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Calling Things What They Are
Interview by Camilo Gómez-Rivas
THE FUTURE is dark,” says Sonallah Ibrahim, with a chuckle, discussing censorship and the Islamist victory in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. “It has been a beautiful year for freedom of expression and lack of censorship,” he says. But for the immediate future he sees a struggle. “I was just thinking about this yesterday. We are entering a period in which we will have an Islamist parliament and an Islamist government, which means that we will encounter a series of new prohibitions. Right now they talk about wine and bikinis but such subjects will become more of an issue for novels, cinema, and art. We will fight and resist but I am afraid.” he shrugs and smiles.
I ask him about the surge of creative energy in post-January 25 Egypt and how and whether it will evolve. He is hopeful, about the political situation and the creative process. “When I saw the women’s demonstration [at the end of December], I thought it was a beautiful thing. They were clearly against military government and in defence of the women who were beaten and tortured but this is an issue that will not be easily resolved.”
The big question is: will a constitutional balance emerge from this messy transitional period? The indisputable gain of the past year, Ibrahim says, is that the Egyptian people are no longer afraid. People publicly call Field Marshall Tantawi a coward in their chants; they demand an end to the violation of women. “There is no more fear.” A second major development, according to Ibrahim, is that the Copts have entered the political process after years of anonymity and the third is the rise of the youth as “the most important political power in the country”. The success of the entire process of transition, however, “depends upon Midan Tahrir”.
Ibrahim is a writer accustomed to patient resistance and speaking truth to those in power. In 2003, he famously declined the Arab Novel Award, delivering a speech at the ceremony in Cairo in which he explained that he could not receive an award from a government that lacked the credibility to bestow it. Over four decades, Ibrahim has cultivated a spartan lifestyle, whilst dedicating himself to crafting novels which, laced with images of stark beauty and subtle humour, lay bare the humiliation of daily life under dictatorship. In an article on the Egyptian novel in Harper’s (February, 2011) Robyn Creswell attributes the resonance of Ibrahim’s style with contemporary readers to his eschewal of the “high eloquence native to Arabic literature”, in favour of “prose so unadorned, so aggressively unliterary, that it is a kind of anti-style”.
Born in 1937 in Cairo, Ibrahim studied Law at Cairo University. He was drawn to writing and to politics and, in 1959, having joined the Communist Party, Ibrahim was imprisoned, a five-and-a-half year experience of long-lasting influence, which led to his first literary output. After his release from prison, Ibrahim worked as a news editor for several years, before travelling to Berlin in 1968 and later Moscow. In 1974 he returned to Egypt permanently and within a year gave up his job at a publishing house to write full-time. Ibrahim has lived in the same modest apartment in Heliopolis for thirty-five years, battling state censorship and producing a steady output of novels which have received broad critical acclaim. These include Tilka al-Ra’iha (That Smell), banned and not republished for twenty years, Al-Lajna (The Committee), Zaat (Self), Beirut, Beirut, Sharaf (Honour), Al-Talassus (Stealth) and Amrekenli (Amricanly), among others.
Having climbed the stairs to the sixth-floor of a liftless apartment block, I reach his door, which has no number. He opens the door in a blue-flannel robe and makes coffee before we sit down to talk writing, politics, and life in post-January 25 Egypt. The coffee table is strewn with copies of Al-Masry al-Youm and books. The walls too are almost entirely lined with books, along with vinyl records and magazines. Two plant cuttings grow in glass jars under the window.
Camilo Gomez-Rivas: How do you understand the surge of action from conservative and religious groups in Egyptian society? What is the role of religion? Perhaps it is unsuitable to compare this to a similar trend occurring in the United States?
Sonallah Ibrahim: On the
contrary, this is a global issue in the first place. History teaches us that
when a wave of progress occurs, in thought, in social conditions, in sexual
relations, it incites a response. For example, at the beginning of last
century, with Isadora [Duncan], the dancer and artist . . . this wave was
followed by the First World War. Then there was a second wave of progress after
the Second World War, in the forties and early fifties and a third in the
sixties. Every time, a counter-response appears, a while later there is movement
in thought and freedom, or the like, and then, there is this kind of fear in
society as it starts to worry: “Where are we going?” Remember the sixties – the
hippies and marijuana and homosexuality, the whole thing – then what happened?
There was a reaction; a conservative reaction. That lasts a while and then
there’s another wave of progress, always.
