July 2014

P T Smith

fiction

Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela

Sonallah Ibrahim's Stealth, translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela, is the recreation of a city lost to the changes of time and culture: Cairo before the Egyptian revolution of 1952. The narrator is a young boy, latched to his father, his mother absent, keenly noticing every detail of the city around him, one he is yet to understand. This is not an idle watching, but a practiced, active one, with him peering through keyholes as if that were their purpose, and remaining silent during the vast majority of conversations. At times it feels as if his narration is a transcription of a quiet, subdued documentary film centered on the relationship of a father and son and their surrounding relations with friends, family, and neighbors. Dialogue is set off not on a new line, but by colons, adding to the sense of physical record.

The young narrator doesn't move to interpret what he sees, how people act. Instead, his fine, patient observations let us see actions and expressions that we interpret as anger, love, power struggles in relationships, deception, and honesty. But to see these observations as simply objective because they are so attuned to only physical facts would be a mistake. This is a child who does not yet know how to interact with the world, is aware that he does not yet understand, so he holds back, taking in all he can, and we see him teeter on the cusp. His desire to know comes through most strongly in the sexuality that runs throughout the book, as he notices bare legs whenever there is a chance for a glimpse, having learned, by seeing men attentive to women, that he too should focus on them, even if he has no sense as to why. As the book goes on, the child not only notices women more and more often, but also what he pays attention to changes as he comes closer to understanding, moving from bare legs to the swaying of departing hips. This focus is not passivity. Those keyholes, his moving from room to room, sneaking away to see something that he was not invited to see -- this is his acting toward becoming.

In this book of memory and recollection, every detail of life is sought out, the students, the shifting politics, the aftermath of the war, the shops, the chatter between men and neighbors. In all of that, the driving forces of a living Cairo are sex and food. All aspects of food are called to order, not just smells and tastes, but also sounds, color, and the physicality of preparation and of eating:

He prepares sakhina with warm milk for our evening meal. He boils fenugreek. Adds molasses. The bread is cut into croutons. He throws it in a pan. Simmers it over a fire. He adds the fenugreek and molasses. Stirs it several times. He dishes it on to my plate and pours warm milk over it. I eat with a spoon while he is sitting on the edge of my bed.

For me at least, many of the meals are wholly unfamiliar, the same with the historical context, or aspects of clothing (such as the gallabiya). That Aboul-Ela chose not to insert elaborations in the translation but to leave Arabic words as transliterations instead of descriptions moves with the simpleness of the narration, with the narrator who lives wholly naturally in this world. Stealth becomes an encounter with another world, but not an exotic one, as sometimes books from another language do, whether through the translation or with an author who simply feels compelled to explain.

Stealth is bold in its unrelenting simplicity and straightforwardness. Surface is everything, because when you see a large enough surface, when you stare at it long enough and finely enough, each ripple of detail, it's possible to understand the depths. Short, simple, descriptive sentences follow one another without interruption from more convoluted longer ones. Asides, clauses, have little place here. It is a sign of great patience in the translation by Hosam Aboul-Ela to allow this pace to hold, not to extend sentences into each other, and there is much skill in making such a staccato pacing compelling and often beautiful.

The narrative does not shift around in time; events follow one another linearly, except for brief, italicized interruptions from the past. But the sense that these are memories, picked as they arise, is encouraged by the narrator's indeterminate age, sometimes attending school, running errands alone in the street, other times needing his father to accompany him to the bathroom. It's as if he is organizing scattered recollections as they come, ordering them in time to create a complete picture.

Those italicized passages aren't set off, but are a way to close out paragraphs. They are the eruptions of older memories that the narrator cannot grasp in the same way he does the rest of his life. These are the memories he cannot make whole, cannot understand. They are the memories of his mother. Sometimes it is as if he calls them up in response to something he saw. Sometimes the movement to the past is seamless, as if overlapping. Other times, they burst in, uninvited. At a glance, we fall deeper into the past. Through them, we search, looking for an answer: where has his mother gone; why are he and his father alone? There are hints, but, like looking through a keyhole, we can only see so much, and must create the rest.

As much as Stealth evokes an entire world and time, it is a world and time as a father lives it and allows his son to follow, attempts to carve out a world within the world for his child. Even as his father attempts to assert his power over the son, the child he shared in the creation of, the son's observations, his writing of them, is another creative act. This is true simply on the structural level, as this is the son's story, but it is in their interactions also. The father constantly seeks control, over himself, his son, and the women in his life, berating them when things are not exactly as he wants them to be. Behind this control is terror of chaos, of his world slipping away, as his wife did, and he wants to preserve a safe world for his son. The son's presence changes the father, creates another man: he does not laugh at dirty jokes with friends when his son is near, but when he thinks he's free, that tight control slips. The separation of selves agitates him, and is one of those secrets the son wants to understand -- what does a man hide and why?

This relationship with the father is what drives Steath's narrator's growth. The closing scene has our narrator attempting a school composition project, but he finds himself unable to write, so his father picks up the pencil for him, writing a draft that the son will then put into his own handwriting. He will eventually become someone who can write this book, build these memories of childhood into a full world, but first he must learn to mimic what he admires. Mimicry of father is far from a personal becoming, and we see his turns away, strongest when he interrupts his father having sex and boldly cries out, "Damn you both!" It's the son's strongest statement of the book, and it comes during a confrontation with the world he must grow into.

In this, and in the scenes when he is sent out into Cairo on errands for his father, but finally without him, not holding his hand, not sitting on his lap, not between his legs, that we meet the I, active, interacting. The boy who longs for this mother will become a man who longs for a city, and in this original, yet welcoming work, Sonallah Ibrahim creates that city.

Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811223058
224 pages