My Sunday Guardian column.
One of the more credible stories of how the Egyptian capital got its name comes from the order of the 10th century Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz li-din Allah, who instructed his military commander to march into the country and build “a city that would vanquish the world." Thus was created the Vanquisher, al-Qahira, known to us today as Cairo. Ironically, Cairene writer Sonallah Ibrahim writes, it “never vanquished anyone but its own people, for invaders from all places and of all races succeeded one another in it”. He goes on to call it “one of the most impossible cities in the world,” and recent events certainly seem to bear out his assertion.
Ibrahim’s first novel, That Smell, offers a bleak, penetrating look at the life of one of Cairo’s vanquished citizens, and is now available in a new translation, one that hews closer to the original than before. Ibrahim started to write it in his late twenties, after he was released from the prison where he, along with others from Egypt’s Communist Party, was confined for political conspiracy after the military coup that brought Nasser to power. (The present translation also includes a selection of Notes from a Prison, vignettes written on cigarette papers during his incarceration.) When published in 1966, That Smell was proscribed immediately – further, as translator Robyn Cresswell puts it, “local critics [were] almost as unwelcoming as the censors”.
That Smell is not, as one might imagine, a novel that concerns itself overtly with politics. Rather, it is written in a self-consciously minimal style, creating a world that can be seen as one in which politics has done its work and moved on, leaving only broken remnants behind. It tells of the travails of a disaffected young man recently released from prison for an unnamed offence, who spends his days catching up with friends and relatives, reporting daily to the police as well as rediscovering Cairo. His daily routine, his furtive glances at his neighbours, his trips around the city and his visits to former compatriots establish a repetitive rhythm. He smokes, masturbates and tries and fails to write an unspecified text. A sentence early on in the book just about sums up his life: “I stayed stretched out on the bed without sleeping. I smoked a lot. In the morning I got up and dressed and went out.”
All of this is laid out in chunks of paragraph-less prose broken by italicised flashbacks, in a style markedly different from the floridness and classical realism that marked fiction from Egypt at that time. As the narrator sarcastically says at one point: “I picked up a magazine and there was an article in it about literature and how it should be written. The writer said that Maupassant said that the artist must create a world that is more beautiful and more simple than our world. He said that literature must be optimistic and alive with the most beautiful sentiments.”
“Affectless” is the word that J.M. Coetzee used to describe Ibrahim’s prose and that is indeed the mot juste. It’s an iceberg style indebted to Hemingway in which little is shown and much concealed. Ibrahim, however, eschews Hemingway’s macho bluster. At one point, the narrator is pushed by friends to visit a prostitute, a dalliance he is unable to consummate, and one way of reading this is as a comment on the impotence of the average Egyptian when faced with a brutal regime.
The preface to the original edition of That Smell contained a self-important charter spelling out the effect that Ibrahim was trying to produce: “If you do not like the novel now between your hands, the fault isn’t ours. It is instead the fault of our cultural moment, dominated as it has been for many years by works of shallowness, naïveté, and conventionalism.” The novel, then, is a brave stand against such attitudes that still prevail in so many parts of the world. Creswell has felicitously described it as “a fiction to frighten the status quo”, and it’s a pity that more novels don’t do the same.
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