Sonallah Ibrahim: Life in the Raw

“I don’t like all these similes and verbal games; we don’t need them. They are nonsense, so we say.”

By Maurice Chammah

Few non-Western countries are granted the cultural space to have more than one literary representative to the English-speaking public. Often, a Nobel Prize marks out that space. For Turkey, there’s Orhan Pamuk. For China, right now at least, it’s Mo Yan.

For Egypt, over the last half a century, it was always Naguib Mahfouz, author of the magisterial “Cairo Trilogy” and “Children of the Alley.” Most of his works have been translated, The Paris Review has interviewed him, The New Yorker extensively reported his 1995 assassination attempt, and The New York Times ran an obituary when he died in 2006. Because of his international recognition, he is a towering figure in Egyptian literature. His novels are easy to find in Cairo’s bookshops, and his statue overlooks a busy square from behind his trade-mark tinted glasses.

But right at this moment, two years after a revolution that may have ushered in years of social upheaval, Mahfouz’s sharply etched realism and the epic scale of his most famous novels don’t square with the Egypt of the American imagination, an Egypt of politics, protest, and tear gas. Mahfouz wasn’t a dissident—he held a government job for years—and so his fiction, while the guiding light of a literary revolution, doesn’t have the ring of political revolution.

For that we have Sonallah Ibrahim, a 73-year old novelist who was once jailed for his Communist activism and whose first work, That Smell, was recently published in a new translation by Robyn Creswell, poetry editor at The Paris Review and a professor of comparative literature at Brown University.

Image.ashxReally more of a monologue than a novel, That Smell is the first-person story of a man who has just been released from prison. Ibrahim himself spent most of his twenties as a political prisoner under Nasser, and he felt that in order to capture the daze of reentry into regular society he needed a new style, which he later called “telegraphic,” influenced by the newspaper copy he had written as a journalist. Sentences are short. Experiences are left without commentary. Reminiscences of life before prison are rudely cut off by the banal: sleep, the coming or going of a friend or relative, a ringing bell.

Ibrahim’s narrator is impotent, literally (that the novel was “vulgar” and “degenerate” because he can’t perform sexually is one of the few things that the Islamic Conference and Nasser’s regime agreed upon) and also spiritually, his senses mostly dead and his sense of self almost so. Each evening, he meets a policeman to have a book stamped that proves he is at home for curfew. He walks around. He sees old acquaintances. He eats. He masturbates.

Creswell has said he decided to re-translate the novel because the original English version, published by Denys Johnson-Davies as The Smell of It in 1971, glossed over the original style, making it too literary. Creswell’s translation is daringly ugly, allowing the random jumps in action—often the narrator has just masturbated and you don’t realize it until you pause and look back over a sentence—to preserve Ibrahim’s leaner alternative to the flabbiness of much Arabic fiction.

Numerous reviewers of That Smell have said it lacks a plot, but that’s not quite true. Ibrahim presents a slow spiral into more and more extended memories and encounters with people who once had meaning in the narrator’s life. At one point he takes the tram and remembers how he used to take the same route with his father. The details of the past are fresher than anything in the present day.

“And through the great stone arches of the mosque wall I would see the red and blue robes of children playing in the garden and keep my eyes on them as the tram slipped back into motion, circling the mosque…I wished that our tram was the Khalig Street tram so that we could ride between the narrow walls with my father’s hand stretched out nearly touching the houses.”

The story closes as the narrator returns by this route to visit his grandmother and aunts. They sit in silence and listen to the radio for a while, and then they tell him the details of his mother’s death. Even this anecdote is told with little emotional inflection. Ibrahim’s narrator offers no comments; he just reports the story and then leaves to meet the policeman at home, and we are left with little comfort. The one moment that should have created emotional tension fails, and in this context it feels like a narrative revelation.

Yet throughout the story, there is an emotional resonance as the narrator’s senses slowly wake up to their surroundings. The present comes creeping into focus, and it isn’t pretty. Towards the end, he is assaulted by the smell of waste spewing from the sewers, yet nobody else seems to notice. Crowds cluster near movie theaters, which are sold out for days in advance, suggesting an ignorance of the true decay that is beginning to take over Egyptian society under Nasser’s autocratic rule.

