Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

An eccentric’s tale

The celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim tells Rania Khallaf about his newly published novel

Nasser’s step-down speech

Though newly printed by Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida with introductions by Mohamed Shoair and Mohamed Badawi, 67 is actually only Sonallah Ibrahim’s second novel, written in 1968, not only after the seminal The Smell of It (1966) but also right after the June 1967 defeat. Due to censorship in the time of Nasser, the book was not published when it was written. It had remained in a special drawer of the author’s house until it resurfaced recently. Many critics have associated it with the better known novella, seeing it as a somewhat longer complementary volume.

“I don’t agree,” Ibrahim objects where we meet at his publisher’s downtown office. “They are not complementary. They have two things in common: The historical period, and the psychological mood. In fact, the structure of 67 is more advanced technically. I wrote 67 in Beirut, where I stayed for three months waiting for the completion of procedures allowing me to fly to Berlin. When I left Cairo, I took all my belongings with me, including some significant books, as if I would never go back to my country again.”


Portrait of Ibrahim by Mustafa Selim

Born in 1937, Ibrahim had been imprisoned for seven years for Marxist beliefs when he started writing The Smell of It, practically disappearing in 1957 when he was not yet 20 and not emerging again until 1964. He is one of the most prolific and the most fiercely independent Arab writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a life-long dissident who has been at variance with Egypt’s successive regimes since he emerged on the scene. In 2003, he publicly turned down the Ministry of Culture’s prestigious State Prize (worth LE 100 thousand) in protest of government policies on, among other issues, freedom of speech. He managed to trick the relevant parties into thinking he had accepted the award, but instead gave a moving and damning speech up at the Supreme Council of Culture. He is 80 this year, but his face maintains the energy and sharpness of the dissident.

Divided into 12 chapters, with each standing for a month of the year, in sequence, 67 lies somewhere between a journal and an autobiography – fictionalised. Like The Smell of It, it has no plot. It describes the daily activities of an eccentric journalist and creative writer in his mid-thirties, who is so sexually obsessed he makes love to his sister-in-law, feeling no shame or guilt. “I believe it is a kind of autobiographical novel, personally,” Ibrahim says. “But it is a novel in the end, which means that much of what happens in it is imaginary, made up to help structure a novel. It is true that the book narrates some events that really happened in my life. But in general, I like to use the first person voice; it’s like reincarnating.” Being someone who grew up with the shame of 1967, the year of my birth, while having in no way contributed to precipitating it – myself – I found the novel a depressing read.


Ibrahim

The book opens with a New Year’s Eve party at the house of the nameless hero’s brother, where the hero lives. An overwhelming number of names do not begin to sort themselves out in the reader’s mind until the second chapter. The action unfolds in a limited number of places: The brother’s house in Heliopolis, the apartment of the hero’s friend Ramzi, the newspaper’s Downtown office and the buses that transport the hero from Downtown to Heliopolis and vice versa. Description is limited, but Ibrahim gives a full account of the man’s daily routine: The traffic, the people, the owner of a tobacco kiosk “whose face always bears the expression of someone about to burst into tears”. The hero’s intimate details – washing, breakfasting, sex with his sister-in-law, sometimes while his brother is asleep – soon begin to feel repetitive, though his keen sense of irony and quirky humour make up for it. One of a very few things that can be seen as symbols is the shower head that, heaving fell on and hurt his toe once, leaves him wary every time he showers.

Ibrahim’s trademark sequences of physical action – the hero smelling his armpits, leaving the newspaper suddenly in order to get on the bus so that he can sexually harass some woman and, failing to find a victim on the Heliopolis bus, getting on the Shubra one instead – reflect not only an individual obsession but a whole era’s ailments; harassment having been, contrary to my generation’s rosy image of the 1960s, a very commonplace phenomenon. “It could sound contradictory, but it’s true that sexual harassment was common despite the atmosphere of freedom, the spread of mini-skirts and other 1960s fashions.” Sleeping naked with pornographic images in his hands, the hero’s insatiable lust too is contradictory, in the sense that at bottom it reflects a hopeless romance. It seems to be more about the general state of suppression than about sex as such. The first chapter ends with a nightmare:


67

“I went to sleep in a prison cell whose door was smashed… I tried to fix it so that I could firmly close the door, fearing someone. I slept and woke up suddenly to the smell of my father. I smelled his spittle all over my face, as he used to spit on my face after reading verses of the Quran with his hand on my head. I saw a black body standing at the threshold of the door… and then my father started to dance, turning into the shape of devil.”

