Sonallah Ibrahim
Photo by: 
Victoria Hazou
Sonallah Ibrahim

A voice of dissent joins the nationalist chorus

Sonallah Ibrahim speaks about the army, Egypt's ‘war on terrorism,’ and the people

Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most innovative and significant writers. In works such as “That Smell” (1966), “The Committee” (1981), “Zaat” (1992) and “Sharaf” (1997), he combines originality of form and darkest humor with a relentless critique of commercialism, conformism, authoritarianism and imperialism.

I am an admirer of Ibrahim's work, of his personal probity and his willingness to pay the price of his convictions. Despite his support for Nasserism, Ibrahim was jailed along with other communists by late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. In 2005, he turned down a prestigious and financially significant cultural award from the Mubarak government because, as he said at the time, the government "didn't have the credibility" to bestow it.

I met and interviewed Ibrahim in 2010, on the occasion of the English translation of his novel “Talassus” (2007; translated into English as “Stealth,” and into French “Le Petit Voyeur”). The autobiographical novel is a touching portrait of his unusual childhood and his relationship with his elderly father, which shows the roots of his life-long sympathy with outsiders and of his obsession with ferreting out the truth. We had a wonderful conversation.

Given Ibrahim's tendency to question official narratives, and what struck me as his kind-heartedness, I was surprised this summer when I read an interview in an Egyptian newspaper in which he seemed to wholeheartedly support the crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi — hundreds of whom were killed by army and police over the summer — and to unquestioningly accept the military leadership's presentation of itself as at the service of the people.

I visited him again. Everything was as I remembered it: The four flights of stairs up to his modest apartment, the overflowing shelves of books there, and Ibrahim himself, with his large thick glasses, cloud of fizzy grey hair, and thin, sensitive, often laughing face. However, our conversation confounded my expectations.


Mada Masr: How would you describe what happened in Egypt this summer?

Sonallah Ibrahim: Many people consider what happened in Egypt a revolution. I think what happened is an intifada. And now, another [intifada]. And we are still in the process of revolution — it’s going on.

MM: Revolt against what?

SI: It’s better to ask, for the sake of what? For the sake of simple human things. Bread, freedom, dignity. But the revolt of June 30 became of a higher level. It was more politically conscious. There is now a national consciousness — a feeling of Egyptian and Arab identity, of the traditional goals of the Egyptian people and the Egyptian nationalist movement against imperialism, against the United States, against the West, for the sake of self-determination. This is what I mean by watania [patriotism].

MM: Against the West, because the West supported the Muslim Brotherhood?

SI: Of course [laughs]. It’s clear as the sun. Is there any [other] explanation of what’s going on in the West? Why the US is taking such a position, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood?

MM: But US officials have done everything they could to avoid using the word “coup” so as not to have to stop US aid to Egypt.

SI: That’s diplomacy. But on the ground, they helped and supported the Brotherhood. Obama gave them US$4 billion and there is some investigation going on inside the Congress on this.

[An argument ensues over the veracity of this claim. I suppose Ibrahim is referring to the $40 million given to Egyptian NGOs by the US after Mubarak's ouster. Later I do some research online and find this.]

MM: Since January 25, there’s been a struggle over the narrative, over history. There’s the idea now that January 25 was a conspiracy by the Brotherhood, Hamas and the US. And now after three years the police and the army succeeded against this conspiracy, and June 30 is the real revolution, the correction, the completion. What do you think of this writing of a different history?

SI: A lot of different things are being said. It is not strange that there are attempts to give particular explanations. But my opinion is that what happened on January 25 was a logical, natural thing and not orchestrated by anyone.

MM: And beautiful…

SI: And beautiful. It’s impossible to get all those people out according to a plan or a conspiracy. Maybe, sure, so-and-so wanted one thing, so-and-so helped in one way. All of that was there, all the small factors were there. But the main thing is that the people had, had ... [exhales dramatically] enough.

MM: And on June 30 the people had had enough of the Brotherhood.

SI: Yes.

MM: And now you have a war on terrorism. We’ve had a war on terrorism in America for more than 10 years. What’s the difference between our war on terrorism and yours?

SI: First of all the United States is a terroristic state in the world. Look at everything from the Korean War, to the Vietnam War and Iraq. Anyway, this isn’t our subject. Our subject is, is there terrorism in Egypt?

MM: And the fact that a war on terrorism can be used by any government to mobilize and to scare people, and to repress.

SI: Yes, I agree. But there really is terrorism. If you go down and walk in the street and a bomb explodes, isn’t that terrorism?

