The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sonallah Ibrahim, taking stock

Sonallah Ibrahim in his home, June 2010 (Victoria Hazou)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the great Egyptian man of letters Sonallah Ibrahim. The interview--and discussion of his novel التلصص (Stealth), recently translated into English--was fascinating. Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most formally interesting and politically uncompromising writers and although there was a melancholy note to a lot of our conversation, he is a kind, charming and funny man. 

Also as it turns out, Stealth--an affecting, autobiographical novel that deals with Ibrahim's unusual childhood--is a story he has been turning around in his mind for the last forty years. 

It was while in prison that Ibrahim self-published his first book. Financed by his cigarette allowance, the hand-written volume had a cardboard cover of flattened food boxes, chapter titles in red ink made from mercurochrome, and a spine held together by bread paste. It included the introduction to a novel, Khalil Bey, the never-finished forerunner of what would become Stealth. After his release, Ibrahim wrote novels that were published in more traditional, less painstaking ways. But the subject of his childhood haunted him. All along, he says, “I was thinking of it, of how to deal with it.”

You can read the piece here.

When I went back a few days after the interview, with photographer Victoria Hazou, to take Ibrahim's pictures for the article, I brought along the Proust Questionnaire to entertain us while Victoria snapped away. We got through most of it. 

What is your favourite virtue? Telling the truth.

What is your favourite quality in a man? Tolerance towards women.

What is your favourite quality in a woman? Beauty (laughs)...and mind. 

What is your chief characteristic? Being very fond of women. And persistence. When I start something--whether it's washing the dishes or writing a novel--I  have to finish it.

What do you appreciate the most in your friends? That we can understand each other quickly and laugh together.

What is your main fault? Not being aggressive enough... (laughs)...especially with women. 

What is your favourite occupation? Writing. 

What is your idea of happiness? Sexual harmony.

What is your idea of misery? Not being able to do what you want to do.

If not yourself, who would you be? Nobody.

Where would you like to live? Here. I hate Cairo but when I tried to live in other places it just didn't work. 

Who are your favourite prose authors? Hemingway and Raymond Chandler.

Who are your favourite poets? I don't enjoy poetry.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction? Philip Marlowe and George Smiley.

Who are your favourite heroines in fiction? Scarlett O'Hara and Anais Nin.

Who are your favourite composers? Stravinsky, Dvorjak, Orff, Karloff. 

Who are your favorite painters? Cezanne. 

Who are your favourite heroes in real life? I don't believe in heroes. 

What characters in history do you most dislike? Henry VIII and  Hosni Mubarak.

What is your favourite food and drink? Vodka. 

What do you hate the most? Hypocrisy. 

How do you wish to die? Peacefully, in my sleep. I hate the idea of going to a hospital.

What is your present state of mind? Depressed.

For what faults have the most tolerance? So-called moral faults...

Your favourite motto. Don't have one. 

And for more material on Ibrahim, see Youssef Rakha's  2003 interview and recent conversation with him.