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Authors: Sonallah Ibrahim

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That Smell and Notes From Prison

BOOK: That Smell and Notes From Prison
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That Smell

&

Notes from Prison

Sonollah Ibrahim

Edited and translated

by Robyn Creswell

A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK

Translator’s Introduction

Sonallah Ibrahim’s first book,
That Smell
, was
published in Cairo in 1966. The print run was quickly confiscated, though not
before a few copies were passed on to local critics, who were almost as
unwelcoming as the censors. Yahya Haqqi, one of the grand old men of Egyptian
letters and one of Ibrahim’s early mentors, wrote that he was “nauseated” by the
novel, lamenting “its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity.” Illegal
and abbreviated editions subsequently appeared in Egypt and abroad, but it was
only in 1986 that a complete edition was published in Cairo. By that time,
Ibrahim had become an established novelist and
That Smell
was
recognized, especially by young writers, as a watershed in Arabic literature — a
work of sly sophistication and prescient critique, a fiction to frighten the
status quo.

It is not obvious, especially to foreign readers at a distance of
almost fifty years, why this short work provoked such a violent response. The
reaction of the authorities, which Ibrahim recounts with exasperated amusement
in his introduction to the 1986 edition (translated here as an afterword),
focused on the novel’s representation of sexual matters. But these scenes, which
are brief and rather chaste, do not explain such hostility. In fact, there is
little in the story that strikes one as explicitly subversive. It begins with an
unnamed narrator being released from prison, followed by scenes of his visits to
family and friends while re-familiarizing himself with Cairo, his native city.
At night he signs a register of house arrest brought to his door by a policeman.
The human setting, as with much of Ibrahim’s fiction, is lower-middle-class:
government clerks, newspapermen, low-ranking army officers. There is not much
plot in the conventional sense and the narrator’s tone is remarkably blank. He
makes no attempt to set his story within a larger historical context, nor does
he pass judgment on the things he sees and hears. The story’s central drama,
such as it is, revolves around his sporadic attempts to write, though what he is
trying to compose is never clear (a novel, a poem, a letter?). Even in this
case, not much happens. Confronted by an empty page, he usually ends up smoking
or masturbating or spying on his neighbors rather than writing.

That Smell
is essentially a roman à
clef. When he wrote the novel in his late twenties, Ibrahim himself had just
been released from prison. He was arrested for political conspiracy in 1959,
along with most other Egyptian Communists, during a round-up ordered by the
president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had came to power in a military coup in 1952.
Ibrahim was given a seven-year sentence of hard labor and ended up serving five,
most of them in al-Wahat prison camp in Egypt’s Western Desert. Conditions in
the jail were harsh. Prisoners were tortured, several were beaten to death. The
narrator of
That Smell
has also been a political
prisoner, though this is implied rather than stated. In one of the opening
scenes, he spends the night in a holding pen before being released back onto the
streets (another autobiographical detail). A fellow inmate asks what he is in
for — drugs? robbery? counterfeiting? — only to be met with a series of denials.
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, politics is what cannot be mentioned, or what
no one will talk about except indirectly. This unspoken taboo extends to the
narrator, who never gives his opinion about life under the military regime, or
its treatment of political opponents. Ibrahim’s writing style is a kind of
corollary to this. It is a style defined by all the things it leaves out:
metaphors, adjectives, authorial commentary. His narrator has the impassivity of
a trauma victim: he sees and hears and reports, but makes no claim to
understand. This minimalism shocked contemporary Arabic readers. Many found
Ibrahim’s style more disquieting than the story’s themes or content. Even now it
is not easy to see how he arrived at this way of writing, which breaks so
violently with the norms of literary Arabic.

