'That Smell’ and ‘Notes from Prison’ by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
New Directions, 110 pp, £11.99, March, ISBN 978 0 8112 2036 1
When we first meet the nameless narrator of Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1966 novella That Smell, he’s just been released from prison, but no one is there to greet him, and he’s in no mood to celebrate. He remains under house arrest, free to wander the streets of Cairo so long as he returns home by dusk, when his police minder has to sign off on his curfew. Things could be worse: he could be back in prison, where he remembers being beaten, ‘shaking with cold and fear’. But when he looks for ‘some feeling that was out of the ordinary, some joy or delight or excitement’, he draws a blank. On the night of his release, the police throw him into a filthy holding pen because he has nowhere to stay:
There were a lot of men there and the door kept opening to let more in. I felt something in my knee. I put my hand down and sensed something wet. I looked at my hand and found a big patch of blood on my fingers and in the next moment saw swarms of bugs on my clothing and I stood up and noticed for the first time big patches of blood smeared on the walls of the cell and one of the men laughed and said to me: Come here.
It’s a long night. One prisoner lets out a ‘strange and horrible howl’, until he’s beaten senseless by a cellmate; a man and an adolescent boy fondle each other underneath a blanket. The next day the narrator’s sister gives him a room, but everyday life soon turns into an exercise in failure and comic humiliation. Waiters don’t notice he’s there; even his grandmother hardly recognises him.
Sex might lift his spirits, he thinks, but his old girlfriend won’t sleep with him. He has no more luck with the prostitute his friends bring to his place, an impatient young woman wearing a ‘cheap pink shirt with holes in it, like a white rag that had been dipped in blood and washed over and over’: he can’t get it up. In his room he tries to write, but instead spends his time smoking and masturbating. He reads a remark by Maupassant to the effect that artists should ‘create a world that is more beautiful and more simple than our own’, but he can’t imagine another world, or escape the one he left behind in prison. When he hears knocking from the other side of the wall, he’s reminded of the ‘jangling of chains and keys’ that used to wake him every morning, of the jailers whose eyes were ‘hard beyond description’. He finds no relief on his walks. The metro is ‘terrifyingly crowded’, his shoes are full of dust, and then there’s that smell: the smell of Cairo’s overflowing sewers spilling into Tahrir Square. He seems to be the only one who notices it; everyone else is queuing to see the latest comedy, the one he couldn’t get tickets for. This isn’t liberation so much as a new, more insidious form of confinement.
That Smell was Ibrahim’s first book. He’s written many others, but none as powerful, or as prophetic. A year after it was published, the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, under Nasser’s command, were defeated by Israel in the so-called naksah, or ‘setback’. In six days, Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. This staggering defeat left Egyptians as stunned and hopeless as the narrator of That Smell. Nasser never quite got over the naksah, and neither have the Arabs. But no one who’d read Ibrahim’s devastating book could have been surprised: Egyptians, he suggests, were defeated before the war even started. In Robyn Creswell’s new translation, That Smell seems not so much written as secreted; it leaves you feeling tense and clammy, as it must have done when it was first published.
Ibrahim was 29 then, and only two years out of prison, where he’d served five years of a seven-year sentence for his involvement in Egypt’s underground Communist movement. That Smell established him as a major voice of Arab modernism. At least for readers who were able to get hold of it: the novel was banned just after it was printed, but not before Ibrahim had circulated copies among his friends. Not until 1986 did it finally appear in an uncensored version from a publishing house in Casablanca. The censor’s objections were predictable: its frank, neutral descriptions of homosexuality and masturbation were deemed to offend local sensitivities. But Ibrahim’s own view was that the censors were using ‘the sexual references … as a cover to forbid anyone talking about imprisonment and torture’. Worse, torture appeared to have rendered Ibrahim’s hero powerless, if not emasculated. ‘Is the hero impotent?’ an official in the Ministry of Information nervously asked Ibrahim, as if Nasser might be concerned at the image of Egyptian manhood that the novel projected.
