Sonallah Ibrahim’s Moscow: A Conversation with Margaret Litvin

By Tugrul Mende

In the 1970s, Sonallah Ibrahim studied in Moscow, a city that would later become the subject of his book Ice (الجليد). The book was published at the same moment as the 2011 revolutionary uprising. Eight years later, Margaret Litvin’s translation was published, giving English readers access to Ibrahim’s time in Moscow. 

Indeed, many of Ibrahim’s novels have been translated into other languages, making him one of the most globally accessible Egyptian writers. In this interview, Margaret Litvin talks about Ice, how it is connected to the genre of رحلة (rihla, or travel) literature, and what life was like in Moscow in the ‘70s. 

Your first book was called Hamlet’s Arab Journey. How did you get from Shakespare to Sonallah Ibrahim? 

Sonallah Ibrahim and his archive, Heliopolis, 2018. Photo credit: Margaret Litvin.

Margaret Litvin: It’s true, they are two very different writers! The bridge was the Soviet Union. When I started working on Arabic Hamlets, not just translations but adaptations, staging, interpretations as well, I kept noticing that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were very important vectors for bringing interpretations of Shakespeare into Egypt. I got interested in Arab writers who had interacted significantly with Russian culture or spent time in the Soviet Union. This launched my current research on Arab-Soviet ties. When al-Jalid (Ice) was published in 2011, it fell right into this research, and it fascinated me. Sonallah’s writing style is very ethnographic and historically attuned; he is basically a historian of modern globalized Egypt. I became interested in his experience of the USSR and what he said about it. 

His experience of the USSR?

ML: As you know, Sonallah Ibrahim was a communist. From 1959 to 1964, he served time in prison as a communist. After that he travelled to Warsaw and East Berlin, working for the Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst in East Germany as an Arabic corrector. He wrote a novel about this period called Berlin 69Then he went to Moscow and got a fellowship to do a non-degree program at the VGIK cinematography institute in Moscow. There, he met a lot of Syrians; most of the top Syrian filmmakers were trained there. At one point, he shared a room with the director Mohamad Malas. They were both writers, or at least Malas already aspired to be a writer. I was so interested in this phenomenon. The image of the two of them, sitting at different desks in the same dormitory room, writing notes about each other, fascinated me because it was very Soviet. Except they weren’t writing notes for the KGB. Both were taking down every detail for their own literary ambitions, their future novels. They also made a film together called Everything Is in Place, And All Is in Order, Officer Sir, and Sonallah starred in it, even though he can’t act. He played himself: a political prisoner who reads newspapers.

Sonallah Ibrahim on the set of his graduation film co-written with Mohamad Malas in Moscow, from Malas’s “Film Diary” of Everything is in Place and All is in Order, Officer Sir (Damascus: Dār al-Madá lil-Thaqāfah wa-al-Nashr, 2003).

You think Moscow had its moment in the 1970s?

ML: It was full of Arab intellectuals who were each there for their own reasons, just because scholarships were available. Ironically, even though it was a totalitarian state, it was a time of freedom relative to what they had experienced back home. And they met each other: Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, all hanging out eating and drinking together and watching news of the 1973 war.

Why was Moscow an important place for studying abroad?

ML: It was affordable for people like Mohamad Malas. He had no particular desire to go to Russia or even to be a filmmaker, but he wanted to travel. The scholarship was a function of international politics. As far as Sonallah was concerned, he wanted to be in a place where he could sit and write. It wasn’t safe for him in Egypt as a communist under Sadat. Someone found him a fellowship.

Beyond this, Russian literature was very attractive, partly because Soviet cultural diplomacy made it cheaply available in good translations. You could buy Russian novels more cheaply than Arabic novels. Many intellectuals became interested in going to the source. The regimes created possibilities to go. 

When Ice was published in 2011, how was it received? 

ML: Sonallah told me, “It came out at the wrong moment.” Publication day was January 25, 2011, so there really wasn’t a critical reception. A couple of articles quibbling with his presentation of Russia, but there hasn’t been a lot of commentary on the literary style. Later, Elliott Colla wrote a good piece linking the stagnation of the USSR under Brezhnev with Mubarak’s Egypt.

How is Ice contextualized by Sonallah Ibrahim’s archive, and what can it tell us about today’s Egypt? 