Ibrahim’s experience as a Communist is central to his novel. One
might even understand his later career as a writer as an attempt to remain
faithful to the history of that movement, long after the Egyptian party ceased
to exist. In an autobiographical essay about his years as a militant, Ibrahim
claims that when he became a Communist in 1954 it was in part for literary
reasons. As a young reader, he had a passion for
policiers
and historical swashbucklers —
Robin
Hood, The Three Musketeers, Captain Blood,
and the stories of Arsène
Lupin. (Traces of this passion for the pulps are still evident in the overheated
fantasies of
That Smell
, as well as the appearance
of the radio show, “The Shadow,” in the closing sequence.) By the time he was
seventeen, Ibrahim was involved in clandestine political work for Haditu, an
acronym for the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, one faction in
Egypt’s patchwork of Marxist movements. “There is no doubt,” Ibrahim writes,
“that my commitment to clandestine activities stemmed from the adventure stories
I loved so much,” stories that had also taught him the virtues of “sincerity,
loyalty, self-sacrifice, asceticism, and chivalry.”

The ups and downs of the Egyptian Communist party are notoriously
difficult to track. This volatility is partly due to factionalism and partly to
the movement’s shifting attitudes toward President Nasser. The party was always
small and there were almost as many intellectuals as workers. When the first
cells and study groups were founded in the 1930s, the party was mostly led by
well-to-do Egyptian Jews. These were committed internationalists and
anti-fascists, wary of the chauvinism they perceived in Egypt’s Islamist and
nationalist parties. (The early prominence of Jews in many Arab Communist
parties would compromise recruitment efforts, especially after the establishment
of Israel in 1948.) The Communists initially welcomed the coup of 1952, which
put an end to the monarchy of Farouk and, soon after, the British occupation of
Egypt. But the honeymoon was short. Twenty days after seizing power, the ruling
clique violently suppressed a strike by textile workers and executed two labor
leaders. Among the leftists, rumors began to circulate that the CIA had had a
role in the takeover. The next four years were characterized by tensions between
the Communists and Nasser, as well as between different factions within the
movement, whose activists disagreed over whether or not to support the new
regime. When Ibrahim joined Haditu in 1954, it was among those factions that
enthusiastically backed the officers.

In the aftermath of the Suez War of 1956, having faced down Britain,
France, and Israel, Nasser was at the height of his powers. He was a popular
leader in the movements for anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism, and he soon
emerged, along with Tito and Nehru, as a driving force in the Non-Aligned
Movement. Egyptian Communists had little choice except to get behind him. But
the regime never returned these friendly feelings. In 1958, a coup by Iraqi
officers seemed to signal that country’s turn toward communism and away from
pan-Arabism, and Nasser began to worry about his domestic reds. This was the
proximate cause for the arrests of 1959, in which Ibrahim was caught up. The
consistent support his faction had given Nasser ended up counting for nothing.

One irony of this story is that it was during the years of Ibrahim’s
imprisonment, in the early 1960s, that Egypt turned decisively toward the Soviet
Union in foreign policy and toward socialism on the domestic front, with
ambitious programs of nationalizations and land reform. Cultural relations also
became closer. Many Egyptian intellectuals made the trip to Moscow — Ibrahim
spent a year there in the early seventies studying film — and Cairo’s literary
journals were full of the news from the USSR, in particular the rise of
liberal-minded poets such Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. This new
closeness between Nasser and the Soviets led to a number of surreal instances in
which Egyptian Communists publicly and voluntarily expressed their support for a
regime that had jailed and tortured them. A further irony is that Ibrahim and
many others were granted an early release from prison in 1964 only because of
Khrushchev’s visit to celebrate the construction of the Aswan Dam, designed and
financed by the USSR. The Soviets noted that the Premier could hardly make
Nasser a Hero of the Soviet Union when Egyptian jails were full of Communists.
Less than a year later, the two largest Communist parties in Egypt met and voted
to dissolve themselves, instructing their memberships to enroll in Nasser’s
newly formed Arab Socialist Union. They hoped to have some influence on the
regime’s policies by shaping them from the inside, but this was not to be. As
Joel Beinin, a historian of the Arab left, has written, “The Egyptian communists
were caught up by their embrace of the national movement and ultimately
destroyed by it.”

