Black, not Noir

Adam Shatz

  • ‘That Smell’ and ‘Notes from Prison’ by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
    New Directions, 110 pp, £11.99, March 2013, 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.

It’s a long night. One prisoner lets out a ‘strange and horrible howl’, until he’s beaten senseless by a cellmate; a man and an adolescent boy fondle each other underneath a blanket. The next day the narrator’s sister gives him a room, but everyday life soon turns into an exercise in failure and comic humiliation. Waiters don’t notice he’s there; even his grandmother hardly recognises him.

Sex might lift his spirits, he thinks, but his old girlfriend won’t sleep with him. He has no more luck with the prostitute his friends bring to his place, an impatient young woman wearing a ‘cheap pink shirt with holes in it, like a white rag that had been dipped in blood and washed over and over’: he can’t get it up. In his room he tries to write, but instead spends his time smoking and masturbating. He reads a remark by Maupassant to the effect that artists should ‘create a world that is more beautiful and more simple than our own’, but he can’t imagine another world, or escape the one he left behind in prison. When he hears knocking from the other side of the wall, he’s reminded of the ‘jangling of chains and keys’ that used to wake him every morning, of the jailers whose eyes were ‘hard beyond description’. He finds no relief on his walks. The metro is ‘terrifyingly crowded’, his shoes are full of dust, and then there’s that smell: the smell of Cairo’s overflowing sewers spilling into Tahrir Square. He seems to be the only one who notices it; everyone else is queuing to see the latest comedy, the one he couldn’t get tickets for. This isn’t liberation so much as a new, more insidious form of confinement.

That Smell was Ibrahim’s first book. He’s written many others, but none as powerful, or as prophetic. A year after it was published, the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, under Nasser’s command, were defeated by Israel in the so-called naksah, or ‘setback’. In six days, Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. This staggering defeat left Egyptians as stunned and hopeless as the narrator of That Smell. Nasser never quite got over the naksah, and neither have the Arabs. But no one who’d read Ibrahim’s devastating book could have been surprised: Egyptians, he suggests, were defeated before the war even started. In Robyn Creswell’s new translation, That Smell seems not so much written as secreted; it leaves you feeling tense and clammy, as it must have done when it was first published.

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