Sonallah Ibrahim’s ’67’: Oppression and Its Unintended Consequences

In 2017, Sonallah Ibrahim published the original draft of a novel he wrote half-a-century before. Compared to other writings that appeared in the wake of the 1967 defeat, the novel is unique in its affectless and icy detachment—part of Ibrahim’s signature style—from the colossal event that bears its title, 67:

By Nouri Gana

Sonallah Ibrahim’s recently published novel 67 was written in a period of three months in Beirut in 1968, prior to Ibrahim’s departure to Germany. The back cover of the novel throws into relief some of the reasons why the novel wasn’t published at the time, in 1968. They include the usual suspects: censorship in 1960s Egypt, the tense political climate that followed the ‘67 war in Beirut, as well as Ibrahim’s fear that the novel might be used by right-wingers to disparage the left, the communists and socialists, as was the case with his first novella, That Smell, which was even brought to the attention of Nasser as an example of the communists’ moral decadence. That said, Ibrahim wanted actually to publish the novel at the time, and he submitted it to several publishing houses, including the one founded by Nizar Qabbani and Dār Al-Adāb, founded by Suhail Idriss. But none of them welcomed, much less seized on, the opportunity to publish it. Idriss justified his rejection in a short note to Ibrahim in which he pointed out to the protagonist’s pathological lust for sex.

Ibrahim gave up on publishing the novel and forgot about the manuscript altogether, moving on to other fictional projects and to his immediate need then to learn German. In the wake of the January 25 uprising, however, he revisited his personal archive and the drafts of old writing projects, and he came across the manuscript of 67. Upon reading it, he immediately entertained the idea of publishing it. He admits that he hesitated for a while, but thanks to the encouragement of friends, he agreed to publish it with Dār Al-Thaqāfa Al-Jadīda, a publishing house with which he had maintained close ties since its foundation in 1968. Ibrahim’s decision to publish 67 in its original draft form is commendable. After all, regardless of whether or not the novel offers a realist account of a critical period in Egypt’s contemporary history, it marks an important stage in the development of Ibrahim’s own creative genius.

67 comes in a dozen chapters, each of which covers a month of the year 1967. The first mention of the possibility of the “war” does not occur until chapter 5 (May). After chapter 6 (June), in which the narrator hears media reports of the war, and then sees the mass demonstrations following Nasser’s resignation speech, there is no further mention of it, apart from media reports here and there about intermittent attacks and counterattacks in the Sinai Desert, as well as other glimpses of information about the then much-anticipated Israeli withdrawal from the lands it had illegally captured during the war. The first time I skimmed through the novel, I thought the title was misleading, for the novel hardly tackles the catastrophic ‘67 defeat even though its title proposes to do so. Unlike Saadallah Wannous’s Soirée for the Fifth of June, a play that names the start date of the June war in its title, and the content of which dramatizes the root causes of the defeat, Ibrahim’s novel does not even bother to elicit from the protagonist the slightest emotional response to the war. “Everything matters in art,” says Oscar Wilde, “except the subject.” Could that be the case with Ibrahim’s 67?

I was both puzzled and intrigued, but I gradually prepared to go beyond what could be taken at face value. At face value, 67 may seem, as the literary critic Ibrahim ‘Awaḍ claims, a sort of “masturbatory novel” (riwāyya ’istimnā’iyya). Awaḍ takes his cue from Yahya Haqqi’s 1966 review of Ibrahim’s first novella, That Smell, in which Haqqi laments the vulgarity of the narrative despite its skillfulness. “Not content to show us his hero masturbating,” Haqqi contends, Ibrahim “also describes the hero’s return a day later to where the traces of his sperm lie on the ground. The physiological description absolutely nauseated me, and it prevented me from enjoying the story despite its skillful telling. I am not condemning its morality, but its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity. Here is the fault that should have been removed. The reader should have been spared such filth.”[1]

After having conjured up the protective shield of a literary authority like Haqqi, ‘Awaḍ goes on a tirade against Sonallah Ibrahim and concludes that all his novels are masturbatory, albeit he reserves the label “masturbatory par excellence” to 67. Admittedly, the repugnant acts of infidelity and the rampant public practice of sexual harassment, not to mention the masturbatory rituals of the protagonist, may be off-putting, even offensive to most readers; if read otherwise, however, these very same offensive themes may yield critical insights into Ibrahim’s eccentric artistic rebellion against Nasser’s regime. Neither the ideology of Arab nationalism nor that of revolutionary socialism seem to hold sway any longer over Ibrahim’s protagonist; even the regime’s resounding humiliation did not make the slightest impression on him, eliciting neither pity nor smug schadenfreude. The outlawing of legalized prostitution under Nasser did not necessarily lead to a mass embrace of virtue. On the contrary, sexual abuse and harassment spread epidemically. This may have been on Ibrahim’s viscerally rebellious mind, but there is also the sense in which state oppression can only lead to the moral corruption of society.

