Sonallah Ibrahim: ‘The Only Role of the Writer is to Entertain’

Sonallah Ibrahim will be speaking today at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s Discussion Sofa, hosted, insha’allah, by fellow Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha. A version of this originally ran in the ADIBF’s Show Daily:

Photo from Prague Writers Festival.
Photo from Prague Writers Festival.

Sonallah Ibrahim, born in Cairo in 1937, was just twenty-two years old when he was handed a long prison sentence for his participation in the Egyptian Communist Party. He was released from prison two years early, in 1964. But those five years behind bars were an ironically fertile time, when Ibrahim argued and refined his ideas about fiction. As is evident in his prison diaries, he was able to read deeply while in prison, and these readings shifted his ideas about what was possible in prose.

The experience of imprisonment, and having to reintegrate into society, feature strongly in Ibrahim’s first semi-autobiographical novella, That Smell, self-published in 1966. The slim literary offering, which has been twice translated into English, sent a jolt through the Arabic literary world, shocking both for its “injury to good taste” and for its formal innovations: its stripped-down prose, its focus on minutiae, and its fearless interest in the physical aspects of life.

Ibrahim’s successive novels, which established his importance to Arabic prose, provided observations of society and the individual, and relied a great deal on research, sometimes on pastiche, as in his popular 1992 novel, Zaat. That novel tells the story of one Egyptian woman through narrative juxtaposed with newspaper clippings, headlines, quotes, and news summaries.

The materials that he included in his novels, he said in an interview just before the fair, were “not widely known and acquired after hard research,” but “their exposure brings joy!”

Yet more recently, particularly in the past four years, he’s changed his attitude toward research, as “everything is available on the Net.”

Throughout his career, Ibrahim has — in the public mind — stood in for a particular sort of engaged, indepenedent author. But he said doesn’t see a singular “role” for the writer.

“The only role of a writer is to entertain his readers,” Ibrahim said. The writer’s ability to entertain “depends on his cultural background and his mastering the tools of the profession.” Meanwhile, as a member of society, Ibrahim said, a writer might have a political role, or he may not.

Ibrahim’s conception of his role as a writer has changed “a little” over the last forty-nine years, since he published That Smell. “From the very beginning, I enjoyed the role of the observer,” he said, but this “does not negate the necessity of having an opinion or of acting according to it.”

“I enjoy writing about things, playing with the materials of life, and of course expressing my opinions.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in five decades of thinking about fiction is that Ibrahim still believes it’s important for a novelist to be independent, free from allegiance to a state. “When Steinbeck went to support the American army in Vietnam, he ceased to be a great writer.”

Ibrahim also said he looks on the rise of literary prizes with some skepticism, that there is “some exaggeration about the impact of literary prizes. No prize is a fair one. The only prize I look for is to be widely read.”

Even for a writer as prominent as Ibrahim, that kind of wide readership can be elusive. He noted with some chagrin that “my novels circulate in the thousands among a population of 200 million!”

A number of Ibrahim’s books have been translated into English, French, German, and other languages. His latest novel, Ice, is currently being translated into English by Margaret Litvin.

Through his years of writing, Ibrahim said he’s come to believe that society’s biggest responsibility towards its writers was not support, but “tolerance.” That is, he said, “the main responsibility of a society towards its population, including the artists and other creators.” There should be “no confiscation, no prison or torture.”

Ibrahim’s own literary tastes were wide-ranging, and he said the last book he’d read was the most recent one “by the American John Grisham.”

This first appeared in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s Show Daily.