On the Sonallah Ibrahim Renaissance 

By Tugrul Mende

The Turban and the Hat is the most recent of Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels to reach English, translated by Bruce Fudge and published by Seagull earlier this year. The novel imagines its way into the lives of Egyptians during the French occupation. In this interview, Bruce Fudge talks through the complexity of the novel, the challenges of translating it, and why Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels are so popular. 

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When did you first read Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels?

Bruce Fudge: I first knew Sonallah Ibrahim’s novels from when I was a student in the 1990s in Cairo. We read تلك الرائحة and اللجنة and maybe ذات, I don’t remember. Those were standards on the reading list; he was one of the favourites. I didn’t think much about him for many years afterwards. I kept up a little bit with modern Arabic literature, but my focus was really on the medieval period. The way things transpired was that, ten years ago, I started a translation for the Library of Arabic Literaturewhich was the Hundred and One Nights, a sister version of the 1001 Nights

I really enjoyed doing the Hundred and One Nights, and I wanted to translate something else; I thought maybe something modern. I was looking around, keeping an eye out for something I’d be interested in turning in to English. At the same time, completely coincidentally, I was reading a lot about Napoleon. This was just for personal interest, but of course I read some books about his Egyptian campaign and the French occupation of Egypt from 1799 to 1801, and I found this era fascinating because the sources give us a really vivid picture of that period, especially for Cairo. And it’s a fascinating, if not necessarily happy, history. 

Anyway, at the same time I somewhere came across a reference to Sonallah Ibrahim having written a novel about the French occupation, which of course I had never heard of. This must have been in the wake of Robyn Creswell’s new translation of تلك الرائحة, when there were any number of reviews and articles about Sonallah appearing. I don’t remember exactly. So I found the book, it was called العمامة والقبعة (“The Turban and the Hat”) and I loved it. It really appealed to me, for many reasons. 

What sparked your decision to translate this novel? 

BF: There were two main things that really drew me to it: There is the historical and the geographical aspect of the novel—I just said how fascinating I find the French occupation. And there is also the fact that there is this city that I used to know. I have many great memories of wandering around Cairo, along the same streets and past the same buildings as the novel’s narrator. It was a modern novel, but the premodern setting appealed to me as well. Also, I really appreciated the political aspect. Ibrahim wrote it during the American occupation of Iraq, and even though this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book, obviously, you’d have to be a pretty obtuse reader not to think of it. But it’s never didactic or polemical or preachy. For the most part, it just lets events speak for themselves. There is a lot of stuff about taxation and administration, and surprisingly it is really interesting, showing the mechanics of how the French (but also the Ottomans) oppressed the Egyptians. The novel also has the unflattering but sympathetic portrait of Egyptians one comes to expect from the author.

How would you describe the characters in the novel? As reflections of Sonallah Ibrahim’s own personality? 

BF: There is not a whole lot of characterization. It’s not that kind of a novel. The narrator is a callow young man who serves primarily as our witness to the occupation. At first, he is just an observer, but he gradually gets drawn into the various events of the time, and gradually becomes more of a participant, both on the political level, in that he becomes part of the opposition, and on the personal level, in that he gets to know a number of the French, and even falls in love with Bonaparte’s mistress of the time. 

In terms of real historical figures, we have a character, Sheikh Jabarti, whose portrayal is largely in line with what we know about him. That is to say, he was a learned man, he was a member of the divan that Bonaparte put together in an attempt to get the cooperation of the scholars and notables. The Jabarti of the novel largely conforms to what we know of the man himself, from Jabarti’s own writings. I should perhaps explain that our only major Arabic sources for the period are the books of Jabarti, who left detailed but very readable chronicles of the French activities and the Egyptian reactions to the invaders.

But there are complications: Jabarti left several versions. He rewrote his chronicle because he was afraid that the first version was too favourable to the French and too critical of the Turks. When the Turks came back to power, he prepared a new version that would be more acceptable to the powers that be. He seems to have had a good instinct for self-preservation and the novel portrays him as behaving somewhat cynically, if understandably. He is distressed by the fact that the French are not Muslims, and he is especially concerned about the extra taxes that they are imposing, and about his own financial situation. He is not particularly concerned about the masses. He makes clear distinctions between different religious denominations in Egyptian or Cairene society. Sonallah manages to weave what we do know about Jabarti into the fabric of the story.

The other main historical character is Pauline Fourès, who is the lover of Bonaparte while in Egypt. Here, Sonallah Ibrahim’s imagination takes hold, as we don’t know that much about her and what exactly she did in Egypt, and the relationship she has with the narrator is of course a fabrication. It may sound absurd, but it’s really nicely done. Sonallah Ibrahim uses the relationship to go beyond the political interaction between the French and the Cairenes, to explore what it might have been like on a personal level.

How much do you need to know about the history in order to enjoy reading the novel?