MM: But was this terrorism happening before August 14, or did it all start after the Rabea al-Adaweya dispersal? There were troubles in Sinai, but this small, independent terrorism started after the Rabea massacre.

SI: It wasn’t a massacre. [Laughs at the expression of surprise on my face]. What’s a massacre?

MM: A lot of people died.

SI: Why did they die?

MM: By violence on both sides, but the numbers show where most of the violence came from.

SI: No no no. You [supporters of Morsi] come to this place and you want to make it —

MM: — a sit-in.

SI: No, it’s not a sit-in. Not a regular sit-in. We know what a sit-in is, it has its rules. But for you to come and seize this place and bring weapons, and torture people … That’s not a sit-in. And you’re there for more than a month. And I say to you: Get out. Stop it. And you say: I don’t want to.

MM: So that’s it, they deserved to die?

SI: Yes.

MM: Really?

SI: No. Not to die. But they deserve to be kicked out by force. They can just go, get out of there. But if you resist, and use weapons, and shoot from the roofs of buildings, I’m going to shoot you. It’s simple, it’s natural, it would happen any place in the world.

MM: You can go look at what I've been writing for the last two years and how I've been criticizing the Brotherhood. I'm absolutely not a supporter. It's almost funny and strange that I have to say this. But I'm surprised at how little sympathy there is for, not the Brotherhood leadership, but the people who died. I've been to lots of Islamist demonstrations and the people there are Egyptians, they're just like anyone else.

SI: The problem isn't their ideas, the problem is their behavior. Say what you want, but you can't take up weapons.

MM: But most of them weren't armed. There were women and children.

SI: I'm not saying most of them. Some of them carry weapons. And their ideas facilitate this. They create an atmosphere that facilitates [violence], regardless of whether there's a plan. Any simple, nice fellow who hears these kinds of words may get a knife and go out and attack.

MM: Do you think we are going back to the 1990s, where the only choice is between authoritarianism and Islamism?

SI: Please don't use big clichés. The emergency law is temporary and will end.

MM: It was temporary before and lasted 30 years.

SI: Yes, and then we cancelled it. And Mubarak was in power 30 years and won the referendum and whatever else, and then we got rid of him. We can end the state of emergency. You have to realize there is a new element in the Egyptian equation: the people. The people, a group without a defined leadership. There are things it will accept and things it won’t. It all depends on the people.

MM: So you're optimistic?

SI: Yes, very. Extremely.

MM: Can you tell me more about this new national consciousness?

SI: Since [former President Anwar] Sadat came to power after the 1973 war, there has been a psychological goal to change the mood of Egyptians, the way they understood identity and nationalism. This is what was going on for 40 years, until we reached a point that people forget that they are Egyptians.

MM: Don't you think nationalism can have a dark side?

SI: What is the dark side of nationalism? What is nationalism? What do you understand by it? Maybe we understand it in different ways.

MM: At its best I think it's the desire for independence, development, building a better future. But in practice it seems to me that it's often used as a way to silence people, to speak in the name of everyone. There's a saying, "Patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel."

SI: I agree. I make a difference with chauvinism — I hate this and am against this. What I mean by nationalism is to realize your own capacities, and try to find your way about development away from the interests of the multinationals.

[He gets up and picks up a plastic bag with a few bars of soap.]

Look at the soap. You will not find an Egyptian piece of soap. This is just a little example. If you'd like to have a future, you have to be able to get hold of your destiny — to be able to make things which you need, not to depend on others for making it. This leads to the independence of political decision-making. The Egyptians would like to go out of the map designed by multinationals, by Obama, by the CIA, by whatever, in agreement with the leading people in Germany and France and the West. All of them have a plan to keep this area under their influence, for two reasons: 200 million consumers for their goods, and as a piece in the coming clash with China.

MM: I'm not sure that ... the new government, and the military leadership and the regime generally is going to change. Aren't they the same people who have been ruling the country for the last 50 years? They're also responsible. Why would they change now?

SI: Yes, yes. We shall see.

MM: And now they think they have the people with them, and everybody supports them.

SI: For the time being. We cannot tell about the future. Maybe we'll have another confrontation.

MM: It doesn't seem like a priority now to make Egypt more economically independent.

SI: My dear, the priority now is to stop terrorism! How can you plan for anything, if the trains aren't running, if people are being shot in front of police stations? The main thing now is security. It is to stop terrorism.

