Ice – Sonallah Ibrahim (tr. Margaret Litvin)

ibrahim-ice__70781.1566890139‘Ice’ by Sonallah Ibrahim (translated by Margaret Litvin) was longlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize, an award for Translated literary fiction written in any language of the “European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s 38 countries of operations”. Although not making the shortlist it is worth noting that the winning book will take home a prize of €20,000 that is equally divided between the winning author and translator.

Sonallah Ibrahim was born in Cairo in 1937. He studied law at Cairo University and was imprisoned in 1959 for his political activities. While serving his five-year sentence he wrote ‘Notes from Prison’ and composed ‘That Smell’ shortly following his release, both titles released by New Directions publishing in the USA. After several years abroad, including studying at the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography in Moscow from 1971-73, he returned in 1974 to Cairo, where he has lived ever since. In 2004 he was awarded the Egyptian government’s prestigious Novelist of the Year prize. Ibrahim publicly declined the award, saying he could not accept a literary prize from “a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility to bestow it.”

Picaresque literature, shining examples in both the Arabic world and in Slavic folktales. Tales “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a roguish but appealing hero, of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society” (Oxford dictionary). ‘Ice’ continues that picaresque tradition, however I’m not too sure if our “hero” is that appealing.

Set in 1973 (there is a calendar on our protagonist’s wall) this novel consists of 126 short chapters, chronological in order and covering the observations of an Egyptian student in Moscow. Almost diary like, the prose is factual and devoid of emotion or motivation. A case of tell not show:

I went to Health Clinic #6 downtown, the one we were assigned to. I undressed and described my condition to him, drawling a penis and testicles on a piece of paper, before lying down on the doctor’s examination bench. He told me to hold my penis in my hand. Then he put on a white glove and stuck his finger into my anus, moving it until I felt a burning sensation. He said I had an inflamed prostate because of the cold. He prescribed some ointment, enemas and a massage of the gland he said he would do himself. I walked to the Arbatskaya Station, then switched trains at Kievskaya.

Our protagonist here lacks any moral compass, lurching from one experience to the next, his days are made up of drinking vodka or cheap champagne, procuring supplies (tomatoes are hard to come by), and observing women for their physical attributes, or marital status. There are innumerable instances of our narrator rubbing himself up against women on trains, in crowded venues, him obsessed by a pair of long bare legs or attempting to bed fellow students. All characters, male or female, have no background, other than ethnicity or marital status, they simply move into our narrator’s sphere and then simply leave.

Whilst our nameless narrator (note the ‘Translator’s Afterword’ names him as Shukri and it was only then, on the second last page, I knew his name) is attracted to numerous women, his success is limited, unlike Hans “the handsome German. About thirty, taller than me, with his soft blonde hair falling over his forehead and parted in the middle, and his fleshy lips. He would come from East Germany a few times a year to meet with his thesis supervisor.” Hans has all the women (and men) chasing him, our narrator finding when alone with a woman that they are more interested in talking about their relationship with Hans than with him.

At a literal level this is simply a story of an abhorrent foreign student navigating his way through 1970’s Russia:

Choosing what to buy was no challenge; the selection was limited. I stood in the queue at the counter looking at the picture of Brezhnev on the wall. One of the white-coated saleswomen disappeared. Two others were absorbed in a long conversation. I was given a receipt for what I wanted. Then I moved over to another queue to pay. The saleswoman added up my purchases on a wooden abacus: 310 kopeks’ worth of eggs, 30 of kefir, cultured milk, 463 of vodka and 80 of bread. I paid and collected my receipt, then moved to the third queue to receive my purchases.

Yes, he does seem to spend more money on alcohol than food. Anything to get him through the drudgery of daily existence. As a reader you find the dreaded repetition of banal daily interactions mind numbing, you are experiencing the monotony, and impotence, just like our protagonist.

I got on the tram. I stood next to a woman by the farebox. She was in her forties, with a nice face despite its heavy paint. She was holding a small folded umbrella. I thought she must be returning frustrated from a Sunday excursion. We stepped inside. I felt her backside behind me, so I rubbed my backside against it. She pressed back.

