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.


Pankaj Mishra says: No to Eurabia, Islamofobics


The writer takes on fear-mongers and hysteria, as always, in an excellent books article in the Guardian:

Is Europe about to be overrun by Muslims? A number of prominent European and American politicians and journalists seem to think so. The historian Niall Ferguson has predicted that “a youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonise – the term is not too strong – a senescent Europe”. And according to Christopher Caldwell, an American columnist with the Financial Times, whom the Observer recently described as a “bracing, clear-eyed analyst of European pieties”, Muslims are already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street”. So what if Muslims account for only 3% to 4% of the EU’s total population of 493 million? In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Can Europe Be the Same With Different People in It? – which was featured on Start the Week, excerpted in Prospect, commended as “morally serious” by the New York Times and has beguiled some liberal opinion-makers as well as rightwing blowhards – Caldwell writes: “Of course minorities can shape countries. They can conquer countries. There were probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today.”


The Novelist in Wartime

storyThanks to the ‘onceuponthenile’ GoogleGroup that daily floods my inbox with links and stories from Chelsey, Hanna and Paul, I just read this speech by Haruki Murakami given in Jerusalem in February. He was accepting the Jerusalem Prize.

Feb. 20, 2009 | I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies — which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true — the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.


A monologue

Playwright David Hare recently published “Wall: A Monologue,” in the New York Review. It’s superb.

All right. Let’s be serious, let’s think about this.

Please, please: consider the state of affairs, consider the desperation, consider the depth of the despair. A country has reached a point at which 84 percent of its people are in favor of building a wall along its borders.

Have you ever known anything of which 84 percent of people were in favor? And yet there it is, over four fifths of a nation—can you imagine that figure?—saying something completely bizarre. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. This one, they say, is being built to keep people out.

You might call this an extraordinary state of affairs. Hardly a normal state of affairs. And that’s the word you hear all the time in the Middle East. “Normal.” The Palestinians ask, “When will we have a normal life?” And so do the Israelis. Indeed, the Israeli state was founded in 1948 with the principal ambition of being normal, of being a normal place like any other. The Palestinians call the foundation of the Israeli state the nakbeh: the disaster. And now sixty years later Israel believes itself, in the frequently expressed view of the majority, in need of a wall.

Except, of course, they don’t call it a wall. They call it a fence.

Listen to the reading of the monologue here. Read Hare’s play Stuff Happens.

Palestinian Animal Farm

George Orwell’s 1945 satiric novel Animal Farm was performed with a distinctively Palestinian flavor in a debut production this week at the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp, taking aim at internal politics and the alliance between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In scene one of the play, Farmer Jones assassinates the animals’ leader. In scene two, the animals – a few horses, a donkey, a crow, a chicken and some pigs – rally around a revolutionary sow named Snowball, who leads an uprising against their oppressive master.

“Intifada!” the animals scream, using the Arabic word for uprising. Strobe lights flash and heavy metal music blares as they chase Jones from the farm.


Globalization and the Messiness of Now

A conversation in the PEN America Journal between Amitava Kumar and Ilija Trojanow includes the following wonderful bit about the uselessness of Thomas Friedman and the 12th century trade routes of the Indian Ocean — brought up in a discussion of Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land.

Trojanow: … So I suppose I have learned from Indian writers the width of freedom that one has as an artist in this world, so long as you refuse to acknowledge cultural boundaries that other people build up.

Kumar: That’s beautiful. Ghosh’s book In an Antique Land is a great example of that. It follows two parallel narratives, both describing Indians in Egypt. The first begins in 1148 and the second in 1980. In the first, a slave from India is serving an Arab master and going to Arabia. Eight hundred years later this document about him is discovered in the Cairo Geniza, in a synagogue, because the man was Jewish. Of course, the document doesn’t become intelligible until someone takes it to Princeton after the Second World War. And then a young scholar at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh, finds it. He sees this Indian name and thinks he’s entitled to visit the Geniza to research its origins. In going there and in learning the Egyptian language, he meets these new migrants, devout Muslims who act as his guides as he, a Hindu, pieces together the journey of the slave from India to Egypt. These migrants later leave to work in Iraq.

This enormous mix of things confuses us because we don’t have a sense of history. Read, say, Thomas Friedman, who says that the world is flat, and you’d think that globalization was suddenly discovered by Thomas Friedman when he woke up one day. But globalization did not happen yesterday, and global exchange and global commerce and the sharing of goods and bodily fluids across all kinds of boundaries happened in other centuries too, often in easier ways.

Trojanow: That’s one of the myths of globalization. Samuel Huntington is ignorant beyond belief when he says that, in today’s world, suddenly cultures are coming together. The Indian Ocean, for example, was one big area of interaction, throughout many, many centuries. It was much easier for someone, say, three hundred years ago, living on the seaboard of the Indian Ocean, to have cultural exchange with someone else than it is today. For an Omani trader, or a Persian trader, or an Indian trader, or an Indonesian trader, there were certain highways—very seaworthy routes—defined by the monsoon. And today it’s quite difficult for a trader from Bihar to go to Mombasa, for example. He needs a passport, which in India is not easy. Then he needs a visa, which is even more difficult. And then he needs to save money for a plane ticket, which is almost impossible if he’s a small-town trader.

Worlds separate as they seem to come together; foreign students and young Syrians in internet cafes in Damascus talk to friends and relatives across the globe on Skype and we think communication is the key here — the two are more and more alike, dressing more and more alike, riveted by their online social networks, talking the world over. But in the livelihoods of the foreigner and the local disparties grow — the foreigner might leave Syria often, for weekend holidays, to Beirut or the Dead Sea, or even farther south, to the country whose stamp will deny you reentry into Syria — while the latter maybe never leaves, because he is harassed at the airport, or simply cannot afford it, and most certainly cannot enter Palestine. Travel eases for some while it constricts for others, and the world doesn’t flatten.

Hugh Kennedy reviews the Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights essentially reflect the world of Egyptian and Syrian urban culture of the Mamluk period (1260-1517) and the heroes of the stories are as often merchants as kings and princes, something that would be unimaginable in the contemporary world of Arthurian romance. There is lots of talk of commerce and money, the everyday life of the souks and ports from which the unsuspecting, but not unwilling, merchant can be lured to unimaginable adventures. Some of tales are set in clearly defined historical contexts. The most famous of these are the ones featuring the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the vizier Ja’far the Barma kid, Harun’s wife Zubayda and the poet/court jester Abu Nuwas. These are all well-known historical figures but none of the stories in which they figure has any known historical basis, and the caliph’s night-time, incognito wanderings through his mysterious capital of Baghdad are no more than devices to introduce more fabulous events. In most cases the stories are set in a sort of never-never land, just far enough beyond the horizons of the familiar world to allow for marvels and wonders of all sorts.

It is fair to say that the Nights was looked down on, or more often simply disregarded, by the literary elite of the Arabic-speaking world. The simple narrative flow, the numerous marvels and wholly improbable events, the questionable morality and, perhaps most of all, the sex with which the “Nights” are, to use Robert Irwin’s expression, “suffused”, all combined to ensure that they were never part of the classical Arabic canon.

From the New Statesman. Via.