The Odor of Things

Tahrir Square in 1962. Photo courtesy Weghat Nazar magazine

The political mood of Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell bears little resemblance to the one found in Egypt today. Why translate a 1966 novel of failed revolution now?

Every book has its time, but a good one makes its own. Not only did the Egyptian dissident Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1966 novel, Tilka al-Ra’ihah, retranslated as That Smell by Robyn Creswell for New Directions this month, inaugurate modernism in Arabic fiction, but it seemed to have predicted the political fate of Nasser’s regime. Ibrahim’s stature took off after this, his first book, allowing him a rare independence as a novelist apart from the Egyptian state, which generously supported its writers in exchange for intellectual discipline. So it was a surprise when he accepted the 2003 Novelist of the Year award from a council funded by the Ministry of Culture after declining many such honors previously. But after he ascended the podium of Cairo’s Opera House to shake hands with the Minister of Culture, he read a speech refusing the prize “from a government that does not possess the credibility to give it,” and walked out. The shaken Minister attempted to salvage some dignity, retaking the dais to extoll the “establishment's increasingly democratic orientation — without which . . . Ibrahim would have been unable to undertake such a public display of dissident sentiments.”

In a sense, the inflammatory speech repeated That Smell’s unsettling effects on the Egyptian cultural landscape. A February 2011 essay in Harper’s, where Creswell conducts a perceptive overview of Egyptian fiction by way of an assessment of Ibrahim and Albert Cossery’s work, features the gesture as its sole moment of real political courage. But Creswell’s essay had the strange fate of being obsolete on publication. By mid-February, Egyptians fighting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square had forced Mubarak to depart. In the essay, Creswell had concluded that Ibrahim’s strategy of estrangement from the subject matter of his art — Egyptian daily life — meant that “even in the most unpromising circumstances, with politics at a standstill and daily life mired in routine, the novel can reawaken our perceptions, force us to attend once more to the real world.” Such effects were, thankfully, wildly outplayed by events in the street. Politics was no longer at a standstill. Acts of courage became daily life. And Ibrahim’s stylistic approach, which seemed to have allowed him more freedom than his contemporaries to express his view of daily life, didn’t give much more freedom to the people living it. Creswell wrote his article before the Egyptian revolutionary sequence began — he refers to Mubarak’s as “the current regime” — and it seems to have served as a public pitch for his retranslation

It is conspicuously the only one of Ibrahim’s books listed as out of print
of Tilka al-Ra’ihah two years later. But it’s not clear that his time translating it did force him to attend to the real world. That Smell does appear to own its time, but that time has, in significant and salutary ways, passed.

That Smell is a slim book, though Creswell pads it with an Afterword of Ibrahim’s, a new translation of his prison notes, and a nicely explanatory introduction, all of which serve to direct the reader’s gaze to the historical context That Smell refracts. Creswell emphasizes Ibrahim’s stylistic innovations just as much as his politics in his selection of certain of Ibrahim’s prison diary entries as gloss. In Notes from Prison, Ibrahim can be seen working towards a style appropriate to his situation, engaging with all the species of realism, problems of form, politics and truth. He also assesses the use and meaning of Joyce, Mahfouz, Yevtushenko, and Hemingway, whose “iceberg” style Ibrahim eventually adopted, wielding Hemingwayan economy and restraint against the “conventionally flabby eloquence of Arabic literature.” The approach was new: That Smell has been recognized, or at least marketed, as a watershed of Arabic modernism. But while the book’s literary import alone may merit its periodic retranslation, it must be said that it’s hard to fully appreciate That Smell’s contributions to Arabic prose while reading it in English. It doesn’t read as disruptively as it might have in 1966 when modally-simple phrases and “everyday nouns and verbs” were rarities. While the rendering of Hemingway’s English-to-Arabic-to-English influence is an accomplishment, all of the shifts it makes are historical: They’ve already had their impact.

