Friday, March 23, 2012

Sonallah Ibrahim and Journalism vs. Fiction

In a new issue of Banipal magazine, American University in Cairo professor Camilo Gomez-Rivas interviews Sonallah Ibrahim, one of my favorite Egyptian novelists. Unfortunely, only a handful of Ibrahim’s works have been translated into English, and some of those translations are not currently in print. In 2003, eight years before the Egyptian uprisings, Ibrahim famously refused a literary award from the Ministry of Culture, saying that on stage that he could not publicly accept acclaim from a government without legitimacy.

It will be a while before I can make my way through one of his longer works in Arabic, but I recommend his translations: Zaat, The Smell of It, The Committee, and Stealth, as well as an essay about Cairo in which he virtuosically mixes empathy and bite. Here he is writing about women in Egypt, who he believes eat poorly due to the influx of cheap processed foods, and who watch Islamic sheikhs on television all day, of whom he clearly disapproves:

"Today's woman stumbles as she walks, often leaning with her hand--or her entire body--against the nearest wall, moaning under the suffocating heat of her voluminous clothes that cover a body bloated by unhealthy foods and a life devoid of physical exercise and exposed to all kinds of illnesses; most of this life is spent seated in front of the television, whose screen is dominated by Sheikh Sha'rawi and his like for hours on end, during which they proclaim all kinds of rules, followed by silly soap operas or commercials that announce the pleasures of life in elite palaces and call for the purchase of more than one television set, under the slogan: 'One for the living room and one for the bedroom!'"

In the interview, which you can read online here, Ibrahim talks about the political situation and the future, about writing in prison, where he began his career as one of the many communists jailed by Nasser, and finally, about the relationship between journalism and fiction. This is a relationship I’ve been studying this year, and hope to explore in my writing for many years to come. Ibrahim worked as a journalist before he was imprisoned. In Zaat, he collages real newspaper articles. He cites Hemingway as an influence for the simplicity of his prose. Gomez-Rivas asks him, “What did you learn about writing from your early work in journalism?” He responds:

“I learned a lot, for sure, because there is a relationship between writing fiction and journalism in its many different forms. Journalism is a collection of professions within a larger field. You can be a reporter, for example, where the emphasis is on capturing the details of an event, on precision and is an attempt to understand the situation and people’s psychological make-up. How did the accident happen? What were people wearing? Then there is re-writing and deskwork. You find the appropriate form in which to present a particular event or opinion, using the simplest and most precise wording. This is one of the things that is most critical for me, getting rid of what I like to call “verbal accumulation” or “verbal traps”. 

For example, there is a novel, by a friend of mine and its first sentence is: “This time, baptized in blood.” These words are empty. What is baptized in blood? All times are baptized in blood. There is no such distinction. And then there is nothing called time. Time is time. Did we pour blood on it? It’s a metaphorical expression, maybe poetic but it is not a true expression of the kind I prefer – it’s not realistic. I don’t like all these similes and verbal games; we don’t need them. They are nonsense, so we say.

I always refer to an anecdote about Chekhov. He was visiting a school and asked the students to describe the colour of sugar. One student said it was the colour of clouds and another continued in the same vein. Chekhov responded saying that all this was strange talk; the colour of sugar is white. That is a true and precise description and it is aesthetic at the same time because “white” is a beautiful word which resonates in the memory and is clearly perceived. This is the kind of simplicity of expression which can be superior to any word game.”

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