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Profile: Egyptian Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim
Black Humor in Dark Times
On the front door are two stickers. One urges, “Boycott is Resistance”; the other proclaims, “Together Against U.S. Globalism and Aggression in Iraq.” Egyptian novelist and social critic Sonallah Ibrahim answers the door, peering through round black frames, a Cleopatra cigarette dangling from his lips. With a smile, he ushers his visitor in.
Ibrahim’s apartment, a sixth-floor walkup in the Cairo district of Heliopolis, is lined with shelves of books and vinyl records. The coffee table is piled high with newspapers and magazines; on the sofa lie a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and an anthology of English critical theory. Ibrahim’s own writing, acclaimed in the field of contemporary Arabic literature, blends satirical black humor with a documentary style, probing provocative matters such as prison life, revolution, civil war, and the dominance of multinational corporations.
He was born in Cairo in 1937, the first child of a marriage that could itself be the basis of a romantic novel with social overtones. His mother was a young nurse from the lower classes hired to tend to the paralyzed first wife of his father, a high-ranking civil servant.
“I am the son of a father from the upper-middle class. But his family looked down on me because my mother was from a poor background,” Ibrahim recalls. “She was more like a maid to my father’s first wife.” Along with Britain’s occupation of Egypt and the country’s burgeoning nationalism, such social and class differences shaped Ibrahim’s youthful politics: He became both a nationalist and a socialist. “There is a Marxist foundation to my political beliefs,” he freely admits.
In 1952, a few months after the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in a coup that would usher in the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ibrahim began law school at Cairo University. The minutiae of case law didn’t stick in his mind, though, and he turned instead to writing. Drawn to journalism and politics, he got involved in Egypt’s clandestine Communist Party, a move that soon landed him in jail. Between 1959 and 1964 he served five years of a seven-year sentence handed down by a military tribunal.
Ibrahim speaks about his incarceration without bitterness. He credits prison life with serving as a sort of university, saying that it brought him in contact with inmates from all walks of life, from college professors to laborers and peasants. He attended classes on hieroglyphics, history, and French, and read books that had been smuggled inside the prison walls by enterprising inmates.
When he got out, he had a burning desire to convey what he had witnessed there—in particular, how imprisonment drives inmates to create private fantasy worlds to combat isolation and sexual longing. Those experiences form the basis of two of his novels, Tilk al-Ra’eha (The Smell of It, 1966) and Sharaf (Honor, 1997).
Such openness about prison conditions didn’t go unnoticed, however, and in 1966, Tilk al-Ra’eha was banned before it could be distributed. The year before, Nasser had lifted the country’s state of emergency, leaving publishers and authors free to publish without approval from the censor’s office. But an officer from the State Security department would still tour local publishing houses, stopping the publication of anything that looked provocative. Tilk al-Ra’eha was an easy target.
The story of a man’s release from prison and the alienation he faces, Tilk al-Ra’eha features some shocking descriptions of homosexuality, prostitution, and masturbation in prison. But that wasn’t the reason that a novel by a then-unknown writer was banned, Ibrahim contends. “They believed they could use the pretext of the sexual references in the novel as a cover to forbid anyone from talking about imprisonment and torture.”
Before the 1,000-2,000 printed copies were confiscated, Ibrahim managed to secure around 100, which he distributed to literary critics at various publications. “Favorable reviews appeared in the press for a book that did not exist,” he recalls with a grin. Still, it took two decades before the book was reprinted, uncensored, in Cairo.
Before that, it circulated as part of an underground literary market. Samia Mehrez, professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, read Tilk al-Ra’eha in the early 1970s as part of the reading list for her master’s degree. “That was the mark of the 1960s and ’70s,” she says. “Sonallah himself has talked about how books have a life of their own, that they circulate despite the censors. We all had copies of a handful of banned books because people had made photocopies or they had been printed elsewhere in the Arab world and were brought back by friends.”
Readers were astonished by the way Ibrahim’s writing defied the Arabic literary focus on poetic language and rhythms. “[Ibrahim’s style] had a lot to do with a disillusionment with how language, and discourse in general, were being manipulated by power,” Mehrez says. “His major enterprise was how to create or invent a language that would depict a horrid, sordid reality that was not being reflected or expressed through the dominant modes of discourse.”
“Tilk al-Ra'eha was a departure from earlier, stylistic writing by Arab novelists,” says Christopher Stone, assistant professor of Arabic and International Studies at Middlebury College, in Vermont. “Its bleakness and frank discussion of bodily functions was unnerving to many readers. Many people assume that it was written after al-Naksa [‘the setback,’ or the 1967 war with Israel], when in fact it can be seen as a kind of prophecy.”
Tradition in Egypt has long linked literature with politics, and well-known writers also had a role in public life. “Even before the 1940s, literary authors wrote about politics,” says Ibrahim. Newspaper articles by such prominent writers as Abdel Rahman Sharkawi and Youssef Idris illuminated social issues and gave greater influence to their writing. “At the same time as they were writing about politics, they were authoring novels,” Ibrahim recalls. “The paperboy would shout, ‘Read el-Akkad! Read el-Akkad!—meaning not the literary works of Mahmoud el-Akkad but a political article by him, or Taha Hussein, or whomever.”
Still, true independence of thought was unusual. “The profile of the creative writer is inescapably entrenched in the state apparatus. He or she is a civil servant,” explains Mehrez. “We cannot begin to speak about an autonomous literary field because most, if not all of our writers—and Sonallah Ibrahim is an exception to the rule—work within the state cultural apparatus.”