Besides drinking, social interactions and general drudgery, our protagonist cuts out interesting articles about the conflicts in the Arab world from old newspapers. This activity links certain conflicts to Russian/American influence, however our narrator does not generally have an opinion, again his views are reported in a clinical manner. He may be present at debates between various students about political situations, but their views are simply presented.

There are a number of references to other literary works, films, music and other artistic pursuits. As a reader you need to decipher the meaning of these interludes, for example our narrator tells us of the narrative plot of a film, and if you are well versed in that example you can understand a deeper philosophical reference:
The film began, at the screening room on the third floor of the Institute. The stupid school, the degenerate, cruel teacher and the child groping for a path through all this, and forced to lie. At home his mother has no time for him. She gets home late, exhausted, after he has already set the table. The father comes home, a failure, and at night the child can hear them arguing. He has seen her kiss a man in the street. He runs away from home. She brings him back and decides to be nice to him, gives him a bath, and when he wants to go to sleep in his bed in the living room by the door she says, ‘No, in our bed.’ He goes to her bed and undresses and slips in naked.

This literal reading of the book presents a dry and clinical novel, however there is an underlying metaphorical level. The Egyptians are tolerated, the East German is fettered, the Syrians or Iranians are on the periphery. It is the East German who has more success in Russia, however his fate isn’t a bed of roses either.

The title ‘Ice’ showing this literary approach is but a slippery surface, underneath there are torrents of movement, barely discernable. The “Translator’s Afterword” explaining further:

The narration presents a numbly factual sequence of events without logical subordination, analysis or even a personal response. The narrator is reduced to a pair of eyes or, more precisely, to a camera, recording impressions to be developed later. While rejecting any claim to understand the people or events described, the narrative foregrounds of Shukri’s sense of estrangement, pointless and anticlimax. The reader, too, gropes for orientation. Friendships and love relationships are tenuous. Situations are ambiguous. All the drama is between the lines.

An intriguing read from a revered Egyptian writer, the repetitive mundane existence coming though as you turn every page, but it is almost as though you’re reading a KGB observation file, however there is an underlying political dissent and the relationship between Arab States and Russia, the power plays and the sheer dominance of the Russian political system somewhere underneath your feet, as you slip on the icy surface.

As always, a beautifully presented book from Seagull Books and another worthy addition to my collection.






Leg Over Leg (Volume One)- Ahmad Fāris Al-Shidyāq (translated by Humphrey Davies)


The Arabic “Ulysses” according to the collated lists I published here late last year. This is an interesting inclusion on that list as it was published in 1855, therefore it pre-dates Joyce’s masterpiece by at least 63 years (using the serialised publication on “Ulysses” as the comparison date). This is the period when Dickens began serialising “Little Dorrit”, when William Makepeace Thackeray’s “The Newcomes” appears, and when Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden” is published. I cite these examples as Ahmad Fāris Al-Shidyāq’s “Leg Over Leg” is a work that leaps decades ahead of its time in both style and subject matter.

The extensive, and insightful, Foreword by Rebecca C. Johnson advises us that “Al-Shidyāq’s body of work – seen as a whole – is equally difficult to categorize neatly. Most frequently, al-Shidyāq is seen as a modernizer, a renovator of Arabic letters who “had little regard for literary tradition” and who instead looked to Europe for literary modes that would replace those discredited indigenous ones.” (p xviii) As well as stating “Leg over Leg can be seen as a portrait in miniature of Arabic literary modernity, if we understand that modernity as it has been more recently described in scholarship: a contested category marked by self-interrogation and a “constant reworking of the meaning of community” through language, created not by being imported from the West, but through interaction with Europe.” (pg x-xi)

I’ve committed myself to writing a book that would be a repository for every idea that appealed to me, relevant or irrelevant, for it seemed to me that what was irrelevant to me might be relevant to someone else, and vice-versa. (p155)

This is a difficult book to review, made up of al-Shidyāq’s tales, although the main protagonist is named Fāriyāq, the autobiographical parallels are hard to ignore, the narrative plot is thin, however the literary riches are plentiful.