Karl Marx has a great saying about this: “History moves . . .” – or perhaps it was Lenin – “two steps forward and one step back” and so on. We are going through such a period now. We have realised a number of social and cultural achievements in the past, especially during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, on the issue of ownership in particular, which was transformed during Nasser’s time, with nationalization and land redistribution and all that. Society is by nature conservative, for the most part. It became afraid and took a step back. This is how religious conservatism spread. The moment Abdel Nasser died notices appeared in the papers about Anwar Sadat, the new president, calling him “The Believer President”, implying that the former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was not a believer. Believer of what? Religion of course.
The thing is that religion wasn’t the issue; the issue was ownership – land, money, families, inheritance and all of those things. That’s where the wave of religion in politics began, followed by a series of associated effects. For example, the internet and other media appear, and society responds with fear, real fear. Sex is there, laid out in all its detail, easily accessible. This they insist on pointing to as the reason for social “mysteries”, even, for example, as an explanation for why people marry less, for why there is debauchery.
People go to Saudi Arabia and to the Gulf to work and there is a resulting association between money and religion, fanatical religion. There’s the phenomenon of new cars with Qur’ans in the rear window. All this feeds into the religious wave. But it is a wave and it will pass when people discover that it doesn’t solve anything, that the group coming to power will not put forward any effective solutions because the truth of the matter is that they belong to the owning class and are allies with the capitalists. They will not solve the problems of social justice. That may take some time.
There is another dimension to this that is very important: the Islamists have a presence in the street. When you go out of my building you will find that in the entrance of the building next door there is a small mosque – a prayer hall. The Islamists have always been present in the street and they help people to solve problems. Their mission is very easy; they speak to the simplest part of the mind. The others, the liberals and the leftists, cultured politicians, they speak and speak well, but there is nothing and they have no presence in the street.
But the democratic process with Islamist parties present should be productive somehow?
For sure. Look, the Nour Party, the party of the Salafists, those who play the most retrograde role in society, they used to be hidden, crouched under a chair. Now we can face them.
The problem, though, is that the democratic process will only be half legitimate.
That depends on Midan Tahrir. And that's all.
What is your first memory of experiencing beauty? And do you feel there is an Egyptian notion of beauty, which has developed over time?
I remember right now, when I was eleven I tried to draw the face of Leila Mourad, the great singer. She had beautiful lips and I sat there and drew boxes and tried to draw her. I had this feeling that she was very, very beautiful so the idea of beauty was associated in my mind with the face of a woman. Naturally, beauty has no citizenship. Beauty is international. And just as I may be smitten with an Egyptian woman, I can be smitten with a woman of any nationality, no problem . . . Yet what’s strange is that when I lived in Germany, and in Moscow for a long period, I spent the whole time yearning to see an Egyptian woman, with specific features, a specific skin colour and a certain attitude. There was this intense nostalgia.
What about beauty in writing and narrative? What do you feel is the difference between European writing and Egyptian writing?
Of course there is a difference. Let’s say international writing, or Latin American, or in the United States, there’s a big difference. I think that with us, in the Arab world, the problem of taboos plays a large role. It’s strange, for example, that Latin America, a relatively Catholic region, doesn’t have the same taboos, not with sex, politics, or religion. Several years ago a writer in Latin America published a novel entitled Clitoris. This is something that couldn’t happen in the Arab world. The problem isn’t that you write about this or that; the problem is about the ability to express something. What does literature have to offer? It offers the ability to express situations and thoughts and consciousness, to describe problems and how people think. This is a challenge to taboos, so long as they are present, literature remains unable to offer anything important.
Is there a creative dimension to taboos, something that moves people to find different means of expression?
Yes, that’s very
true. It makes you try to find a way to get around them and invent something
new. That’s true. We even see in history that during periods of dictatorship,
such as under the Nazis and the like, there was good creative production
because people looked for ways to overcome the obstacles. Yet, from another
perspective, my own personal feeling is that things should be called what they
are. This is the issue with taboos.
For example, you can describe sexual intercourse in all sorts of ways and play with words and feel like you’ve sidestepped the taboo through symbolism and generalizations. That’s fine but there is something more powerful and more beautiful than that - a precise and direct portrayal of intercourse. I’m not talking about pornography, of course not; I’m talking about a precise description of the act. This is very useful, very rich; it cannot be dispensed with.
How do you understand the relationship between memory and writing and the effect of writing on memory?
There is a change that begins subconsciously when you try to remember something. We write from memory all the time, however. If I am describing an individual, I use my memory and the person’s appearance may have changed in my memory. When you try to remember things, sometimes they become mixed with other things and on the other hand, sometimes subconsciously you correct the old image according to your current state and view of things.
Do you feel there is a broader, national memory that is contested? Is there a simplified notion of history that is being mobilized in the current context for specific political interests, to understand what has happened this year? What is the writer’s role in this process?