Ibrahim himself confessed to worrying that, by publishing such a bleak book, he might be ‘harming the country’ during its ‘dogfight with American imperialism and its Zionist stepdaughter’. The scandalousness of his subject was matched by his deadpan, almost zombified prose. This ‘anti-style’ was obscured by Denys Johnson-Davies’s all too elegant 1971 translation (The Smell of It), but Creswell has restored the shock of Ibrahim’s language. He has also translated two intriguing texts that help make sense of the novel: Ibrahim’s preface to the 1986 edition and excerpts from the journal he kept in prison.
Ibrahim was born in 1937, and grew up during the struggle against the British occupation. His father was a high-ranking civil servant; his mother came from a poor family, and, in Ibrahim’s words, ‘was more like a maid to my father’s first wife’. He studied law at Cairo University, where he joined the Democratic Movement for National Liberation. Founded by the Jewish Marxist Henri Curiel, the DMNL had supported the 1952 coup against the monarchy in defiance of the Soviet Union, which viewed Nasser and the Free Officers as reactionaries. But, as Creswell notes, ‘the regime never returned these friendly feelings’ on the part of the Marxist left, even after Suez, when Nasser forged an alliance with the Russians. Ibrahim has summed up the peculiar relationship between Nasser and the Communists as ‘absolute support from our side; repression and murder from his’. (Even today, he speaks admiringly of Nasser, saying he only objected to ‘his police system’, not his policies.) He was arrested in 1959 in a round-up of Communists, whom Nasser saw as a potential fifth column after the coup in Iraq the year before. He was released in 1964, as a goodwill gesture to Khrushchev, who was visiting Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Aswan Dam.
Only faint echoes of the cause that inspired Ibrahim can be heard in That Smell. An old comrade of the narrator’s rhapsodises about the masses, but seems to lack conviction, and this is the last we hear of the revolution. In occasional, italicised flashbacks, Ibrahim pays tribute to the solidarity the party created among its members, the small kindnesses that made prison life more bearable. On a visit to the wife of a comrade who died in prison, the narrator remembers sitting in the back of a police van while her husband sang ‘snatches of an old love song over and over’. He doesn’t share this memory, because just at that moment his friend was given a beating and taken away: ‘that was the last time I saw him.’ She asks if her husband loved her, and the narrator replies that he did, but also thinks to himself: ‘What could I say, what was the point of going into it after it was over, and who knows what goes on inside another person anyway?’
Apart from these flashbacks, That Smell takes place in the dead zone of the present, ‘after it was over’: ‘it’ is the experience of a generation of Egyptian leftists who rallied to Nasser’s revolution only to find they had nowhere to go other than prison or exile. ‘The narrator’s stupor,’ Creswell writes, ‘is the daze of depoliticisation.’ But the narrator isn’t the only one wandering around in a daze. The conductor on the metro stops to ‘put a lump of opium in his mouth and sip some tea. Lucky man, I thought. He’d found a way to live that let him put on a brave face.’ Images of death and disfigurement are everywhere: on the street, a dead man lies ‘covered with bloody newspapers’; a pretty girl the narrator notices on the train turns out to be missing a limb. Even those who have found happiness, or what they’ve been told is happiness, seem doomed: his brother’s wife won’t have sex with him unless he pays her; his friend Samia, now a wife and mother, is ‘stuck for ever. There was nothing to do but submit.’ Desire is consummated with something like satisfaction – or honesty, without the pressures of marriage or the need for cash incentives – only when members of the same sex are involved. Ibrahim has spoken obliquely of his own relations with men in prison, and writes in his story ‘The Snake’ that after prison one comes to see ‘everything as normal’. The lack of normalising judgment, much less homophobia, in his work stands in contrast to, say, Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, where gays are represented as sex-crazed, dandified predators.