So the question becomes: Why translate this now? At the very least, Creswell wants That Smell’s readers to be aware of Tilka al-Ra’ihah’s timely or timeless message, but what is it, exactly? Ibrahim cannot be said to have been prescient: He looks on the people in Cairo and sees nothing hopeful. The smell in the title refers, among other things, to raw sewage washing under the indifferent feet of Tahrir Square — an image of complacency in the face of injustice. In fact, the strangest thing about Creswell offering the book at this time is that it gives a vivid account of political resignation and spent revolutionary energy when precisely the opposite characterizes today’s Egypt. Nowhere else in the world appears more urgently engaged with the questions and limits of national revolution as a means of national expression, and nowhere else is there a more heroic example of people no longer resigned to their political lot.

Ibrahim hangs the question of expression over the whole endeavor, opening with an epigraph from Joyce: “This race and this country and this life produced me….I shall express myself as I am.” The 1966 edition misattributed this line to Ulysses; it was tracked down in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Still, That Smell is more like the former: a series of impressions a man has as he travels throughout his city during the day. And like Joyce, Ibrahim found he needed to turn to style in order to work out how to express himself as he was, or at least as he had been produced to be.

The novel telegraphs its own conditions of production pretty straightforwardly. It began as a series of hurried diary entries, logs of what Ibrahim had seen out in Cairo that day, and it reads like it. Like That Smell’s protagonist, Ibrahim was on house arrest from sundown to sunup, a period he began every evening by signing a policeman’s ledger. He kept a diary of the day’s impressions “composed in a telegraphic style, which I wrote every day after the policeman’s departure.” He would put aside the diary to work on his novel, but the work of fiction eluded him. It was a novel of childhood he had begun in prison, a relatively conventional collection of short stories linked through its characters. How could he use the novelistic forms available to him — historical or socialist realism, one suited to a rigidly stratified society which no longer quite existed, the other for building a heroic future for the new Arab middle class — from the other side of prison? Glancing at the diary, Ibrahim realized he had already been writing the novel that expressed this situation:

There were only a few entries, about sixteen days as I remember. I read the whole thing, then shivered with excitement. There was a buried current running through that telegraphic style, a style that never stopped for self-examination, didn’t bother to search for le mot juste, nor to make sure that the language was neat and tidy, nor that all ugliness that might shock delicate sensibilities had been scrubbed away.

He rearranged and polished the entries and sent them off to a printer. Though Egypt had a nominally free press at the time, all copies of That Smell were seized and banned by the government immediately. The Egyptian literary establishment lined up to condemn it, and almost as quickly it attained legendary status as a masterpiece of modernist Arabic prose.

What made this book so provocative? Nothing much happens in it, really. A man is released from prison. He spends his nights under house arrest, so he spends his days out in Cairo, visiting family members and old comrades and friends. He masturbates and tries to write. He fails to sleep with a prostitute. At one point, he farts — a nice Joycean touch — in a wealthy family’s waiting room and a little girl calls him on it. Near the end, he visits a relative’s house, learns that his mother died almost a week before, and has to go home so as not to miss the policeman. All told, it’s a pretty bleak picture of a life most wouldn’t envy. But there are no accusations of wrongdoing; no suffering martyrs or maleficent bureaucrats. When Ibrahim was hauled in front of the chief censor, he was asked about the scene with the prostitute, not the fact that That Smell had a negative prognosis for the Nasserite revolution as its premise. “Is the hero impotent?” was the censor’s reductive critique. No, but why so worried that he might be?

The problem that Ibrahim touched on was that each of the literary styles entailed a political position. The novel of his pre-revolutionary childhood dealt with the experiences of the rigidly stratified colonial monarchy. This state was overthrown by Gemal Abdel Nasser, who set about building a new middle class and fostering pan-Arab republican might. There developed an attendant style, socialist realism, to extoll it in literature. By writing out the days of a dissident, even a defeated one, constrained on all sides by the state, the society he wanted to free, and his own spent movement, Ibrahim maintained his oppositional pose, registering his politics in his new style. Even better, he achieved it without violating the conditions of his release, so to speak. He simply published the ledger of his days that the policeman had him sign for every evening. He expressed himself as his country made him: free but in prison.

