Sonallah Ibrahim: August Star

Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Najmah Aghustus (August Star 1974) was written over seven years, from 1966 to 1973, while the author was living in Berlin and Moscow and was banned in Egypt, with the first edition published in Damasucs in 1974. In 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim famously declined a government prize, pointing out “this government doesn’t have the credibility” to bestow cultural awards.

The novel is narrated in the first person by an unnamed journalist who is visiting the construction sight of the Aswan Dam. Soon after he arrives, he realises that reports of the progess and success of the project are carefully monitored and controlled, and that there has been little reporting on the devastation and death caused by the errors of the first phase.

As the narrative develops, it deconstructs the official rhetoric of the Dam as an awe-inspiring symbol of nationalist achievement, describing it as “nothing more than bits of sand and rock.” The surreal landscape of machines and desert, excavations and explosions is summarized when Saeed, a journalist friend, walks over a heap of rock and comments: “for thousands of years the Nile used to run through here.”

The journalist describes the advertisements which feature the signatures of both Nasser and Khrushchev, but the propaganda fades under the weight of the narrative, a deadly step by step description of the narrator’s daily routine, featuring a crippling heat, headaches, mosquitos, visits  to the work sites and conversations with workers, drivers and project engineers. This reality is placed side by side with articles, such as one saying that all the workers can take holidays when they choose but no one wants to, and that they all get a thermos of tea and a rubber pillow to absorb sweat and keep them from getting rheumatism and a pair of nice sunglasses. The journalist soon finds out that even the weather given in the newspaper suggests a more temperate climate than the blazing heat which regularly kills workers suffering from sunstroke.

As the danger and drudgery of the work and the subordination of Egyptian workers when compared to the Russian technical workers is revealed, the Dam seems to be the center of a labour camp in a wasteland in which the workers are prisoners. In fact when the journalist visits the local jail, the prison becomes a symbol of the camps, melding together the journalist’s own memories of his time as a political prisoner and the condition of the workers who complain “life here is a prison.”

This demystification of the Dam is part of what Ceza Kassem Draz identifies as the negation of a previously written text, Insan Al-Sad Al-‘Ali  (Man of the High Dam) which was the collaborative effort resulting from a sponsored trip with other artists in ’67. In a comaprison of the two texts, Draz identifies the processes of familiarization and defamiliarization at work in their creation. As the title Man of the High Dam indicates, the article works through a process of personification and humanization, with metaphor transforming what represents an immense and complex change to something reassuring and everlasting and connected to the past. It is a “national epic of the Nasser years.”

Ibrahim describes Man of the High Damas something written quickly, without the idea of artistic value:

My friends and I wrote a travel book in haste about our experience…from the title of the book alone it is clear that neither in its language nor in its construction does it differ from the exalted propaganda of the time…I was simply doing what I considered to be my duty, telling myself that later I would…find an opportunity to express myself more freely.

As Richard Jacquemond points out, unlike The Man of the High Dam, the novel August Star which is an inversion of the report was written after Ibrahim had distance himself physically and intellectually from Egypt. The irony is that the fictive discourse of the Star of August reveals the factual report, Man of the High Dam, to be a deceitful fabrication of reality. The deceit and hypocrisy are symbolized by the Dam which represents the notion of progress, an ideal which is being betrayed by a government simultaneously welcoming communist help in building the Dam  and persecuting and persecuting Egyptian communists. As Mahmud Amin al Alim notes: “here we see a clear contract between the notion of progress…and the notion of backwardness represented by the imprisonment of the Egyptian communisits.”

Stephen Meyer puts it like this:

 Ibrahim’s didactic point is that at the same time that Egypt was pursuing the progressive path of technological modernization represented by the High Dam it was socially and technologically backward. The High Dam project was at odds with Egypt’s political and social development and as such represented not only an ideal but also a contradiction…The whole novel is built on contrasts of this sort such as progress/backwardness, freedom/oppression, wealthy/poverty, abundance/hunger. The High Dam is built out of this very dualistic principle: it is a contradiction in and of itself. There is irony here, but not the irony of ambivalence or even resistance…the reality of the society depicted…is a contradictory one, caught between the striving for modernity and a state of consciousness that is utterly incapable of making such a transition.

This contradiction is represented in the narrative technique and structure. On first page of novel, the journalist boards a train from Cairo to Aswan. Sitting at the window he sees people standing on a platform and describes them abstractly, unable to hear what they are saying, seemingly uninterested in what they are doing.

