CAIRO, THE 1960s. An unnamed man is released from prison where he has been held for unspecified political crimes. The moment calls for celebration or gratitude, but the man is unmoved: “I searched myself for some feeling that was out of the ordinary, some joy or delight or excitement, but found nothing.” He moves in with his sister and her fiancé and passes the days in a funk of cigarettes, masturbation, and writer’s block. Each experience is equivalent and passionless. He discovers that Cairo has changed little during his absence: the metro is still crowded, meat is still scarce, blasé catastrophe is still the city’s backbone. Cops are still less than scrupulous — a few piastres make home curfew check-ins almost pleasant. Still there are friends to call on and women to seduce, a whole drifting circuit of ghosts. One day bleeds into the next until it’s just possible to feel alive.
This is the plot of Sonallah Ibrahim’s first novel, That Smell, published in Egypt in 1966. Although J.M. Coetzee hails it as a “landmark in Egyptian literature,” the book remains terra incognita for many Western readers. This is partly due to the repressive circumstances under which it was published: Ibrahim, imprisoned for five years as a communist, distributed the book via a “shabby little printer,” as he put it in a 1986 essay. State censors immediately confiscated the print run and ordered all outstanding copies pulped. The problem for these immaculate bureaucrats was the novel’s frankness: in particular, a scene in which the protagonist is unable to fuck a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” one government bigwig asked Ibrahim, perhaps personally unnerved by this insult to Egyptian virility. Several illustrious critics parroted the censor’s outrage. Yahya Haqqi, editor-in-chief of al-Majalla, wrote:
I am still distressed by this short novel whose reputation has become notorious in literary circles. It might have been counted among our best productions had its author not shown such imprudence and lack of good taste. Not content to show his hero masturbating (if the matter had ended there it would have been of little importance), he also describes the hero’s return a day later to where the traces of his sperm lie on the ground. This physiological description absolutely nauseated me, and it prevented me from enjoying the story despite its skillful telling. I am not condemning its morality, but its lack of sensibility, its lowness, its vulgarity. Here is the fault that should have been removed. The reader should have been spared such filth.
Little wonder the novel didn’t find a wide audience. Heavily bowdlerized versions were published in 1969 and 1971; a complete, uncensored edition didn’t appear until 1986. Even then, the book flew under the radar of otherwise prolific readers, as well as the English-language media. Neither The New Yorker nor The Guardian, for example, included it in their roundups of the best Arabic literature. And it’s easy to see why: the book is a riddle. It’s a narrative hewn from oblique angles and peripheries, its style simultaneously precise and spectral. The protagonist, our unnamed man, osmoses his way around Cairo, observing everywhere the same tableau of chloroformed marriages and lovesick women. His conversations — more like an aerosol of conversation — are nonstarters. Here is a typical exchange:
We talked about books. She said she’d stopped reading a while ago, when her boy was born. I asked if she had read The Plague. I felt as though a lot rode on her answer but she said, No. I was about to tell her I envied her simplicity and grace. I told myself that I would say so when we said goodbye. I looked at my watch. I had to go. I stood up and so did she and I said to her in a low voice, You know, you’re really strange. She looked at me in surprise. Today, I finally figured you out, I said. She bent over her little boy and busied herself straightening his clothes and I couldn’t see her eyes very well. Her husband came home and I said goodbye to both of them.
Ibrahim has acknowledged his debt to Hemingway, which manifests not only in antiseptic prose, but in a poetics of withholding. Much of Hemingway’s short fiction — most notably “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Cat in the Rain” — is predicated on something ineffable. You sense a tragic denouement on the outskirts of those stories, but within the narratives themselves it remains little more than a shade of anxiety or despair. That Smell crystallizes Hemingway’s style at its most ruthless. By stripping away even the essentials — the protagonist’s name, the nature of his crime, the vicissitudes of both his family and country — the book elevates banality to universal pathos. As the unnamed man smokes another cigarette, or showers, or sleeps, or jerks off, we confront the fact that life, for most of us, consists of just such monotony.