In another chapter, a huge spider grips the hero’s back. He tries to get rid of it, but in vain. Such evidence of Kafka’s influence is the only variation on an otherwise purely realistic narrative that effectively communicates the political atmosphere leading up to 1967, though there are only two references to Israel in the whole book.

“This is a very remarkable observation,” Ibrahim said. “At that time in Cairo and Beirut we were all overwhelmed with news of the Israeli aggression and the consequences of war with Israel. Therefore, the Israeli presence was part of the status quo. I felt no need to reiterate the word. Although the novel was written in Beirut, there were still things you could not say, such as ‘Nasser’s standing down speech’ which I replaced with ‘the political speech’. Censorship was very strong in those days. But 67 is distinct for its analysis of the psychological situation created by the Nasserist regime in Egypt, though it might strike today’s reader as strange to be discussing the political side of the defeat.”


Ibrahim and Khallaf at the premises of Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Gadida

In Chapter 9, September, a suicide underlines the general state of depression and indifference even though the hero does not directly link such feelings to the war. The only time a colleague asks him whether Israel will withdraw, he responds noncommittally, “I have no idea.” Here as elsewhere, recalling The Smell of It, the narration remains not only realistic and physical but also neutral: A quintessential 1960s technique that prioritises rhetoric over plot.

“Neutral narration is a characteristic of all modern literature, which tries to avoid reiterating ideas and escaped loud and sharp tones of voice and direct messages in favour of light narration,” Ibrahim noted. But can you really call a book 67 in which the narrator never mentions either regime or defeat? “The narrator feels there is no need to talk, that words are fruitless. His silence is not an expression of indifference, but a sign of depression and a refusal of the deteriorating social situation.”

In his 2006 book The Hippie Narrative, Scott MacFarlane suggests that, with its roots in the Beat movement, the Hippie movement of the 1960s helped to change attitudes to ethnic and cultural diversity as well as advocating a bohemian lifestyle at variance with hypocrisy and materialism. “In 1968,” Ibrahim comments, “the United States and Europe were thrown into a revolutionary m0ood after the youth revolution in Paris. It was a revolution against all regressive values, including sexual practices.” And indeed this just might be the one Arab author who advocates a version of the Hippie ideology, breaking the taboo of adultery and understanding sexual oppression. “Harassment in the late 1960s indicates sexual repression and psychological confusion, which would lead to compulsive attitudes, but you need to consider the social aspect of this period.” With Nasser’s ambitious plans for the country, policy makers were keen to push large numbers of women into factories, public services and transportation.

“This created discontent in a certain conservative sector, which denied women the right to work, and at the same time it created another social problem. In 1966, the transportation sector was under army administration, and so women worked as conductors on public buses, walking through crowds of passengers to check tickets. It was as if a whole society was sprinting ahead of itself, trying to catch up, but such speed could not be assimilated. The majority were illiterate and fearful of social change that could place women in charge. A large sector of male workforce wanted women to stay at home and refused their participation in the workplace. They saw women as reproductive instruments, designed for pleasure and children.”

The novel ends with another neutral scene. The hero collects his belongings in two bags and decides to leave, ending his relationship with his sister-in-law – as if to say that, with the extent of disaffection with Nasser, it is no longer possible to live in Egypt. Ibrahim’s last published novel, which appeared with the same publisher in 2014, is entitled Berlin 69 and continues the story.

“I started to write Berlin 69 shortly after I finished 67. They were both written in the same mood. In 1969, I was already settled in Berlin as a journalist. And I remember the time when I crossed the bridge between East and West Berlin and was overwhelmed by youth demonstrations demanding freedom of speech. The sight of young demonstrators accompanied by their huge dogs who slept for days in the streets is ineradicable...”

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