The disillusionment with Nasserism was a déjà vu experience for Ibrahim’s generation when the 67 war occurred. To write about it is to foreground it yet again; not to write about it is to consign oneself to live with the illusion of its insignificance, which may be seen as a reverse version of false consciousness. The way out of this double bind is to do both at the same time: this may explain why the 67 war is invoked in the title of the novel but is almost entirely absent from the preoccupations of the narrative. The narrative concentrates rather on the lived experience of a leftist—in fact, a generation of leftists—over whom Nasser had sufficiently triumphed (i.e., he disappeared some of them, imprisoned, tortured or appeased most in the years between 1959 and 1964). Through a style of indecorous disobedience, remorseless minimalism and pitiless exposure, Ibrahim’s novel proffers us a symptomatic representation of the everyday life of a former leftist, now journalist, experiencing the defeat of the very regime which defeated him and the socialist dreams of his generation.

The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the novel. The main event here is the New Year’s Eve party held in the apartment of the protagonist’s brother in Heliopolis. In his characteristically flat prose, and his cryptic and telegraphic style of writing that includes rough cinematic cuts, the chapter makes reference to missed and missing beloved comrades, especially Insaf’s husband who, it is implied, was a political dissident, and was, we are further told, tortured and killed and buried in an anonymous plot of land, without even the dignity of a grave that bears his name. We also learn that many more political dissidents (communists, at least by implication, given Ibrahim’s own imprisonment from 1959-64) have been arrested and disappeared while others have given up reading and writing, except one fellow journalist and comrade, Sadiq, who still writes op-eds. The party ends with the protagonist’s brother vomiting and his wife cleaning up after him; the chapter itself ends with a nightmarish dream in which the protagonist sees himself in a prison cell, trying to repair and shut its broken door, out of fear of being chased down by someone he does not know. Before he wakes up screaming, the protagonist sees the image of his (presumably dead) father dancing at the door, gradually taking on the shape of Satan.

The first chapter introduces the reader to almost all the novel’s themes and characters. Nearly all the characters come to the party burdened by their pasts, hoping for a new future, only to find themselves interpellated by the symptoms of injustice from which they suffered. The symptoms sound a melancholic clamor for justice in the present, or so Ibrahim seems to imply through his narrative obsession with the physiological expressions of his characters. We get a good glimpse of the libidinal passions of the protagonist, who likes rubbing his body against the bodies of plump women, especially the body of his brother’s wife, with whom he is having an affair. Not without a measure of bad faith, the secret affair acts like a consolation for the protagonist who would have married her if he’d had the opportunity to do so: “If I’d known you before you married my brother, I would have married you myself,” he tells his brother’s wife (19).

Marriage may be a sacred union, but, as will become amply clear throughout the novel, Ibrahim’s protagonist is only given to profanity. Not unlike the protagonist of That Smell, who was unable to sleep with a prostitute, the protagonist of 67 was likewise unable to sleep with Afef, the veiled young girl who he met at the party and who offered herself to him on their first date, even inviting him to take her virginity if he wished to do so. But, and not for lack of trying, the nameless protagonist was unable to perform. The same protagonist—a journalist and a dissident political writer who locks his notebook in a drawer and puts the key in his pocket—never tires of chasing fleshy women in crowded buses so that he can rub his body against theirs. He even manages at one point to have sex with his brother’s wife four or six times in a single session, according to their conflicting counts (41).

Yet the protagonist’s vaunted virility is undercut by the premature ejaculations that seem to characterize his sexual encounters with his brother’s wife and, at one point, with a Russian tourist (66-7). The protagonist exchanges declarations of love with his brother’s wife but no sooner is love declared than it dissolves in sex and reemerges as an unfulfilled demand. Hence, the chiastic oscillation of the protagonist between the pain of wanting love and the boredom of having sex. Sexual insatiability and excessive virility, along with the shameless public displays of predatory sexual behavior, are all signs of a masculinity in crisis. They are physiological and phenomenological manifestations of a besieged (and besieging) masculinity and of a castrating state apparatus.

The first chapter amply indicates that there is something rotten in the Arab Republic of Egypt. Talk of corruption, cronyism, and the government’s crackdown on political dissent fills the air. The protagonist’s comrades are at the receiving end of the crackdown, the effects of which are mainly physiological; for instance, when Ramzi speaks about his perpetual ejaculatory dysfunctions, he also mentions that Sadiq masturbates nonstop. Later we learn that Sadiq has sex with his wife once a year. Meanwhile, the protagonist puts his brother’s wife in the driver’s seat of the adulterous affair, and even when he slips in the driver’s seat, she continues to do the steering. At one point, she euphorically rejoices that she has it all—the husband, the lover, and the daughter, and the only thing missing is a car.

