Curb Your Enthusiasm

Ice BY Sonallah Ibrahim, Translated from Arabic by Margaret Litvin. Kolkata: Seagull Books (Distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press). 256 pages. $22.

The cover of Ice

Octogenarian, slight, and frizzy-haired, Sonallah Ibrahim is a bit of a grump. For over five decades, the Egyptian novelist has served as the Arab world’s preeminent bard of dashed hope and disillusionment. His oracular if gloom-filled books are blinding inventories of consumerism, degradation, dictatorship, stagnation, pleasureless sex, creeping Islamism, and mind-numbing Americanization. To be alive and conscious, suggests Ibrahim, is to be humiliated. He lives in Cairo, the city of his birth and the mother of endless annoyance. “I’m so irritated most of the time by the dirt, the noise, and the commotion, but nevertheless I find that I can’t live anywhere else,” he told an interviewer in 2009. Famously ascetic, he lives in a sixth-floor walk-up in a gently crumbling high-rise in the overcrowded suburb of Heliopolis. Unlike most of his countrymen, he does not have a satellite dish, nor does he own a car.

The writer was born in 1937 and reared amid British occupation and roiling nationalist upheaval. At Cairo University he studied law and, like many purposeful men of his generation, joined the communist movement that helped bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. He paid heavily for it. In late 1959, spooked by a communist-supported coup in Iraq, Nasser charged hundreds of leftists with “political conspiracy.” Ibrahim spent five years in Al-Wahat prison in Egypt’s remote Western Desert, where prisoners were sometimes beaten to death and torture was routine. To pass the time, he imbibed smuggled copies of texts by and about Camus, Robbe-Grillet, and Brecht that he and other prisoners buried in the sand. Virginia Woolf especially moved him (“To the Lighthouse has opened up a new world for me,” he wrote in a prison notebook), as did the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He lingered over a book about Ernest Hemingway, too.

Prison was where Ibrahim developed the voice that would animate his first novel, scrawling elliptical notes on the back of Turkish cigarette papers that he’d occasionally smuggle out. Published in 1966 as The Smell of It and marked by the paratactic, austere, and unsanitized style that would soon become his trademark, the novel recounts the travails of a recently released political prisoner who wanders Cairo in a stupor, seeing family, an old girlfriend, a prostitute, checking in with the police every night. Stagnation is both psychic and literal. The narrator smokes, he masturbates. Efforts to write barely bear fruit. A disgusting smell pervades the city, its origins vague. The year after its publication, Egypt suffered a sudden and catastrophic defeat by the Israelis in the Six-Day War, and Ibrahim’s depiction of a city in generalized decay felt prophetic. The book was banned, copies from its print run confiscated. At least one of the censors demanded to know why Ibrahim’s lead character was impotent.

The novel’s spare lowbrow vernacular, more Hemingway than Naguib Mahfouz, scandalized the gatekeepers of Arabic letters. The scholar Margaret Litvin reminds us that the Arabic word for literature, adab, can also be translated as good manners. The Smell of It—coarse, crude—had terrible manners, its droning minimalism a riposte to the baroque eloquence of literary Arabic. (Its frank descriptions of masturbation and homosexuality represented little more than “filth,” in the words of one distinguished critic. The text, he said, left him “nauseated.”) For others, the book’s iconoclasm represented no less than a revolution. Censored and uncensored versions circulated like samizdat for years until it returned to print several decades later.

Ibrahim published eleven more books, most set in Cairo, though he also wrote about Civil War–era Beirut (Beirut, Beirut), Oman during a storied (and failed) Marxist-Leninist uprising there in the 1960s and ’70s (Warda), and even San Francisco (Amrikanli). Each book offers up an anatomization of trembling social anomie. The Committee, a dark comedy, is a send-up of Egyptian intellectual life, its protagonist forced to theatrically perform his fealty to the state—he is asked to belly dance, among other indignities—in front of the ambiguous panel of the title; in Zaat, my favorite Ibrahim novel, the female protagonist, a pathetic (if recognizable) type with a humdrum job in the archives of a state newspaper, spends her time fantasizing about newfangled products she might procure for her house and lucrative jobs in the Gulf.

Where the vast majority of writers of his generation took up state-sponsored jobs in media, entertainment, and government, Ibrahim remained outside the tentacular patronage of the system. In 2003, when he refused the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s Arab Novel Award, his reputation for moral probity in a country that routinely co-opts its writers and artists only grew. “We no longer have theater or cinema or scientific research or education. We only have a collection of festivals and conferences and a bin of lies,” he said before a disbelieving audience, going on to excoriate a “government that lacks credibility.” On his way out, he was mobbed by young admirers.

