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by Sonallah Ibrahim
Translated by Chip Rosetti
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha, 2014.
ISBN: 978-9992194522. Pbk, 263pp, £10.28/ $17.99. Kindle £6.69/$10.76
Publishing in war-torn Beirut
Thanks largely to the translations of Richard Jacquemond, French-speaking readers have hitherto enjoyed a decisive advantage over their English-speaking counterparts in getting to grips with the works of Sonallah Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s most distinctive contemporary authors. The last few months, however, have seen a sudden, and highly welcome, surge in the availability of Sonallah Ibrahim’s writing in English translation. Following Robyn Creswell’s retranslation of That Smell [Tilka al-Ra’iha] and extracts from Notes from Prison [Yawmiyyat al-Wahat], published by New Directions in 2013; a further selection from his prison diaries published in Banipal 50; and the reissue of Husam Aboul-Ela’s’s translation of Stealth [al-Talassus] by New Directions earlier this year, we now have a translation of another of the author’s full-length novels, Bayrut, Bayrut, originally published in Arabic by Dar al-Mustaqbal in 1984.
The geographical setting of Beirut, Beirut is itself not without interest, for Egyptian writers in general have not been noted for their concern with other parts of the Arab world; and indeed, it is probably no exaggeration to say that, with the conspicuous exception of the Palestine-Israel dispute, Arab writers have, at least until recently, shown a certain reluctance to interest themselves in the problems of the region outside their own particular countries. Although the Lebanese war itself provides a proportion of the material for the novel, however, this is by no means the novel’s only concern, and problems of publishing in the Arab world (a subject on which the author could bring to bear significant personal experience) clearly emerge as one of the work’s preoccupations.?Sonallah’s interest in the Lebanese Civil War indeed appears itself to have been initially sparked by the difficulties of publishing his work in Egypt, prompting him to visit Lebanon in 1979. Then, as now, the country enjoyed a reputation as one of the most liberal publishing centres in the Arab world, but for some four years had been in the grip of a complex civil war that was to last until 1990. Finding himself in the middle of the conflict, and in an attempt to understand what was happening, the author began to research and document the events around him, and it was this research that forms the basis for the present work.
Like many of the author’s other works, Beirut, Beirut, though not an autobiography, is narrated in the first person, and contains obvious autobiographical elements. As with many of the author’s other novels also, the ‘plot’ of the work as such is rather thin. The main events of the work revolve around the experiences of an Egyptian writer, who travels to Beirut towards the end of 1980 in the hope of finding a publisher for his controversial latest book. Arriving in the city on 7 November 1980, he meets an old friend from his revolutionary student days and is introduced to two fascinating, though very different, women: the idealistic film-maker Antoinette, and Lamia, the seductive wife of a potential publisher, ‘Adnan al-?abbagh. In pursuing his publishing possibilities, the narrator is drawn into a series of meetings and other encounters, which expose some of the complexities of the Beirut publishing scene, currently exacerbated by the civil war, as well as publishing problems in the Arab world more generally. At the same time, the writer also becomes involved in a second literary enterprise – the writing of a film commentary on the civil war itself – that draws him in a still more immediate way into the turmoil of current events in the region. Meanwhile, the sexual chemistry between Lamia and the narrator has become increasingly evident as they banter light-heartedly about their differing Lebanese and Egyptian accents – though again, as often in Sonallah’s works, frustration rather than fulfilment is the dominant romantic mode, and after a series of generally unsuccessful encounters, on both a professional and a personal level, the book closes with the narrator preparing to return to Cairo, his novel still unpublished.
Despite its non-Egyptian setting, readers already familiar with Sonallah’s other fiction will recognise in Beirut, Beirut many of the themes and techniques that pervade his writing – not least, his intertextual approach to composition, which blends fact and fiction, incorporating into the author’s own narrative real or invented documents from outside the text. By this means, as Chip Rosetti notes in his brief but pertinent Translator’s Afterword, the work offers an outsider’s window “into a historical event that is at once very familiar and increasingly distant” (p.344). Although this is by no means Sonallah Ibrahim’s best novel (in my view, at least), like almost everything the author has written it represents an intriguing and distinctive addition to the corpus of modern Egyptian literature, and it is good to have it available in English in Rosetti’s highly accomplished translation. Let us hope that the publishers can be persuaded to take on more translations of Sonallah’s novels, so that English-speaking readers can enjoy the same access to this fascinating writer as those able to read in Arabic or French.
Published in Banipal 51 - Celebrating Saadi Youssef