Yes, there are
the memories of childhood. In your childhood you see things, first of all, and
then you hear stories from your father or your mother or from other people or
friends, stories from history or about what happened to your grandfather or
what happened to the king. Then you study history, from beginning to end. All
of this forms society’s memory. Then there are certain elements, religion, for
example, which from childhood put made-up stories and myths into your head. All
of these form your consciousness.
But this is the case with any individual, not just writers; any person in the street demonstrating takes a position based on a number of things, partly because of the accumulation of history, partly because of ideals, partly because of their own needs. I don’t give the writer a special position; a writer is a person. In the past, the writer was a peculiar figure but today the writer is a person like any other, with a profession like any other; no magic, just a job, and the novel is but one of the elements that plays a role in a larger process.
Do you feel there is a reading public for novels in Egypt?
The novel has always had a popular reception in Egypt. When I was a child I was crazy about a series that came out every week called Riwayat al-Daab. They were translated from English and French and mostly abridged. I read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, often translated from French. There was also light literature like Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Arsène Lupin, as well as historical romance novels. There was surprising popular reception for these things. This is still present today and in the last forty years the Egyptian novel has been added to this.
Do you feel there have been stages of development in your writing and your technique, as your ability to reach the reader has improved? What were these stages and was the development consciously intended? How deliberate do you feel that development has been? Is this a strange question?
No, it’s a good
question, but I have to think about the answer. From the beginning I had
imagined the process of writing to work like this . . . It’s a difficult
Look. There was a book, the second one I wrote. It’s called Nijmat Aghustus (The August Star), about the high dam, and for this novel I formulated a plan. I wanted to write about the high dam, in Aswan. I went there and stayed for three months during its construction. Every day I met people and went places. My idea was that I was in this place and everything that happened there, all of it, will be the novel. For example, what I heard on the radio – songs, news – what I read in the paper, what happened to me during the day, the people I met and talked to, how the work developed, the kinds of tools that were used, the kinds of processes used to complete the construction, for which there was a certain rhythm of digging followed by a series of actions. Then there were all the things from the past that these things brought back to my mind and the dreams I had at night. I wanted to make the novel out of all of this and I think this approach has stayed with me until now, with some changes in the precision of observation, understanding the psychology of people, changes in awareness and in technical ability, such as how to describe an object or an event- I got better at this with time. But my point of departure is still what I hear and see and what I remember and think; that’s what is fundamental.
What is the role of dialect in your writing? When do you use it?
I use it
sometimes. It depends – sometimes yes and sometimes no. In Al-Lajna (The
Committee), for example, there is not a single word of colloquial Arabic in the
dialogue because the novel itself permits that, whereas in Zaat some of the
expressions are in dialect. It depends on the circumstances, meaning that I
don’t have a fixed rule. The basic rule is that I write in standard Arabic, in
a simplified form because, well, because I like to write like that, and because
it is understood from the Maghreb to Iraq.
By the way, I have a novel entitled Beirut, Beirut, which is being translated right now for publication with Bloomsbury. While I was writing it, I felt the need to really feel that there was some colloquial Lebanese in the language. You know, how the Lebanese in the street will say “walak!” or something. There is a beauty in that, which I wanted to capture.
How did you go about finding colloquial Lebanese? How did you research the novel?
I lived there for months, a short while before the  Israeli invasion. There was a truce and I met with people and recorded everything I could.
How do you see yourself, as an Egyptian writer in the greater Arab world, in relation to countries like Lebanon, with its own experience beyond dictatorship, or to Morocco and Moroccans, who often feel themselves marginalized by Mashriqis? How do you see your relationship with readers in such places outside Egypt?
I understand that there is an organic unity between the cultural elements of the region. The thing that was most crucial for me was my first visit to Morocco in 1979. I was truly surprised because I had this old image of Morocco as a place where Francophone culture was predominant and I was shocked when I walked through the alleyways of Fez and I saw that Egyptian songs and books were present and had a following. Then, I went to Marrakesh and was surprised to find people there who had published a special edition of my first novel, Tilka al-Ra’iha (That Smell). This was a strange surprise for me and it gave me a deeper sense of Arab nationalism and a deeper appreciation of the Arabic language. Now when I write, I keep those people in mind, not only people in Egypt, but throughout the whole region.
What did you learn about writing from your early work in journalism?
