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The Imagination as Transitive Act: an Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim

[Sonallah Ibrahim, Cairo, Spring 2011, Image from Elliott Colla] [Sonallah Ibrahim, Cairo, Spring 2011, Image from Elliott Colla]

Last month, the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim sat down with Jadaliyya to talk about revolution, literature and the imagination. As always, the author was generous -- presenting a broad view of literature politics, and life. (Recorded in Cairo, May 14, 2011; the Arabic text can be found here. A Spanish translation can be found here.)

Elliott Colla: Was what happened in January and February a revolution?

Sonallah Ibrahim: It certainly was not a revolution. A revolution has a program and goal—a complete change of reality or the removal of one class by another. What happened was a popular uprising against a standing regime. Its primary demand was “regime change,” though it was not clear what that was supposed to mean, except in the sense of removing the most prominent symbols of the old regime. But as for what its politics were going to be, or who was going to be in charge—these were summed up in a slogan that appeared on the first day of the uprising—“Freedom, social justice, and change.” Later that slogan became “Overthrow the regime”—but it was not clear what else exactly was being demanded. Naturally, this had to do with the fact that the movement had no clear leadership and no defined program.

EC: We you expecting this uprising?

SI: Was I expecting what actually happened? No. All along I was expecting an explosion of an anarchic, destructive kind. But I never expected to see a peaceful, orderly uprising that eschewed violence. I thought this kind of explosion might happen at any moment. I felt that the general mood of repression and frustration had reached the point of detonation. What happened was not an explosion of this kind at all—it was instead a peaceful, conscientious uprising.

EC: What steps need to be taken to complete the uprising, or to turn it into a revolution?

SI: It’s difficult to answer this question, because there are fundamental steps that need to be taken. Putting Mubarak on trial—that’s the first step, along with prosecuting other prominent figures from the old regime. That has to happen first. The next step might be doing those things people are talking about, like holding clean elections. But what does all that mean? It means postponing revolution, or transitioning toward the kind of peaceful state that would allow political parties to take turns holding power, for governments to come and go, and for different programs to take shape. It means the possibility of different ideas of the future.

EC: Who made the uprising?

SI: It was a collective achievement—produced by many individuals and groups. Its history begins with the protests that have been taking place ever since 2004, when Kefaya held its first demonstration against Mubarak’s plan to bequeath power to his son, Gamal. Then all the small demonstrations that followed Kefaya’s and became larger and larger. And the collective demands put forward by civic groups, and the sustained critique published in the independent press, and all the scandals they publicized. Taken together, all these things contributed to a general mood of people wanting to get rid of them and put an end to the situation. A number of groups came together doing this—groups like Kefaya, April 6 and the labor unions and professional associations. Sometimes—sometimes—the Muslim Brothers got involved, though throughout the whole time they were determined not to enter into a direct confrontation with the regime. And other subsequent manifestations of opposition to the state—all these things together went into making the January 25 uprising. No particular person or group by itself made it happen. January 25 was the accomplishment of many groups, and the result of many separate histories.

EC: Do you have any advice for these groups?

SI: First of all, we need to recognize that Kefaya’s role is over. There’s no need for it any longer. So now, we’re talking about parties and movements of activists in the streets. And the possibility of normal protests and demonstrations in the street without the problems [caused by the prohibitions of the old law]. I am not in a position to give them any advice. My one fear is that reactionary religious tendencies now have an opportunity. That’s the problem we now face—that some of the religious factions will try to exploit the current situation.

EC: Do you have any advice for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces?

SI: That’s a tough question. First of all, the Council is the offspring of the old regime. Second, we have no idea what this Council thinks. We do not know how they think or whether there are different points of view among them or not. Do they have a left wing or right one among them? We don’t know. Which political factions predominate among them? We don’t know—though we sense that Islamic tendencies hold sway. This feeling comes from the fact that the first committee overseeing constitutional reform was headed by Tareq al-Bishri, an Islamist. There was also a Muslim Brother on the committee who has recently issued some extremely reactionary statements. But there is no member on this particular committee from the Left or any faction but the Islamist.