He remains at the surface of the physical world and does not try to penetrate beyond this surface…the narrator himself is dehumanized, his subjectivity is suspended.

The journalist comes across disconcertingly not as a first person narrator but as a character seen from outside, describing the minutest actions and gestures,  such as closing the door of the compartment, as though recording the motions of a being devoid of subjectivity:

“I got up and went to the door, turned the metal handle, it turned it my hand. The door opened towards me. I closed it again and secured it with the hanging metal chain. I returned to my place by the window.”

This kind of narration is diametrically opposed to the technique of interior monologue, forming a narrative that is both resistant and transparent:

resistant as the reader is not allowed to penetrate the surface of the physical world yet transparent in that its discourse is neutral.

Most of the narrative is taken up with the journalist’s observations of the construction of the Dam, and is narrated in this unemotional prose, so that a  surface reading of the text makes it seem like a transparent representation of reality. Draz interprets this surface text as the window-pane through which the narrator gazes on to the world from his train, however symbolically the window becomes a mirror as the light fades and the writer can no longer see the external world but only himself.

Similarly the almost numbing neutrality which presents objects without mediation is broken up by passages which reflect the unnamed journalist’s interiority, which represents the pressures of life in a coercive and constrained environment, as the narration alternates between the processes of construction and the dreams and memories of the narrator, with the transitions to flashback passages sparked by images or words.

The pock-marked face of an official who talks about his lectures on socialism for example reminds him of another face with smallpox marks, a man who given the choice between Europe and hell accepted hell, was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest. When a project manager comments that during the fitst stage tens died in each collapse, but that all were willing to sacrifice, the narrator returns to memories of prison, contrasting the days when the walls would shake with nationalist songs, with a contemporary reality in which independence had happened and there were only weak cries to the guard from the lower floors where the thieves and young pickpockets were. A similar flashback encapsulates this sense of digust as the journalist remembers a group of prisoners waiting for their turn for the toilet for a long time, until one of the prisoners goes in the bucket in the corner which the guard then flings over them, a nauseating memory which is blended with the strains of ya watani, a nationalist song on the radio (88)

Draz refers to the sections that deal with the construction of the High Dam as the surface level of narration and the other sections as the undercurrent…the latter sections are consistently short, one-paragraph sections. Draz sees this as evidence of repression. The subtexts represent the repressed dreams of society, and concern subjects such as art, social conflicts, the totalitarian state, and the cult of personality.

Through these passages, subjectivity is revealed to be suspended. The narrator who is never named is dehumanized but he speaks to us in the first person and his memories and dreams supplement his automan-like actions, suggesting a narrative split between a “surface discourse made meaningful by what it omits rhat than by what it includes” which navigates around the official rhetoric of which The Man of the High Dam was representative, and a hidden text which offers the subtext of social conflict against the coercive state.

In Draz’s structural breakdown of the novel, the first four chapters describe the steps of the High Dam’s construction, while the second part is a single chapter of 20 pages which has no paragraphs or sentences, an uninterrupted interior monologue and the third part reproduces the four operations of the first part but in descending order.

Draz argues that the text is taken over by the referent to such an extent that it becomes a diagram of the object, with the novel structured as a pyramid.

 

The ultimate object or referent in question is the High Dam and Ibrahim seeks to represent this object in two ways. First of all he represents it via descriptive narrative that focuses on its most basic constituents…secondly he represents it in the structure of the text itself…this structure tends towards an iconic representation of this object. (178)

Alim on the other hand distinguishes between what he calls the vertical structure for the 1st and 3rd parts which consists of a series of scenes and vignettes and what he calls the horizontal structure of the second part which is simply an uninterrupted stream of narrative. It is this part which Alim argues “gives the novel its particular literary flavor which in fact saves the novel in literary terms and raises it from the level of mere reportage” (100).

The writerly aspect of the novel and its connection with the earlier text on the Dam is referred to within the narrative, as Saeed says he wants to write something about the “New Man and The Dam.” The narrator comments that Saeed used to talk about writing for theatre, but Saeed is impatient with this talk: “We all had big dreams once…” When the narrator asks if he wasn’t convinced by those dreams, Seed argues that the problem is the propaganda of depicting the situation as better, as though we have achieved something: “I convinced myself. There were big things to sacrifice for…The first stages are always like this.”

