In 2003, novelist Sonallah Ibrahim refused to receive the Arab Novel Award granted by the Egyptian government. That year, during the ceremony, he took to the stage and turned the prize down, reasoning that he could not accept an accolade from the same government that oppresses its people, protects corruption, and allows for normalization with the State of Israel.
Nowadays, he is celebrated in the local and international literary scenes as one of the most prolific—and oftentimes prophetic—chroniclers of modern Cairene, Egyptian, and Arab life, but in the late 1960s, in his political infancy, Ibrahim was imprisoned for over five years under late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the time, feeling threatened by the contestations of Egypt’s leftist opposition, Nasser launched a brutal campaign against them, effectively derailing the communist and socialist movements (despite his own quasi-socialist policies).
Ibrahim’s literary career began with a number of short stories and novels in the 1960s. Ever since, much of his oeuvre has been translated into English and other languages, and on-screen adaptations of his works have emerged. Though he has largely eschewed public attention, his unapologetically political novels have retained a paradoxical amalgam of outspokenness and subtlety.
In a relatively rare interview, the semi-hermitic author of Beirut, Beirut revisits his political stances on various contemporary topics, from the Syrian civil war to the state of the Egyptian opposition. Unrelenting in his leftist critique of power, he delivers a scathingly pessimistic view of contemporary Arab politics, albeit within the ultimately optimistic framework of an inherently revolutionary ethos that has carried over throughout his body of work.
It’s been 35 years since The Committee (Al-Lagna) was published. How has your view changed with regards to the continued suffering of the citizens of the Third World within the current world order?
The current picture lends itself to pessimism. We can accept the coalitions of the current world order, provided that they do not compromise the interests and standard of living of the people. But, currently, the status quo is determined by a number of monopolies, and the rich who control the destinies of humanity, and this is unacceptable.
Who will prevail in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
This conflict is fundamentally not in the interest of either of the two countries, but rather benefits their enemies in the first place. Whatever the outcome is, it will not be in the interest of the [Arab] nation.
What do you predict will be the salvation of Syria?
The issue of Syria is very puzzling. I believe that—due to the intransigence of Bashar Al-Assad—it has become the platform for the [proxy] wars between international and Arab forces. I look at this country and I see only brutal wars that have caused terrifying, awful destruction. I wish he would walk away quietly.
Your novel, The Committee, went beyond the details of the main character’s life and critiqued the open-market policy adopted by former President Anwar Sadat. Why did you stop writing novels that are critical of the regime?
The task of the writer is not simply to criticize the regime.
In The Turban and the Hat, there is a historical account that chronicles the era of the French Revolution. How long before the Arab revolutions can be chronicled?
You mean the French campaign in Egypt and Syria. This is a good question. Oddly, choosing a period for documenting the Arab revolutions is impossible. Each moment in the life of Arabs is fraught with dramatic events, foreign ambitions, and personal incapacity.
Why has democracy failed to materialize in Egypt?
Because decades of repression have killed political life and mass activism. Initially, the masses were unaware of how much they were deprived of this activity because of the social and economic gains made under Nasser.
Is secularism compatible with Arab societies?
Of course it is, just as it became compatible in other societies. Why not? How are we so different from the rest of humanity?
'Decades of repression have killed political life and mass activism.' - veteran Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim
Egypt's frail, prophetic recluse Sonallah Ibrahim speaks out on the Arab revolutions, religious institutions, and the exploitation of the people.
Why is the opposition in hiding in Egypt? Are there any opposition movements in other Arab countries?
The opposition's withdrawal in Egypt was calculated, beginning with the suppression of activists, the creation of unfamiliar parties and the dissolution of old parties, followed by the control of the media, the judiciary, the parliament and economic activity. In general, the political scene has been completely evacuated, as punishment for those who rebelled against former President Hosni Mubarak.
Can Mohamed ElBaradei still be considered an opposition figure in Egypt?
I used to believe he was, but his role is over. In all cases, I don't believe he has a future as a leader, due to his long absence from the political scene ever since he resigned from his post [as Vice-President in 2013, following the violent dispersal of a large-scale Muslim Brotherhood sit-in] in Egypt and went to Brussels [sic].
The main character in Amricanly experienced a painful cultural upheaval. Where do you think the discrimination against Copts in Egypt stems from?
Whatever the laws that are laid down, it remains a matter of the culture of the masses, i.e. a matter of education and the media. However, eliminating records of religion in personal paperwork is essential.
Have Arab military regimes served as successful bulwarks against extremism?
The authorities view [our current reality] through a military-security lens. Everything around us can be resolved either through giving orders and imprisonment, with no room to open up free spaces for thought and dialogue.
