Sonallah Ibrahim

Odd man out

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Illustration by Babak Radboy

In October of 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim was named the Arab Novelist of the Year, one of the greatest honors in Arabic literature. At the ceremony at the lavish Cairo Opera House, he slowly and calmly walked up to the stage where the minister of culture stood. Ibrahim, who is rail thin with a frizzy shock of silver hair, pulled out some prepared remarks and proceeded to read into the tiny microphone what amounted to a rejection letter. “We no longer have theater or cinema or scientific research or education. We only have a collection of festivals and conferences and a bin of lies,” he said, going on to eviscerate a “government that lacks credibility,” and citing “the oppression of the people by the Egyptian political system.” He then exited the stage just as calmly as he had entered it. Eyewitnesses report that the minister’s face turned blue as the hall broke out in bouts of confused but hearty applause. From that day, Ibrahim’s quiet but devastating indictment of his would-be honorers has come to be known as “the Opera incident.”

Ibrahim is no stranger to iconoclasm. In the 1950s, after half-heartedly studying law at Cairo University, he joined the Egyptian Communist Party, a crime that landed him in prison for five years, from 1959 to 1964. Out of that experience came Tilk El Ra’iha (Smell of It, 1966), a uniquely bleak tale of a man’s psychological odyssey following his release from prison. The book was swiftly banned — ostensibly for its frank sexual content — and would spend the next decades making its way around the black market.

Ibrahim went away to East Germany to work at a news agency, and later to Moscow to study cinema on a scholarship. There he collaborated with Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas on a film about Egyptian political prisoners, but soon realized that literature was his true calling. He returned to Egypt in 1974 and went on to pioneer a distinctive literary style that often incorporated documents drawn from real life — newspapers, transcripts of radio and television broadcasts, and other bits of pulp ephemera. His concerns were varied but almost inevitably zeroed in on the lives of little people — bureaucrats, failed revolutionaries, writers, artists of all stripes — at the mercy of the powerful.

His works include: Najmat Aghustus (Star of August, 1974), a tale of the building of the Aswan Dam; El Lajna (The Committee, 1981), a curious allegory about multinational corporations and their discontents; Beirut, Beirut (1984), a stylized depiction of Lebanon’s devastating civil war; Zaat (1992), the tale of a masturbating female civil servant interspersed with a surreal litany of headlines drawn from Egyptian newspapers; Warda (2000), an account of a revolutionary woman in the Sultanate of Oman; and Amerikanly (2003), which portrays Egyptian-US relations with the story of a visiting Egyptian professor at an American university. His latest books are El Amama wa El Qubaa (The Turban and the Hat, 2008), which addresses the French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon, and El Qanoon El Ferensy (The French Law, 2009). This past April, Ibrahim sat down with theater director Ahmed El Attar in the writer’s tiny, overfull Heliopolis flat to discuss the legacy of his time in prison, the question of engagement in literature, and the curious state Egypt finds itself in today, six years after “the Opera incident.”

Ahmed El Attar: When did you realize you were to become a writer?

Sonallah Ibrahim: I decided I would be a novelist in prison. I’d had a passion for journalism since I was young. Later, in my twenties, I got into political work and decided to become a twenty-four-hour revolutionary. Gradually, I began to feel like that wasn’t for me either, and this feeling became more profound in prison, where I was with great leaders, intellectuals, heroes, college professors, workers, and other strong, extraordinary personalities, who were able to influence others. I felt I was incapable of doing what they did, and I felt that writing was the only way for me, because it provides great freedom. One isn’t obliged to be sensitive to things or the words of a person responsible for you, who tells you what to do and what not to do. You’re free to do whatever you want.

AEA: You wrote a manuscript in prison that you published many years later as Memoirs of the Oasis Prison.

SI: It’s true. It’s a diary that I wrote on cigarette papers I had smuggled in while in the Oasis prison. That was 1963. The book is divided into three parts. The first is a biography that addresses how I ended up in prison. The second was a diary that literally recorded what was happening on a daily basis — to the point that there are things in it that are naive, others that are funny, and still others that are quite ambiguous. Afterward I made notes or references in which I described these things. They really do represent a genuine daily diary, which I smuggled out of prison and carried around with me for forty years. I finally said to myself one day, I want to publish this. Basically, it’s a literary composition. It’s an anthology about issues related to writing, like, To whom should I write? How should I write? It’s about the idea of commitment. I didn’t write so much about personal incidents or events. I was more concerned with the issue of writing itself.

AEA: I’ve always appreciated the way you present political and social issues through documents and historical records. Although it probably can’t be claimed that this kind of approach makes for an objective presentation of events or history, it allows readers to see the entire picture in a neutral way.

