dusk until dawn, Ibrahim began work on his first novel. He spent the daylight hours roaming the streets, reacquainting himself with the changed city, and returned home to record his findings, “in quick sketches,” in a diary. For the remainder of his waking hours, he labored over the novel.
The fruition of that period—of his recognition, ultimately, that his writerly voice and subject were in the distilled Hemingway-esque telegraphic prose of his diary, rather than the more florid form of his book-in-progress—was his first novel, Tilka al-Ra’iha [That Smell], which he self-published at a small, downtown printing press in 1966. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a just-released prisoner as he struggles with the minutia of day-to-day life; reacquainting himself with family and friends and his city, seeking employment, trying to write, struggling with a sense of purpose, of loss, with the feeling of alienation. Conversation hinges around the everyday—relationships, health, films, love, and consumer goods. The things one speaks about when politics is omnipresent yet unspeakable. It was a moment of crisis in Egypt, as the country negotiated its movement from British occupation to Nasserism, a moment of transition not unlike the current one in Egypt. Sonallah wrote, astutely, of the way politics is most significantly felt in the experience of the quotidian—the life that is easiest to overlook at moments of great change, because it is so close at hand. There is no dominant arch-driven plot to That Smell, but simply strung-together experiences—in a run-on form without paragraph breaks or dialogue—that stand in for what daily life had become for the majority of Egyptians: a kind of trudging along where each day might as well be the next, or none at all; when each day might bring arbitrary arrest or imprisonment. The sense of malaise is diffuse. As a communist, it was also the experience of being all but annihilated.
That Smell inspired extreme reactions the year it was published. There was something uncomfortable about it—the tone, the temperament it captured, the details both spoken and unspeakable; in fact, its very starkness or bleakness. Pared down sentences, pared down thoughts, a pared down language that was new to the Arabic literary vocabulary. The novel was curt, in both style and form, and was quickly confiscated by censors. It would spend many years making its way around the black market before being published, eventually, in Cairo in 1986.
Despite some harsh criticism against the novel for its lurid sexual references, That Smell was still regarded as something of a turning point by many writers and critics; a work that broke away from the traditional style of Arabic letters—grandiloquent in rhythms and poeticism—to a pared down, modernist approach; a language to depict the then present reality of Nasser’s socialist Egypt.
With its defiance of the traditional Arabic literary modes, That Smell marked the literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and anticipated the new literature that would emerge in the years following Egypt’s crushing defeat by Israel in 1967. The Naksa, or “setback,” shattered the visions of grandeur that Nasser had inspired, and some writers began to examine, and reject, past literary forms. The more ornate social realism of such prominent writers as Naguib Mahfouz and the virtuous eloquence of Arabic literature were abandoned for more experimental, fragmented works that expressed the anxieties and crises at hand. The journal Gallery 68—launched in the aftermath of the Naksa war—would serve as the platform for the writings of this new literary avant-garde, publishing writers such as Gamal Al-Ghitani, Yahya Taher Abdullah, Idwar Al-Kharrat, and, of course, Sonallah Ibrahim. These writers, and their movement for new narrative forms and themes, came to be known as the generation of “writers of the sixties” or “the young writers.” This was Egypt’s literary avant-garde. Critics later observed that That Smell, with its recurring theme of impotence and diffuse sense of dejection, was in fact prescient of Egypt’s 1967 defeat. That Smell also defined the beginning of Ibrahim’s own career, becoming the first in a series of remarkable works, including Stealth, The Committee, and Zaat, each in its own way pushing Egyptian literature in new directions. (Zaat, a story of a middle class female protagonist’s life under a corrupt regime, alternates narrative chapters with compilations of newspaper clippings that tell of the collective history and socio-political context of Zaat’s life.) Ibrahim had become, undisputedly, one of Egypt’s most important writers.
To be continued…