Ignorance of Arabic writing in the West might only be exceeded by ignorance of that of any particular nationality in particular. Though the texts we recognize as a “novels” rose to prominence in Europe in the 19th century, the rest of the world followed as technology, wealth, national feeling and education gave the means and the opportunity to writers and readers. Unfortunately, it is when wars and disasters strike that some of this writing begins to find a wider audience — after first finding translators capable of bringing the original Arabic into the language of the audience.
Sonallah Ibrahim is an Egyptian writer of the generation of the Revolution of 1952, in which King Farouk was overthrown by The Free Officers Movement which eventually led to the end of the monarchy, the institution of a Revolution Command Council, the ascendancy of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Suez Crisis, and the permanent opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ibrahim was 15 at the time. He was arrested in 1959, at age 22, for left wing activities and imprisoned until 1964. He has worked as a journalist in Egypt and Germany and studied cinematography in Moscow. In 1999 he was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. I picked up this book at the recommendation of the on-line reading group in Dubai, Kutub.
Stealth [Al Talassus — which might better be translated as Sneaking, or Eavesdropping] is a short, relatively recent work, and one of several available in English. It is a good introduction to Ibrahim’s style and his concerns. The narrator is a young boy, of about 8 years old it seems, still young enough to be a daddy’s boy, and old enough to notice thighs and buttocks. In a style Ibrahim has been cited for as breaking with Arabic story telling tradition, but which will prove annoying to readers of English, almost every sentence is a short, subject-verb-object, a kind of Hemingway super minimalism. At times it seems a story told by lists:
I leave the room and close its door. I go out through the living room door. I cross the parlour to the hallway next to the kitchen. The wooden refrigerator closes in winter and has its pipes packed in ice in summer. I go past it and cross in front of the French-style bathroom. Next to it there is a country-style one. I open its door. I stand on top of its two shining marble foot stands on either side of the opening in the middle. I pee. I leave the bathroom. I close its door after me. I go into the bigger bathroom next to it…
That being said, it is also a book of revelations, possibly very simple revelations, for Euromerican readers, including that Muslims talk about sex!
Their voices drop… “she’s sixteen years old Her father died and she lives with her mother by herself. …she was wearing a night shirt that showed lots of cleavage. She had put on a line of lipstick. That was the first time I realized she had grown up… When she bent over to get a basket of butter I saw her tits. Pray on the Prophet! “
Other revelations are simple: what is eaten at home and in the streets; how do men greet each other?
[The Greek waiter] takes little plates off the tray and puts them on the table. Tahini, black olives, peanuts, and foreign bread cut in crescent shapes… I take a piece of the bread and plunge it into the tahini and gobble it up.. a vendor comes by in a gallabiya carrying a small basked full of boiled prawns…
or, Boxes of dried cod for Eid are stacked up in front. …Stacks of watermelon and cantaloupe melons. Some crates of grapes and figs. Father buys one oka of binati grapes and another of faiyumi figs… toasted white melon seeds…
…He prepares sakhina with warm milk for our evening meal. He boils some fenugreek. Adds molasses. The bread is cut into croutons. He throws it in a pan. Simmers it over a fire. He adds the fenugreek and molasses. Stirs it several times. He dishes it out on to my plate and pours warm milk over it.
Some of the foods are familiar to Europeans and travelers there. The specificity of faiyumi figs is not, and tells us we are looking in on a culture where figs are major food, to be decided among as we might decide among lettuces. As to fenugreek and molasses! We are in a different world from America altogether.
The time the story takes place is just after Israel declared statehood, and news of Arab defeat and Palestinians surging into exile were filling the papers. The men refer to the shame, the boys imagine being commandos to fight the Israelis, but politics is part of the background, less important than finding food, visiting family, thinking of sex.
“Everyone looks at a plump woman wearing trousers on the opposite pavement. The lights from the shops shine down on her back and make clear the roundness of her bottom. The turbaned sheikh says: ‘See the old lady that has no shame. Everything’s showing.’ The priest slaps his hands together and says, ‘The world’s gone to hell.’ The turbaned Sheikh says: ‘Do you think we lost in Palestine for nothing?’ Refaat says: “Our cannons were blowing up in our faces.’ Father says: ‘King Abdullah was colluding with the Jews.’ Dr. Aziz says: ‘The Jewish forces expelled half a million Arabs into Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt and all Azzam Pahsa can tell us is that they’ll burn in hell for it.’ They laugh.
The father of the story is an older man, and one not happy about having a young son late in life, with the mother gone, apparently to an asylum– we never know why, or when. He recalls the 1919 revolution against the British, with its military draft; the poor maiming themselves to escape it, the wealthy paying a “replacement charge.”
Woven into the main story are the memories, italicized, the youngster has of his mother, sometimes linked by objects in both present and past, sometimes just a memory, of loss, sometimes a brief flash of what happened to her:
They are looking through a big crack in the coated glass. I can see mother through it, standing in front of the door to the apartment. Grandma is beside her…and the daughters of the landlord. My father is all dressed up. He head is bare. She is screaming: ‘You want to poison me? You’ve put poison here.” She points at a glass cup sitting on the bannister. Father says in a quiet and tired voice: ‘Relax. Drink up and it’ll calm you.’
Not a great book I think, but an interesting one. It ends as though it might still be unfolding, as if a journal left aside. We have a final revelation about the mother, a look at the aging father, weeping, but no sense of end-of-this-story. The translated English seems adequate to me, and where I had to stop to consider things it wasn’t clear if it was the translation, or the original text-syntax itself. It’s always a difficult decision for a translator trying to to faithful to a literary expression — which may be odd in it’s native environment– yet not leaving it so odd as to be unapproachable by non-natives. Hosam Aboul-Ela has done a very professional, if not inspired, job.
Despite it’s peculiarities Stealth is an interesting read, both for the times and the people we get a glimpse of and as a piece of Egyptian-Arabic fiction. The novels of the better known, and Nobel laureated, Naguib Mahfouz read more like novels we are familiar with and so we are more comfortable. I’m not against discomfort in reading though. After all, isn’t that part of the point? I’m not sure yet, but I may follow up with one of the several other Ibrahims available in translation.
Zaat is the story of a woman during the regimes of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, told with black humor and wide cultural references. A book of photography, Cairo from Edge to Edge has been widely praised, though of course it’s not a novel. The Smell of It, his first novella in 1966, is out of print but available used in a 1971 D.J. Davies translation. His most recent book, Americanli, 2003, has been translated (don’t know by whom) and is available, though it gets an unhappy review here.
You can find out more about Sonallah Ibrahim here, here and a great list of Arabic authors here. The Wikipedia article on Arabic literature is a good, quick toe-dip into unfamiliar waters. The reading group which started me on the book, Kutub has its own summary of Stealth here.
[If you’d like to start reading some Egyptian fiction with a few less impediments than Stealth try Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs. This 1961 short novel by Egypt’s only Nobel Prize in Literature winner,[translated in 1984 byTrevor Le Gassick and M.M. Badawi] is a noirish crime story with hints of Raskolnikov and Mersault. It’s accessible both in style and in themes of modernity and alienation familiar to western readers. A rewarding read.]