Love and Revolution: On Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Warda”
By Gretchen McCulloughAugust 5, 2021
Warda by Sonallah Ibrahim
Informed by extensive historical research, this complicated political tale is told as a personal quest. Rushdy, the main character (and the writer’s alter ego), is searching for “Warda,” or Rose, the nom de guerre for an Omani activist he fell in love with while he was a student at Cairo University in the late 1950s. A suspenseful novel that blends the political with the personal and the factual with the imaginative, Warda explores unmined territory: the proxy wars in Oman and Yemen in the 1960s and ’70s. Translated into English by Hosam Aboul-Ela, Warda has now found a home with Yale University Press.
The novel opens with Rushdy’s dreams of Warda in 1992. A little puzzled about the intensity of his visions of a woman he knew 30 years before, he speculates that it has to do with “middle age and mortality.” The intense dreams of Warda stop as soon as he decides to launch an expedition to find her. Rather fortuitously, his cousin, Fathy, and Fathy’s wife, Shafiqa, live in Oman, Warda’s home country. Immediately upon arrival, the left-wing Rushdy spots the economic inequities in Sultan Qaboos’s utopia: the country is manned almost entirely by Indians and Filipinos, or other workers from Asian countries, who appear to be underpaid and, in some cases, enslaved. Compared to chaotic, vibrant Cairo, Muscat is the polar opposite, with “monotonous overpasses” and “manicured greenery.” In this tightly controlled environment, Rushdy observes that media advertising for brand-name products substitutes for hard news. Sultan Qaboos’s ubiquitous presence is overpowering: even the national flower, cultivated by the Dutch, is named after him. The past creeps into these observations of the present with memories of Warda’s brother, Yaarib, who used to regale his Cairo University classmates with the tyrannical absurdities of Sultan Qaboos’s father, then say, “Can you imagine?”
Oman in 1990 is replete with absurdities, a bizarre mix of religious conservatism, hypocrisy, consumerism, and state repression — at least according to Rushdy, who treats us to a hilarious description of his quest for a beer that includes secret meetings, intrigue, and multiple hand-offs. With the obliging help of a doorman, Rushdy maneuvers around the prohibition against alcohol. This wacky wonderland can also be menacing, however. Fathy informs him that meetings of more than three are banned because of the Dhofar Rebellion (otherwise known as the Omani Civil War of 1963–’76). A left-wing publication is mysteriously delivered to his cousin’s house, suggesting that someone knows about his trip. He visits Warda and Yaarib’s home village, Red, but the villagers claim that they never heard of them.
Rushdy reminisces about his university days and how he came to know Warda and her brother. It was a time of political ferment, with the 1956 Tripartite Aggression, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser faced down Britain, France, and Israel over the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Other Arab students from colonized countries were attending Cairo University, preparing for their moment. Warda and her brother, from a wealthy Omani background, hosted Arab activists and intellectuals at their apartment in Agouza. The younger Rushdy was charmed by Warda’s sexual openness and complexity: “I carefully studied that elusive look in her eye that struck me first as questioning, then as gently mocking, and finally as challenging.” She told him about how people were enslaved in Oman and about her mother’s 10 pregnancies. Even though Rushdy was smitten, he was too shy to declare his feelings, and so Warda carried on with other young men who were also attracted by her boldness.
Meanwhile, Yaarib was summoned by Imam Ghalib, the last leader of the Imamate of Oman, to “liberate it from the Sultan in Muscat and his English sponsors.” After her brother left to fight, Shahla (which is Warda’s real name), was sent to the dorm. When Yaarib returned, he told the other students cruel stories about how the British had bombed the freedom fighters, put prisoners in dungeons, and burned and destroyed property. He claimed that he had returned to Egypt to ask authorities for support for the rebellion, but instead he became involved in the intrigue of the Egyptian Communist Party. The narrator gets caught in Nasser’s sweep of Communist Party members and finds himself in prison in 1959. (Ibrahim was himself arrested for handing out pamphlets and spent five years in jail.)
