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Revolution on Ice

[Cover of Sonallah Ibrahim's al-Jalid, by Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida] [Cover of Sonallah Ibrahim's al-Jalid, by Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida]

Sonallah Ibrahim. al-Jalid [Ice]. Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 2011.

Following the protests and coup of last summer, many of Egypt’s leading literary figures defected to the ranks of the army. As soldiers raised their guns against protesters in the streets, Leftist and liberal intellectuals cheered them on from the sidelines, explaining why the new massacres of street protesters were so different from earlier ones and why this particular bloodshed was so necessary. Consider one public statement, signed by more than 150 prominent authors and publishers, issued on 5 August 2013:

We, the signers of this statement, assert that the richness of Egypt as a country is in its diversity and tolerance of difference. We declare that the Muslim Brotherhood is an unpatriotic organization. Since its dubious founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to sow division in the ranks of the nation. Back then, it opposed Egyptian nationalists in their struggle against the British Occupation and the Palace and, as in 1946, stood side by side with the British against the nationalists. Until the present day, the leadership of the Muslim Brothers has yet to issue an apology for the assassinations its members committed during and after the 1940s. Since the protests of 30 June that have returned the 25 January Revolution to its proper course, we have followed the Muslim Brotherhood’s blatant calls for aggression against the Egyptian state, national institutions and innocent citizens. In recent days, this incitement has led to illegal acts of violence and killings. We, the undersigned make an urgent plea for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a terrorist organization because those who incite violence and murder deserve prosecution for their crimes. 

Among the signers were prominent literary figures of different generations, all known for their active support of the 25 January Revolution, including: Bahaa Taher, Sonallah Ibrahim, Miral al-Tahawi, Hamdy El Gazzar, Mohamed Hashem, and Yasser Abel Latif. In the context of lead-up to the Rabaa massacres, it is difficult to read the document as anything but a permission slip to commit atrocities against Islamists.

Given how forthright and brave many of these writers had been in speaking against the corruption of the military-police state, given how deeply they had embraced popular revolution, this was a truly remarkable development. Writers who had composed elegies for martyrs killed by the police and army began to sing the praises of generals who were moving in on Muslim Brother protesters. Public intellectuals who had spoken for months about the power of the people in the street suddenly discovered that the barracks and the palace were the places to be after all. There have been notable exceptions to this (Belal Fadl, for instance), but for the most part, this shift has affected a majority of the literary class.

For the last five months, observers have debated the causes of this dramatic shift. Was this an instance of organic intellectuals correctly reading the shifting pulse of Egyptian society? Or was it merely strategic, a case of seizing the opportunity to eliminate the Muslim Brothers as a political force while waiting for another day to rid the country of its corrupt military oligarchy? Or, was this decision based in the hard history of battling Islamists who had for years assassinated, assaulted, defamed and harassed secular writers and intellectuals? Or was it a bout of Nasserist nostalgia, a desire to imagine that the Egyptian state was really strong after all? All of these are plausible, especially in combination. But the fact remains that the outpouring of literary panegyric will not seriously impact the course of military rule. The generals of Heliopolis have never really needed poets and novelists in the past, nor will they in the days to come. If there is lasting impact it will not be in the political arena, but in the field of literature itself. What is at stake is nothing less than the ability of writers and critics to create their own spheres of autonomous thought and action.

Among all the defections, Sonallah Ibrahim’s was the most serious, precisely because he is arguably the most politically and aesthetically autonomous writer working in Egypt. Ibrahim has long been celebrated by Arab critics as an accomplished stylist with a fierce commitment both to literary experimentation and political forthrightness. Likewise, he has been praised for his principled stance of personal independence—an example of good art and good politics together in a single person.

