Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim


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From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

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