Sonallah Ibrahim on “creative dimension” to taboos

There’s a lengthy Q&A with Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim in Banipal 43, which just arrived at my PO box. The wide-ranging interview, conducted by AUC history professor Camilo Gomez-Rivas, opens with politics, but meanders interestingly through Ibrahim’s inspirations and creative process.

Gomez-Rivas asked Ibrahim if there wasn’t a “creative dimension” to taboos, a way in which they spur the creative process because one must write creatively to evade them. Perhaps, Ibrahim said. But really, no.

For example, you can describe sexual intercourse in all sorts of ways and play with words and feel like you’ve sidestepped the taboo through symbolism and generalizations. That’s fine but there is something more powerful and beautiful than that — a precise and direct portrayal of intercourse. I’m not talking about pornography, of course not; I’m talking about a precise description of the act. This is very useful, very rich; it cannot be dispensed with.

Gomez-Rivas went on to ask Ibrahim about the evolution of his writing technique. To illustrate the origins of his process, Ibrahim went back to the second book he wrote, The August Star. Ibrahim wanted to write about the high dam, he said, “and for this novel I formulated a plan.”

I wanted to write about the high dam, in Aswan. I went there and stayed for three months during its construction. Every day I met people and went places. My idea was that I was in this place and everything that happened there, all of it, will be in the novel. For example, what I heard on the radio — songs, news — what I read in the paper, what happened to me during the day, the people I met and talked to, how the work developed, the kinds of tools that were used, the kinds of processes used to complete the construction, for which there was a certain rhythm of digging followed by a series of actions. Then there were all the things from the past that these things brought back to my mind and the dreams I had at night. I wanted to make the novel out of all of this and I think this approach has stayed with me until now, with some changes in the precision of observation, understanding the psychology of people , changes in awareness and in technical ability, such as how to describe an object or an event — I got better at this with time. But my point of departure is still what I hear and see and what I remember and think; that’s what is fundamental.

In a discussion of his book Beirut, Beirut, which is being translated now for publication with Bloomsbury-Qatar, Ibrahim said also, “I lived there for months, a short while before the [1982] Israeli invasion. There was a truce and I met with people and recorded everything I could.”

He also says a number of interesting things about the nature of the Arab reading public, the differences between a novelist and a journalist, relays a telling anecdote about Anton Chekhov (telling about Ibrahim more than Chekhov), talks about why the position of Arabic poetry is “undermined”, and tells of how he read Le Figaro in prison.


Marcia Lynx Qualey/Arablit