Zaat by Sonallah Ibrahim

On May 7th,2007 we discussed Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Zaat, an ironic tale of the life of an Egyptian woman across the years.

Sonallah Ibrahim’s use of black humor reaches a crescendo in his 1992 novel Zaat, which follows the life of an Egyptian woman, Zaat, through the presidential eras of Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Interspersed with Zaat’s story is a montage of press extracts—headlines, news items, photo captions and advertisements—that capture ephemeral absurdities. In one, Mubarak is quoted as saying, “We should not be ashamed that there are poor people in Egypt. What we should do is work to make our country appear suitably civilized because we need to attract tourists.”

The chapters describing Zaat’s life recount day-to-day life, and here, too, the consequences of endemic Egyptian corruption figure throughout. Ibrahim relates her life-story chronologically, but in spurts and jumps, quickly dealing with some of it, lingering over other parts. The everyday issues in turn provide greater insight the social concerns of the time, from real estate and living conditions to medical care and dealing with a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. Much of the book is about “transmission” — communication, basically, but also specifically the sharing of news and gossip.

Ibrahim reflects upon all aspects of contemporary middle-class Egyptian life, the family at the centre struggling but basically secure, weighed down not so much by existential fears but the burdens of everyday life, which is needlessly complicated and fraught with a seemingly endless series of small annoyances. The characters are very well drawn, and without pointing too obviously at them Ibrahim conveys many of the small personal issues — faith, workplace politics, male versus female ambitions and hopes — particularly well.

About Sonallah Ibrahim

Sonallah Ibrahim was born in 1937. After studying law and drama at Cairo University, he became a journalist in Cairo until his arrest and imprisonment in 1959. Upon his release in 1964, he briefly returned to journalism in Egypt before moving to Berlin and Moscow. He returned to Egypt in 1976 and since then has dedicated all his time to writing. He received the Oweiss Prize in 1993. Zaat was first published in Arabic in 1992. His latest novel, Amrikanli, was published in Arabic in 2003.

He was born in Cairo in 1937, the first child of a marriage that could itself be the basis of a romantic novel with social overtones. His mother was a young nurse from the lower classes hired to tend to the paralyzed first wife of his father, a high-ranking civil servant.

“I am the son of a father from the upper-middle class. But his family looked down on me because my mother was from a poor background,” Ibrahim recalls. “She was more like a maid to my father’s first wife.” Along with Britain’s occupation of Egypt and the country’s burgeoning nationalism, such social and class differences shaped Ibrahim’s youthful politics: He became both a nationalist and a socialist. “There is a Marxist foundation to my political beliefs,” he freely admits.

In 1952, a few months after the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in a coup that would usher in the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ibrahim began law school at Cairo University. The minutiae of case law didn’t stick in his mind, though, and he turned instead to writing. Drawn to journalism and politics, he got involved in Egypt’s clandestine Communist Party, a move that soon landed him in jail. Between 1959 and 1964 he served five years of a seven-year sentence handed down by a military tribunal.

Ibrahim speaks about his incarceration without bitterness. He credits prison life with serving as a sort of university, saying that it brought him in contact with inmates from all walks of life, from college professors to laborers and peasants. He attended classes on hieroglyphics, history, and French, and read books that had been smuggled inside the prison walls by enterprising inmates.

When he got out, he had a burning desire to convey what he had witnessed there—in particular, how imprisonment drives inmates to create private fantasy worlds to combat isolation and sexual longing. Those experiences form the basis of two of his novels, Tilk al-Ra’eha (The Smell of It, 1966) and Sharaf (Honor, 1997).

Some of the issues that we talked about included:

Dependency, Corruption & Foreign Aid: The book touches upon how foreign aid is a curse to developing nations – highlighting the catch 22 of debt repayment and IMF/WB restructuring plans. It is also an insight into the complicated web of corruption, as we see the elite of the regime manipulating foreign aid to their benefit to distribute favors and stay in power. Most of these issues are seen from the view of the public – the little cracks in everyday life and the newspaper blurbs or headlines connecting everything.

Media: reflecting and distorting reality: The news media not only presents the stories of the day, but also hides them in a contradictory web of information. How does the modern person sift through an inundation of information, from the prosaic to the profound? How does this barrage of ‘transmissions’ numb us and shape our experience of the world around us? How is media used to control or to dis-inform the masses? How do media reports shape international affairs or how do governmental/business forces use the media as foreign policy/business strategy? If you are interested in this topic, stay tuned for The Third Line’s upcomingn film series on Media, especially as relates to distortions of truth and creating or shaping realities & histories.

Gender Politics: Ibrahim explores the gendered relationships between Zaat and her husband, as well as with between her next door neighbors, coworkers, and imagined political figures. In a fascinating reflection on culture and human nature, the characters in Zaat’s world act out the modes of manipulation (boycotts) and communication (transmissions) that are used by the powers above them.

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