To appreciate why this was so aesthetically radical in 1966, it helps to recall Egypt’s political climate during that time. Gamal Abdel Nasser had been president for a decade, swept into office on twin jets of conspiracy and nationalism. In 1952, as de facto leader of the Free Officers, he and his military cohorts led a coup against King Farouk and installed themselves as the interim government. Their platform rejected everything Farouk and Egypt’s dynastic monarchy represented: British adventurism, economic injustice, military ruin. Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War had been especially humiliating, with Israel liquidating nearly 60 percent of Palestinian land and killing more than 2,000 Egyptians. A splinter of disillusioned soldiers including Nasser, Muhammed Naguib, and Anwar Sadat incubated a plot to overthrow Farouk. The United States, eager to quash Soviet encroachment in the region and control Middle East oil reserves, was initially sympathetic. The CIA even reportedly met with the rebels to pledge America’s support. While the extent of U.S. involvement in the 23 July Revolution remains ambiguous, the promise of foreign aid and diplomatic goodwill almost certainly emboldened Nasser. Indeed, after the coup he wasted little time in requesting $100 million in military and economic relief from Washington. Eisenhower, however, was reluctant to alienate Britain, whose access to the Suez Canal was now in jeopardy. He tried to split the difference with a $50 million counteroffer, but Egypt considered this a betrayal. Nasser’s hasty about-face saw him align with communists and anti-Western interests. The formation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 — a regional security coalition consisting of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Great Britain, and the U.S. — further provoked Egypt, which retaliated by buying tanks and artillery from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.
For all his talk of “positive neutralism” and non-alignment, Nasser was actually a savvy political opportunist. He persuaded Britain and the US to earmark $70 million for the Aswan High Dam, but both countries reneged after Egypt formally recognized the People’s Republic of China. (Neither Washington nor London was keen to support a communist cheerleader). On July 26, 1956, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The subsequent invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France — the canal’s primary stakeholders — created an international cat’s cradle. Eisenhower and the United Nations pressured the Anglo-French forces to withdraw, which they quickly did, leaving Israel behind to occupy the Sinai for another eight months. The message to the Arab world was epochal and resounding: the Middle East was no longer a backyard for imperial profiteers. If Egypt could evict Britain, France, and the United States, why shouldn’t every Arab state achieve full sovereignty?
The following decade saw Nasser transform into the region’s avenging angel. His popularity was cyclonic. “The Voice of the Arabs,” a pro-Nasser radio station, widened his influence while also refining his propaganda into a kind of political evangelism. A 1963 Time cover juxtaposed his profile against that of an ancient Pharaonic head, suggesting he had attained similarly mythic stature. Idolatry intensified after a cascade of socialist reforms in the ’60s, including land redistribution, universal healthcare, and various nationalized industries. Nasser’s pan-Arab ideology was so bewitching that in 1958 Syria lobbied Egypt for a United Arab Republic merging both states. Although short-lived (the UAR dissolved in 1961), this confederation was proof of Nasserism’s profound cultural, political, and psychic charisma.
Not surprisingly, Egypt’s modernization paralleled a more disturbing counterlife. Just two years after taking office, Nasser introduced Law 162, also known as the “Emergency Law,” which granted the state a roster of extrajudicial privileges. In his book The Struggle for Egypt, Steven A. Cook describes the scope of this new authority:
The law gave the government extraordinary powers under a state of emergency. These included censorship and closure of newspapers and periodicals, restrictions on union activities, and strict limitations on political organizations, which could only meet at the discretion of the Ministry of Interior. The law also established a parallel judicial system, called State Security Courts, intended to adjudicate crimes related to public safety and national security. These courts, which do not exist in any of Egypt’s founding documents, lack basic guarantees such as due process and limit a defendant’s right to appeal.
Elsewhere, Cook argues that the Free Officers “oversaw the development of an authoritarian political order that endured, albeit in modified form, until early 2011.” Nasser’s Egypt was, politically and culturally speaking, monomaniacal: there was room for only one voice and one blueprint. To borrow Joan Didion’s memorable description of 1980s El Salvador, Egypt under Nasser was seized by “consensual hallucination.” Opponents were silenced, often permanently, journalists were gagged, and routine crackdowns on communists and the Muslim Brotherhood served as tourniquets to stem a wider flood of resentment. By 1967, when Egypt suffered devastating losses in the Six-Day War with Israel, Nasser had toppled from the savior of the Arab world to its pariah. His reputation never really recovered, and Egypt began a slow crawl toward death.
