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I was fortunate to read the new translation of the novella That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim with a foreword by Robyn Creswell. I was tempted to skim past the long foreword but I’m pleased that I read it because Robyn gave;
Without having read Robyn’s introduction I would not have understood the context of the novella.
The book is written in a very simple, diary style and it would be easy to dismiss it as being shallow because the narrator simply makes statements and observations in long convoluted paragraphs devoid of structure or punctuation. However Ibrahim is a perceptive observer and uses the simple language to depict the nightmarish aspects of 1956 Cairo in a startling way. Within the first few pages I was nauseated by the casual horror of the night that the protagonist spent in the police lockup after being released from 5 years in a prison labour camp.
I really like that Robyn includes the introduction to the 1986 edition, written by Ibrahim himself. The other Arab writers that I’ve read use beautiful prose but in That Smell, Ibrahim uses long rambling poorly constructed paragraphs that are devoid of emotion and adjectives. I found this curious until I read Ibrahim’s introduction saying that he discovered Hemingway and:
put my faith in these (great American writer’s) techniques right away… the most important of which were economy and restraint. Set against the conventionally flabby eloquence of Arabic literature, this “iceberg” style acquired a special sheen.
Throughout the book the narrator has casual interactions with a stream of characters that he doesn’t introduce us to properly so we are unable to understand the context of their interactions. Some are quite amusing like when he does a big stinky fart in a room with a young girl who says that it smells like poo and suspects he was the one who farted. He spends a lot of time daydreaming about romantic encounters with women without resulting in sex, including a prostitute who tells him to hurry up and get it over with but instead he asks her to stay the night (of course she refuses) and eventually the narrator turns to masturbating. It’s pretty gross the way that he leaves the semen on the floor and steps over it the next morning! I think that Ibrahim included scenes like this and the fart to rail against the horror of the regime in Egypt at that time without actually speaking out against the regime. Perhaps this is why he doesn’t allow his narrator to cogitate on the police brutality, living under house arrest, open sewers etc that he encounters during the story. In his introduction to the 1986 edition Ibrahim states about traditional writing styles:
asking myself what the point was of writing something that didn’t engage the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, prison, death, personal misery.
The narrator lives in a flat next door to his sister and it seems that they are not very well off because she checks on how much money he has spent and her fiancee mentions queuing to buy rationed meat. However at the end of the book the narrator visits the brand new apartment that his sister is about to move into and it has an electric refrigerator (in 1956), similarly the narrator visits extended family and watches TV with them; indicating the emergence of a middle class in Egypt at this time.
I can’t comment on the quality of the translation but Robyn does lightly criticise an earlier translation so presumably this one is more true to the original. If you are interested in Egypt in the 1950s I certainly recommend that you read it but I do suggest that you read this version so that you have the introduction by Robyn and Ibrahim to help place the story in context.