Roving thoughts and provocations

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Egypt in the Raw

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos
Cairo, Egypt, 1958

In 1966, a little-known young Egyptian named Sonallah Ibrahim self-published his experimental first novel, That Smell, at a small printing press in downtown Cairo. It was a time of crisis and change in Egypt, as the country negotiated a transition from British occupation to Nasserism, much as today it struggles to deal with a shift from the Mubarak era to an emergent Islamist authoritarianism. Ibrahim, a former student activist and journalist who had spent five years in prison on charges related to his activity in the Communist party, was sensitive to the omnipresence of the state in daily life, but also to the inability of Arabic literature to express and capture that reality. That Smell—now published in English in a brilliant new translation by Robyn Creswell—was Ibrahim’s breathtakingly subversive answer to this problem and met with immediate censorship.

Semi-autobiographical, That Smell tells the story of a just-released prisoner as he struggles with the minutiae of day-to-day life: reacquainting himself with his family, friends, and city; seeking employment, trying to write; struggling with a sense of purposelessness, of loss, with feelings of alienation. Conversation hinges around the everyday—health, films, love, consumer goods: the things one talks about when politics cannot be discussed with ease, or to any profitable outcome. There is a lingering sense in these banal interactions of malaise, and an apathy born of pervasive oppression. For a communist, it was the experience of being all but annihilated.

Here is the protagonist trying to rekindle a relationship with an old lover:

I reached my hand toward her chest but she pushed it away and said, No. I rolled away, then stretched out beside her. I waited for her to turn and embrace me but she didn’t. I was awake. I felt the pain between my legs. I got up and went to the bathroom. I got rid of my desire, then came back and stretched out beside her. I slept and woke and slept again and when I opened my eyes it was morning and she had already put her clothes on. I’m leaving now, she said.

He tries to read:

I turned on the light and put the notebook in my pocket, sitting on a chair with my back to the door. I picked up a book. Then I got up and turned the seat around to face the door. I went back to my reading. I looked over the edge of the book at the door. The apartment was getting dark. I tried to keep reading but it was no good. I got up and went to the reception room and turned the light on. My neighbor’s apartment was dark. I went to the kitchen and turned the light on, then went to my room and picked up the book again. There was a knock at the door. I got up to open it and remembered my sister. She said that when there was a knock at the door she always felt like someone was about to come in and beat her up. So I opened the peephole first…

Deflated, he smokes, masturbates, idles time. There is a sense of lethargy, inertia—defeat:

I told myself I would know the house by its blue windows, but when I got there I discovered they weren’t blue as I’d imagined. They were just ordinary, uncoloured glass. It was the sky that had sometimes made them seem blue. All the panes were cracked.

In a novel without much of a larger plot, these strung-together experiences, and their run-on form, without paragraph breaks or dialogue, stand in for what life had become for many Egyptians: the trudging along, when each day might as well be the next, when each day might bring arbitrary arrest or imprisonment. Ibrahim wrote, astutely, of the way politics is most significantly felt, and perhaps easiest to overlook, at moments of great change.

That Smell inspired extreme reactions the year it was published. It was quickly banned on the pretext of its sexual content. In hindsight the government was probably more concerned about the political connotations of the protagonist’s apparent impotence, as well as the novel’s vivid depictions of imprisonment and torture in Egypt’s jails:

I heard a voice say, There he is, and they beat him on the head and said, Put your head down, you dog. They began calling people in, then they called him in, and that was the last time I saw him.

But for critics, too, there was something uncomfortable about the book—the tone, the temperament it captured, the raw details about elements of life usually considered unspeakable. Also unnerving was all that was implied but left unsaid.

Some critics harped on the book’s sexuality in particular. Yahya Haqqi—a mentor to Ibrahim, and to whom the young novelist gave a saved copy of the confiscated novel—wrote in his weekly column:

I am still distressed by this short novel whose reputation has become notorious in literary circles. It might have been counted among our best productions had its author not shown such imprudence and lack of good taste. Not content to show us his hero masturbating (if the matter had ended there it would have been of little importance), he also describes the hero’s return a day later to where the traces of his sperm lie on the ground. The physiological description absolutely nauseated me, and it prevented me from enjoying the story despite its skillful telling. I am not condemning its morality, but its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity. Here is the fault that should have been removed. The reader should have been spared such filth.