This is the backdrop against which Sonallah Ibrahim wrote That Smell. The book’s break with Arabic literary style — a lushness exemplified by Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy — signals a rejection of cultural inheritance; a starker political reality demands a more confrontational literature. Even more crucially, it signals a refusal to buoy the Nasser project. With its repetition and flatness, as well as its deliberate anti-climaxes, the book mimics Egypt’s stagnation. The Cairo it depicts is a city of sleepwalkers and exhaustion. Riding the metro is like plunging into the Lethe:
At one stop the train was assaulted by tens of workers on their way home. They forced their way through the crowd and one of them stood in front of me. His eyes were bloodshot. Another leaned against a row of seats and stared from the window and began to fall asleep. When I looked at him again his head was bouncing along with the movement of the train and knocking into the seats while he fell deeper and deeper into sleep
Elsewhere, our narrator says more bluntly: “All the people I saw on the street or on the metro were unhappy, unsmiling. What was there to be happy about?”
This is the kind of candor that alarmed Egyptian censors, but the novel’s truly subversive critiques are its most implicit. Childhood with its marrow of innocence, for example, is here perverted: In the span of just 44 pages, we glimpse children who are half-blind, crippled, obese, or unattractive; who are cruel and selfish; who scavenge their own parents. In a scene that furnishes the novel’s title, a child is the unwitting conscience of Egypt:
I was brought into the living room and waited for him [a friend] a long time. A little girl came in whom I recognized as his daughter. She walked up to me. I felt uncomfortable. I needed to use the toilet and I broke wind and the little girl smelled it. Caca smell, she said. I pretended not to smell it. But again she said, Caca smell. So I started sniffing all around, saying, Where? until the smell went away.
If this is a parable of Nasserism, we should ask ourselves what lesson is imparted: Did Nasser and his fleet of bureaucrats shit all over and then deceive Egypt? Or did ordinary Egyptians believe what they were told because they were too naive or tired or blindsided to do otherwise?
There is no single answer. Egypt was a politically and economically dysfunctional state masquerading as Camelot. That Nasser routinely abused his power while projecting a suave “man of the people” persona is well known; the degree to which Egyptians enabled — perhaps even welcomed — his demagoguery is more controversial. The Egypt of That Smell is a nation of willed amnesia; cinemas are sold out around the clock as people herd into oblivion. Early in the book, the protagonist accompanies his sister to a screening of The Birds (the movie is never named, but its plot is described as “about birds that kept getting bigger and multiplying until they became very wild and went after people and attacked children”). There’s a surreal symmetry between Hitchcock’s thriller and Nasser’s Egypt; both involve the sudden breakdown of everyday life and the victimization of powerless bystanders. In a sense, both are also exercises in dream-logic: Just as the film’s murdering birds appear out of nowhere, so too does Cairo erupt with impromptu horror. “I got off at Emergency Station,” our narrator reports, “and there was a man lying on the sidewalk next to the wall. He was covered with bloody newspapers and a group of women had gathered in the street, wearing black sheets and ululating over him in grief.”
This moment, in particular, is potent for two reasons. First, the image of bloody newspapers draws a literal connection between violence and Nasser’s government, and second, the knot of grieving women foreshadows the book’s enigmatic last act in which the narrator, overwhelmed by nostalgia, travels to his dead mother’s house and encounters “three women draped in black sitting cross-legged on a bed in the corner.” This trio — his grandmother, aunt, and great-aunt — suggest one of many possible symbolic trinities: the three fates; personifications of past, present, and future; embodiments of wudhu ablution rituals in which Muslims cleanse themselves three times. (Given the book’s water motif, this last reading isn’t as far-fetched as it seems; That Smell is a novel agitated by notions of purity and impurity, as is all of Egypt. Think of Sadat, for example, declaring in his radio announcement of the 1952 coup that it was “undertaken to clean ourselves up”).
And while we’re talking about symbolism, let’s not forget the novel’s bravura opening scene. In an unbroken, five-page paragraph, the narrator recounts his final night in prison — a lurid mash of blood, rape, and bugs:
There were a lot of men there and the door kept opening to let more in. I felt something in my knee. I put my hand down and sensed something wet. I looked at my hand and found a big patch of blood on my fingers and in the next moment saw swarms of bugs on my clothing and I stood up and noticed for the first time big patches of blood smeared on the walls of the cell and one of the men laughed and said to me, Come here.