More than this, we have no information about the kind of conversations that go on within the Supreme Council. Are there discussions, or are they dictates from [Field Marshal] Mohamed Tantawi and [Lt. General] Sami Enan? We do not even know the nature of the links between the Council and the US government. We imagine there is an organic tie between the Council—or its leaders—and the US government by virtue of their long-standing personal ties to Washington and the US military aid. How is this military aid spent, and who oversees it? There are only questions—no answers— around these issues.

Second, what can we demand from the Military Council? We are only asking that they step down and return to the barracks as soon as they have laid the ground for free elections. We are not asking for them to remain in power. We do not want to live under military rule—we want a civilian, democratic government.

Third, I might ask the Council to take a more forceful position with regard to the issue of sectarian violence. By this, I mean that they need to take a more commanding position vis-à-vis religious factions in general, and the extremist Islamist factions in particular. The need to be likewise strong with regard to prosecuting prominent figures of the old regime, starting with Hosni Mubarak.

EC: Has your estimation of the Egyptian people changed in recent months?

SI: My appreciation of the force of working-class groups and the youth has certainly changed. And I now feel a certain unease about the fact that while the workers played a role in the protests and strikes and collective demands, they are not playing a clear role in the overall political process. As for the youth, I did not have much confidence in them. I imagined their political awareness had been shaped by the values of our consumer society—and our society is wide open to the influence of foreign corporations, and Western values. I did not imagine that they had the consciousness they clearly do have, nor such an ability to rise up in defense of the principles of freedom and democracy.

EC: Are you writing about the uprising these days?

SI: It is difficult to write about an significant event as it is happening. It needs time. When you’re writing about something—you might want to delve back fifty years to include background for the events.

EC: Is there such a thing as revolutionary literature?

SI: I don’t think so. There’s only two things: literature that is real and literature that is not. Real literature is not motivated by propaganda—whether on behalf of state power or against it. Real literature gives expression to people’s lives and the natural aspirations of a individual people. And this means that it necessarily runs against power. To be a real writer entails having a total image of society, history and the future. And this vision must certainly have a kind of oppositional, resistant stance toward lived reality and its limitations.

The idea that there is a revolutionary literature was over and done with by the 60s or 70s, and since then we’ve known that “revolutionary literature” means “agitprop.” Suppose someone wants to write a poem or novel about Che Guevara—a symbol of rebellion and revolution. Fine. The passing of historical time has shown that this daring character was truly able to articulate the hope and desire for change among millions of people around the globe. But at the same time, for it to be real literature, the plot would need to take into account the audacity of the character—how could Che be so out of touch with the actual conditions he acted in? He went to Bolivia accompanied by a few people and they thought they could change things across Latin America by repeating the Cuban experience in places whose historical conditions were strikingly different.

EC: What about the novel form? Since January 25, I’ve been thinking a lot about how poets write poems at the moment of rebellion, whereas novelists are there to write in the aftermath, when the dust has settled down.

SI: Right. That’s the difference between poetry and the novel. Most often, poetry reacts to a time-sensitive event. Its beauty is in being a reaction, even if it lacks a complete historical vision. But sometimes poetry is not that way at all. Take Fouad Haddad or Salah Jahin—they had the ability to give voice to ephemeral things while also giving a sense of their historical depth. They had a philosophy and vision of the future that not every poet possesses.

EC: And when we look at the novel in Egypt?

SI: A novel takes time. A novel might give expression to a complete vision of a historical period or era, or simply a person at a moment or the like—and then get into developing it. For instance, I might write a novel about a person in Midan al-Tahrir. But for that novel to be a good novel, it would have to have a firm grasp of the past, the present moment, and the future—what will happen, or what might happen afterwards. All this entails having a total vision.

EC: When I think of all the Egyptian novels that have been written about revolutions, I’m struck by their pessimism. With a couple old exceptions—like Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, or Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit—Egyptian novels are skeptical about the possibility of people radically changing the conditions they live in. They tend to put forward the idea that revolutions fail to change society in an meaningful way. This is contrary to the tradition of revolutionary poetry in Egypt—which is quite optimistic and confident in the ability of people to change their world.

