Sonalla Ibrahim: Imagining stasis
Sonalla Ibrahim made a name for himself in the mid-1960s with the publication of Tilka Al-Raaiha (The Smell of It), a slim volume detailing a kind of existential anti-hero's daily life in the weeks following his release from political detention, which drew heavily on Ibrahim's own experience as a young activist who had to forgo a university education for his participation in political activities. It was while in prison that he discovered his urge to write -- as opposed to pursuing "political work" as such. It was the one thing that could keep him in touch, sustaining a sense of self and a commitment to the ideals of equity and justice. Ibrahim documented the building of the High Dam in Najmat Aghustus (August Star), and has written many novels since, producing plays and science fiction for children as well. In 2004, at more or less the same time as the release of his novel about America, Amrikanli, he spectacularly rejected the Supreme Council of Culture's Novel Conference Award. He had produced only a memoir of his days in the Wahat detention camp when a novel, Al-Talasus (the word could be translated as "Voyeurism" or "Spying") appeared this winter.
The journey to Sonalla Ibrahim's flat in Heliopolis was a nerve-racking experience, what with the crowds, the insane traffic, my being an hour late and not knowing the way, an amused Palestinian photographer occupying the passenger seat next to me and several other factors as well. There was the search for a parking spot, the seven-story climb up the stairs, and then explanations. But Ibrahim took it all in his stride, only noting how agitated I was towards the end; the last time he had seen me had been more than a year ago, and he remembered that I was thinner then, but only after our business was done, as it were, did he engage in small talk... With his tiny frame and shock of silver hair, he was typically efficient and to the point, disappearing in the small kitchen to make coffee before sitting down to make conversation, and taking the photographer's acrobatics much better than I thought he would. The subject was not so much his life as his latest book -- just out, in time for the ongoing book fair? -- and he more or less categorically refused to comment on the latter event, which he said he was going to reluctantly for the first time in decades for a signing, "because going there causes me a whole load of psychological trouble". Al-Talasus being what it is, however, Ibrahim did review aspects of his life journey in the process of shedding light on its composition -- noting, most interestingly, that, while researching the book, which is set all the way back in 1948 and told, brilliantly, from the viewpoint of a small boy, he had realised not only that "public archives in Egypt are a tragedy" but also that "the situation now is exactly as it was then, as if it's the same year -- the Palestinian question, military law, corruption, war mongering -- all the problems persist."
On the cover (designed, gratis, by the inimitable Mohieddin El-Labbad) is a black-and-white picture of a squat, imposing man in a fez, seated, and a small boy standing by his knees -- tinted to make the child's outfit green (the photographer botched it, colouring part of the father's hand along with the clothing). The picture is interesting in that, while it is a clear instance of the studio-produced family portrait, it doesn't include a woman. And Ibrahim was quick to point out that the book is in some sense an exploration of inter-male relations, or rather a study in the absence of woman. "While working I asked myself why this was important, other than the fact that it contained some things of a personal interest to me. And the answer is that it's about the need for woman -- as mother, as wife." Is that picture of himself and his father? Is the book, in which a child and father very like the ones pictured live together after the mother is confined to an insane asylum, a thinly veiled autobiography? Ibrahim would answer no such questions, alternating elusiveness with denial. The one fact he affirmed was the effort he made to maintain a childlike tone -- the success of which is one of the book's main feats -- and that, when all is said and done, he was writing a novel, not an autobiography. "Autobiography can take many forms," he elaborated, "but in the end it remains limited by the purpose of writing, which is to tell the writer's life. In a novel it's a different story altogether. When you write a novel, you intervene in certain details, you formulate events in a certain way so as to create a plot, if you're going to have a plot; you enter into the whole fictional process."
In retrospect this sounds like a laboured argument: the fictional process, after all, will arguably underline any writing, including autobiography. As is the case with Tilka Al-Raaiha -- and Ibrahim concedes that some notion of a return to that book lay beneath the drive to complete Al-Talasus -- in his work the process of imagining, while always structured and purposeful, has been consistently subordinated to (historical) reality. Often he has started from a specific -- sometimes topical -- premise, using the fictional process to substantiate it. Judging quantitatively, Ibrahim's principal interest would seem to be society in historical progress -- or rather regress. He documents. Every book he has written has prompted a research project parallel to, if not within, the creative process. In Zaat, for example, narrative chapters are alternated with compilations of newspaper material, to place the female protagonist's life in a very specific socio-historical context. Only Tilka Al-Raaiha -- arguably Ibrahim's most powerful work -- broke free of the documentary mould, subsequently adopted. For the first time since, in the present book -- with the child narrator sharing what he has spied on, usually women, and in so doing illuminating, principally, the character of his father and their peculiar relationship -- that mould is abandoned altogether. Should this imply a deliberate departure from a particular mode of writing? Does it constitute a level of nostalgia? And how conscious of it is Ibrahim?