Egypt’s decay is carried on those swarms of bugs and blood. Later, when the narrator visits his cousin, there’s a similar song of dilapidation:
I told myself I would know the house by its blue windows, but when I got there I discovered they weren’t blue as I’d imagined. They were just ordinary, uncolored glass. It was the sky that had sometimes made them seem blue. All the panes were cracked. The facade of the house was yellow and dirty. The gate to the garden was open, propped against the wall. The garden itself was untended and its paving stones were torn up here and there. I took the path leading to the front door. There was dog shit along the wall. I climbed the stairs with their crumbling steps and knocked at the door. My aunt’s daughter opened it. At first I didn’t recognize her. Her hair was unkempt and scraggly, with many strands of gray. Her eyes were dull and the skin of her face was brown.
Notice here how the environmental — crumbling steps and dog shit — segues into the personal: scraggly hair and burned-out eyes. It’s as if Egyptians have absorbed their country’s rot. In fact, the narrative is a casebook of morbid symptoms: The protagonist’s uncle comes down with an inexplicable illness that leaves him feverish and incontinent; a beautiful young girl is suddenly recognized as crippled; a child cries every time a man enters her house; a dog pees on the floor whenever he sleeps.
All of which brings us to water. The International Dictionary of Historic Places says this about Cairo’s ramshackle utilities: “Its [Cairo’s] sewer system, installed in 1914 and designed to last forty years, literally exploded in 1965. The telephone system stagnated […] Electrical lines and building foundations were constantly threatened by the leaking water and sewer systems.” Ibrahim captures (or perhaps anticipates) this debacle when he depicts Cairo as deluged with reeking wastewater. Pumps desperately whir on every street but still the stench muffles the city like a heat wave. It’s inescapable, and this time there’s no denying reality: Nasser’s Egypt is full of shit. Of course, just how discomfiting this fact is depends on one’s station in life. For our narrator, an outcast, it’s visceral and intimate; water invades his bathroom, after all. But for someone like his friend’s fiancé, a clerk in the ministry, it’s just a nuisance, like smudged glass. Indeed, this devout functionary takes pride in his glass-covered desk with its foreign notepads and ivory inkwell, all watched over by a “plaque with a Quranic verse.” (What a relief to know this devoted bureaucrat’s paperwork is safe from defilement).
It’s no surprise that water, both pure and impure, courses through the novel. Egypt is rived, enthralled, and defined by the Nile. In one of the book’s more Beckettian passages, the river is a source of existential comedy:
With my eyes, I followed a boat being rowed by a bare-chested young man. One of his oars fell into the water and floated away. He yanked the rudder of the boat and tried to catch the lost oar. He was rowing with just one oar, transferring it from one side of the boat to the other. But the current was against him and as soon as he got close to the oar it floated away. He rowed in a frenzy. Despair showed on his face. Then he threw away his oar and cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted to another rower in a nearby boat, asking for help. But the other rower didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t hear.
Here, again, is Nasser’s Egypt in a nutshell. And here, too, the scene echoes an earlier moment in which the protagonist must watch helplessly as his friend’s young daughter almost drowns in a swimming pool:
There was a piece of wood that helped with swimming and she grabbed onto it. But another little girl, a fat girl, took the piece of wood from her and floated on top of it. Mona held on to the piece of wood. The little fat girl grabbed her hair and pushed her away from the piece of wood, taking the piece of wood and swimming on top of it.
What is the lesson? That children are savage and grotesque? Or that the man tasked with protecting them — the novel’s protagonist — fails when it matters most?
While we’re undermining Egyptian masculinity, let’s recall the aforementioned scene in which our narrator is offered a prostitute courtesy of his friends Hasan and Ramsi. What he experiences isn’t performance anxiety so much as performance inertia, or perhaps a basic disinclination to be tainted. This is unfortunate given the prostitute’s winning personality:
She was sitting on the bed in her underclothes, wearing a cheap pink shirt with holes in it, like a white rag that had been dipped in blood and washed over and over but still kept the faded color of the blood … She said, I don’t want to smoke, let’s get on with it. Let’s have a cigarette first, I said. What’s your name? I want to get this over with, she said, and put her hand out to unbutton my pants. I turned her hand away gently and said, Just sleep with me tonight, then leave in the morning. Yeah, right, she laughed, and then pulled me toward her, trying to kiss me.