SI: You can say “objective,” not “neutral” — “neutral” has unpleasant implications.

AEA: At the same time, you’ve had a clear political and social stance since the 1960s. How do you explain your very specific political orientation and the fact that you still manage to present issues in a balanced way?

SI: There are two explanations. The first is, I was young when I began my political life, and I held a singular vision. I was a fanatic and biased about it and couldn’t see much of anything else. Later, I went to prison, and while there I had the chance to listen to many different points of view. I matured and began to contemplate many issues, even confronted myself… And secondly, when I start working on any subject, any novel, a very personal factor figures in. For example, there may have been a love experience that leaves me trying to understand a particular thing, or trying to understand a psychology that isn’t my own, or even trying to understand why multinational companies behave in whatever way they do. For example, with Beirut, Beirut

AEA: Weren’t you in Beirut during the war?

SI: For a very short while. I went during a truce or something, for a period of about a month, in which a love story took place. Just before, I had written The Committee and Smell of It, and I said to myself, “Enough of this… I want to write a love story.”

And as I began to write, I found myself getting caught up in the Lebanese Civil War, saying to myself, Shouldn’t I try to understand exactly what this is all about? So I began to research. I found films, documents, and so on, and went to the archives…

AEA: The appropriation of all kinds of documents and documentation in your work became a fundamental part of your style. In spite of the fact that it has many positive aspects, do you also see it having a negative side as a literary form?

SI: Of course, some readers may feel that this documentary style is pointless. And that the ideas within could have been presented through the progression of the story itself. Others think that there is no place for such external ephemera in the novel itself. But I don’t agree, because the novel in itself can cope with many things, just as theater or cinema can.

Still, the use of documentation could drive the reader away from the main story line or even lead him to ignore it. For example, the novel Zaat has both a narrative section about a character and a section of newspaper cutouts along with it. I know that some readers followed the narrative alone, while others followed the newspaper cutouts only, depending on their degree of interest. Sometimes I wished that the documentation could actually evolve into something concrete within the story itself. But, this is often difficult. For example, in a story like Beirut, Beirut — if I didn’t insert a twist in the narrative by adding these documents, I would have needed to present characters from every side, and that would mean reflecting twenty or thirty different sects, each one having to express their side, and so on.

AEA: But I see that it’s a fundamental element of your work because it provides for a general framework, one that’s more intimate or specific to the narrative. And I don’t consider the events themselves as intrusive — rather, they play a complementary role. This is what gives the work its political and social dimension.

SI: You see them as complementary and not essential. How do you mean?

AEA: When I read, I read things as a whole. That is what drew me into all these works, as was the case in Zaat, Sharaf, and Warda — all of which paved the way for me to research specific subjects in my own work. This was also a fundamental part of my reading of Honor and The Committee — because what I found in the archives and documentation you included was not always represented in the main plot but rather presented in the subplots, as you also did in Beirut, Beirut. We’re not always reading about a progressive or socialist party in Beirut in the book — we read about this man who killed that man, or raped that woman, or about the woman they married off to that man. All these elements present different dimensions that comprise a journal of sorts.

When we criticize the government in Egypt, we’re used to facing excuses. We come up against definitive and indisputable arguments backed by “evidence.” One says to the government, for example, “The streets are teeming with garbage,” and they respond, “You have no idea how many billions we’ve spent on this problem, and therefore you must stop insisting on what you perceive as our lack of credibility.” So my question is, what is your relationship to these “facts” as substantiated by newspapers, magazines, and books? Is this the government’s way of dealing with the skeptical citizen?

SI: Yes. These documents also conceal certain truths about the issues addressed… One senses when one reads today’s newspaper — for example, take Al-Ahram — one finds what is written within it is contradicted by what is written in another daily, Al-Masri Al-Youm. Some subjects, such as strikes or demonstrations, are completely nonexistent in Al-Ahram.

AEA: There’s a feeling of void, of emptiness in your works, a feeling that things rarely change. A main character might wake up in the morning, drink coffee, leave the house, meet this or that person, and then return home, without any excitement or enthusiasm. This is the feeling that we’re living with today in Egypt, that we’ve been living with for the past fifty years. Or perhaps all of this is based on your personal feelings?

SI: Of course, it’s most likely that it’s a personal sentiment coming from inside me. There’s an inner feeling that all of it is in vain. I really can’t judge. But, deep inside me there’s a pessimist. At the same time, I sometimes resist this feeling with a rational outlook, and I feel like there’s a possibility for optimism, and that I can still do things.

AEA: You chose a clear political posture and social stance during the Opera incident, and then you wrote a small piece about it. When I read that piece, I wanted to cry. It was unprecedented. Intellectuals, artists, and writers tend to talk too much without really saying anything. Your words were so categorical and so precise. You simply said, “What’s going on?” Has your political or social stance changed since you spent time in prison in the ’60s?