Ibrahim’s reputation as an independent writer was hard earned. Imprisoned for five years under Nasser, he lived briefly in exile in Eastern Europe before coming back to Egypt to write full-time. While most of his peers secured careers in the editorial rooms of public-sector media or in the bureaucracies of the Ministry of Culture, Ibrahim lived in a sort of self-imposed exile from the centers of literary power in the country. He did not seek financial security or status. He did not escape to the Gulf. Rather, he sought to develop his own style of writing to express his experience and vision of the world. And he succeeded, honing his craft and producing a series of path-breaking novels, including most especially, Zaat. Though he worked far from the cafes of downtown Cairo, Ibrahim could be counted on to weigh in on the most pressing questions of his country. Each of his novels takes on the thematic issue of its day—neoliberalism and the infitah, the Americanization of Egypt, the Islamicization of Egypt, the collapse of the Egyptian middle-class, the corruption of state institutions, torture, human rights, censorship and freedom of expression. But even if each novel is about a big idea, Ibrahim’s vision is always rooted in the small, everyday experience of the Egyptians trying to live their lives. His language is precise and biting, his characters flawed. Lovely, imperfect and human, they desire and dream and fight as the world slowly collapses around them. Together, Ibrahim’s corpus offers a counter-history to the lies and fantasies of the record of history as offered by the neocolonial Egyptian state and its servants. Outside his writings too, Ibrahim took challenging positions that reaffirmed his place as an anti-establishment figure. His courageous rejection of the Egyptian State Prize for Literature in 2003 was unprecedented, shocking and inspirational, but also completely within his character as a fiercely independent and outspoken author.

For all these reasons, Ibrahim has long enjoyed the deep respect of the Egyptian Left. And for all these reasons, Ibrahim’s embrace of the new authoritarian regime should compel us to look again at his oeuvre for what it says about Leftist intellectuals, state power, and revolution. As it happens, Ibrahim’s 2011 novel, al-Jalid, offers a rich reflection on just these subjects—and, in turn, a productive avenue for thinking about Ibrahim’s stance toward the possibility of social change.

Revolution and Narrative

On January 25, 2011, the leftist publishing house Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida released Ibrahim’s latest novel, al-Jalid (Ice), which tells about the daily routines of an Egyptian living in Moscow in the early 1970s. The prose is flat, and intentionally encumbered by awkward transliterations of Russian words typographically set apart from the rest of the Arabic text. Characters do not learn, grow or become more complicated. The bulk of the action takes place within the tight quarters of a Soviet dormitory, and the plot consists largely of episodes in which things happen to the Egyptian protagonist, other international students at the university, and the Russians with whom they interact. Even as the novel explores the intimate details of cohabitation and conviviality, the novel essentially tells the story of a society without community. The protagonist is haunted by the hollowness of his relationships, and it is this alienation that is arguably the main theme of the novel. For 200 pages, Ibrahim explores the truism that we never feel so alone as we do in a crowd. As the title of the novel suggests, the experience is chilling.

On the cold surfaces of the novel there is little to suggest that it had anything to do with the uprising that blazed across Egypt on that very same day. In terms of tempo and tone, there was a huge gap between Ibrahim’s downbeat novel and the heady, revolutionary moment of its publication. When asked about the significance of the novel’s date of publication, Ibrahim shrugged, “It did not arrive in its own time.”

Ibrahim’s novel and the uncanny moment of its publication compel us to ask the question: How will the Egyptian Revolution be told? What narrative forms will it take? What forms should it take?  These are important questions to ask even if any answer to them would be subject to revision because the events themselves are not yet concluded. Which is to say, we do not know how the story ends. The urgency with which most will insist that the Egyptian revolution is still unfolding—that it is not yet a complete story—should remind us that the question of narrative form is by no means solely related to issues of value and interpretation. The event of revolution as a fact is defined by our ability to give it narrative shape. An event is defined only insofar as it has been given a narrative arc. Those who want to declare the Egyptian revolution over and done with understand this well, just as those who insist that it continues.

Reflecting on the relation between history and narrative form with specific reference to C.L.R. James’ classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, David Scott has taken postcolonial studies to task for failing to appreciate the narrative mode in which it has tended to tell the story of colonial history. “Does anticolonialism,” he writes, “depend on a certain way of telling the story about the past, present, and future?” [1] Scott writes that in a mode of “longing for total revolution,” postcolonial critics have generated “stories about past, present and future… typically emplotted in a distinctive narrative form… with a distinctive story-potential: that of romance” (7). The story of colonialism emplotted as romance, Scott notes, is one where “history rides a triumphant and seamlessly progressive rhythm. They have tended to be narratives of overcoming, often narratives of vindication; they have tended to enact a distinctive rhythm and pacing, a distinctive direction, and to tell stories of salvation and redemption” (13). Scott’s point is two fold: in particular, he doubts whether the narrative genre of romance can narrate anticolonial resistance accurately and compellingly; in general, he emphasizes the formal choices at work when events are chronicled, recounted in discrete sequences, and then emplotted within narrative forms with deep and abiding resonances. Better to emplot the particular story of colonialism as tragedy, Scott asserts, where the “relation between past, present and future is… but a broken series of paradoxes and reversals in which human action is ever open to unaccountable contingencies—and luck” (13). For Scott, the value of studying narrative form lies in the way such forms create, or fail to create, “problem-spaces” adequate to the task of grasping the possibilities of the moment in question. For him, nothing less than the possibility of imagining anticolonial emancipation hangs in the balance. 