During the 1960s, Ibrahim worked at a bookshop, and later as an editor at the Middle East News Agency, Egypt’s government-run wire service. He was drawn by the allure of the West and its burgeoning counterculture. “I wanted to get to know girls with blond hair and blue eyes,” he says wistfully. He left the news agency and traveled to Berlin in 1968, working for three years as an editor for the Arabic service of the German Press Agency.
From Germany he moved to the Soviet Union, having been offered a grant to study filmmaking in Moscow. “I would be lying if I told you that I was studying cinematography,” he admits. Instead, he spent a year studying Russian, watching as many films as he could, and attending a few classes. He also worked on a 30-minute graduation film about Egyptian political prisoners by Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas—but decided that he preferred the craft of writing novels. “I find internal peace when I am in a room by myself writing,” he says. “This kind of boundless freedom suits my personality.”
Following his release from prison in 1964, Ibrahim had spent three months near Egypt’s emerging Aswan High Dam, taking notes on daily life of laborers as the dam was built. In Moscow, he worked on Nigmat Augustus (Star of August, 1974), a novel set during the building of the dam. Woven into the fabric of the story is the intricate and revealing power play between dam laborers and their bosses.
When he returned to Egypt in 1974, Ibrahim worked at a publishing house, a job he gave up a year later to devote himself to writing full-time. He also married that year, and one of his purchases as a newlywed was his Egyptian-made Ideal refrigerator, which still thrums away in the hallway outside his kitchen.
He points at the sturdy old appliance. “We used to have an independent industry,” he says ruefully. “This Ideal has been running day and night for 27 years. It hasn’t stopped for a single moment. No foreign refrigerator sold in Egypt runs more than two or three years without breaking down.”
The vibrant local industry collapsed, he says, along with the dream of Arab nationalism. Today, Egypt’s economy is dominated by multinationals. “The capitalist system in Egypt is not even capitalism at all. It just comprises servants or agents of foreign companies,” he grouses. No fan of Nasser’s autocratic rule, he nevertheless considers the era of the standard-bearer of pan-Arabism to be “the only period since the fall of the Pharaohs when complete stability reigned.”
In 1967, Ibrahim contends, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War stopped Nasser’s modernization plan in its tracks and forever altered the regional balance of power. An era of dependence on the United States began, leading inexorably to garish consumerism. The latest chapter in that story is the war in Iraq, “a major step for the American empire in imposing its will on the region, occupying the oil fields, and politically dominating the region as a whole.”
But imperialist governments are only part of the problem. Ibrahim also holds multinational corporations responsible for destroying nation states, and was ahead of the curve in predicting the political power they would wield. His 1981 novel Al-Lajna (The Committee) takes aim at multinationals and hidden authorities, using allegory and black humor to describe how they have created an effective world government.
At one point in that novel, testifying before the secretive “committee” of the title, the nameless protagonist criticizes the world-conquering American brand Coca-Cola. “We will not find, your honors, among all I have mentioned, anything that embodies the civilization of this century or its accomplishments, let alone its future, like this svelte little bottle, which is just the right size to fit up anyone’s ass.”
Asked by the committee to provide “a study on the greatest contemporary Arab luminary,” the protagonist chooses an individual known only as “the Doctor”—a mysterious authority figure whose characterization allows Ibrahim to take potshots at the Arab world’s powerbrokers and profiteers.
Ibrahim’s use of black humor reaches a crescendo in his 1992 novel Zaat, which follows the life of an Egyptian woman, Zaat, through the presidential eras of Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Interspersed with Zaat’s story is a montage of press extracts—headlines, news items, photo captions and advertisements—that capture ephemeral absurdities. In one, Mubarak is quoted as saying, “We should not be ashamed that there are poor people in Egypt. What we should do is work to make our country appear suitably civilized because we need to attract tourists.”
“Every day I cut something from the newspapers and file it,” says Ibrahim. “That is one of my hobbies. My wife told me, ‘We don’t have space in the house. You’ll have to find something to do with all these clippings’.”
In other novels, Ibrahim also sets his characters’ lives against historic events in the Arab world. Beirut, Beirut (1984) tells of Lebanon’s devastating civil war, and Warda (2000), is a fictionalized account of a repressed Arab revolution in the early 1970s—led by a woman—in the Sultanate of Oman. His forthcoming novel, Americanly, due out in August, delves into U.S. and Egyptian history through the story of a visiting Egyptian professor of comparative history at a San Francisco college. (Ibrahim was a visiting professor of contemporary Arabic literature at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Bordeaux in France.)
As if all this weren’t enough, Ibrahim is also the author of a collection of books for teens that he calls “ecological fiction.” It investigates the behavior of animals and sea creatures, an interest he picked up in prison as he spent long hours “wondering and reading about the lives of ants, scorpions, and spiders.”
If this seems a far cry from his more politically oriented fiction, Ibrahim definitely sees connections between the two. All his writing, he says, is driven by the desire to understand the workings of complex systems—whether multinational corporations, crowded apartment buildings, or insect colonies. If, along the way, he can entertain his readers and energize them politically, so much the better. “Black humor arises from extending your desire to make fun to a degree where you express a vision of reality you want to change,” he says.
But asked if literature might have the power to effect change in the Arab world, Ibrahim merely shrugs.
“Perhaps,” he says.