While it’s true that its matter-of-fact phrasing and summary style lend a restraint to That Smell, the effect is not one of post-traumatic muteness. The restraint is not a shield or cypher, either — there was nothing to hide, anyway. The government knew he was a Communist; that’s why he had been rounded up with the others. And if Ibrahim thought he was writing in code, it didn’t really matter, as his book still got banned. He doesn’t shy away from showing the clearly political moments which orient his characters’ lives. Ibrahim flecks his dry journal with passages of vivid emotional texture, including a truly frightening scene of torture committed in a single brutal paragraph.

The sense that he does not pass judgment on his observations is also an effect of having lifted his day’s diaries onto the page. There is no indication of how much time has passed in the period between each sentence, so each event appears to be given equal weight. Small details stand next to significant events in unbroken paragraphs, and the narrator can go from watching bugs crawl over his knees in a jail cell overnight to being released to his sister’s care in the morning to blinking away the water from the showerhead in his new apartment, all in less than a page. And yet this quick-zoom is not in the service of getting through an overstuffed narrative. The periods do nothing more than serialize discrete events without a historical progression.

For all the attention to freedom of expression, That Smell actually runs on a fairly conservative concept of time. The concatenation of independent events never adds up to a narrative, either of how they got here or how to get out. This means that the situation of political closure and failed revolution — which both Creswell and Ibrahim take pains to explain is the real content of the novel — appears eternal, and attempts at challenging it doomed. At the very least, the real revolution is always far enough away that enduring the kinds of torture Ibrahim and his comrades did seems an obscene waste. Well aware of the Soviet experience, Ibrahim took developments in Soviet poetics and politics to be instructive. In his notes regarding the show trials, Ibrahim writes of the accused who refused to comprehend what was happening to their revolution. “Some of them traced the words ‘Long Live Stalin’ in their own blood on the walls of their prison.” In a footnote: “Was I aware, when I copied those words, of how they described our situation at al-Wahat?”

If Mubarak hadn’t been removed, the appearance of this book in English would have had more political force, as the image of a principled Egyptian opposition. But that force would have relied on the assumption that the situation couldn’t change. It’s lucky that Egypt’s youth and working classes didn’t share Ibrahim’s initially low opinion of their potential. As a relic of the constraints on political expression in an era mostly past, That Smell deserves its place in a canon. It’s a fascinating document of the era — well written and evocative of real despair. But the freedom in publishing an account of your bondage is a different kind of freedom than a revolution can make use of.

Ibrahim now explicitly rejects the idea of revolutionary literature, by the way. “There is literature that is real, and literature that is not,” he says in an interview given to Jadaliyya last year. This may be why he appealed to Creswell as a way of explaining what was happening in Egypt to an English-reading audience. The book presents an analog of the conditions on the ground without upsetting or endorsing the current revolutionaries, as if a description of the reality of their situation is enough to explain it. Certainly Ibrahim’s former jailers and fellow prisoners, the military state apparatus and the Muslim Brotherhood, remain in place. But if the reality was that the US-compliant military state would maintain power, then the revolutionary attempt was unreal, and an account of what it was like before would miss precisely what had changed.

Part of the unreality of the Egyptian uprising is that so much of it also took place on the Internet. It was astonishing to watch people defending their freedom and sense of nationalism with their lives, the reasons Ibrahim ruefully understands to be responsible for his torture and imprisonment. These people were also reaching for adequate new forms and styles of expressing what they were doing, with a vividness and directness that chilled, and which had a real, catalyzing effect on popular movements across the globe. But the charge of these new modes clearly depends on their commingling with action on the ground. Creswell, perhaps sharing That Smell’s concept of time, thought that the best response to this would be to counter these live texts with a masterpiece of disillusionment and pessimism. Ibrahim writes in his notes that “the mouth, like the prison, contains, when closed, living things.” The mouth has been opened. What is it saying?