Scott is indebted to the work of Hayden White for his sensitivity to the question of narrative genre, and in turn to Northrop Frye whose initial questions about form White borrowed and developed for the discipline of history. Contrary to strict Aristotelian traditions of genre criticism, Frye argued that each form has a unique historical timestamp. [2] Moreover, Frye’s project was decidedly flexible—for him, narrative modes intermingle and combine. Such permutations are not faults or signs of impurity, he argued, but rather markers of historical change and literary complexity. White accepted this account of emplotment and added new dimensions to it, such as the categories of formal argument, ideological implication, and tropological mode. [3] These are the elements, he argues, from which the historical imagination is composed. Following White, we might extend these thoughts to a consideration of the Egypt present: these are the elements from which the stories of revolution are composed.

 January Ice

Al-Jalid is set in the fall and winter of 1973. While that date may not have immediate resonance for the theme of revolution, for Ibrahim it sits at the intersection of two revolutionary and counter-revolutionary histories. This idea is thematized foremost by the Soviet cosmopolitanism of the host of characters who populate the novel. Each is a refugee from a particular defeated revolution, in Brazil, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Jordan and beyond. The setting of Moscow in 1973 is also not incidental, since Ibrahim uses the moment—the onset of the famous “Era of Stagnation” in Soviet history—to comment on the gaps between promises and realities of Moscow, that capital city of modern revolution. Like a ghost, the pale shadow of the October Revolution looms over the entire novel. Empty stores, black market blue jeans, paper underwear, cheap vodka, KGB repression, and above all, the forced ritual of comradely address (tovarich)—these, and little else, are the lasting accomplishments of revolutionary culture as it appears in the novel. In Ibrahim’s hands, the Soviet revolution—at one time the most privileged twentieth-century metaphor for the possibility of radical utopian change—becomes a figure of stagnation and corruption. Likewise, the monumental projects of Soviet-sponsored Third World solidarity—from the platitudes of the Afro-Asian Writers Association to the Soviet betrayal of the Iraqi and Egyptian Communist Parties—appear in this work as little more than abandoned Potemkin villages.

Similarly, Ibrahim’s novel takes on the sexual revolution of the 1970s, if only to suggest that it too failed. At first, his characters appear to be unrepressed, pursing their desires freely, and exchanging partners without hang-up or hesitation. At first blush, the workers’ party comes off like a carnival. Yet, as the entanglements proliferate, the old repressions, jealousies and insecurities return with a vengeance. The novel’s protagonist, Shukri, finds it difficult to join the sexual revolution as his attempts are undone by his age and impotency. The exclusions of the sexual revolution come to head in the novel’s final scenes when one of the central characters is violently assaulted for being gay.

But most of all, 1973 has a special resonance for Egyptian Leftists too and in the end, it is this Egyptian meaning that consumes Shukri. He ruminates on Sadat’s expulsion of Soviet advisors in July 1972. Along with others in the Egyptian student delegation in Moscow, Shukri worries about his status as the relations between Egypt and the USSR turn sour. Students in the Iraqi and Syrian delegations even take up a collection to help out their Egyptian comrades forced out of the union. Shukri then watches (or reads) from afar the topsy-turvy events of the 6 October War, unable to tell which side is winning. Shukri and other Egyptians in Moscow also struggle to understand Sadat’s headlong rush toward the USA, figured comically in an image of Sadat embracing the actress Mimi Shakib (recently disgraced in a prostitution case) beneath which reads the caption, “Opening Up to America” (al-infitah ‘ala Amrika). But more than anything else, it is the uncertain fate awaiting Egyptian communists—possible expulsion from Russian universities and likely imprisonment upon their return to an Americanizing Egypt. When a Syrian character ominously discusses Sadat’s plan to build huge new prison camps in the western oases, Shukri has nothing to say.