Completion certificate, September 1974

ML: Sonallah’s personal archive is a treasure. Right now it is stored in boxes and boxes in his apartment in Heliopolis. I really hope a major library decides to acquire this archive. Sonallah has preserved things like travel tickets, postcards he received, his diary, his film school diploma, documentation of many stages of his life and work (and he is one of the more studied modern Egyptian writers) – along with his clippings from Egyptian newspapers, his homemade archive of Egyptian history. He still has those albums of clippings as described in Ice and in Malas’s “Portrait of Sonallah Ibrahim.” The albums show how he understood Egyptian history. His life’s work has been to understand the career and legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his own generation’s relationship to Nasser. (He recently published his novel called 1970, drawing on this research.) It reaches far beyond any leftism. It is more than just an attempt to understand what happened to post-colonial Egyptian history. 

Do you remember when you first heard about Sonallah Ibrahim and what made you want to study his novels? 

ML: In graduate school, I had read That Smell,  The CommitteeZaatand some other novels. I was already working on this Soviet connection project when الجليد came out. It fell right into my lap and I was so excited. I looked at the novel, the way it uses Russian words, and I thought: I am the exact person to translate this novel into English. I was born in Moscow and grew up speaking an immigrant’s self-conscious Russian. What Ice does is, it exoticizes the Russian and Soviet phenomena. The food, the music, the jokes, the names of everyday objects and the obshchezhitie (dormitory) itself. There is this ethnographic element: Sonallah wants the Egyptian readers to understand how foreign it felt. For instance, every time the narrator Shukri goes outdoors, there’s a long list of all the warm clothing he has to put on: his hat, coat, gloves, scarf, warm socks, boots. He makes a detailed fuss about this every time, to emphasize the cold weather, the obstacles to human contact. You are aware that this person is out of place. It is the same alienation effect as in That Smell, but set in a foreign country. The text dwells on awkward everyday details to the point that you wish the narrator would turn the camera away, but he doesn’t. 

How difficult was it for you to render this into English? 

ML: The most difficult thing, and Robyn Creswell talked about this too, is that in Arabic Sonallah has a very bald style. It is قليل الأدب in both senses: unrefined in both content and literary style. In Arabic this baldness is a slap in the reader’s face much more than in English, where we are used to short declarative sentences. So the main challenge was to convey that numbness and ill-mannered quality on the level of style, while still producing a book clear enough to be readable. That was a negotiation with the publisher, as you can imagine. 

Another challenge is that many of the book’s saddest and funniest situations are treated entirely subtextually. Everything emotionally important happens between the lines: for instance, an Egyptian and an unattractive Russian woman are debating the Woman Question in Egypt in a fairly cringe-making way, but really they’re negotiating whether or not to hook up. You have to picture the situation to get the irony. My goal was to leave the same kind of space between the lines as in Arabic, to reproduce the alienating structures and the gentle irony. I hope this comes across. 

After Ice, Ibrahim published Berlin69. How do these two novels compare? 

ML: I do think the two novels are continuous in style, with the same numb observational tone, but I think Moscow and therefore Ice carries a heavier burden of disappointment. Imagine: you are communist and spend five years in prison copying out bits of literary journals about Soviet writers. Then you get there, to the Red Mecca itself, and it is a sordid miserable place. I think in Berlin there was less at stake.

How is Ice connected to the Arabic genre of rihla, travel literature? 

ML: I think it is absolutely part of the rihla genre. Arabic is one of the few languages that I know of where the genre of “study abroad literature” actually exists. You don’t have this in English for example. It hasn’t been named or theorized as its own genre, separate from the writing of expatriates or exiles. الجليد is definitely part of that tradition and responds to رحلة في طلب العلم novels, such as Tawfiq al-Hakim’s novel Sparrow from the East, about Paris. But the interesting thing about Sonallah Ibrahim is that while this book participates in this rihla genre, his writing appears similarly alienated even “at home,” as in That Smell. He is always looking with an outsider’s eyes. He applies similar alienation effects (Verfremdungseffekt) to whatever he studies. 

What other works by Sonallah Ibrahim should readers consider?

ML: There have been several new translations recently: Hosam Aboul-Ela’s rendition of Warda about Dhofar, Oman (2021), Bruce Fudge’s forthcoming The Turban and the Hat (Seagull), as well as fairly recent translations of Beirut, Beirut (by Chip Rosetti, 2014) and That Smell and Notes from Prison (Robyn Creswell, 2013). There is even a graphic novel version of The Committee . I hope someone will someday produce an English version of Amrikanli, about Sonallah’s experience in Berkeley, Calif. And of course his long-unpublished early novella 1967 and his new novel 1970 about Abdel Nasser. There’s a lot to read!

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.

Forthcoming in English translation from Sonallah Ibrahim:

The Turban and the Hat, tr. Bruce Fudge (Seagull Books, April 2022)

Also read:

5 Arab-Soviet Novels