Sonallah Ibrahim

Sonallah400The new issue of Bidoun is out, its theme Interviews. In it is an interview with Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, by Ahmed El Attar. In 2003 Ibrahim famously rejected a literary prize funded by the Egyptian government, the Supreme Council for Culture’s Novelist of the Year. The then-66 year old, part of the “sixties Generation” of revolutionary writers, walked slowly to the stage of the Cairo Opera House, built by the Japanese in the eighties, where he gave a scathing, sober indictment of the government.

In his speech (reprinted in many papers), Ibrahim—darling of the leftist set that has dominated the Arab novel since the 1960s—said: “I have no doubt that every Egyptian here is aware of the extent of the catastrophe facing our country. It’s not just the real Israeli military threat to our eastern borders, the American dictates, or the weakness showing in our government’s foreign policy: It’s all aspects of life. We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences, and false funds. We don’t have industry, agriculture, health, or justice. Corruption and pillage spreads. And anyone who objects faces getting beaten up or tortured. The exploitative few have wrested our spirit from us.”

But he left the pièce de résistance to the end: “All that’s left for me is to thank those who chose me for this prize but to say that I won’t be accepting it because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.” The hall, according to press reports, erupted in shock and support, as Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni was left trying to call to order a jubilant literary pack. [World Press Review]

I’ve been googling Ibrahim all evening, trying to read more about him and “the Opera incident.” A month after his’s rejection, Mona Anis wrote in Al Ahram Weekly of a “last act” in light of the evening’s late, last-minute dedication to the recently late Edward Said.

Ending what we had supposed was an acceptance speech with an indictment of the Egyptian government and its cultural institutions Ibrahim walked out, leaving the cheque and trophy on the podium, many of those sitting in the front rows angry, and at least half the auditorium applauding. It was a moment I would have wanted to write to Edward Said about.

In his interview, Ibrahim is asked about that night, and how such confrontation went against his usual stand away from the limelight, just writing. [The novelist wrote a short piece about his rejection of the prize, as El Attar says in a question: “You chose a clear political posture and social stance during the Opera incident, and then you wrote a small piece about it. When I read that piece, I wanted to cry. It was unprecedented. Intellectuals, artists, and writers tend to talk too much without really saying anything. Your words were so categorical and so precise. You simply said, “What’s going on?” PLEASE any help on where to find a copy.]

Why did Ibrahim confront the government that night? Long-serving Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, long gunning for the UNESCO head job, was on stage that night in 2003, and apparently had to try and hush applause, blue-faced. Ibrahim’s answer:

In the past, I was always putting off conflict. But I feel that the situation has reached a breaking point, and that we’ve been placed under an unbearable degree of stress. It has inspired rebellion in people for the first time, an emerging vitality of the “other” point of view. When I think back, it’s true I didn’t feel like I could go and receive the award and go through all those congratulatory formalities, which I can’t stomach very easily anyway — but at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity to speak my mind. So I decided not to decline. I went in order to let it out, to say and project all that people wanted to say but could not.I believe that i was a successful initiative from one perspective, from the perspective that my appearance was as surprise for them. They didn’t anticipate that I’d actually come. So they weren’t able to react fast enough, and that’s why I escaped arrest.


4 thoughts on “Sonallah Ibrahim

  1. This reminds me a bit of Edward Said’s speech at AUC graduation in 1999 (where he received an honorary doctorate from the university, I believe). Some of the arguments were reiterated in a later Al Ahram article – he basically criticises AUC for its lack of academic freedom in front of all these dignitaries who expected him to gratefully receive his award and laud the institution. truth to power, man.

  2. This reminds me of Said’s speech at the 1999 AUC graduation, some arguments of which he later reiterated in an article for Al Ahram . All these dignitaries were there, expecting him to laud the institution that was also giving him an honorary doctorate on the occasion, and he criticized the university for its lack of academic freedom. truth to power in egypt, man.

  3. this reminds me of another cairene ‘truth to power’ moment. At the 1999 AUC graduation, E.Said got an honorary doctorate an was expected to praise the institution in front of all the dignitaries present. Instead, ended up criticizing AUC for its lack of academic freedom, albeit not quite as directly as Ibrahim went about. He repeated some of his arguments in a later Al Ahram article, but somehow I can’t find than anymore…

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