SI: Politically and intellectually, I don’t believe I’m the same as I was fifty years ago. And that’s because I’ve gained more insight, and I’ve come to realize the error in some of my thoughts and ideas. And I’ve evolved in my ways of thinking and in the way I present subjects, because of the way the world has changed. Today I understand family, women, and social relationships at a more profound level than when I was twentyfive.

AEA: I know that you like to stay away from the spotlight, but with the Opera incident, you chose direct confrontation.

SI: That’s true. In the past, I was always putting off conflict. But I feel that the situation has reached a breaking point, and that we’ve been placed under an unbearable degree of stress. It has inspired rebellion in people for the first time, an emerging vitality of the “other” point of view. When I think back, it’s true I didn’t feel like I could go and receive the award and go through all those congratulatory formalities, which I can’t stomach very easily anyway — but at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to speak my mind. So I decided not to decline. I went in order to let it out, to say and project all that people wanted to say but could not. I believe that it was a successful initiative from one perspective, from the perspective that my appearance was a surprise for them. They didn’t anticipate that I’d actually come. So they weren’t able to react fast enough, and that’s why I escaped arrest. Anyway, things have changed. Today there are no media blackouts, as there were before. Today you’ll find attacks against President Mubarak and others in the press, and scandals and whatnot are being exposed as never before. I remember that when I got home that day, I felt serene and at peace with myself.

AEA: It was rare not only for Egypt but also in the Arab world. People don’t refuse awards from the government — any government. This is, unfortunately, especially true in the recent period. At the beginning of the last century there were several writers who took clear political stands, like Abbas El Akkad. Good writers still exist, but their political stands are vague. Naguib Mahfouz is a case in point.

SI: That’s true. Someone like Naguib Mahfouz is an example of the small employee who chooses to stay close to the wall and who plays out his intellectual adventures within his novels — in the end, he’s still an employee.

We have another example, the leftist writer Abd El Rahman El Sharqawi, who has held all manner of official positions, revealing a complete double standard that’s unlike even that of Naguib Mahfouz. I was at the founding elections for the Writers Syndicate back in the 1970s, and Sharqawi was present. We all refused their list of candidates, and he hid in one of the rooms, talking to and receiving instructions from one of the government’s men, Youssef El Sebai or one of those characters.

AEA: Writers today — or those we label as writers — don’t take specific stands on the issues at hand. Why have writers become so reticent?

SI: From my point of view, the issue is tied to the weakness of the middle class. Every country has witnessed a problematic relationship between its intellectuals and the authorities. Take, for example, the American model. During and after World War II, intellectuals were with the Left. During the McCarthy era, a total collapse ensued, which revealed that even Elia Kazan was working for the authorities and giving away names, despite the fact that he was a great director. This reveals a weakness before the authorities. This is a problem that exists, and it is a problem that increases the weakness of the middle class. In England, a stable, industrialized society exists where there is a strong middle class, and there is an agreement as to the breadth of freedom of speech, which can go as far as criticizing the king. But we don’t have anything of the sort here. Instead, we have an unstable middle class, due to several factors, including the Ottoman legacy, the modern “monopolistic” state established by Mohammed Ali, the English colonization, and so on. Furthermore, the prevailing ignorance that existed didn’t allow for the middle class to develop.

[The nationalist industrialist] Talaat Harb tried to do something for the country in the earlier part of the last century, to gather finances and establish factories. And this was a very important moment of awakening for the middle class. Had this continued, it could have generated a middle class that was economically strong and viable and therefore had political clout. But he couldn’t. Talaat Harb couldn’t sustain these initiatives due to colonization and weakness, and because of the role the feudal lords played. After all this, most of the shares of these companies ended up in the hands of the feudal lords, the English and other foreigners. And this is part of the explanation for the weakness of the writer’s economic status. The great majority of writers have to work in other fields because they can’t make a living from their writing. Therefore, in one form or another, the writer is dependent on the state institution as a result of the weakness of his economic class.

AEA: You’re the only Egyptian writer — or, at least, one of the few Egyptian writers — who doesn’t write for newspapers. You only write novels.

SI: There are more and more of us. This itself can be considered an expression of the degree of change we’ve witnessed in this country. When [writer and former Minister of Education] Mohammed Hussein Haykal wrote Zeinab he claimed that it was the work of a peasant, and he didn’t sign the book. Or, look at Tawfiq El Hakim, who used to work in the union, and was self-conscious about his writings and his plays. But society today has evolved, and the idea of the independent writer has evolved. Ten years ago, for example, when I went to the tax revenue department to submit my annual tax forms, I had to list that I was a composer, in the “field of occupation” section. The tax department employee said, “If you’re a music composer, that means you must make a lot of money.” But today, one can actually say that one is a writer. On my last national identity card, they refused that my occupation be listed as “writer” and instead insisted that I am a member of the Writers Syndicate. Nevertheless, it was a great step in defining the status of the writer in this country.