Despite this kind of criticism, That Smell was regarded as something of a turning point by many writers and critics, and the few copies Ibrahim had managed to salvage from the printers circulated widely underground long before the novel was published in its entirety by Dar Shuhdi in Cairo decades later (several “edited,” or “censored,” editions were in the interim published in the region without Ibrahim’s consent). Part of what gave the novel such force was its curt style and form, which confronted readers with radically pared-down sentences, pared-down thoughts, and a pared-down language that defied literary convention and was entirely new to Arabic literature:

I chose a table at the back next to the Nile and sat down. A waiter came and I ordered a coffee, then stared at the water. With my eyes, I followed the boat being rowed by a bare-chested young man. One of his oars fell into the water and floated away. He yanked the rudder of the boat and tried to catch the lost oar. He was rowing with just one oar, transferring it from one side of the boat to the other. But the current was against him and as soon as he got close to the oar it floated away. He rowed in a frenzy. Despair showed on his face. Then he threw away his oar and cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted to another rower in a nearby boat, asking for help. But the other rower didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t hear. The coffee still hadn’t come. I called to the waiter but he wasn’t paying attention. I got up and left.

Like many Arab writers of his generation, Ibrahim acquired his interest in literature behind bars, and it was during his years in Al-Wahat prison in the western desert that he first discovered the style he would make his own. (The new translation of That Smell includes, following the main text, a selection of Ibrahim’s diary entries from prison.) He read whatever he could get his hands on—mainly Cairene journals that reviewed literature from around the world (Soviet poets were favorites given Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union at the time), and those few books that made their way past the prison guards. Among the books that made the greatest impression on him were two on the writings of Ernest Hemingway (including Carlos Baker’s The Writer as Artist, translated to Arabic by the Palestinian literary critic Ihsan Abbas).

In one entry, dated June 1963, Ibrahim wrote:

Hemingway: A tight frame with three dimensions: Simple character. Simple style. Simple setting. In The Green Hills of Africa he talks about four dimensional prose: the kind that hasn’t yet been written, but which is possible. There is a fourth and a fifth dimension (the symbolic?).

And a few months later:

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse has opened up a new world for me… Her idea of art seems to be the same as that given in her novel by the painter: “One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” This is what Woolf does in the novel, handling everything that is simple, ordinary, quotidian.

Adapting this kind of approach to Ibrahim’s own experience in Egypt, That Smell 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; some writers began to examine, and reject, past 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 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. (Some 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.)

Notwithstanding his remarkable influence on Arabic literature today, Ibrahim has largely been ignored by Western critics, who have tended to favor more accessible authors such as Alaa El Aswaany, who uses lyrical narrative techniques and storylines to seduce readers in such works as his international bestseller, The Yaacoubian Building. Egyptian critics have noted that Aswaany’s typecast characters whose fates neatly converge seem to evade the core truths of the middle class he chooses to depict. Ibrahim, on the other hand, has continuously re-invented the form and language he uses in his work, while probing deeply into the underlying tensions running through Egyptian society.

Creswell’s new translation of the novel finally allows English language readers to appreciate these qualities. In its first translation into English in 1971 (by the British publisher Heinemann Educational), much of what made That Smell so fresh and incisive and gave the story such dark undertones was lost. Apparently in order to make the novel more readable, paragraph breaks were inserted, dialogue was broken up, quotation marks imposed. The single block of text that it comprised was divided. Even the language of the characters was changed. In contrast, Creswell captures faithfully the simplicity and rawness of Ibrahim’s original, as well as its run-on form. Despite the differences of syntax between Arabic and English, the translation retains the tone, the vocabulary, and the pared down and staccato rhythm of the original.

That Smell marks a significant entry into the diminutive collection of Arabic literature translated into English, providing a dramatic new view of literature to American readers who otherwise see hardly any of it. But it also shows, by contrast, how cosmopolitan Ibrahim’s own literary world was. The translated selections from Ibrahim’s diaries offer glimpses into the world of international literature some fifty years ago, with which an Egyptian prison in the middle of the desert appears to have been surprisingly well connected. There, in the early sixties, Ibrahim was tapping into a far-flung leftist community and keenly following its debates in Paris and Beirut and London, avidly reading translations and reviews as his means—as a young writer—of finding his voice, his form, his method of making both a literary and political statement.

In one entry he wrote, “Anything that takes us beyond the limits of the conventional novel, now exhausted, is worth doing…” A few weeks later he asks himself: “Can I unify the personal with the objective in my writing? Set off in three directions at the same time: subject, style, and form.”

In another entry, quoting from a review of the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Ibrahim notes:

Those writers who hurry to respond to the demands of the day, who apprise us of contemporary events, deserve the sobriquet “skimmers.” For them, the building of Volga Canal doesn’t merit more than two or three on-the-spot articles, dashed-off and superficial. A mirroring of events and nothing else. But the same subject cost [the Russian writer] Vladimir Fomenko ten years of hard work.


Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell & Notes from Prison, in a new translation from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell, is published by New Directions.

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