This convoluted history of alliance, enmity, and cooptation is the
prelude to
That Smell
. The narrator’s stupor is the
daze of depoliticization, a sense that the large battles have already been
fought and lost. In his meetings with friends and family, the talk is mostly
about marriage, the newest American appliances, and how to get ahead in the new
bureaucracies.
That Smell
is a political novel in
the sense that it evokes, from the inside, the feeling of life
after
politics. It registers the cooling temperatures
and lowered expectations of a moment when Nasser’s “holy march” toward Arab
unity has stalled in the sands of economic reality and popular disaffection.

The most pervasive symptom of this stagnation, in Ibrahim’s fiction,
is sexual. The narrator of
That Smell
is a prototype
for the heroes of his later novels: a bookish loner whose encounters with women,
real or imagined, are awkward and anticlimactic. His one meeting with a
prostitute turns into a comedy of errors. It is the narrator’s sexual
powerlessness that seems to have most worried the Egyptian censors. In his 1986
introduction, Ibrahim writes of being interrogated by an officer in the Ministry
of Information shortly after the novel was printed. Why does the hero refuse to
sleep with the prostitute, the official wants to know? Can’t he get it up? The
censors were presumably more comfortable with the virile heroes of socialist
realism — the dominant form for the novel in Egypt at the time — who were
forever building dams, making speeches, and machine-gunning the Zionists. But it
is Ibrahim’s novel that was more attuned to its times. It is now often seen as a
work that foreshadowed the humiliation of the 1967 War, a novel that told the
truth about Egyptian impotence even as the regime trumpeted its fictions of
victory.

I’ve noted that there is a little mystery about how
Ibrahim arrived at the style of his first work, a style that is at once simple
and strange, or strange because it seems so simple. Compared to Egyptian writers
of the previous generation — Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik al-Hakim, Taha Hussein —
Ibrahim’s prose is very plain. The syntax is straightforward and even monotonous
(a monotony that is meant in part to mimic the dreary routines of the narrator’s
life under house arrest). There are no spiraling clauses and only the most basic
transitions, usually “and” or “then.” There are no ten-dollar words, only
everyday nouns and verbs. It is a style that is aggressively unliterary. Reading
it, one feels Ibrahim forcing the native eloquence of Arabic prose to make room
for a degree of inelegance and even ugliness. This inelegance, so disturbing to
the novel’s original readers, is one of the elements I find lacking in the
previous English translation,
The Smell of it & other
stories
(1971),
by Denys Johnson-Davies.
In that edition, Ibrahim’s lower-middle-class characters speak a plummy version
of English and the unbroken block of the original Arabic text — a layout that
fits the stream-of-consciousness narrative — is transformed into tidy paragraphs
and indented dialogue.

For some hints about how he arrived at this intentionally unstylish
style of writing, and also for some sense of Ibrahim’s life in prison, we can
turn to the
Yawmiyat al-Wahat
, translated here as
Notes from Prison
. This is a series of journal
entries Ibrahim wrote during his last two years in prison, from the spring of
1962 to the spring of 1964. In November 1963, Ibrahim transferred the contents
of these secret notebooks to Turkish Bafra-brand cigarette papers, to make them
easier to smuggle out. Excerpts from this archive first appeared in the Cairene
magazine
al-Hilal
in 2003. The full diary, with
accompanying notes and an introduction by Ibrahim, was published the following
year. He summarized its contents in this way: “Writing and its difficulties, the
role of the writer and his formation, the many contradictory theories of the
novel — these considerations take up a large portion of my notebooks.” In the
earlier entries Ibrahim dreams of a heroic writer who will “dive into the depths
of the people” and “reveal the way forward”; later entries are increasingly
concerned with questions of technique and style. The Arabic version runs to well
over a hundred pages. For the purposes of this translation, I have selected only
a small portion, about one fifth of the total. Many of the notes concern writing
projects that never came to fruition, or would require context beyond the scope
of this edition. I have focused instead on those entries I take to be relevant
to the composition of
That Smell.
Read in this way,
as prolegomena to the novel, they offer a fascinating glimpse into Ibrahim’s
procedures as a reader and a writer.

BOOK: That Smell and Notes From Prison
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