May 2010
A review of


by Sonallah Ibrahim

Central question: When old authorities retreat, how do we map the new world?
Translated from Arabic by: Hosam Aboul-Ela; Partial list of historical references: King Farouk’s fancy cars, Deir Yassin massacre, Saad Zaghloul and the revolution of 1919, the trial of Anwar Sadat; Obligatory plot summary: A young boy in post–World War II Egypt tries to comprehend why his mother has disappeared from his life; Stickers on Ibrahim’s front door in 2003: BOYCOTT IS RESISTANCE and TOGETHER AGAINST U.S. GLOBALISM AND AGGRESSION IN IRAQ; Representative passage: “I fight off drowsiness. I feel an urge to get up and turn the brake arm, just to see what happens to the wheel on the tracks. I wish I could be in bed already.”

In 1998, Sonallah Ibrahim reportedly feigned illness to avoid receiving Egypt’s best-novel prize. In 2000, he quietly turned down the American University in Cairo’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal. But in 2003, when offered the Egyptian government’s prestigious Novelist of the Year award, Ibrahim could no longer keep his silence. The sixty-six-year-old author took the stage and ended his brief speech by saying he would not accept a literary prize from “a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.” He left the prize and walked out.

Sonallah Ibrahim has spent a lifetime clipping newspaper articles, quietly defying regimes, and writing clear, unsentimental fiction that is at times absurdist and at times difficult to distinguish from daily Cairo realities. His latest novel, Al Talassus—which could be Eavesdropping or Sneaking, but is translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela as Stealth—is perhaps Ibrahim’s least overtly political work.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—M. Lynx Qualey

M. Lynx Qualey ( writes about Arabic literature. She lives in Cairo.

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