The smell of dissent
Sonallah Ibrahim's elaborately staged refusal of an award presented at the second Novelists Conference overshadowed the appearance of his latest novel, Amrikanli. Ibrahim speaks to Youssef Rakha about fiction, politics and what it means to be an Arab writer
"I never intended to be a writer -- I wanted to become a political activist. Literate adolescents invariably resort to pen and paper to express their feelings, their surprise at the things they're discovering in life. And I was like that too, but before too long I said, Khalas, and rubbed out this period.
"In the autumn of 1952 I enrolled at the Faculty of Law. I spent three or four years there -- until I reached the second year. I failed repeatedly because I paid no attention to my studies. I was busy doing political work -- my life's mission -- and I never graduated. I went to jail in 1959, in the Communist Party trial. And by the time I came out the idea of becoming a writer had taken a hold on me. I felt you didn't need academic sanction for that. My charge was conspiring to overthrow the regime, and I was sentenced to seven years but exonerated and released, along with many others, after five and a half years.
"Prison at the age of 21 or 22 was a cruel but rich experience, and it was directly after my release -- when Tilka Al-Ra'iha was written -- that I began to feel the need to tell. Once again I resolved that certain things must be communicated and expressed.
"Maybe it was isolation within the prison precincts, which is imposed on you as part of the torture. To ease the passing of time you automatically exercise your imagination. Day dreams. Fantasies. Plus what you're seeing all around you: people's stories and how they lived outside, their methods of adjusting to prison life. And then there were instances of heroism or cowardice, of people standing up to persecution and people dying of torture -- representative, telling instances that I wanted to capture in some form. At the time I would write a new novel every day -- in my head.
"Afterwards I worked in Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida for a year, then as a correspondent at the Middle East News Agency for another year. Finally I joined another news agency in Germany. After three years I received a grant to study cinema in the former Soviet Union.
"In 1975, back in Cairo, I married and decided to be a full-time writer. It was a conscious decision, and it took a long time to make. For one thing I had to get past my first novel, which wasn't easy.
"There is such a thing as the second-work crisis, when you've made a strong debut and you don't know how to live up to it. People invariably expect something stronger. Maybe this explains the shift of focus after Tilka Al-Ra'iha (The Smell of It). In 1967 I actually completed another novel, written in the same vein. It was never published. I was on my way to Germany and didn't have time to look for a publisher. When I looked at it again I didn't feel it was the kind of thing with which to present myself to the reader, having made an initial impression. Then I had a topic, the High Dam, which preoccupied me completely from 1967, even before 1967, I think, until 1970. And it so happened that Najmat Aghustus (August Star), the book that came out of this experience, was a different order of writing, a kind of panoramic articulation -- contemplation that adopted a more accurate approach to the choice of expressions and opinions -- an expansive precision, if you like.
"From then on I've practiced a different kind of writing. But maybe the difference isn't as huge as you think. The tendency to incorporate extraneous texts, word for word, into the body of the work -- the way you see it in Beirut Beirut and Zaat, for example -- started in Tilka Al- Ra'iha with the inclusion of a real-life letter a fellow inmate had written to his wife. He wrote it in English, I translated it and inserted it into the text as is was -- which is exactly what I did with newspaper extracts in Zaat. So this concept, along with many other aspects of my later work, was never entirely alien to my methods.
"It is a form of contextualisation, not -- as some describe it -- documentation. Documentation would imply backing up certain truths or ideas with evidence, facts that can be checked and verified. The kind of contextualisation that I practice does not serve that purpose. There are no proper references, for example. The insertions merely act to surround the text with a relevant discourse, and there are no factual arguments as such. This is why I prefer the term contextualisation to documentation.
"Which brings us to the all-embracing point about writing with a political orientation. It is not impossible to think of Tilka Al-Ra'iha as a more personal, less engaged kind of writing, even though this book too emerged out of a political experience. But the truth is that every subsequent book I've written, Amrikanli included, was initially driven by a personal experience.
"The problem with Arabic literature in general is that it is thoroughly bound up with politics because politics is ever-present in Arab lives. Not only have we had a ceaseless series of occupations, aggressions, revolutions, the political malaise pops up in every aspect of the day. Even as an ordinary citizen, not a writer, it is impossible to ignore politics: it arrives first thing in the morning when I wake up, and it never leaves until I go to sleep at night; even my dreams are full of politics. You switch on the television and you watch news of the war in Iraq, or the situation in Palestine. Or else you see the bleak faces of high- ranking officials telling lies.
"Part of the drive behind Amrikanli was this sense of wonder: how, why did Arabs reach their present state? Because writing involves the attempt to bring together every aspect of reality, and Arab reality necessarily involves a complex relation with political power. Had one lived in a country like France, or Sweden, where the rules are more or less agreed on and there is freedom of expression and no threats, one might have carved a path into writing through social or psychological fantasy -- science fiction, for example -- or pure abstraction. As it is these options are not available to me, or to any other contemporary Arab writing. There is no choice.
"Which is not to say that transforming reality is the purpose of literature. Even if, under certain circumstances, literature can perform a role in inciting people, more often it simply entertains the spirit and enlightens the ego, providing references so that, when you read about a love affair, for example, you have an idea of love and a retinue of amourous responses at the back of your mind.
