Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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The value of freedom

Sonallah Ibrahim's refusal to accept a LE100,000 award from the Higher Council for Culture in recognition of his contribution to Arabic literature was greeted with massive applause, writes Samia Mehrez*

The Egyptian Opera House, Small Hall, Wednesday, 22 October, 7pm. This is the closing ceremony of the second International Conference on the Arab Novel. By way of hurried tribute this year's conference was dedicated to the late Edward Said.

Tonight Egypt will honour one of the Arab World's most distinguished novelists. The winner will walk away with LE100,000, awarded by the Higher Council for Culture, under the auspices of the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. The auditorium is packed with Egyptian, Arab and international guests, all awaiting the outcome of the panel's deliberations.

The president of the panel of judges, celebrated Sudanese writer Tayyeb Salih, reads the report. He enumerates the winner's distinguishing features within the literary field: he is an ascetic, both on the material and creative levels, he has lived his life outside state institutions, a guardian of "the sacred temple of Art", he has dedicated his life to writing, a champion of justice and truth. A wave of whispers in the auditorium: "Sonallah... Sonallah." Finally, Saleh announces the name of the winner. It is indeed Sonallah Ibrahim, well known for his unique position within the Arab cultural field, his determined and constant distance from the state apparatus, an exceptional and much envied position within the field itself.

Sonallah makes his way to the podium amidst rising applause. We await his speech and marvel at the blatant contradiction. Another wave of whispers in the auditorium: How can he accept this award? Didn't he refuse many others? Didn't he just boycott a conference in Morocco to protest an Israeli minister's visit there?

He begins his speech with familiar satiric humour, distancing himself from official language and official discourse.

"I am incapable of competing with Dr Gaber's [Gaber Asfour, Secretary General of the Higher Council for Culture] improvisational skills."

Applause and laughter.

He tells us that he has therefore written a few words that express his own feelings. As I listen I find myself remembering the nameless protagonist in Sonallah's novel Al- Lajna (The Committee): in the text the protagonist does not speak the same "language" as the committee before which he is summoned. Yet he still has to make himself heard and understood in front of the head of the committee who is practically blind and half-deaf.

With customary modesty Sonallah proceeds to read an inventory of literary comrades all "more deserving" of this award: an impressive list of Arab writers, deceased and alive, men and women, young and old, writing in Arabic and in English, with whom he shares a committed literary project. He salutes the distinguished panel of judges and singles out Mahmoud Amin El-Alem from among them: his mentor and companion in prison (1959-1964) who taught him "true national values". He reads his own selection by the panel as a tribute to "serious and dedicated work" that will always find recognition without the need for "public relations" or "compromised principles" or "buttering up to official institutions" from which he (citing himself as an example) has diligently sought distance.

More whispers in the auditorium. Sonallah has just struck a sensitive chord: the dependence of the cultural field on the political one. In the Arab world cultural figures are predominantly civil servants of the state, hence its protégés, so long as they are intelligent enough to respect the unpredictable boundaries of the political game. Such is the dominant model to which Sonallah is an exemplary exception. It is precisely his distance from this dominant model that has allowed him to assume his "responsibility" as an Arab writer whose creative work is engaged, indeed saturated with, "contemporary individual and national issues".

At the podium Sonallah continues with a eulogy of the Arab world that "once upon a time was Arab". Initially, his tone is contained, his voice sad. Gradually it rises: loud, powerful, angry and passionate. It resonates in the auditorium and unites with feverish, incessant applause from some of the members of the jury themselves to the younger generation of writers who had, on various occasions, including this conference, declared a "rupture" with the elders and their worn out "grand cause":

At this very moment Israeli forces continue to occupy what remains of Palestinian land (...) executing, with concise precision and method, a genocide against the Palestinian people (...) But the Arab capitals continue to receive Israeli leaders with open arms ...

As I listen I am reminded of the epigraph to Tilka l-Ra'iha (The Smell of It), Sonallah's very first pseudo- autobiographical novel that was published in 1966 upon his release from five years in political detention and that was subsequently banned. The epigraph was taken from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

This race and this country and this life have produced me... and I shall express myself as I am.

In 1986, 20 years after the initial publication of Tilka l- Ra'iha and its subsequent and repeated banning, Sonallah wrote an introduction to the first complete and uncensored edition in which he highlighted some of the issues that haunted him in writing this critical narrative:

The Arab community, with Egypt in the lead, was engaged in a fierce confrontation with American imperialism and its stepdaughter Zionism, not to mention the emergence of Arab nationalism. Naturally I was plagued by the question of whether, under those circumstances, I was harming my country with this work.

Indeed, Sonallah's unresolved dilemma as articulated above attests to his acute awareness of the constraining relationship between the cultural and the political, and his early attempts to come to terms with the position of the intellectual vis-à-vis power. Not only do these issues "plague" him at a theoretical level but they equally haunt him throughout all his fiction. Sonallah's protagonists are actors of his own drama: they are all writers/citizens whose works/deeds never see the light of day because they refuse to produce/comply with what is "acceptable" and therefore compromising. In Tilka l-Ra'iha (1966) the narrator, alienated by the bourgeois literary aesthetics of the time, gives up writing and contents himself with masturbation. In Nijmat Aghustus (1974) the fate of the young journalist's revealing report on the High Dam remains unknown. In Al- Lajna (1981) the protagonist sits at his desk and literally eats away at his own body, in accordance with the verdict passed upon him by the members of the committee who confiscated his study. In Bayrut Bayrut (1984) the Egyptian writer in the text leaves war-torn Beirut and returns to Egypt with his manuscript unpublished. In Dhat (1992) Sonallah's only female protagonist locks herself up in her bathroom and cries after all her attempts at protest are defeated. In Sharaf (1998) Dr Ramzi is placed in solitary confinement inside the prison where he spends the remaining pages of the novel yelling unheeded and unheard proclamations to his fellow prisoners, inciting them to rebel against the prison authorities, to no avail. In Warda (2000) the Egyptian protagonist is forced to leave Oman after he has unearthed documents about Warda, the Omani woman with whom he was in love as a young man and who died during the thwarted Omani armed rebellion of the 1960s. And finally Amrikanli (2003) ends with the exiled Egyptian history professor's failed attempt at love making with his American student in San Francisco.

This gallery of fictional portraits, with compromised destinies directly related to their desperate attempts at the production of an alternative knowledge parades before me as Sonallah proceeds to denounce, in public, not in fiction, Egypt's normalisation with Israel, the American occupation of Iraq, the impotence of our foreign policy, the widespread corruption and the absence of human rights. I listen and think to myself: here he is, fulfiling the dream expressed in the epigraph of his very first, banned novel: "I shall express myself as I am." And naturally, he turns his critical attention to parallel failings in the cultural field:

We have no theatre, no cinema, no research, no education. We only have festivals and conferences and a trunkful of lies.

The auditorium goes wild. People applaud him and nod their heads in agreement with this unprecedented confrontational speech. More whispers from the crowd: Courageous words, but they remain just words...

Suddenly, Sonallah dumbfounds his audience and transforms the words into action:

I publicly decline the prize because it is awarded by a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility of bestowing it.

He descends from the podium amidst cheers of support, tears of joy and deafening applause. He begins to leave the auditorium accompanied by his wife. The younger literati, at the back of the auditorium are the first to prance upon him. They block his exit. They shower him with kisses and envelop him with embraces. "You have given us hope," they say to this small and seemingly fragile man of monumental stature. This is the real tribute to Edward Said from Sonallah Ibrahim, an intellectual who thoroughly understands the price and value of freedom.

* The writer teaches Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo.

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