As for the newspapers, I just didn’t consider that my profession. I wanted to have a defined career, as a writer, and as a writer dedicated to writing narratives specifically. Furthermore, I don’t have the capacity to write a column every week. It’s quite impossible to do so when it comes to the question of remaining independent of the “system.” And along with my isolationist tendencies, my health and nerves just don’t permit me to work on two things at the same time.

AEA: It’s clear from what you’re saying that the writer is also independent in spirit. However, there are practical needs in life that don’t allow a writer to subsist on writing alone, including a need for some kind of connection with these institutions.

SI: Conditions in society and even marriage, children, schools, can paralyze a person. Fortunately, my wife and I got married thirty years ago. At the time, I worked in a publishing house, and I got married with the understanding that I would work from home. Naturally, at first, this was very difficult. I was obliged to do other things, like translations and children’s stories, to make money. But, at the same time, I was raised as a simple person, with little desire for material possessions or wealth beyond the minimum needed to make ends meet.

AEA: This is rare in Egyptian society, which is extremely consumer driven.

SI: Society imposes many things on us. I have a doctor friend, for example, who is astounded that I don’t have a satellite dish. He’s even offered to raise money to get me one. And other people are surprised to learn that I don’t have a car. In fact, my wife had a car that she bought and I got rid of because it was a headache… repairing it, maintaining it, the traffic. These are examples of the bourgeois ambitions of Egyptian society.

Imagine if the problem of transportation had been dealt with from the beginning, and, for example, the bicycle became accepted as a means of public transportation, like in China and France, where you can rent a bicycle at numerous locations, use it to get to where you need to go, and leave it at another location for the next person to use… or, the use of small vehicles like the tuk-tuk was accepted. But we have the naive desire of the peoples of the third world, who depend on flaunting big cars to show one’s social status or success in life.

AEA: So in a society such as ours, the indication of success for all occupations or professions, whether they’re doctors or writers, is material. Does this have ramifications for the writer? Are you bitter that there are few cultural venues for discussing literature, for example?

SI: No, honestly, there is no bitterness. In fact, what’s strange is that there’s a feeling of comfort, because there is a mania with the persona that comes with becoming a star or celebrity. The “star” went to that place, the “star” went home to sleep, the “star” is present at a certain occasion, and so on. And being away from all of this commotion is a source of comfort for me.

AEA: In the past, I’ve held performances at the American University because my plays have complicated technical requirements. Also, it means I don’t have to deal with the government union — and the only stage available is at the university. During the last Iraq war, I had a performance there and wanted to invite you, but people said that you wouldn’t come because of the venue. Is that true?

SI: It began with invitations to meet with students. After a while, I began to feel a contradiction between my political stance toward the Americans, and these meetings with the students at the American University, because it is an American institution. The week before, the Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper had revealed how much money [the university] had taken from the Pentagon for its research. This matter is not tied to why I don’t go to the American University. I can go there, but I don’t want to.

AEA: You’ve spent time in America. You’ve also lived in Amman, Moscow, and Beirut for a short period. How do you feel when you’re outside of Egypt?

SI: I also lived in Germany for three years. Still, I’m unable to adapt to life anywhere outside Egypt. I mean, here, I’m so irritated most of the time by the dirt, the noise, and the commotion, but nevertheless I find that I can’t live anywhere else. For example, I lived in France, for three months in Bordeaux, and I was tired…

I also don’t have a talent for languages. I don’t even have the ear to take in or absorb another language. So there’s a barrier whether I study German, Russian, or English, and despite the fact that I have had to deal with English for the last forty years, and even translate from English to Arabic and vice versa — despite all this, I’m still uncomfortable. This was the decisive factor in making me unable to adapt in these societies. For example, I didn’t stay in Germany, although I had a girlfriend there and [it] would have been possible. I can’t imagine myself wearing a hat and carrying an umbrella. The sun is important to me, tied to my physical constitution.

But still, for me, language is the fundamental basis of all relationships. For example, if you’re with an Egyptian woman, with one word or letter or gesture, you may find common realities. This is something we can’t achieve in another language, so the relationship always remains slightly formal — even if there is sexual compatibility… there will always be a distance. Unless you have a strong command of a language, like my mother and father had when they met. So this relationship to language came to me at a very young age and very naturally. And that is another story.