"By the mid-1970s I had it more or less worked out: the only way to live with vitality and intelligence is to express yourself through art, and writing was the only art I had access to. In time experiences would almost automatically transform themselves into images and topics for research and creativity. At the height of my activism -- and I was convinced that activism could bring about change -- I had imagined that literature was a waste of time, an affectation. Ironically it was in prison, under the worst possible circumstances, that I realised the compulsion to write. And there was no affectation about it at all; as I think Tilka Al-Ra'iha testifies, it was all very immediate and real.
"After my term of imprisonment I never engaged in political activism again, not because I no longer believe in it but simply because I happen to think that you can't do two things at the same time. So for the past 30 years I have been a full-time writer. When I married my wife part of our agreement was that I would be a full-time writer and that we would solve our financial problems with each other's help. And in fact we haven't had serious financial problems. I've written children's books and published translations. I also wrote a film script once.
"As a young man I had dreamed of becoming a journalist, and more recently I was offered a position editing the culture pages of a newspaper but I refused. I felt that to do it well I wouldn't be able to write. Writing is a daily routine. The actual writing occupies maybe two hours out of 24 hours full of all that surrounds writing, thinking, researching topics and simply observing society.
"The trigger-off point is always a sharp personal experience, then I begin to contemplate the background of the experience in question, my place in it and everything that surrounds it. Sometimes this requires a thorough inquiry into certain issues. When I was researching Beirut Beirut, for example, I had to undertake a serious study of the intricacies of the Lebanese civil war; there was no way of understanding such a complex and many-sided event otherwise. With Amrikanli the personal experience was my interaction with American society on the inside, plus the question that always comes up when I'm out of the country and I see order where chaos reigns here, or civilisation where we are backward: what makes us the way we are? Why can't we be that other way?
"It was written following my term teaching literature at the University of California at Berkeley. And I made the protagonist a history professor rather than a writer because I wanted the text to be a kind of answer, proposed on the occasion of my close encounter with America, to the overriding question mentioned before, which has to be on every Egyptian's mind: how did we reach our present state? Why do we accept humiliation and oppression? So I set out to study the Egyptian character through the ages in an attempt to locate the moment at which that character was broken.
"There are real-life details but the characters aren't real. Rather, they are convenient conglomerates of the types one encountered there. You don't write out of nothing, inevitably you will draw on types you have encountered to create characters and on your own experience to describe feelings. Whether you like it or not a piece of yourself is firmly lodged in the work. But though my books benefit a lot from my private experience they should not be read as autobiography. Any literary text is a lie; hence the idea of fiction. I too lie, I lie in favour of the text.
"Amrikanli appeared a month or two before the Novelists Conference, and if there is harmony between the content of the novel and my performance at the awards' ceremony then that can only be a good thing. Wael Abdel-Fattah has written that it was as if I applied what I had written in the novel to a real-life situation. The truth is that the award has done the novel more harm than good because the attention has shifted wholly to the award and away from the novel.
"I have rejected awards on many occasions because I felt they went against my ideas and my position. For example I refused an invitation to visit the US in the 1980s because the American ambassador had insulted the president and I felt this was a humiliation. Privately I informed those responsible for the Naguib Mahfouz Award that I wouldn't accept it the year they planned on giving it to me. So it's not as if this is the first honour I have rejected.
"When I was informed that I was selected to receive the award, I felt two things. First, that it was inappropriate to be joining in a festive Arab procession at a time when Palestinians were being massacred en masse and the Egyptian individual so horrifically dispossessed. Second, that there might be an attempt to undermine my credibility, knowing that I had, along with other writers who signed the same statements, refused to participate in a novelists' conference in Morocco and objected to the Higher Council for Culture's conference on renewing religious discourse, which smacked too much of Washington's decrees in the wake of the war on Iraq. I had no hesitation about refusing the award, but I didn't sleep for three days thinking, and discussing with my wife, the best way to make my refusal public; and then drafting and redrafting the speech to make it as accurate and precise as I could. If that same speech had been issued as a statement they might have denied that I was offered the award in the first place. And people might not believe me. I had to go, to make the best of the opportunity to declare my position.
"I was expecting those present to respond to me with cold resentment, so it was somewhat surprising to be met, all of a sudden, with such joyful gratitude -- hugs and tears, people kissing my hand and climbing over my shoulders. Since then I haven't been able to sleep with the phone ringing almost continuously with calls not only from Egypt but from every corner of the Arab world and beyond, people telling me that my position has resuscitated cultural and political life.
"So for now I haven't been able to work on my next book, which I started researching almost as soon as Amrikanli was finished. I never talk about a book until it has appeared. Amrikanli took about two and a half years to write, which is very good for me, considering that I almost invariably have minor engagements. I spent seven months in America in 1998, and from day one steadfastly took notes of my impressions and read the newspapers with the vague idea that I was collecting material for a novel. The idea took shape gradually, but I had to abandon it completely in 1999 and 2000 to finish off Warda, the novel I had begun earlier. Amrikanli was finished in July 2003, just in time for the Novelists Conference. Considering the response it generated, though, I think the performance was worth delaying my next book for a few weeks."