MM: I can't help feeling that there will never be security sector reform. It's very good for [the security services] to be fighting terrorism. Nobody is going to push them to change. Do you see what I'm saying?

SI: It takes time. The fundamental thing now is, if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him.

MM: What is the role writers and artists and intellectuals in these circumstances?

SI: To help explain. To answer such questions [laughs].

MM: You don't think it's also to be critical of the powers that be?

SI: Yes, of course. This is the simple thing demanded of any intelligent person. To think all the time, to be skeptical, to ask why.

MM: You think it's just as easy now to criticize [commander of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense Abdel-Fattah] al-Sisi as it was to criticize Morsi?

SI: Look at the papers. Everyone is criticizing everybody.

MM: Really? I think they're mostly criticizing the Islamists. You don't think there's a hesitation...

SI: I myself would think I should wait until this crisis is over. It is not useful to the cause to criticize Sisi now because of the imminent danger the country faces. Now everybody should be with Sisi — not behind him, with him, as I said. The danger is coming from the West, from the USA, from the Muslim Brothers.

MM: But the Egyptian military has good relationships with the US.

SI: Good relations? When?

MM: It's part of a regional arrangement. Mubarak was a general. The army is fine with America and with Israel.

SI: I know, that's why we brought him down.

MM: Does anything that's happening now remind you of Egypt in the 1960s?

SI: How?

MM: There was a war, an actual foreign threat, there was a fight between Nasser and Islamists. There was an internal power struggle, and there was a military intervention, a military leader, an atmosphere of fear.

SI: That's what they are telling you in your country.

MM: I'm not dismissing Nasser or Nasserism.

SI: The period of the 1960s is the most glorious period in the modern history of Egypt, in spite of certain things: despotism, military or security control. But this was a glorious period in modern Egypt.

MM: I understand what you're saying. I just think it's a false choice between being anti-imperialist and anti-authoritarian. Because you're anti-imperialist, you accept authoritarianism.

SI: Okay, I agree with you. You must take into consideration that the 1960s is a different period all over the world. Everywhere people were looking for baba, for dad. In Russia. In America, Kennedy. In Indonesia, Suhartu. In India, Nehru. Always there is baba there, who is great, a great leader, and even sent by Allah and he will do everything and arrange everything. Now these are different times. Nobody believes in this now. They have come down [to earth], these leaders; they are sitting with us, they are shitting, we know. Nobody is looking for such a dad.

MM: You don't think there's still a cult of personality and a cult of power?

SI: Not like in the 1960s.

MM: But still you hear people say: Egypt needs a strongman, someone to take the country in hand.

SI: Maybe some people will say that, in some circles. When you see everything in chaos, the first thing that comes to your mind may be: We need a strong man. But this is not practical now anymore. Thanks to many things — a growing awareness, the existence of the media.

MM: So you think if the new government doesn't deliver change people will rebel again?

SI: Yes. We need two things: To do away with terrorism, and to take social measures. They are just a temporary government, but making the constitution and elections will lead to such things.

MM: Are you writing these days?

SI: I am preparing things, arranging things. Because of [everything that's going on], I have no desire to work seriously.

MM: It seems very difficult to me to write about what's happening. Are there ways you are trying to think of how to approach it?

SI: It's not wrong, it's not impossible, to write directly about what's happening. But in my case I need some distance.

MM: Do you think you could write from the point of view of Islamists?

SI: No...

MM: Because I think it's an incredible story. Someone like Morsi, who was president, and then a year later in jail.

SI: Yes, it's very dramatic — one moment to be up, and then to be down. And he wasn't able to realize what was happening. Do you think about writing fiction?


That was it. We exchanged pleasantries, and I left, my head full of questions. Ibrahim's “That Smell” is the story of an alienated political prisoner in a rotten police state. In “Zaat,” he told a parallel history of corruption by reading between the lines in Egyptian newspapers. His prison diaries — written in jail on cigarette papers, published in Arabic as “Youmiaat al-Wahat,” and selections of which are included in a new English translation of “That Smell” — are radiant with youthful suffering, ambition and discovery. He is obsessed with finding and revealing the truth — personal, political and artistic.  

But we all have our own truths. My admiration for Ibrahim's writing remains unqualified. But because he opposed Mubarak, I misread his politics, which are not the liberal ones of my Egyptian friends, of the journalists, activists, artists, lawyers, teachers and bloggers who all went to Tahrir nearly three years ago — and today feel as depressed as Ibrahim's alter ego in “That Smell,” wondering whether everyone else really doesn't notice that things stink.