Ibrahim stumbled on his subject, and his style, by accident. After his release from prison in 1964, he planned to write a novel about the construction of the Aswan Dam and spent three months interviewing the workers who built it. Ten years later, the research produced a novel, Star of August. But in 1964 he was too consumed with trying to reacquaint himself with his life in Cairo to attempt an epic about the Egyptian class struggle. He read the diary he’d been writing up every night after his police minder signed the register of his house arrest and ‘shivered with excitement’, realising ‘there was a buried current running through that telegraphic style, a style that never stopped for self-examination, didn’t bother to search for le mot juste, nor to make sure that the language was neat and tidy.’
The style was born in the al-Wahat prison camp in Egypt’s western desert, where thousands of political prisoners, Marxist and Islamist, were confined under Nasser. He wrote his first short stories in the ‘remotest spot in the prison’s courtyard’, a sanctuary from ‘the noise of the cells’. In ‘Notes from Prison’, he says: ‘I am a Communist first, a writer after that.’ But there was little for an imprisoned Communist writer to do except write; and writing seems to have become Ibrahim’s way of understanding the experience of the revolutionary movement, and ultimately a substitute for it. ‘The romanticism of struggle is over,’ he says. ‘What remains are the utterly naked facts. The cult of personality and its collapse. Rethinking of everything. The masks are off (the mask of religion, the mask of heroism).’ Some of his comrades, he implies, continue to absolve Nasser of responsibility for their fate; he quotes a long passage from Yevtushenko’s memoirs about Stalin’s victims who ‘after being tortured, traced the words “Long Live Stalin” in their own blood on the walls of their prison’. But for Ibrahim it was time to lose any illusions about Nasser’s intentions. His movement’s defeat had to be faced. The reckoning, he believed, required new forms of writing. Socialist realism, a genre that beguiled many left-wing writers in the Arab world, was in his view a kind of Marxist wish fulfilment, a way of nursing one’s wounds. But he was no more enamoured of the Balzacian realism of Naguib Mahfouz whose Cairo Trilogy struck Ibrahim as too orderly, too cohesive for the shattering experiences he hoped to capture. He was in little doubt that he had something to say: ‘The mouth, like the prison, contains, when closed, living things,’ he wrote in December 1962. The question was how to say it.
‘Notes from Prison’ allows us to witness an Arab writer’s search for a style. We see him educating himself in Western modernism, looking for ideas he can borrow, while rejecting assimilation: ‘the development of this art form cannot happen in Egypt as it happened in Europe. We need a true leap forward.’ But what would this leap forward be? ‘Can our country innovate in the novel on a world scale?’ he asks. These questions drove his reading in prison, and the diaries have all the dramatic ambition that is missing, or repressed, in That Smell, which seems deliberately starved of plot. The crucial figure for Ibrahim was Hemingway, whom he saw as a corrective to the ‘flabby eloquence’ of Arabic literature. Hemingway understood that ‘the highest art must take liberties, not with the truth but with the modes by which truth is translated.’ There were other discoveries: Jean Rouch, the maker of vérité documentaries who transformed ‘the camera into a human eye’ and ‘revealed a new consciousness of reality’; Proust, Joyce and Woolf; the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute; the Russian poets and novelists around Novy Mir; and, above all, Brecht’s epic theatre. Prison was Ibrahim’s university, as it was for many Egyptian Communists (and Muslim Brothers, Nasser’s other adversaries). Communist prisoners got most of their reading material by bribing the guards, and received French literary and political magazines from Henri Curiel, who was organising their legal defence from exile in Paris.
Realism, Ibrahim writes, is ‘the greatest ism of art’, but – as Brecht might have said – ‘it can assume hundreds if not thousands of different forms.’ The Oedipal dimension of this argument is hard to miss: at one point, Ibrahim contemplates trying his hand at stream of consciousness, but it’s already ‘on the march all over the world’, and, worse, Mahfouz has begun to use it. His own path to an experimental realism, as he understood after his release, lay in the monotonous but mesmerising reportorial style of his diaries: the voice of a man stunned by his re-entry into an ordinary existence which, after five years of incarceration, can never be ordinary again. ‘Torture: and since that time he feels that wherever he walks, whether he’s coming in or going out, something will hit him, something will shock him … He expects to be slapped or kicked.’