In 1990s Oman, Rushdy receives Warda’s diary, which records her experiences as an activist in the Dhofar Liberation Front, in a brand-name plastic bag, the communist revolutionary’s voice ironically enclosed in a capitalist artifact. To evade the heavy security presence, there are anonymous phone calls, drop-offs, and secret meetings. Whoever sent him the diary has Xeroxed it, and he receives it in installments. Except for the brief flashback to the Nasser period, when he met Warda, the novel alternates between Rushdy’s point of view in the ’90s and Warda’s in the ’60s (up until the end of the Dhofar Rebellion in the mid-’70s). Her diary gives the reader an insider’s view of a female rebel in a volatile political movement, a ragtag mix of local tribal people, herders, and Arab intellectuals. Under British control and heavily taxed, the locals were drawn to the DLF because they did not benefit from the discovery of oil in the Dhofar region.
In the first excerpt of the diary, covering 1960–’65, which is set in Beirut, Warda comments on national movements and the complex political landscape of Lebanon, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She is recruited to the Dhofar movement and trained in guerrilla warfare by a Jordanian officer. The next installment, set in the Dhofar Mountains in 1965–’68, details the arrival of the rebels, who divide up the area of Dhofar, which covers 58,000 square kilometers. The three provinces include a coastal region, a hill country, and a plateau that stretches to Saudi Arabia. Their armed struggle is no secret: donations pour in from Arab countries, and the rebels are also supplied with weapons from China. Almost immediately, Iranians intercept some smuggled weapons and give them to the British. Warda joins guerrilla operations on British airfields and witnesses the traumatic deaths of several comrades.
In the next segment, covering 1968–’70, Warda withdraws from military operations and becomes more involved in literacy programs for local tribal women. Besides teaching women how to read and write, she educates them about sex and birth control, criticizes husbands for domestic violence, and adjudicates a rape case. Her enlightened opinions and efforts to liberate women clash with the priorities of the male leadership of the DLF. In the meantime, the Front’s guerrilla operations against the Sultan’s military and the British in Nizwa and Izki, not far from the oil pipelines, are not successful.
The next section, covering 1970–’72, marks a major political shift in Oman as Sultan Said bin Taimur is overthrown by his son, Qaboos, with the support of the British. The younger Qaboos offers financial incentives and television sets to impoverished herders and Bedouins in exchange for abandoning the Dhofar Liberation Front. Those who are not co-opted by the government are detained and forced to sign confessions renouncing the DLF, which is then faced with the problem of mass desertions. With fewer resources at their disposal, there is little they can do to keep members loyal, apart from threatening them with execution. In 1972, the DLF also faces another devastating blow with the battle at Mirbat, a coastal town in Oman, where 70 fighters are lost, approximately half the number who took part in the operation. The next section, covering 1972–’75, details the DLF’s struggles to survive as Sultan Qaboos’s government rounds up the fighters and places bounties on rebel heads. The DLF supply chain is cut. Warda and a delegation visit Moscow and hint that they need weapons. Iranian troops gain control of the route from Salalah through Thumrait, which connects them to Muscat. To make matters worse, there is infighting in the movement regarding future operations and plans, and the DLF fighters are forced to retreat.
In the final section of Warda’s diary, set in 1975, the rebels are hiding in caves. At this point, Warda’s relationship with another fighter, Dahmish, blossoms. The DLF no longer controls Western Dhofar, and Warda and Dahmish think they should rebuild the movement in the north. To avoid the Iranians and government-controlled areas, they plan to cross the Qarra mountains, north of Salalah, skirt the edge of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, and sneak back into Oman at Nizwa. The couple cannot find guides willing to make the dangerous trek with them. At last, they are joined by Warda’s brother, Yaarib, and two guides, who seem suspicious characters. One morning when they wake, they discover that Yaarib and the guides have taken the water and the camels. As Dahmish and Warda prepare to walk out of the wasteland, she buries her journal in the sand.