Al-Jalid follows an Egyptian communist who travels to Moscow to discover that not only did the Russian Revolution fail its promise, but that his own country is about to embark down a long path leading away from socialism, Third World internationalism, and Arab nationalism. Readers of Ibrahim’s other novels, like Zaat and Sharaf, know well how this story ends in the Sadat and Mubarak eras: vicious laissez-faire capitalism, rampant corruption, the wholesale import of Saudi culture, the ascendency of Salafist Islam, the expansion of state torture, increasing sexual repression, and the collapse of the nationalist middle class.

Left Pessimism

Ibrahim has long been obsessed with the history of modern social and political movements. Most of his novels deal with them very explicitly: the violent repression of the Communist Left under Nasser (Tilka al-ra’iha, Najmat Aghustus); the counter-revolutions of the Sadat and Mubarak eras (al-Lajna, Zaat); the possibility and collapse of Leftist revolutionary movements in Lebanon and Dhofar (Beirut, Beirut, Warda); the state repression of Islamist insurgency during the 1990s (Sharaf). In other words, for forty-five years, Sonallah Ibrahim has been engrossed in revolution, though almost always in a melancholic key—focused primarily on failures.

Like these other novels, al-Jalid is concerned with Left revolution—its defeats, its disappointments, its erasure—in Egypt and across the globe. And of all Ibrahim’s novels, al-Jalid is his saddest. Lacking the laughter of his other works, it offers little more than a laconic lament, a shrug, about the passing of so many revolutions. More than once, as characters walk through the Moscow winter, Shukri says, “And we walked across the ice…” The protagonist plods on silently, surrounded by “comrades” but also alone, the only sound being that of feet scuffling cautiously over cracking ice. The image is an apt one for describing the increasingly slippery and cold ground on which the Egyptian Left began to tread from 1970 onwards. With these unsure steps, al-Jalid ruminates on the failure of most every revolution the Egyptian Left ever believed in, and with that, it seems to mourn the passing of the possibility of revolution itself.

Unlike the tragic mode of fiction, where defeat and loss afford a partial reward in wisdom, al-Jalid seems to belong to White’s category of Satire, which is “the precise opposite of [the] Romantic drama of redemption… a drama of diremption…dominated by the apprehension that man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master, and by the recognition that, in the final analysis, human consciousness and will are always inadequate to the task of overcoming definitively the dark force of death…” (9).

What does it mean to read Ibrahim’s latest novel as a satire in this sense? For one thing, it allows us to begin to recognize the author's deep skepticism toward the revolutionaries' proposition that another world is possible. Al-Jalid elaborates a form of Left pessimism, a Marxist, anti-imperialist critique of injustice and oppression, but without the utopian promise of justice or emancipation.

It is not difficult to recognize this pessimism running through much of his entire literary corpus, incarnated in the alienated protagonists of his novels who, like Shukri in al-Jalid, muddle detachedly through landscapes of failed and failing revolutions. These protagonists cannot be read as cyphers of the author who has in fact routinely taken brave, public stances against the state and its repressive institutions, and who has spent many days protesting in the public square over the last decade. And this brings us to the central paradox of reading al-Jalid in the context of the moment in which it was born: in his life, Ibrahim has been an activist but a novel like al-Jalid suggests that such activism is doomed.

This paradox invites us to consider that al-Jalid is informed by decades of experience within a Leftist intellectual and political tradition that has been mostly isolated from mass political movements, espousing an ideology of revolution while sorely aware that it lacked a popular foundation. The extent of this isolation is more easily shown when we recall that the genuinely mass Egyptian social movements of the last decades—such as those of the Muslim Brothers and Salafis—have had a tangential, if not antagonistic relation to this Leftist political vision. These facts are registered in al-Jalid as a skepticism about the possibility of social change and a suspicion toward utopian political projects, even those that took to the streets on 25 January 2011.

Because of Ibrahim's life-long activism, and because of his unwavering commitment to Leftist causes, the deeply pessimistic structures of his fiction have gone largely unnoticed. It could be that Ibrahim has always been a novelist of lost causes. It could be that he is merely a realist. But the recurring narrative structures of pessimism in al-Jalid and other novels point to something much darker. Al-Jalid suggests that the story of revolutionary causes cannot be told except as a tale of compounding human loss and disempowerment, a farce from which no lesson need be learned. But, as Egypt's revolutionaries continue to remind us, there are other stories of revolution to tell, and other ways to tell it. 

----------------------------------- 

[1] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 7.

[2] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 33-67.

[3] Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 1-42. 

 

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