x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The diarist

Sonallah Ibrahim, Arabic fiction's best known dissident, reinvents the historical novel. Youssef Rakha applauds a stunning work.

The Turban and the Hat reconstructs Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, as shown in the illustration Bataille des Pyramides by Stefano Bianchetti.
The Turban and the Hat reconstructs Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, as shown in the illustration Bataille des Pyramides by Stefano Bianchetti.

The Turban and The Hat (Al 'amamah wal qubba'ah) Sonallah Ibrahim Dar al Mustaqbal al Arabi

The Turban and the Hat, a stunning account of the encounter in late 18th-century Cairo between East and West, might be the breakthrough contemporary Arabic novel that many have been anticipating since the dawn of the 1990s. The intervening years have seen not only new, more aggressively innovative voices in the novel and the prose poem, but also greater press freedom in Egypt and a sense of a more urgent need to question and reformulate Arab national identity in the light of world developments.

Ibrahim made his name with a vastly influential Hemingwayesque novella called That Smell (published in Denys Johnson-Davies' English translation as The Smell of It), which he began to write in 1963, though at first he had no plans to publish it. He had just been released from an extended political detention which, beginning in his teenage years, prevented him from attending university. His crime? Ironically for a supporter of the Nasser regime and an avowed nationalist, he was punished for his alleged association with communists who were accused of planning to overthrow the government.

At the time of his release, Ibrahim - still in his early twenties - was terrified, lonely and poor. Though he was trying to write a never-to-be-completed collection of short stories he hoped would become his first book, he began to keep a daily journal to maintain his sanity. Decades later, in his sixties, Ibrahim was to recall how, gradually, he ended up spending more and more time on that journal and less and less on his conscious literary creations, whose style he likened to the social realism then in vogue. The diary, which became That Smell, eschewed every abstract reference or flight of lyricism, let alone the ideological grand narratives of social realism. Its sentences were short and terse, driven by verbs. Its vocabulary was limited. Unlike many writers since the 1950s, in That Smell Ibrahim made no attempt at mimicking the spoken dialect (which is markedly different from written Arabic). Yet he managed to sound more vernacular than most.

The content of that slim volume was equally compelling. With an attention to the physical that would not resurface in his writing until the 1990s, Ibrahim evoked life brutally, as it was lived, describing the systematic abuse of a young prisoner, for example, in the same deadpan way as he subtly, insidiously constructed characters. A whimper as opposed to a bang, which was also frighteningly to-the-point: That Smell exposed the horrors and hypocrisies of a world headed irrevocably for its end (which end many would identify with the 1967 War).

That Smell appeared in a series of small editions beginning in 1966, some of which were cut by the censors, some banned. Many early readers, Ibrahim recalls, thought he had wasted valuable material on an ephemeral short story. They were wrong. The sheer power of the book was incredible: not only did it prove among the most abiding literary influences in 20th-century Arabic literature, it also introduced the notion of a narrator-protagonist who was neither hero nor anti-hero but simply an involved witness: seemingly objective, sensible and only really concerned with his direct experience of the world.

That notion of the witness, ash shaped, was so compelling it immediately turned Ibrahim into an intellectual celebrity; he became, for numerous literary agents provocateurs of the politicised 1960s and their heirs, the voice of an era. And like every writer who has produced a truly original first book, once he had found his feet he was at a loss what to do next. In fact he did not write anything remotely like That Smell until last year, when he felt compelled to return to the atmosphere infusing his early life, as he has put it. If Ibrahim announced the end of Nasser's world with a whimper in That Smell, for three decades afterwards he sought to deliver similar messages by banging as hard as he could.

Amri-kan-li, published in 2003, was the last in a string of much louder works. (The title is a pun: it is both an old-fashioned way of saying "American" and, "I am master of my affairs".) A tightly planned response to his term as a guest lecturer at a US university, it is the author's definitive statement on America and why it does what it does to the world. Today, Ibrahim is better known among the general public for books like August Star, Beirut Beirut and Zaat - books in which he departed as far from the poetic simplicity of his early work as he possibly could.

These are longer, barely fictionalised narratives on predetermined themes - the building of the Aswan High Dam, the Lebanese Civil War and the demise of the Egyptian middle class, in the examples above - and they are far less sensitive to language. They favour factual reality over the life of the mind. Often borrowing heavily from the newspapers and other media with a view to contextualising the private dramas of their more or less archetypal characters, they are experimental in the most down-to-earth sense, in many ways more like reportage than fiction. And they have been criticised as much for their lack of poetry as for their relentless topicality.