Using a raft of literary devices, it is a reader’s delight. Frequently referring to the act of writing the book, our protagonist is a scribe, as a reader you are immersed in the experience;

…anyone reading the book is asked to turn the pages slowly and focus closely in order to uncover the hidden meanings conveyed through jokes and the other excellent features that have been placed within its separate chapters. Another of the book’s excellent qualities is that, when it mentions something, it says everything there is to say about it, while also taking into consideration every aspect of any similar words. (from “An Introduction by the Publisher of This Book” p 17)

Opening with an exultation of the book as well as a defence of its contents, the physical object and its creation are never far away from the reader’s gaze. Using poetry, the book opens with a seven-page Proem, and rhyming prose;

Were I, though, to describe him in the Frankish way, I’d say he was a donkey son of a donkey, born of a she-ass all of whose ancestors were donkeys. His color tended toward the black and his hair felt like thorns when you touched his back; his ears were cropped and listless, his legs stiff, his coat starting to fall, and he was toothless; wide-mouthed, slack-lipped, and with buttocks splayed, not to mention that he sniffed at she-asses’ pee, rolled on the ground, smeared his dung everywhere and sprayed. The stick on him had no effect, nor did rebuke, when he disobeyed and he never moved unless he sensed food, be it only darnel. No trace of animal nature would he show until a she-ass he espied; then you’d see him frisk and gambol, show vigor and pull the bridle to one side, so that he often overturned his load or sent it askew; and another peculiarity he had too, which was that, rarely though his molars were put to work, everywhere he defecated and incessantly over hill and dale he flatulated, making him seem yet more ill-fated. He’d been rasied in lands where there was an abundance of cabbage, radish, rape, turnip, and cauliflower, as there is in certain foreign parts, and was therefore accustomed from his youth to producing farts, and this condition had only grown worse as he’d grown older. Thus any who walked behind him had, perforce, to hold his nose and keep saying “How coarse!” In any case, whichever of the two descriptive modes you choose, of all the pains of the journey and its injuries, keeping company with this beast was by no means the least. (p119-121)

In Chapter 10 we advised of the difficulty of using rhyming prose;

Rhymed prose is to the writer as a wooden leg to the walker. I must be careful therefore not to rest all my weight on it every time I go for a stroll down the highways of literary expression lest its vagaries end up cramping my style or it toss me into a pothole from which I cannot crawl. Indeed, it seems to me that the difficulties of rhymed prose are greater than those of poetry, for the requirements regarding linking and correspondence set for lines of verse are fewer than those for the periods of rhymed prose. In rhymed prose, the rhyme often leads the writer from his original path to a place he would never have wanted to reach had he not been subjected to its constraints. Here our aim is to weave our story in a way acceptable to every reader. (p149)

Puns, word plays and exploration of word’s inner meanings are littered throughout, the immersive experience forcing you to change your reading style. We have a four page paragraph listing numerous synonyms for the vagina and the penis, al-Shidyāq then telling us;

In addition, I have imposed on the reader the condition that he not skip any of the “synonymous” words in this book of mine, many though they be (for it may happen that, on a single road, a herd of fifty words, all with the same meaning, or with two meanings that are close, may pass him by). If he cannot commit to this, I cannot permit his to peruse it and will not offer him my congratulations if he does so. I have to admit that I cannot support the idead that all “synonyms” have the same meaning, or they would have called them “equi-nyms”. (p47)

An example of the puns at play; – “doing business with whatever capital (and assets)”, the translation coming from “The head of the money and its tail” here the author is playing with the literal meaning of the Arabic expression meaning “financial capital”.

Translator Humphrey Davies must be given enormous credit for his work on this book, with extensive lists of synonyms and near synonyms, the rhyming prose, the puns, it would have been no easy task to capture these in English. In fact, this book was shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award, losing out to Ottilie Muzlet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below”.

Containing scathing attacks on the atrocities and morals of the church and their treatment of the writer’s brother, the autobiographical references often come to the fore, and this is where the extensive Foreword mentioned before becomes a very useful tool. My edition of the book is presented in both the original Arabic, alongside the English translation, and would surely be a scholar of Arabic literature’s dream.