Warda’s complex and dynamic character makes her diary compelling. She is a liberal intellectual who idealizes Che Guevara and becomes involved in the nitty-gritty of armed struggle. At the start of her recruitment, she spouts Marxist dogma, but in time her idealism is tempered by the harshness of the desert, her experiences with violence, power struggles within the Party, and life with a variety of men from different social backgrounds. When she first arrives in the Dhofar Mountains, she wonders: “How could these eager Bedouins be transformed into revolutionary fighters? How could these people who live so freely be convinced of the need for a regiment with a precise, tight schedule?” Such a question was prescient. Ultimately, the leaders of the DLF could not change a highly ingrained tribal structure using Marxist ideology. Warda herself did not even know the local language of the highlands.
Warda is almost like a glorified Girl Scout mother, trying to get grown Bedouin men and herders to go to bed early, when they would rather tell stories and sing. Highly intelligent, she doesn’t miss the irony. The enormous gap between her and the men she leads is almost comical. She is the only one wearing fatigues, for example; some of the others “wore nothing but a loincloth or colored cloth skirt called a mauz that covered them from the waist to the ankles. […] My voice came out sounding feeble, ‘Attention!’” One of them wears a rubber hose for a belt. Many of the men are desperately poor and illiterate and have no notion of the outside world. When she gives them a lecture on imperialism, they tell her that China is the land of “Waqwaq.” When she asks the man what he means by that, he says, “there are trees there whose fruits look like humans and if you picked one off, it called out ‘WaqWaq.’” Besides her sense of humor, her contradictory impulses make her a very human, sympathetic character. For example, while she abhors the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, she reports that some executions for desertion or betrayal within the Party “had to be done.” Eventually, she rejects violence and focuses her energies on educating illiterate women. She yearns for physical intimacy and wonders if she really must pledge complete allegiance to the Party.
Warda is not the only novel Ibrahim has written in which he utilizes the literary device of the interpolated diary and experiments with collage. For example, in his 1992 novel Zaat (“self” in Arabic), he traces the life of an Egyptian woman under the regimes of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, showing the dramatic shift from a socialist paradigm to a more capitalistic economy following the Camp David Accords of 1978. The novel alternates between Zaat’s story and chapters that are a pastiche of newspaper headlines about graft, corruption, insider trading, nepotism, and consumerism. This collage severs the narrative too self-consciously, making the novel feel disjointed. The chapters in his 2011 novel Ice, by contrast, mimic a diary, in which the main character, Shukri, when he is a student in Moscow in the ’70s, clips out articles from newspapers and records headlines that show the contrast between Communist Party propaganda and the miserable daily life of Russians. Unlike in Zaat, the headlines do not fracture the narrative drive. In Warda, reportage on current events is threaded into the diary, along with political observations, musings, and personal details, in a way that is engaging and informative.
Warda’s diary is also rich in visceral detail about the desert and military operations, the atmosphere accentuated by Hosam Aboul-Ela’s lively translation. When she first arrives in the Dhofar Mountains, she is led to the guerrilla’s camp inside a cave. She makes herself a nest, separate from the men, with a “curtain made of burlap.” While she takes the rough shelter in stride, she is not prepared for the harshness of the natural world: “Swarms of flies never stop. I spat, and one came out of my mouth. […] Black and red ants have a stinging bite. Giant wasps come out of nowhere and fly at your head. You have to duck to get away from them.” In addition, she also describes her own involvement in military operations. Even though she did not take part in the attack on Mirbat, she records the graphic account of a survivor. Aboul-Ela’s idiomatic use of language effectively captures the suicidal charge on the fort:
Our men made it to the barbed wire and began to cut through it, some of them using their bare hands. Others threw a blanket over the wires to cross. 7-mm shells exploded around them at rates of extreme raid fire. The explosions knocked some of them away from the fence. Other fell across the wire and dangled there like dummies. Fahd yelled encouragement to the survivors and waved at them to advance. A new round of fire came. Some were able to cross over the fence and to get within 40 yards of the fortress, whereas others held back. A dead fighter hung from the wires like a scarecrow made of straw. Another hung upside down, with his limbs outstretched, as though crucified.
Before Rushdy reads the last three fragments of Warda’s diary, he is encouraged by Fathy and Shafiqa to make a visit to Salalah in the Dhofar region. Despite the effort on the part of the government to erase the past, it still bubbles to the surface. Early on in his trip to Oman, he meets a rebel, educated in Bulgaria, who was a member of the movement, and he keeps meeting those who returned after the “amnesty” of 1970. The rebels are still alive, but they act mute or evasive when questioned. For example, when he arrives in Salalah, he is taken by his guide on a “tour.” A primary school named after Qaboos is “consecrated for the children of the martyrs,” who also receive financial compensation. When Rushdy asks his Omani guide about the martyrs, it is clear that the term refer to Sultan Qaboos’s forces, not the Dhofar Liberation Front. Later, Rushdy observes “a modern wall on the next hill over, and behind it men in green military uniforms.” He asks if it might be possible to visit the site but is discouraged by the guide, who becomes anxious and says, “This area was once on fire with fighting and rebellion.” While the site is not marked, it has been refashioned as an “administrative center.” But constructing buildings on the site of a battle is not enough to erase it, if the history has been documented by a survivor. This is precisely why writers are such a threat to an authoritarian state. The state propagates an “official” version of events that serves its interests, eradicating accurate accounts. Despite efforts to repress the story of the DLF, Warda’s diary is Xeroxed and passed secretly among communist and leftist sympathizers, much like the underground poetry of the Soviet Union.
Another prominent feature of the novel involves the inexplicable meetings. Rushdy meets Warda’s daughter, Waad (“promise” in Arabic), who is working at a Woman’s Center in Mirbat, continuing her mother’s commitment to women’s issues. Rushdy is surprised, though, that she is wearing the niqab. When Waad lifts her face veil, the narrator thinks: “I traveled back thirty-five years. The same wide eyes, delicate lips, bronze skin, and piercing stare. ‘Warda,’ I whispered.” Later, Rushdy is invited to a lavish dinner at the house of Warda’s brother-in-law. When the narrator quizzes him about Warda and Dahmish, Abu Ammar simply says they “disappeared” and claims he broke with his brother, Dahmish. The narrator also asks him what happened to Yaarib, Warda’s brother, and Abu Ammar denies that he ever knew him. After the feast, Rushdy is invited to spend the night.
Luckily for him, the lock on his bedroom door is broken and he receives a nighttime visit from Waad. It does not seem very plausible that Waad would appear naked and throw herself at the narrator, but maybe having sex with a middle-aged man was an act of rebellion for a young woman imprisoned in her uncle’s house in a tribal, patriarchal culture. Or perhaps making love with Rushdy is a way of connecting to her mother, whom she never knew. By the same token, Rushdy’s deep nostalgia for the past will not bring Warda back from the dead. His intimacy with Waad conjures up the memory of Warda but cannot conjure up her living presence. She is gone, just as the ’60s are gone. Is nostalgia a kind of narcissistic fantasy? “Am I making love now with Warda,” Rushdy wonders, “or with myself?”
Warda reflects Sonallah Ibrahim’s lifelong interest in left-wing movements, geopolitics, and political change, as well as his quirky, original style. Social and political change in any society is always hard-won and must emerge organically. At the end of her diary, Warda asks the probing question about the DLF’s revolutionary efforts: “Has it been to create a better society or we did it for ourselves?”
Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997–’99. Currently, she is a senior lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
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