I learned a lot, for sure, because there is a relationship between writing fiction and journalism in its many different forms. Journalism is a collection of professions within a larger field. You can be a reporter, for example, where the emphasis is on capturing the details of an event, on precision and is an attempt to understand the situation and people’s psychological make-up. How did the accident happen? What were people wearing? Then there is re-writing and deskwork. You find the appropriate form in which to present a particular event or opinion, using the simplest and most precise wording. This is one of the things that is most critical for me, getting rid of what I like to call “verbal accumulation” or “verbal traps”. For example, there is a novel, by a friend of mine and its first sentence is: “This time, baptized in blood.” These words are empty. What is baptized in blood? All times are baptized in blood. There is no such distinction. And then there is nothing called time. Time is time. Did we pour blood on it? It’s a metaphorical expression, maybe poetic but it is not a true expression of the kind I prefer – it’s not realistic. I don’t like all these similes and verbal games; we don’t need them. They are nonsense, so we say. I always refer to an anecdote about Chekhov. He was visiting a school and asked the students to describe the colour of sugar. One student said it was the colour of clouds and another continued in the same vein. Chekhov responded saying that all this was strange talk; the colour of sugar is white. That is a true and precise description and it is aesthetic at the same time because “white” is a beautiful word which resonates in the memory and is clearly perceived. This is the kind of simplicity of expression which can be superior to any word game.
Twentieth-century Anglophone poetry likewise avoids abstraction but it is true that Arabic poetry has a long history . . .
Yes, and this is because of taboos. In the past, the poet transformed feelings and thought into obscure phrases in order to escape being questioned. He couldn’t speak directly about sex or about the dictator or the king, or about religion, so he resorted to other devices. Today, gradually, it has become possible to speak frankly and as a consequence, in my opinion, the position of poetry is undermined. Poetry gradually loses its strength because it becomes possible to express things directly and honestly in a way that poetry did indirectly.
How do you understand colloquial poetry and its popularity?
Of course, whenever poetry gets rid of its obscurity and verbal opacity, it becomes closer to people and has a bigger role to play.
How would you describe the process of writing a novel and how long it takes?
In the beginning, it took a long time because I wasn’t completely free to work. I was obliged to work other jobs for money so the novel Nijmat Aghustus took seven years. Zaat took seven years because I was doing other jobs and because the process was in a way incomplete. Now, a novel can take maybe a year because I am almost completely free to work on it full-time and because many of the technical problems have been solved.
I have always been amazed by how a generation, or generations really, of creative individuals have “graduated” from the jails of Arab dictators. Books, often banned books, played a great role. You started writing after prison?
No, in prison. Art, literature, and writing are an act of rejection and resistance so it is very natural that such acts land people in prison. In my personal experience, I spent five and a half years in prison, two years during which access to books, pen, and paper was absolutely forbidden. The following three years, they put us in the deepest south, in the region of the oases, a desert region close to the border with Sudan. There were no books there, of course but after a short while, we were able to put together a significant library underground, a secret library. We got hold of books through a number of means, and our friends helped us. I used to read Le Figaro in the desert. It arrived from France, secretly, to people who would then send it on to us, so we were in contact with the world, through new books and through thought. There was another nice dimension to this, which was that there was no control on the kinds of books we got. Our friends would get us a quantity of books from a popular area and there would be books on magic, religion, physiology, etc . . . They were a great source of culture for us.
Was there something that attracted you to cinema that you were later able to incorporate into fiction?
In the sixties there were very active art, literary and cinema movements and this had a great influence on me. There were movies that affected me a lot, such as Kazan’s film on Zapata and the films of Lelouche and the French New Wave. The new kinds of expression in art, cinema, theatre, sculpture: all of those were tremendously influential for us. For me personally, there was The Times Literary Supplement, for example, which was important and there were always new things coming out, such as spontaneous writing – how someone could sit in a coffee shop, take the newspaper and write what they saw in front of them, read and poke a hole through the paper and then use what was visible through the hole. There was this kind of immediacy to the creative process and the search for new forms.
Who would you cite as your major literary influences?
I think Ernest Hemingway was influential for me, for the simplicity of his sentences and his precision. There was also an Egyptian novelist named Yahya Haqqi who cultivated what he called scientific writing- a sentence had to be precise and the information correct and simple. You know, that sort of direction. Then, every adventurous literary experiment, especially experiments in form and technique, which broke with convention, had an influence on me. There are dozens of things that are hard to remember.
Do you feel you succeeded, in any particular novel, in achieving what you were aiming for? Are you prouder of any specific work than the others? Or would you prefer not to say?
That is a very difficult question to answer because it is not possible to say . . . I mean, I always feel that I could have written that particular novel in a better way so I try to do so in the following novel, which means that it is a never-ending process, never-ending.
Published in Banipal 43 – Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies