Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thieves Like Us

The cover of Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Stealth (2007, translated into English by Hosam Aboul-Ela, Aflame Books, London, 2009) features a slightly chubby boy of perhaps six years old, wearing an ill-fitting blue sweatshirt and shorts, looking expectantly at the camera. Behind him, almost indistinguishable from the dingy, monochromatic background, stands a middle-aged man – the boy’s father - wearing a fez, his thick mustache beneath sharply downward-sloping cheekbones. Each appears to look into the camera with independence, as though being photographed alone rather than together. This photograph is described within the pages of Stealth, an autobiographical portrait of the relationship between Ibrahim and his father, and captures the flavor of the novel perfectly: an image marked by time, a worn, threadbare atmosphere suggesting poverty barely kept at bay, a sense of distance between child and adult, the child looking forward with hesitant anticipation, the adult receding into the background with a stern expression in which pride and resignation mix. Photos appear frequently in Stealth, and Ibrahim’s novel itself develops like a Polaroid photograph, gradually emerging from obscurity into the superannuated color and definition that capture a fleeting moment, now past.

Set in Cairo in the early 1950’s, but with a telescoping sense of time that ranges from the father’s youth to the present, Stealth impressionistically covers a brief period of the writer’s childhood. Through powerfully atmospheric and intimate vignettes it unveils the quality of this relationship between father and son. In italicized flashbacks - memories of the boy prompted suddenly through the alchemy of association - a picture also begins to emerge of the child’s absent mother and of the reason for her absence. Ibrahim masterfully suggests details here and there that begin to accrete into a fuller back-story of an intelligent, defiant, and afflicted young woman whose life has been circumscribed by obligation, marriage and cultural expectations.

Ibrahim’s (rather, his translator’s) wonderfully apt title choice underscores children’s means of appropriating information about the mysteries of the adult world. The unnamed boy learns of this world by stealthy observation – peering through windows, doors left ajar, skylights, keyholes, glimpsing around corners into rooms where adults interact, furtively exploring the contents of drawers and closets, eavesdropping on conversations and unfamiliar noises. By means of these stolen glimpses, the child inquisitively gains burgeoning knowledge of adult behavior and relations, and in particular intimations of his father’s loneliness, declining health and fortune, frustrations with women (who come and go through the home as housekeepers, potential new spouses, and surrogate mothers), his religious practices, relations with friends and relatives, political beliefs, and hints of his conflicting emotions around being a single parent. Stealth also employs the prism of the central father/son story to refract light onto a whole set of cultural phenomena and a history of mid-century Egypt, lending the novel a depth and relevance beyond the simple familial relationship it describes. Along the periphery of the child’s grasping vision, the reader catches glimpses of the corruption of Egyptian politicians and businessmen; reaction to events of politics, war, terror, and scandal; rituals and practices of holiday celebration; the difficult and limited options faced by women; the imprisonment of those targeted unjustly for their political opinions; the passing popularity of certain songs, films and fashions.

The child’s fractional understanding of this adult world is emphasized by a fragmentary, almost cubistic aesthetic in describing his manner of apprehension, in which only parts are grasped, and not the whole:

I open the door carefully and look behind me. Father is deep into his nap. I go out to the living room. I walk softly to the door of the constable’s room. It is shut. I put my eye to the keyhole. The end of the bed. Four bare feet over it. The feet are all tangled and they’re not moving. I go over to the skylight and have a look at the window of Um Zakiya. It is open. The side of her bare arm is showing. I go around the table. I notice a mouse running towards the bathroom and the kitchen. I go back to Mama Tahiya’s room. I hear moving inside, so I hurry back to our room.

The sensual details of Ibrahim’s recollections provide the novel an astonishing richness and immediacy invested with a child’s selectivity and impressionability: a wooden wardrobe that has only three ball feet, the fourth replaced by a piece of wood that causes the left door to always remain open a crack; old train tickets used as domino pieces, the destination on one side and hand-drawn dots on the other; a black-clad woman on a tram “whose thighs hang over the edge of the seat a little;” a cup of rusty nails by the bedside that the child’s father fills with water each night. One can almost smell the fenugreek cooking (without ever even having actually experienced the cooking of fenugreek). The vividness of these details recreates a complete world, immerses one in the mysteries of a child’s perceptions, through which life is learned as often as not via stolen glances snatched from the interstices where adults aren’t looking.

Stealth is an extraordinary portrait of childhood and an affecting appreciation of a father – and by inference, an even more poignant elegy to a missing mother.  It’s also an intimate and penetrating glimpse into Egyptian culture and history. And, in its stealthy way, it is also about the origins of the impulse to become a writer, from one who has become among Egypt’s most prominent and compelling.  As that country now enters a significant new chapter in its history - and as Ibrahim’s latest novel, Turbans and Hats, has just been published last month in Europe and is beginning to garner praise as a turning point in Arabic literature - one hopes that Ibrahim will finally find the world audience he deeply deserves. 

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