Here too there was research, he insists, conceived rather as "a light tune in the background"; the drive to write about the character of the father -- his father? yes, and no -- had dogged Ibrahim virtually throughout his life. The first attempts at dealing with this character, he reveals, he undertook while in prison. They were somewhat sentimental, and reusing them here he had to rewrite them more or less completely. He was only 20 or so when they were first composed, and they were abandoned. But the idea remained with him, and he returned to it in the early 1970s, when he wrote again about the father -- only to abandon it again. So it was inevitable that he would sit down and complete it one day. "My feeling is that I couldn't understand this man until I had reached his age." In Al-Lajna (The Committee), Ibrahim comments, the documentation is more organic than it is in Zaat, though still very pronounced. Al-Talasus does not so much give up as modify the urge to document, in favour of something more intimate. To the essential paradox of the novel -- that while told very convincingly from the viewpoint of a child, it conveys a mature man's vision -- Ibrahim responds with reticence. It is still the viewpoint of a child at the age of six to eight, he says: that it conveys something more complex is rather a function of the way the novel as a whole is structured. Children are very observant, he says; we are not always as aware of this as we might be. And complexity is implied, not stated.
"It is possible," Ibrahim says in his slightly nasal voice. "It is possible that I felt I was too loquacious in the last period, that in Amrikanli, for instance, there were too many details; my view is they were necessary, but the point is that they might be too much for the reader. The thing is -- the subject itself, which had been on my mind for a long time, is different. It doesn't have any kind of exhortation; I am not informing anyone of anything about reality or any such thing. I am rather telling a simple and intimate story about the relationship between a little boy and a very much older father; it had to be told in a correspondingly simple and intimate way. It could not have been constructed from newspapers, for example; if it had been, the subject itself would have changed entirely. In Zaat the subject was Zaat on the one hand, and the reality surrounding her on the other; each of these two elements had just as much emphasis. Here the surrounding reality of 1948, as I was telling you, is a simple background tune -- not essential to the subject." Why was research necessary, then? "To give the story credibility, not only historical but human. The temporal setting has to be convincing in this way. A lot of it I could simply remember, you're right: the tramway and the details of the neighbourhood, but memory in itself is not dependable. I might remember something but not remember when exactly it happened or in what context. I wanted to know what films were being screened, what people at the coffee house were talking about, whether there were demonstrations at the school..."
Echoes of reality in Ibrahim's fiction bring up an interesting series of questions. Ibrahim tells stories of his family ostracising him for revealing details of their private lives in a fictional context -- failing to distinguish between autobiography and fiction. On reading Al-Talasus, he recounts, his sister phoned him to complain about a particular image in which the figure of the father takes off his clothes and begins to hunt for bugs in his underwear -- something that was very common, he says, at a time when there was no hot water in houses and most people, dressed in woollen clothes, could spend up to a fortnight without a shower -- the main point being that, "it is NOT our father." He tells the story of a writer who excluded a certain -- powerful -- detail from one of his books because, as he confessed to Ibrahim, he could not confront the thought of his children reading it. The novel was completed in November, and Ibrahim started working on something else immediately afterwards -- he will not reveal what that is -- "as a way of saving myself, because usually when I've finished I fall ill". Now he has "forgotten it completely". Was it rewarding, however? How rewarding is writing in general? What could be its ultimate reward, as opposed to political transformation, which would've been the reward of activism?
"I don't expect anything in return for completing the book, in the sense that I've done it and that's over. I was telling you I completely forgot it -- people actually remind me of some of its details. It's over. But all the time while I was writing it I was living, I was alive. Thinking, trying things out, writing and rewriting; some passages, especially those printed in bold, were rewritten dozens of times. At the end when you're done, there is a moment of fulfilment. When I am idle I tend to be miserable, but while I'm busy writing I feel alive -- that there is some kind of justification for my existence. Because life is depressing, as you can see it is horrible. The only thing that helps you endure it -- otherwise you could kill yourself -- is writing. It is a personal necessity. Because I do not gamble, I drink but I'm not a drunk, I don't smoke drugs. Several years ago, maybe, I would still have had it in me to go chasing after a woman. Now the thought of going down those seven flights of stairs is enough to put me off. I don't enjoy socialising, I don't enjoy food. There is nothing in life that I enjoy that much, so much so that writing is the only refuge."
photo: Raoof Hajj Yehya