Black, not Noir
- ‘That Smell’ and ‘Notes from Prison’ by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
New Directions, 110 pp, £11.99, March, ISBN 978 0 8112 2036 1
When we first meet the nameless narrator of Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1966 novella That Smell, he’s just been released from prison, but no one is there to greet him, and he’s in no mood to celebrate. He remains under house arrest, free to wander the streets of Cairo so long as he returns home by dusk, when his police minder has to sign off on his curfew. Things could be worse: he could be back in prison, where he remembers being beaten, ‘shaking with cold and fear’. But when he looks for ‘some feeling that was out of the ordinary, some joy or delight or excitement’, he draws a blank. On the night of his release, the police throw him into a filthy holding pen because he has nowhere to stay:
There were a lot of men there and the door kept opening to let more in. I felt something in my knee. I put my hand down and sensed something wet. I looked at my hand and found a big patch of blood on my fingers and in the next moment saw swarms of bugs on my clothing and I stood up and noticed for the first time big patches of blood smeared on the walls of the cell and one of the men laughed and said to me: Come here.