Religious activity, usually a major theme of much Arab fiction, only appears in passing. The narrator sees a mosque, or is asked every so often “Do you believe in our lord?” by a distant relative , but for the most part Islam emerges only in brief details. His niece tells him that one prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is “worth a thousand prayer points.” A friend’s fiancé brags about the arrangement of his desk at a ministry job, which includes “a foreign notepad,” an “ivory inkwell” and over his head a “plaque with a Qur’anic verse.” Here, religious observance is little more than a status symbol.

Creswell writes in his introduction that in Ibrahim’s Egypt, when the British left and Nasser began to shut down dissent, politics became “what cannot be mentioned, or what no one will talk about except indirectly.” For Creswell, Ibrahim’s style—devoid of passion and any overt sense of the bigger picture—is a “corollary” to this “unspoken taboo.”

But religion, too, is what none of the characters will talk about. Ibrahim first self-published That Smell in 1966, the same year Sayid Qutb, the spiritual founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was executed. In the following years, as Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, the movement grew in membership and became a bastion of underground dissatisfaction with the regime’s secularism. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, an influx of foreign consumer goods coincided with a public swing towards piety. Women began to wear colorful, expensive headscarves just as men decorated their offices with more and more of those shiny Qur’anic plaques.

Few have described this late twentieth century blend of piety and consumption as well as Ibrahim. His fifth novel Zaat takes more explicit aim at the superficial trappings of Islam, the obsession with physical prayer, the endless invented rulings of television sheikhs, coupled with the almost spiritual devotion to buying the foreign goods that flooded the Egyptian economy under Sadat and Mubarak.

But the critique of Islam goes much deeper. Ibrahim’s “telegraphic” style in That Smell can also be read as a rebuke of a mode of literary Arabic traceable to the poeticism of the Qur’an and its influence as a foundational text for storytelling in the language. Literary Arabic has always been florid, in part, because the Qur’an is florid, and Ibrahim’s attempt to rip away artifice recalls the political argument for simplicity in George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language. In an interview last year, Ibrahim said,

There is a novel, by a friend of mine and its first sentence is: “This time, baptized in blood.” These words are empty. What is baptized in blood? All times are baptized in blood. There is no such distinction. And then there is nothing called time. Time is time. Did we pour blood on it? It’s a metaphorical expression, maybe poetic but it is not a true expression of the kind I prefer – it’s not realistic. I don’t like all these similes and verbal games; we don’t need them. They are nonsense, so we say.”

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

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

For Ibrahim, flabby expression is a sign of spiritual decay, and there is an undeniable feeling in his later work that the overwrought style of the autocrat’s speech, the empty rituals of a televangelist’s Islam, and the uncritical acceptance of globalized consumer culture are all related. They are all the symptoms of a disease plaguing Egypt, the home he loves and hates in equal measure. It’s a balance that will be familiar to readers of the American short story writer George Saunders, who retains a similar suspicion of empty corporate-speak while trying to empathize with the average Joe caught in its grasp.

Since Ibrahim, other Egyptian writers have come to criticize their society as trapped in a mode of superficial religiosity and consumerism. The most notable of these is Alaa Al-Aswany (perhaps now almost as famous as Naguib Mahfouz in the U.S.) who in his newspaper columns, collected in English as On the State of Egypt, blasts the hypocrisy of policemen who earn a mark on their forehead from so often leaning to the ground in prayer and then torture without conscience. His sense of indignation makes the 2011 uprisings feel like a long time in coming and the subtitle in one edition is “What Made the Revolution Inevitable.”

Ibrahim’s work, in contrast, makes very little about Egyptian society feel inevitable. The turn to Islam in the 1970’s is just as much a product of the chaotic currents of globalization as is the influx of consumer capitalism. All of the big forces of history come and go, leaving refuse throughout the streets and Qur’anic plaques above office desks, artifacts for the novelist to collect and curate.

In an interview several months ago, Ibrahim said that he welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak left power, because he welcomed anyone who could give the country hope. Then, he said, it turned out the Brotherhood were more interested in free markets than social justice. “But I think this is only a phase,” he said, which allows groups at “the deep bottom of society” to see the light of day. “They pave the way for the legitimate struggle between development forces and forces of ignorance.”

Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at He writes regularly for The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

(Featured image: Tahrir Square, 1962. Courtesy Weghat Nazar magazine.)

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