SI: This is likely due to historical or philosophical factors. Consider the Russian Revolution of 1917. It effectively destroyed one particular society while attempting to create a new one on different foundations. And what was the outcome after seventy years? In Marxist philosophy, there is the principle of “the negation of the negation,” which says that any situation is composed of contradictory elements, and that the struggle between them sets in motion a transition to a new, different situation which is itself the result of one of the opposing sides beating out the other. And this victory of one side over the other is, naturally, then subject to its own conditions and so on. The transition to a new situation is not the end of the cycle, because the process continues. The new situation creates new contradictions that set in motion a struggle between them. Certain forces triumph—those forces which, at a certain moment and under the right global or regional conditions, possess the necessary capacity and potential. In other words, there’s a process of struggle and defeat—one thing negates another, only to be later negated itself.

Stalin’s problem was that he said, “I’m it. Nothing comes after me.” This by the way was the same thing that Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s mistake was that he imagined that the capitalist system had won and that it was all over. It’s simply not true. Capitalism is subject to change, and it is possible that a new system will come from these changes. It’s possible that they will be a mix of different systems. Life is open to any number of scripts—and it’s possible to predict them by studying the present reality we live in. By studying the forces that exist and the possibilities. By studying the shape of our economic system and its resources, and the forms that climate change will take. By studying where all the weapons are and who possesses them. By studying the problems and opportunities of all these elements.

Fukuyama and Stalin, they had the same idea: that we're at the pinnacle of all history, and nothing comes after. But our situation is filled with different possibilities. Even if the goals of this present moment prevail, it is possible that some real change may take place. Suppose that elections happen and we get a Parliament that represents the various political tendencies that exist in the country. Suppose a new president gets elected during this process. I could not say that this would represent a victory for us. Given the nature of human life, and given how historical contradictions develop, this victory will create other contradictions of other kinds within five or ten years. These will give rise to other struggles, revolutions of another sort, and so on. The process goes on and on. The process of change and revolt continues. In other words, a revolution is not the end of something. No, there will be another revolution. I believe another revolution will happen again soon. Twenty or thirty years from now, there’ll be a new revolution. As Trotsky put it, “A permanent revolution.”

EC: What is the role that literature plays in this process? Or is it just an ornament?

SI: No, it’s not just an ornament! Literature gives expression to life in a society at particular time. It instills consciousness of a society’s condition. Balzac’s and Tolstoy’s novels—both when they came out and directly after—helped people understand what was happening in their society and what might transpire in the future. In doing so, they helped this process. This process was going to take place whether or not they wrote their novels, because this is how a society moves. And literature is only one kind of artifact among many that are produced by a particular stage in time. Society produces literature now and will go on doing so because people need to express themselves. There need to be people who love to create the various forms of expression that we might call “the novel.” They have to—these forms attempt to explain lived reality, they search for what might happen in the future and they try to explain the past.

EC: So writing novels is a form of propagandizing—for the goal of creating a collective conscience?

SI: For me, the practice of writing novels is about expressing myself. Putting into words what I’m thinking about and what I believe in. I don’t write novels simply to call for this or that. I write to make my opinion public—but my opinion does contain appeals and pleas for specific things.

EC: So writing is the medium by which you express yourself and interact with society—with all its changing dynamics. And a novel isn’t a ready-made tool you can pull out of a drawer to use to do this or that kind of job, because only by writing and creating do you come to understand the situation and its needs. So my question is: when you begin to write, how much of the story is already in your head?

SI: Just some aspects and a general framework. For instance, writing about this street, or Egypt in 1919, that’s just an overarching scheme. Then I study the street. Or I study the revolution of 1919—or whatever subject I’m going to write about. I study it and try to understand it. I try to see its various sides. I use the cultural knowledge I have compiled over decades to compare and contrast all these things, in order to grasp which aspects are of primary importance, and which are only secondary. And I try to see where the contradictions lie. Then I try to think dialectically, identifying the contradictions and the defeats. This is how I begin to structure a novel.

I also use the small things any person sees in their life. For instance, in my novel Napoleonic Code (al-Qanun al-fransi), there is a story of a relationship between a man and a woman. In my personal life, I never experienced this relationship. But I could speculate about what might transpire and in what form and how their relationship might develop.

EC: You mean, the imagination?

SI: Here, we arrive at the process of imagination, or rather: the process of creating through the act of imagining. I prefer to think of imagination as a transitive act.

— with the assistance of Karim Abdelradi.  

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