Amir Bibawy Special to the Middle East Times
Sonallah Ibrahim's latest novel, Warda, comes at a time when the literary output of
Egypt is at an all-time low. Controversial works of fiction that have been banned in
Egypt have led to an alarming decline in the number of books published in the country.
Perhaps this is why Ibrahim states at the outset of his new novel that while his
characters are drawn both from reality and from his imagination, the novel should be
read as a work of fiction.
Ibrahim's novel, his first in three years, revolves around the protagonist Rushdie, a
writer, who visits his cousin Fathi in Oman. Rushdie is in Oman to look for an Omani
friend of his whom he has not seen in over 30 years. With only the man's first name,
Yaarub, the search seems impossible. But an improbable series of events unfolds and
Rushdie, a devout communist, finds himself caught up between Oman's ruling elite and
the remains of the outlawed communist and revolutionary movements.
As the plot develops, the revolutionaries hand over a stack of notebooks to Rushdie
written by the sister of his lost friend Yaarub. Ibrahim's novel is named after Yaarub's
sister. Rushdie had been infatuated with Warda in the 50s when they had all lived in
Cairo. The sister herself was part of the Omani revolutionary movement and has left
her diaries for only Rushdie to read.
Through the diaries, Ibrahim uses his unique style of what has come to be known as
the documentary novel. The diaries serve not only as a personal journal but also as a
document that chronicles the events that took place in the Arab world between 1960
and 1975. Excerpts from books, newspapers, and speeches by political leaders such as
Gamal Abdel Nasser and Fidel Castro are part of Warda's diaries and of Ibrahim's own
Rushdie later finds out that Warda gave birth to a daughter while she was involved in
the revolutionary struggle against the British in Oman as well as Oman's ruler, Sultan
Said. Warda's daughter has had the diaries for years and knows that she can only give
them to Rushdie when he, by a mere and unlikely coincidence, turns up in Oman.
Rushdie later on meets Waad, the daughter, and, ironically, sleeps with her, which
could only be called a far-fetched fantasy on behalf of the author. It is through this
fantastical plot that the protagonist finally realizes what had happened to both his
friend and his sister Warda during the previous years.
Warda has not added any new development to Ibrahim's previously published work of
six novels and a dozen children's books. It could well be considered the third volume of
a trilogy where the protagonist is a writer. The first one, Al Lajna (The Committee)
published in 1981, is about a writer who is fiercely interrogated by a committee
concerning the publication of his work. The satirical novel ends in the writer biting his
arm and eventually eating himself! The second book in the trilogy is Beirut Beirut
(1984), a novel about an impotent writer who visits Beirut during the civil war and is
commissioned to write a commentary for a war documentary.
The novel is the fourth in Ibrahim's line of documentary novels that employ a literary
style unique in Arabic writing. The other three are Beirut Beirut Zat (1992) and Sharaf
(1997). More than half of each of Ibrahim's documentary novels comes from sources
such as newspaper clippings, speeches by politicians and excerpts from well-known
books. Readers are often tempted to skip those uneventful parts but eventually find
out that the remaining part of the novel cannot be properly understood without them.
Ibrahim's most accomplished work to date remains his first novella Tilka Al Raiha (The
Smell of It) published in 1966, which he wrote after spending several years in one of
Nasser's many political prisons. The novella paved the way for the emergence of a new
style of Arabic literature which relies less on wordiness and more on emotions and
feelings. Because of its strong political messages, the novella was banned immediately
after publication and was unavailable for 10 years.
What Warda does offer to the reader, however, is Ibrahim's unique writing style. His
prose is concise and tightly-packed. It includes his usual allusions to homosexuality
and detailed descriptions of the protagonists' sexual escapades. It also provides a
deep analysis of Oman's politics and revolutionary movements which could well have
taken Ibrahim years to study. Oman, which is not often in the media spotlight, appears
to the reader of Warda not only as a country with a rich tradition and heritage, but
also the scene of a violent power struggle between its different political factions.
Warda, which has only been on for sale for just over a month, may yet bring a strong
Omani government reaction because of its open critique of politics and human rights in
the Gulf state.