Her bloodshot shirt reminds us of the protagonist’s blood-walled prison. Its faded color, as declarative as a scarlet “A,” illustrates how Egyptians not only ingest their country’s corruption, but are literally marked by it. For his part, the protagonist stalls and fumbles like a virgin, at one point ripping the condom and calling out into the hall for another. “I’m clean,” the prostitute says, and even if she’s not, in Nasser’s Egypt venereal disease is proof that one at least makes an honest living.
Even the Egyptian military (then, as now, virtually sacrosanct) doesn’t escape insult. A train of soldiers returning from Yemen, where Egypt is mired in a fruitless campaign supporting the republican coup-makers, is greeted with indifference by fellow commuters. “The passengers looked at them coldly, without interest, and slowly the soldiers became less and less excited,” the narrator reports. “Our train had pulled ahead of theirs by now and I turned around to look. The soldiers’ hands hung from the windows of the train and I saw one throw his cap on the ground.” This is perhaps the nadir of the novel’s political blasphemy. That thrown cap represents Egypt’s cultural free-fall, its resignation and disillusionment, the irrevocable tarnishing of Nasser’s “blessed revolution.”
That Smell is ultimately a document of failure. Among the most egregious offenders are Egypt’s government, military, and economy; Nasser’s revolution with its cult of personality; and the Arab world’s standoff with the West. On a more basic level, it’s about the failure of the soul. The novel has a blindspot at its center, an absence that’s never resolved. As the narrative moves from the quotidian to the mythic, characters take on archetypal grandeur. I already mentioned the trio of grieving women, the narrator’s kin, but a greater mystery is the protagonist’s own identity. The book’s first sentence — “What’s your address?” — is a question he spends the rest of the narrative trying (and failing) to answer. By the time he locates his mother’s house on a quiet block in Cairo, he has entered a kind of vacuum — timeless, spaceless, ingrown. His grandmother and aunt relay news of his mother’s death: “She wouldn’t take any medicine. She got thinner and thinner and finally stopped eating […] on the last day she asked for a cup of water and when she drank it she fell down dead.” (Notice how water is again malefic). “Even at the end […] she didn’t want to see any of you,” his grandmother says, but the statement is matter-of-fact, no more troubling than when his sister’s fiancé advises him that “love comes after marriage.” Or when his brother informs him that he’s never been in love. Or, most caustically, when his friend Ramsi says simply: “Nothing is worth anything.”
The narrator has stood at the crossroads of just such a philosophy throughout the novel. On one hand, he is too demoralized and barren to write; his afternoons are a trench of blank pages. On the other hand, he still longs, however numbly, for human connection. He tries to resuscitate an old romance with Nagwa, a shy girl whose thighs are “beautiful and soft and dark,” but to no avail. He quickly realizes that “something was missing, something was broken,” as does Nagwa, who turns to face the wall. Nonetheless, he is determined to master the ancient social roulette: find a girl, fall in love, get married. In Liberation Square, an eyewitness account of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Ashraf Khalil writes: “It’s an under-explored issue just how much pure sexual frustration fed into Egypt’s revolutionary rage.” How intriguing that 45 years earlier, “sexual frustration” also fed Egypt’s malaise and melancholy, its spiritual whiteout.
Finally, then, this brief riddle of a novel yields something like a theme: Societies that are unfree — morally, intellectually, or artistically — are unfit to love. Their default mood is rage. If That Smell is a document of failure, it is equally a controlled howl of fury. Its style makes few concessions to conventional notions of lyricism or catharsis. Ibrahim justifies its austerity by asking: “Wasn’t a bit of ugliness necessary to expose an equivalent ugliness in ‘physiological’ acts like beating an unarmed man to death, or shoving a tire pump up his anus, or electric cords into his penis?” Four decades later, such a question remains loaded for a generation of Egyptians grappling with their own chapter of despair. “The worst thing is to begin searching for yourself when it’s too late,” the narrator says, but there’s a fate even more tragic: To never search at all.