The novel brings into intimate collision the vagaries of authoritarian oppression and its unintended consequences, not only on its opponents (Ibrahim’s generation), but also on society writ large. Note, for instance, that sexual harassment has transformed in the novel from an aberration into a relation, a form of intelligibility, that calls for and encodes complicity between the males in any public means of transportation so as to preclude competition and misunderstanding among them. Treachery, infidelity and a loose relationship to moral values have become normative. In fact, the protagonist (who, it bears reminding, is having an affair with his brother’s wife) tells his brother after they watch Bernhard Wicki’s The Visit (1964): “we live among relatives, friends, and loved ones who, unbeknownst to us, could sell us out easily” (42). The Visit tells the story of Karla (Ingrid Bergman), who returns to the village from which she had been chased out in disgrace by Serge (Anthony Quinn) years earlier, and offers a vast sum of money to the villagers provided that they execute Serge. When they agree to do so, Karla, in a surprise twist, stops the execution, opting to punish Serge by letting him live among those who betrayed him. The protagonist may be obligated to the detached neutrality that Ibrahim chose for him, but the enlightened levity with which he informs his brother of his opinion shows the extent to which society has normalized betrayal. It equally demonstrates, albeit tragically, the extent to which the protagonist has himself compulsively repeated, rather than overcome, the stings of betrayal he suffered.

Unaligned with Nasserism but committed to national liberation, Ibrahim’s novel suggests that the defeat was devastating yet liberating. Nasser’s brinksmanship tactics before the beginning of the war are proleptically invoked through a Walt Disney documentary about the (mythical) ritual of collective suicide that lemmings undertake annually (60). The eventual defeat itself is conjured metaphorically through an attack by fleas the protagonist suffers at night, and the patches of inflammatory redness and swelling they inflict on his skin.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Ibrahim was asked how he’d experienced the 67 war. He replied that he had an eruption of red spots all over his body, and he concluded that, because he was unable to do anything, his body reacted.

The beginning of the June 67 war does not seem to make the slightest impression on the protagonist, and he goes on with his daily routine in the coldest and most mechanical manner imaginable, as if he were deliberately emptying the event of its historical significance. His comrade Sadiq, who continues to write op-eds and fails to get them published in Egypt, was so jubilant about the outbreak of war that he went so far as to promise that he would write his next op-ed from Tel Aviv. Such hysteria is the material of Sonallah Ibrahim’s cold satirical scrutiny.

At one point, he even relates the story of a fellow journalist named Ali who uses newspapers in the restroom because they clean more effectively than toilet paper. Obviously, the anecdote takes a sidelong jab at the media, especially in light of the role it played in misleading and mystifying the public about the war. After the defeat and Nasser’s resignation speech, the protagonist thinks that the communists will be held responsible. He packs his bag and prepares to escape, but then he realizes he has nowhere to go, and that they would find him, anyway, wherever he goes. The protagonist routinely has nightmares about being persecuted and plays dead, opossum-like, in order to evade certain death. Haunted and hunted, he finds refuge in his work at the newspaper and in his routine acts of sexual harassment on public transport.

Although he might now argue otherwise, Ibrahim’s novel registers some positive developments following the defeat. These range from the loosening of the grip on freedom of expression and the freedom to unionize. There is also a growing public discontent with the scourge of sexual harassment. The novel may be attacked for how it depicts sexual harassment solely from the harasser’s point of view. Yet, given the ongoing campaigns right now in Egypt to expose the perpetrators of sexual harassment, Ibrahim’s novel (albeit written half-a-century ago) cannot be timelier, especially since it is, I believe, a representation-as-denunciation, not a representation-as-perpetuation of sexual harassment.

Although 67 was written right after That Smell, it pales in comparison, especially in terms of style; yet it is more daring in terms of the taboos it breaches. The unbearable historical weight of 67 is deflated, displaced and dispersed among the protagonist’s everyday mundanities. All the grand narratives from revolutionary socialism to nationalist liberation disintegrate and collapse. The protagonist is left with nothing tangible to get a grip on, except perhaps his brother’s wife and strange women in public spaces. These libidinal attachments may neither be sustaining nor sustainable, but they foreshadow the crisis of affective investiture in worldmaking projects that has ever since befallen the Egyptian and Arab left writ large.

[1] Robyn Creswell’s translation.

Nouri Gana is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is editor of The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects and Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English, and author of Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning, published by Bucknell University Press.