This reference to the first stage is an obvious parallel with the Dam, where the first stage took a devastating toll on the workers, demanding huge “sacrifice.” Soon there is more “sacrifice” required as a myserious illness spreads among the workers, with most of the doctors away on holiday.  The narrator asks what happens when the illness spreads to the engineers, and gets the answer, “a revolution.” Fearing contagion, Saeed decides to return to Cairo, ignoring the jokes about his journalistic duty, and natonalism.
Throughout the narrative, there is an undercurrent of references to history and the past, which is literally supplanted and diverted by the Dam, not only in the changing of the Nile’s route but also in the moving of  Nubian ruins. In the third part, the journalist comes across a sign on a shrine showing when it would be dismanteled and rebuilt at a different site.
As Meyer points out, “Ibrahim mixes images of the Dam project with his own contemplations on ancient Egyptian relgion. His point is the explicitly political one that the workers who believe that they are contributing to the project out of love are in fact doing so out of fear.” There are numerous passages where descriptions of the work meld into references to Egyptian gods and pharoahs, such as when the narrator imagines a rebellion of the workers saying they don’t have enough to eat and asking for someone to “send to our master the pharaoh to give us what will allow us to live“ (161).

This line between obedience and fear is reiterated in a scene where they approach an angry military man in khaki and sunglasess whose anger disappears when realizes they are journalists. When they ask him “What is the secret of the success of the work?” he replies, “organization and obedience built on fear.” When he sees that they are going to write down what he says, he corrects: “Better say organization and obedience built on convicetion. Fear could be misunderstood.”

At another point, Saed’s friend Abbas asks them about the situation in Cairo, having heard about arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saeed comments on the way back that Abbas must be scared, as he was connected with the Brotherhood at school. This is contrasted to their meeting with Samia, another friend of Saeed, who loudly identifies a passing man as someone who was marking Saeed’s articles with red and sending them to “the investigations office.” Saeed quickly makes his escape, informing the narrator that she can get away with protesting because of her station in life while he has a family to support.

These scenes are often  rendered comical, for example when they find out that someone has been asking questions about them, Saeed immediately heads to the corner of the room where the aircondition hums continuously and shouts into it: “I have nothing to do with anything. I swear by god that I’m with the government!”

Right up to the end, the journalist encounters people who have been in prison, people who want to escape, from Gerges Madbuli who wants to come with him back to Cairo and be his helper, to Dheni who reveals he was in prison and is on the run, and wants him to go with him to Sudan. The journalist skillfully navigates these requests, seeming not to have any plans for his future beyond not returning to prison. He is directionless, aimless and it is perhaps here that the star of the title is relevant. It appears only at the end of the novel, which might be a sign, but of what? Even the proper name of the star seems irrelevant and meaningless, it is an object which is left to indicate nothing but itself.

At seven thirty the star appeared. It seemed to me that it was moving west. Then it stopped. I thought of rising and asking someone about it. The Rayyes must know it. Maybe it was Sirius which used to appear to the Ancient Egyptians at the time of the flood or maybe it was the famous Big Bear that guided navigators and wanderers. But I did not have the energy or the enthusiasm to rise and I felt that any answer I would get would not change matters.

Resources:

Politics, Discontent and the Everyday in Egyptian Arts, 1938–1966

Opaque and Transparent Discourse: A Contrastive Analysis of the «Star of August» and «The Man of the High Dam» by Son’ Allah Ibrahim — ﺣﺪﻳﺚ ﺍﻟﻌﺘﺎﻣﺔ ﻭﺣﺪﻳﺚ ﺍﻟﺸﻔﺎﻓﻴﺔ : ﺩﺭﺍﺳﺔ ﻣﻘﺎﺭﻧﺔ ﺑﻴﻦ ﺇﻧﺴﺎﻥ ﺍﻟﺴﺪ ﺍﻟﻌﺎﻟﻲ ﻭﻧﺠﻤﺔ ﺃﻏﺴﻄﺲ ﻟﺻﻨﻊ ﺍﷲ ﺇﺑﺮﺍﻫﻴﻢ
The Traumatic Subjectivity of Ṣunʿ Allāh Ibrāhīm’s DhātSonalla Ibrahim: Imagining stasisThe Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the LevantThe Imagination as Transitive Act: an Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim
Egypt in the Raw: Yasmine El Rashidi on Ibrahim’s novel The Smell of It
Profile: Egyptian Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim: Black Humor in Dark Times
Black, not Noir, review of ‘That Smell’ and ‘Notes from Prison’ by Adam Shatz
Ursula Lindsey: Egyptian writers and revolutions
Richard Jacquemond, Conscience of the nation

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