Re-reading Sonallah Ibrahim

Sonallah Ibrahim — as Elliott Colla writes in a recent piece for Jadaliyya — has been “arguably the most politically and aesthetically autonomous writer working in Egypt” over the last several decades. So what does it mean when Ibrahim, like more than a hundred other Egyptian authors, signs on to a public statement declaring the Muslim Brotherhood an unpatriotic organization? Colla re-reads:

Al-GalidCover-JadIn particular, Colla re-reads Ibrahim’s most recent novel, Ice (2011), a novel structured around the life of an Egyptian living in Moscow in the fall and winter of 1973.

Of the novel, Colla writes: “The prose is flat, and intentionally encumbered by awkward transliterations of Russian words typographically set apart from the rest of the Arabic text. Characters do not learn, grow or become more complicated.”

This cold, alienated novel is set at the crossroads of revolutions (anti-colonial, free love) and counter-revolutions (Soviet corruption and betrayal of anti-colonial movements, the infitah, the October War). As Colla notes, Russia’s own October revolution is by the 1970s just a shadow. “Empty stores, black market blue jeans, paper underwear, cheap vodka, KGB repression, and above all, the forced ritual of comradely address (tovarich)—these, and little else, are the lasting accomplishments of revolutionary culture as it appears in the novel.”

From a re-reading of Ice, Colla goes back to January 25, 2011, when the book was (coincidentally) released, and to Ibrahim’s most recent statements. But instead of re-reading the novel for signs of “illiberalism,” Colla questions the revolutionary narrative observers have been using to understand recent events. He refers in particular to David Scott’s criticism of the romantic narrative of triumphant, progressive history.

So: If not “revolutionary,” triumphant and progressive, then what sort of history is Ibrahim’s? Colla suggests that — despite or alongside Ibrahim’s personal activism — his novels are deeply pessimistic, more tragic than tragedies. They are a form of satire, he writes, that is the opposite of redemptive, “a drama of diredemption.” As Colla notes, Zaat and Honor end “in the Sadat and Mubarak eras: vicious laissez-faire capitalism, rampant corruption, the wholesale import of Saudi culture, the ascendency of Salafist Islam, the expansion of state torture, increasing sexual repression, and the collapse of the nationalist middle class.”

Colla suggests — through a reading of most of Ibrahim’s major works — that Ibrahim could be “a novelist of lost causes,” a la Waguih Ghali.

Recently, I re-read Ibrahim’s “Across Three Beds in the Afternoon” (“بعد الظهر عبر ثلاثة أسرة”), an early work, from the collection The Smell of It and Other StoriesThe story is certainly satire — and even a bit slapstick — although also painful, cramped, and bitter. When Sayyid’s father asks him if he really needs to change the universe, it’s not about the “ten minutes exchange of fire” mentioned in the story, nor about political activism. Instead, it’s about an office battle over how Arabic dates should be written. Sayyid is a man who will clearly never grow up, part of a family where the daughter is estranged, where the parents will likely never see their grandchild. It is a story where time feels circular, where the same things seem to happen endlessly. It finishes with: “What will you feed us tonight?”

This story, too, could be read as a non-redemptive satire. But whether Colla’s re-reading goes anywhere towards explaining Ibrahim’s personal actions — I haven’t any idea. In any case, his work remains a tremendously rich vein for imagining life outside the center of Empire.

Yes, he’s that Elliott Colla. And that Elliott Colla, too.