BF: Not much. All you need to know will become clear enough in the first pages. (and just in case, I explain usefully in the introduction who the Mamluks are, that kind of thing.) It will appeal to the general reader.  It’s a relatively short book, and the prose is very simple.  It’s very accessible, and it’s always clear who belongs to what group and what’s at stake. 

What kind of challenges did you face in the translation, vs. for instance the Hundred and One Nights

BF: The experience was surprisingly similar. Both works are primarily narrative, they describe series of events and conversations. There is not a lot of philosophical reflection; the descriptive passages tend to be fairly straightforward. Literary Arabic has very flowery language and complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses and that sort of thing, but there is relatively little of it in the Nights or The Turban and the Hat. Or for that matter, in the chronicles of Jabarti, which are also written, to a large degree, in a straightforward style. Sonallah Ibrahim himself is well known for having a really pared down, minimalist style of writing, so there is a lot of continuity in that sense.

I found that somewhere between a third and half of the novel is taken directly or with slight paraphrase from Jabarti’s own texts. Ibrahim has cut and pasted from Jabarti’s early 19th century chronicles. Some other passages I recognized as coming from French sources from the occupation. This is part of Sonallah Ibrahim’s style: the use of documents or other kinds of sources. He inserts all sorts of things into his novels: advertisements, commercials, speeches, diaries, and the like. This is straightforward enough for the late twentieth century, but in this book it to use the documentation available for the period, those written by the French and Egyptian observers (the latter being exclusively Jabarti). So even though the novel is set two centuries ago, Ibrahim is faithful to his own literary style. 

One of the main challenges was that there is a lot of administrative and military vocabulary from Jabarti that I did not know and that I had trouble finding in dictionaries. In some cases, I had to ask Ottomanist colleagues and others.

 There are also place names: buildings and streets. One of the things that is wonderful if you know Cairo is that, when the narrator talks about going from one place to another, he frequently mentions all the streets or landmarks on the way. If you know the area, this is great, but even still, I couldn’t find some of these names.   looked for maps or other information about Cairo as it was in the late Ottoman period. Fortunately, there is one Arabic edition in particular, of Jabarti’s مظهر التقديس بزوال دولة الفرنسيس, edited by ʿAbd al-rahim ʿAbd al-rahman -ʿAbd al-rahim, which has excellent notes, explaining various administrative terms as well as the history of street and neighborhood names. Perhaps there are others, but that was the one accessible to me and it was a great help. Another thing that helped me was one of the last books of Humphrey Davies. It was co-written with Lesley Lababidi: A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo. This is a wonderful and fascinating book. The area covered only partially overlaps with that in the novel, but it was very helpful, and I recommend it to anyone who is fond of Cairo.

In your introduction you write that his fiction “has always functioned as a kind of archive.” In what way would you say it is true to this novel?

BF: I can’t speak for Sonallah Ibrahim in general, but I know he collects a lot of clippings and documents and has his own archive of sorts at his home in Heliopolis. You see his use of documents in his novels; I think that this is part of his way of representing reality.  As I wrote in the introduction, I think there is also the question of who gets to write Egypt’s history, and who will maintain the archives and documents necessary to tell that history? 

I saw The Turban and the Hat as part of a kind of informal Cairene trilogy, along with That Smell and Stealth (التلصص). Each is a young male’s observations of the city of Cairo and what’s going on at a particular time and place. Each is very sparse and unsentimental, yet moving in its own way. He manages to pack a great deal into those observations, such that the perspective might seem quite limited, but they paint a broad picture of Cairene life at a particular historical point. 

Why do you think Ibrahim’s novels get so much attention from translators?

BF: Well, in part it’s because he is very well known and has been around for a long time, and most foreigners who learn Arabic will come across his novels at some point. The other thing is they are largely novels of ideas, and can be better appreciated, and perhaps better translated, than novels which require a deeper knowledge of the cultural context. He treats big topics: revolution, capitalism, communism. Ibrahim was also very much influenced by literary and artistic trends outside the Arab world, probably more than many other novelists, at least for his time. Perhaps this makes him more accessible to an international readership. There is something very atypical in Sonallah Ibrahim, and it makes it more appealing or more accessible in translation. I am not sure why we have had a sort of Sonallah renaissance since 2013, with That Smell and the reissue of Hosam Abul-Ela’s translation of Stealth, Chip Rosetti’s Beirut Beirut, Margaret Litvin’s Ice, and Hosam’s Warda, and now The Turban and the Hat. When I decided to do my translation, I certainly had no idea I was making such a fashionable choice. 

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Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit

1 Comment

  1. Not that he needs my testimony, but he’s one heck of a talented writer and I’m glad his stories found a special spot in my childhood memories. I got introduced to his work in the early 90’s, 1992 to be precise. My aunt had bought me two of his books on the lives of bees and spiders: يوم عادت الملكة القديمة (When the Old Queen Returned) and عندما جلست العنكبوت تنتظر (When the Spider Sat There Waiting). I still look back at those days with utter fondness. His writing style is immaculate.

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