To admirers of That Smell, some of whom quickly lost interest in Ibrahim, these works were political gestures that demonstrated the author's abiding commitment to saying the political truth if nothing else: a promise other veterans of the sixties seldom kept. Roughly coinciding with the publication of Amri-kan-li, for example, Ibrahim reconfirmed his status as a Sixties Generation dissident by spectacularly turning down the 2003 Award of the Conference on the Novel, an initiative of the Egyptian government's Higher Council of Culture. For weeks after being notified that he would be awarded the prize, worth 100,000 Egyptian pounds (Dhs 68,632), he kept secret his decision to decline it. Then he turned up at the awards ceremony, went up to the podium and - to the amazement of all present - read out a deeply moving speech turning down "the honour of a government that does not have the credibility to bestow it". It brought tears to the eyes of even those who were completely unfamiliar with his work.

In 2007 Ibrahim returned to his earlier form with Spying, an intimately observed account of the relationship between a little boy and his ageing father after the mother's consignment to a lunatic asylum. Probably Ibrahim's most autobiographical book to date, told from the viewpoint of the child, it is both "a growing-up narrative that explores the absence of women", in the words of the author, and a meticulously researched chronicle of 1940s Cairo. Its style is reminiscent of That Smell, but considerably more layered.

Benefiting from the methodology of books like August Star and Beirut Beirut, Spying takes That Smell a step further. Combined with the results of historical research, the diary technique acquires depth and wider relevance. The poetry of a newly released political detainee is convincingly welded to the contents of the newspapers and social events shaping a very specific place and time. To the present writer, among others, it came as a very pleasant surprise.

No one would have thought that, within the space of a year, Ibrahim would turn around and deliver an even more compelling synthesis of elements, taking the poetry of That Smell several steps further still. The latest in a very minor tradition of fictional reconstructions of Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 Campaign to Egypt, which lasted three years, The Turban and the Hat is written in a journal-entry format immediately evocative of the great 19th-century historian Abdurrahman al Jabarti's History of Egypt. Jabarti, an eyewitness to the invasion, documented the French army's simultaneous struggle against the Mameluke beys and the British-allied Ottoman army, as well as chronicling the eventual rise to power of Mohammad Ali Pasha in 1805, generally seen to mark the genesis of modern Egypt. What makes The Turban and the Hat so powerful is the articulate expression of this moment - as much the result of the mingling of cultures brought about by the French occupation as of the Pasha's genius.

The Turban and the Hat is the secret chronicle of an unnamed 18-year-old student of Jabarti who lives with the historian and works at one of the French campaign's "scientific" centres in Cairo. He carries on an affair with one of Napoleon's lovers, and befriends both the Coptic collaborators seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire and the Syrian student Suleiman al Halabi - who travelled to Cairo to assassinate Napoleon's successor in Egypt, General Kléber, a crime for which he was sentenced to death by impalement on a stake.

Ibrahim draws equally on Jabarti and other contemporary sources, allowing the diarist to provide a rounded picture not only of the historian's character but of his shifting loyalties and the balancing act he was required to perform to maintain his position of prominence in society, explaining why certain events were omitted from his history. He also draws on the much celebrated encyclopaedia produced by the scholars who accompanied the French military, the Description d'Egypte, and numerous subsequent interpretations of his sources.

In so doing he manages to capture, in the character of the diarist, a remarkably convincing embodiment of the encounter between East and West and the birth pangs of both the young nation and of Egyptian (also, in effect, Arab) modernity. The diarist, for example, is sufficiently versed in modern ways to convert the then more current Hejira dates to the Gregorian calendar. And though he uses a language remarkably like Jabarti's - even the historian's grammatical mistakes, his idiosyncrasies of idiom and spelling, are largely preserved - the diarist sounds a distinctly modern note.

A far more intricately developed version of the persona Ibrahim first devised in That Smell, the hero of The Turban and the Hat is, of course, also a vision of the writer-chronicler himself. A few entries towards the end of the book are written from within a French prison, where the diarist is placed following his arrest in the act of putting up posters inciting French soldiers to desert and escape back to their country. This recalls the young Ibrahim reading and writing in the Western Desert Oases Detention Camp in the late 1950s, during which time he was at the same age as his turn-of-the-19th-century Doppelganger.

The book ends with Jabarti sorting through the records he has kept during the "three years and twenty one days" of the French occupation after the Ottomans have taken over. Calling his student, he begins to dictate a new version of the book - one which, unaware of the imminent arrival of Mohammad Ali, seeks to omit all positive reference to the French and negative reference to the Turks - to be presented to the Grand Vizier by way of the Veli.

Sitting cross-legged to do as he is told, the diarist wonders whether, if it were ever to be published, he would be obliged to make similar changes to his own account of the period. @Email:yrakha@thenational.ae