I believe that by fulfilling the demands of the people, the wellsprings of terrorism will dry up. We will suffer from these terrorist acts for some time, but their intensity will gradually diminish. This is something we must accept
The best way to combat extremism is to achieve social justice. The people need to feel tangible, powerful rights gains as a result of the revolutionary mobilization. Their main issues [in securing acceptable standards of] health, education, and bread need to be resolved by raising the quality of life.
In your novel Warda, you discussed Arab socialist revolutions. In your opinion, what are the mechanisms required to revive Arab cultural and political engagement?
Reinvigorating the political and public spheres, and granting people the right to demonstrate, assemble, and organize, as inalienable right of human beings—to allow freedom of thought, expression, and innovation, and to recognize the culture of protest and demonstration. All these conditions are the bases of any true political and cultural rehabilitation.
Religious ideology and heritage form part of your thought process. What is the best way to filter out the Prophet's hadiths, amid the hardline stances adopted by religious institutions?
There is near-unanimous agreement over the existence of many discordant and inaccurate hadiths that are [incorrectly] attributed to the Sunnah [mores] of the Prophet. I believe the multitude of hadiths alone is inconsistent. Omar ibn al-Khattab accused Abu Hurayrah of fabricating some of them and threatened to deport him to Yemen, his native country.
I believe there is fierce opposition on the part of many different groups that has sought to abort the renewal of religious discourse, in particular from the authorities, as various individuals and institutions benefit from the existence of misconceptions about religion.
There are those who claim that Al-Azhar teaches Wahhabism (the hardline interpretation of Islam adopted by Saudi Arabia) and is an incubator for terrorism. What is your opinion on this?
Al-Azhar is a conservative institution, but the Saudi-Wahhabi influence infiltrated the institution under the leadership of Sheikh Abdul Halim Mahmoud, and it gained ground in the institution. Al-Azhar's teaching methods are the largest evidence of this.
This ideology has come to be very influential. We observe that Al-Azhar now embraces all the regressive currents in the country and encourages sectarian persecution, whether against Shi’ites or Copts.
What we have is not sectarian strife; I call it systemic persecution by the ruling institutions against many groups of people and to varying degrees, most notably women, Nubians, Copts, and the poor, among others.
Would you consent to the translation of Israeli literature?
Yes, if such literature exists. But the question then becomes: can xenophobes produce literature? And the answer to that question is no. World literature is very rich, and it is hard to follow up on all its manifestations. At the end of the day, I have to dismiss all that is discriminatory and regressive.
Would you consider writing a novel that deals with sexuality as a subject?
I am currently working on a novel about the last day in the life of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Once I am done with that, I will focus on a novel about sexuality.
I aspire toward a realistic approach to this vital subject, to create a narrative work built on a scientific basis, removed from romanticism or pornography. A while ago, I wrote a few pages, but I am trying to recreate the idea to arrive at a world of enchanting beauty.
Can the novel Stealth be considered autobiographical?
Stealth was not an autobiography, but bore some vestiges and details of my life. Any writer uses their life experiences within the scope of creative work, whether directly or indirectly. As such, an autobiography must be preceded by a declaration from the author himself.
What is the reason behind your removal from public cultural gatherings and your condemnation of the Ministry of Culture as obsolete?
The first part of the question is related to my nature, which tends to be isolationist. And, on the contrary, I believe in the vitality of the Ministry of Culture and its role, but this is contingent on the overall climate.
Moving past all these conflicts, what are your views on football and music?
In my childhood, I adored football, but having worn glasses from an early age, combined with my physical frailty, caused the captain of my team to exclude me. Also, I adore classical music.
Your work is interwoven with Egypt's political history. How does the current era compare to previous regimes?
Among the people, the suffering of the majority has increased, while the riches of the glutted minority has multiplied. All the problems caused by previous regimes are now being resolved at the expense of the poor citizen. Worse, the poor are demanded to bear the tax of corruption and looting under the pretext of patriotism. We also witness the state’s reconciliation with thieves and robbers.
I believe that the opportunity to change the course of events has passed. The president appears to have taken an approach that is antithetical to the people's demands, does not achieve their interests, and completely distances itself from any bias towards the poor. It is no secret that, thus far, the policies of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have served the interests of a select few, as well as foreign mega corporations.
The authority also continues to tread the Western line, having abandoned the fundamental causes of authentic national issues. One need only look at the handover of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir [to Saudi Arabia], that were consecrated by the blood of the Egyptian martyrs, as well as the submission to the conditions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which will continue to hold our country hostage for generations to come.
Do you believe salvation lies with civilian rule?
Absolutely, yes. Egypt must have the opportunity to rid itself of the closed circles [of power], and the country should be governed by civilian rule based on national fundamentals, paving the way for a truly modern state.
We are aware that the January and June revolutions played a critical role in reawakening the desire for a free and dignified life among all Egyptians, but look at the outcome. We see the figures from [former President Hosni] Mubarak's era resuming their positions on the front lines. Meanwhile, activists are being killed, tortured, imprisoned, and prosecuted.