A book that has been described as “unclassifiable”, it follows a similar path to Don Quixote, with seemingly random tales appearing throughout Fāriyāq’s journeys, it also reminded me of Lawrence Sterne’s “Tristram’s Shandy”, however rightfully this is a unique book, a literary tour-de-force, a journey into another culture which is highly instructive and educational, here’s hoping the other three volumes are of a similar quality.

Instructions Within – Ashraf Fayadh (translated by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki and Jonathan Wright) – Best Translated Book Award Poetry 2017


In November 2015 Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, his original sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014 was overturned on appeal and a “new panel of judges rules that his repentance did not prevent his execution.” (“The Guardian 20/11/2015 A further appeal has resulted in an eight year jail sentence and 800 lashes to be carried out over 16 occasions.

“In August 2013, he was detained by the mutaween (religious police) following a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.” (“The Guardian” 3/2/2016)

His collection of poems “Instructions Within” was published, in translation, by The Operating System in November 2016 and was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (Poetry).

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up this collection is the binding, right bound, opening to the left, the book comes with an insert explanation from Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the Founder and Managing Editor;

Each of The Operating System’s books questions design standard in order to dislodge our normative patterning and expectation, with the belief that continuous exposure to diversity on the page – both in content and design – affect not only the cognitive brain by the body as well, in so far as this required the ‘rewiring’ of brain behaviors, essentially getting us out of a ‘rut’ of repetitive reception.

INSTRUCTIONS WITHIN goes one step farther – requiring the western reader to hold and read the book as one would an Arabic or Hebrew volume, that is, by being right-bound. The westerner might find him or herself saying that the book ‘starts at the back’ or feeling vaguely uncomfortable holding the book and/or turning pages ‘backward’ but this is precisely the point: to disrupt the proprioceptic modelling that tells you that the way to do things, your patterning is not only yours but ‘right’ or ‘normal,’ when in fact hundreds of millions of people – billions of people – experience books and texts in directions different from our own.

Reading you are certainly off kilter, with the English versions of the poems appearing on the left page and the Arabic versions on the right, working from “the back”.

Immediately you are struck by the writer as a refugee;

The air is polluted, and the dumpsters,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries got blocked
denying citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.

  • From “A Space In The Void” (p6)

This opening poem setting the tone, space abounds, on the page, in the text, the loss of personal space, a newborn “child to fill another part of the void” (p14) even sleep is to “go back to your void” (p18). The page lightly peppered with the test, the white page filling the void.

The political is not far from the poet’s pen either with people displaced from their lands for oil, the poem “On The Virtues Of Oil Over Blood” containing;

You tremble now,
so take what there is of your blood
to fill the belly of exile –
to gather the overseers’ oil
and smother their intention to drag away your soul.
Ask forgiveness of the river –
and loudly apologize as your blood seeps into its waters. (p32)

The notes on page 42 explaining, “Almost all of this poem is quoted by the court that ruled for Ashraf’s death sentence.” The themes of the heart, desire, corpses, blood, oil and displacement are the recurring images, poem after poem.

I am looking for a land to love…or to love me
for a homes to shelter all the captives
of a war that didn’t carry any burdens
To lay them down.
I am looking for a ceiling other than a sky,
sick of veiling my shameful history

  • From “A Hired Lover” (p80)

The book also includes experimental works as in “B.I.M.”;

compare and choose what the world accepts of you
I am
I am
I am

(p 170)

This is activist poetry, poetry of oppression, jail cells, writing on walls, the conditions of being interred, all of this visited in the twenty-page poem “Amnesty”.

Although a 296-page book, the dual language presentation and some of the pages containing a mere two or three lines, it is not a weighty tome. Personally, I found the shorter one or two page poems more coherent, the longer ten to twenty page ones some of the symbolism or references were too obscure or politically specific for me to understand.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
There endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify?”

  • From “The Last Of The Line Of Refugee Descendants” (p 248)

There are a few poems where the number of Arabic lines differ from the English translated lines, something that I found a little strange.

Overall an important work, one bringing to the English-speaking world the work of an activist poet, wonderfully presented to ensure you are always thinking about the original texts, and the process of reading. I will leave this review with a quote from the end notes by the founder and managing editor of “an operating system” Lynne  DeSilva-Johnson; “For it will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kind” who “wake up the world”.” An important message for these uncertain times.