Earlier this month, Carmen Weinstein, who for decades had led Egypt’s dwindling Jewish community, died at her home in Cairo. She was 82. Obituaries ran in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But the irony was she never in her life granted these publications interviews. Lucette Lagnado, a Wall Street Journal reporter and a bestselling-memoir-writing Egyptian Jew herself, wrote of Weinstein, “I found her tough, acerbic, abrasive, combative-and brave. I tried to woo her, citing my background as a fellow Cairene-Jew. But she had no use for journalists and regarded us with suspicion.”
I profiled Weinstein for The Revealer last year, and found that she took an interest in me only because I had written about a Passover seder on my own blog, and had not told her I had a journalistic interest in her community (the difference between a blog and a more official publication seemed clear to her, if not to me). One afternoon when my mother was visiting me in Egypt from the U.S., we had all shared a coffee in the back office of her family’s print shop in downtown Cairo, near a McDonald’s and dozens of clothing stores. Her desk was piled high with stacks of paper that framed her queen-like, austere presence. As I told her how my father, a Jew, had left Syria — choosing the path she had always refused, leaving a place of birth because it was no longer welcoming — I detected some warmth and understanding. And I do mean “detected.” You really had to be paying attention.
Few non-Western countries are granted the cultural space to have more than one literary representative to the English-speaking public. Often, a Nobel Prize marks out that space. For Turkey, there’s Orhan Pamuk. For China, right now at least, it’s Mo Yan.
For Egypt, over the last half a century, it was always Naguib Mahfouz, author of the magisterial “Cairo Trilogy” and “Children of the Alley.” Most of his works have been translated, The Paris Review has interviewed him, The New Yorker extensively reported his 1995 assassination attempt, and The New York Times ran an obituary when he died in 2006. Because of his international recognition, he is a towering figure in Egyptian literature. His novels are easy to find in Cairo’s bookshops, and his statue overlooks a busy square from behind his trade-mark tinted glasses.
But right at this moment, two years after a revolution that may have ushered in years of social upheaval, Mahfouz’s sharply etched realism and the epic scale of his most famous novels don’t square with the Egypt of the American imagination, an Egypt of politics, protest, and tear gas. Mahfouz wasn’t a dissident—he held a government job for years—and so his fiction, while the guiding light of a literary revolution, doesn’t have the ring of political revolution.
For that we have Sonallah Ibrahim, a 73-year old novelist who was once jailed for his Communist activism and whose first work, That Smell, was recently published in a new translation by Robyn Creswell, poetry editor at The Paris Review and a professor of comparative literature at Brown University.
Really more of a monologue than a novel, That Smell is the first-person story of a man who has just been released from prison. Ibrahim himself spent most of his twenties as a political prisoner under Nasser, and he felt that in order to capture the daze of reentry into regular society he needed a new style, which he later called “telegraphic,” influenced by the newspaper copy he had written as a journalist.