Ice is set in Moscow in 1973. Written in 2010, the book is born of notes made some four decades before, when Ibrahim spent a season in the USSR on a scholarship from the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography. (It was the only school that could offer him a scholarship at the time.) The story, if you can call it that, revolves around Shukri, an Egyptian student (of history, we think) and not atypical Ibrahimian antihero, over the course of one calendar year. Narrated in the first person and sensitively translated by Litvin, the book is eventful, even though very little happens. Ice offers no narrative arc or plot as such. The novel tracks Shukri’s plodding movements, from his overcrowded dorm to concert halls, restaurants, friends’ homes, the metro. In between acts, he clips articles on the Six-Day War from piles of old Egyptian newspapers and dreams that all his teeth have fallen out. Moscow, its icy, inhospitable surfaces, its gloomy Stalinist facades and roaring solipsism, looms in the background. Shukri only barely gets by in his halting, crappy Russian. His tone is devoid of affect, as if he’s been electroshocked into flatness.

In the dormitory, Shukri’s contemporaries hail from a panoply of countries. There’s Adnan the Iraqi, Mario the Brazilian, Jalaleddinov the Kyrgyz, Khalifa the Senegalese, Hans the East German (tall, handsome, and blond, it is Hans with whom—predictably, disappointingly—all the girls want to have sex). We are privy to their desires, foibles, lacks. For decades, the Soviet Union was considered a “Red Mecca,” attracting students from across the third world. Ibrahim’s own roommate in Moscow was Mohamed Malas, a man who would soon become a pioneer of Syrian auteur cinema. But while Malas and Ibrahim’s relationship is warmly evoked in a series of journal entries that Malas kept from the time, little warmth or depth is registered among the students in Ibrahim’s novel.

Like Faye, Rachel Cusk’s peripatetic narrator in the Outline trilogy, Shukri is a vessel for other people’s stories, his eyes and ears merciless in registering the world around him. But while Faye’s interlocutors are leaky faucets with compulsively interesting, if quotidian, backstories, Ibrahim’s interactions are spare and presented without commentary. Tragedy is abundant, but emotions register only fleetingly. What Ice offers instead are sober catalogues of books read, alcohol procured, hangovers cured, cigarettes smoked, concerts attended, party-line diatribes overheard. Bodies, too—legs especially: white, bare, splendid, symmetrical, fantastic, fat. (It is the age of the miniskirt.) While there is hardly any mention of going to class, getting laid—or trying to—is primary.

In Ibrahim’s Moscow, the hollow platitudes of Soviet pettifoggery and the undelivered promises of socialism are front and center. Everywhere there are signs of a once booming Russia, now pockmarked and shabby, trying to remind itself of its former greatness. Russian razors don’t work, the cabbage smells like dishwater, and the beer is tasteless. Everybody wants an exit visa. The narrator and his friends jettison state literature and covet a contraband issue of Playboy. On a train, Shukri reads Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s harrowing novel of the Great Terror. He attends the burial of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who denounced Stalin and Stalinism, only to be ousted himself. The state newspaper barely registers Khrushchev’s passing; only a handful of people, mostly foreign journalists, are present. The bearish ex-premier lies pale and shriveled in the grave. A friend observes: “The loser in the struggle for power disappears from history.” Ibrahim always finds the fly in the soup—or, as in one memorable anecdote from the book, detects the whiff of shit on a beautiful woman. The mask is always off.

In the background, the Vietnam War sputters on, Salvador Allende is overthrown, then murdered, Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon are attacked by the army in an intimation of the Civil War to come, and an Iraqi official named Saddam Hussein is elbowing his way to power while his Baathist party executes leftists (including students returning from Moscow). If social media today deluges us with the ambient noise of scandal, corruption, and war, Ice reminds us that the flotsam of the world was once borne along by printed newspapers, human chatter, and the radio. One event looms especially large: the war between the Arab states and Israel in October, which concludes with a lukewarm Arab victory—an abortive, ambiguous triumph that finds an analogue in the narrator’s frequently failing erections.

Ice was published in Arabic on January 25, 2011. This timing is peculiar, if not farcical. In Ibrahim’s Egypt, weeks of anti-government protests began that day, inspired by the dramatic self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi and climaxing with the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak amid an atmosphere of bursting euphoria. Ibrahim gave an interview around that time and was conspicuously sober and guarded, offering that the events that had just come to pass did not constitute a revolution. “A revolution has a program and goal—a complete change of reality or the removal of one class by another. What happened was a popular uprising.” Inevitably, many of his loyal fans, myself included, felt betrayed. Why was he not more excited?

Dishearteningly, his pessimism was not entirely unwarranted. By 2013, the miracle of Tahrir Square felt more and more like a hallucination as Egypt inherited a deeply undemocratic democratically elected leader in the form of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ousted in a dubious coup, Morsi was followed by an even more undemocratic military general who effectively anointed himself Pharaoh. Read today, in the wake of these events, Ibrahim’s Ice can only feel like a eulogy for the Left: the work of someone who has dreamed impossible dreams and who knows the foul taste—and smell—of defeat.

Negar Azimi is senior editor of Bidoun.