Ibrahim wrote That Smell in three months, in a flat in Heliopolis, the area where his narrator lives. He preserved the style of his journals, and reproduced portions of them. He submitted the manuscript to a ‘shabby little printer’ at one of those ‘rare moments in the history of modern Egypt when martial law was lifted and a book didn’t require prior approval from the censor before being given to a printer’. A short text was printed on the book’s cover, a manifesto by three writers who declared That Smell a revolution in Arab letters but warned that some readers might not be ready for ‘the kind of sincere and sometimes agonised writing you find here’. When word spread that the book had been banned, some of Ibrahim’s admirers retracted their support. In his 1986 preface, Ibrahim remembers meeting an influential magazine editor who had admired his book, hoping that he might apply pressure for it to be released. Informed that the book had been confiscated, the editor called his magazine’s printer in Ibrahim’s presence, and demanded that his review be pulled from the issue going to press. Another former admirer published a review deploring ‘its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity … The reader should have been spared such filth.’ Ibrahim’s aim, of course, was precisely not to spare his readers. His bracing ‘physiological’ realism – as the disapproving review described his method – was an aesthetic necessity, imposed by what he had suffered, or seen, in jail. A failure to represent the ugliness – or, worse, to beautify it – would be dishonest. It would be kitsch – and kitsch, as Milan Kundera said, is premised on the ‘denial of shit’. The language was coarse, even ugly, but, as Ibrahim wrote in the preface: ‘Wasn’t a bit of ugliness necessary to expose an equivalent ugliness in “physiological” acts like beating an unarmed man to death, or shoving a tyre pump up his anus, or electric cords into his penis? All because he held a contrary opinion, or defended his freedom and sense of nationalism?’
That Smell ends where L’Etranger begins, with the narrator learning that his mother died the previous week of an unspecified illness. He receives the news with as little emotion as Meursault, and rushes home in time for his curfew. Ibrahim read Camus in prison; in his journal, he records his dismay at finding out that Camus supported the Suez intervention. That Smell transposes mid-20th century existentialism to an Arab setting: the lonely man in the crowd, the writer rendered mute by an unspeakable agony, the corrosive absurdity of things. Yet Ibrahim’s existentialism is very far from that of L’Etranger or La Nausée. The narrator’s despair in That Smell is the despair of a dissident in a police state; it is concrete, not cosmic, and there’s nothing romantic about it. The colour of Ibrahim’s vision is black, not noir.
Not long after That Smell was banned, Ibrahim left Egypt for Berlin – ‘I wanted to get to know girls with blonde hair and blue eyes,’ he told one interviewer. He then went to the Soviet Union, where he studied filmmaking, made a short documentary about Egyptian political prisoners, and worked on his novel about the Aswan Dam. He returned to Egypt in 1974 but kept a low profile for a writer who could easily have become a celebrity like Mahfouz or al-Aswany. Although he’d been a prisoner under Nasser, he shared Nasser’s vision of a non-aligned, socialist Egypt, and grew more and more bitter as Sadat opened Egypt to the market (infitah) and led the country into an alliance with the United States and Israel. While Mahfouz held court at his weekly salon at the Café Riche in downtown Cairo, Ibrahim barely left his desk. Not that he made any secret of his disgust at Egypt’s decline into client statehood. Novels like The Committee (1981), a hallucinatory tale of political repression, and Zaat (1992), a send-up of Egyptian consumerism, drew a dark, often comic portrait of a country in thrall to the market, intoxicated by Western gadgets, and penetrated by international corporations and other shadowy organisations. The smell of liberalising, capitalist, pro-American Egypt was different from Nasser’s Egypt, and arguably worse. Those who knew of Ibrahim’s disdain for Egypt’s rulers were surprised when, in October 2003, he turned up at a ceremony to receive the Ministry of Culture’s Arab Novel Award. But they were even more astonished by his speech, an unbridled denunciation of the Mubarak regime of a kind that few at the time would have dared to make. He couldn’t accept the prize, he said, because the government ‘lacks the credibility to bestow it’. I wonder what sort of speech he would make today.