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Portrait of a friend: Sonallah Ibrahim.

It is 1973. Two students, Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and Syrian filmmaker Mohamad Malas, share a dorm room in icy Moscow. Together they read, debate, dream, observe the sordid, and sometimes shockingly violent, everyday life of the dormitory, and write the script for Malas's graduation film, set in an Egyptian prison during the 1967 defeat. The "portrait" translated here, drawn from Malas's diary, is one of the literary traces of this fateful cohabitation.

Translator's Introduction

On January 25, 1973, a young Sonallah Ibrahim moved into Room 403 of the student dormitory of the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography, or VGIK, in Moscow. Already living there were Mohamad Malas and his roommates, fellow Syrian film students Haitham Haqqi and Samir Zikra.

It was a fateful cohabitation. Both Malas and Ibrahim were studying under the young Russian art film director Igor Talankin (1927-2010). Malas (b. 1945), from the Golan Heights town of Quneitra, would go on to become internationally known as one of the founders of Syria's auteur cinema, with films including Quneitra 74 (1974), Ahlam al-madtna (Dreams of the City, 1983), the documentary Al-manam (The Dream, 1987), Al-layl (Night, 1992), Bab al-maqam (Passion, 2005), and Sullam ila Dimashq (Ladder to Damascus, 2013) as well as published film scenarios and fiction. The Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) would go on to a provocative career as the author of a dozen novels (so far) including Najmat Aghustus (August Star, 1974), Al-lajna, 1981 (The Committee, 2001), and Dhat, 1992 (Zaat, 2001).

Perhaps what attracted Mohamad Malas to Sonallah Ibrahim was that the latter was unmistakably a writer. Malas was in his mid-20s, a wide-eyed literary young man abroad for the first time. He has told interviewers that, although he loved movies as a child, his turn to filmmaking was a historical accident. As he explained to Tahar Chikhaoui:

   During my childhood I believed, I felt, I wanted to become a writer
   or a man of letters. I had a deep desire to travel and see the
   world, but I didn't have the means to do so. I was told that the
   only way to leave was to apply for studies abroad and that I should
   apply to programs. That year, 1968, the only scholarships abroad
   that were offered were for film directing. I applied, I was
   accepted, and I was sent to study cinema. At the end of the
   program, I returned home as a film director. (193)

Ibrahim was the opposite. Eight years older, he had already served five and a half years in Egyptian prison (1959-1964), published the ground- breaking novella Tilka al-ra'iha, 1966 (The Smell of It, 1971; That Smell and Notes from Prison, 2013), produced another unpublished novel manuscript, and worked as a journalist in Berlin. He had come to Moscow to write. Even before they became roommates, Malas had often heard the "measured tapping" of his typewriter down the hall; both men later recalled that he spent most of his time in his dorm room methodically finishing Najmat Aghustiis, compiling newspaper clippings for a later novel (still unwritten, but conceived similarly to Dhat), and taking notes for yet another novel about the Moscow experience itself (this would become Al-jalfd [Ice], 2011). Even Ibrahim's film professors respected his novelistic vocation: Rather than try to turn him into a filmmaker, they sought to impart a cinematic approach to his fiction. Tilka al-ra 'iha shows that Ibrahim already possessed elements of this approach: an ability to use the human eye like a camera (e.g., to zoom in for extreme close-ups of quotidian details, including some embarrassing ones) and an interest in the blurry border zone between documentary and fiction.

The two friends became inseparable; their many conversations blossomed into a collaboration on Malas's 1974 graduation film, a 30minute short called Al-kull fi makanihi wa kull shay' 'ala ma yuram, ya sayyidT al-dabit (Everything is in Place, and All is Well, Officer Sir). The film portrayed the 1967 defeat as belatedly experienced by information-deprived political prisoners reading three-day-old newspapers inside an Egyptian prison. They co-wrote it; Ibrahim and some three dozen other Arab students in Moscow acted (they look touchingly young to those who watch the film now).

In a published "film notebook" (Al-Kull fi makanihi wa kull shay' 'ala ma yuram, ya sayyidi al-dabit: Mufakkirat film; henceforth Film Notebook), the director recounts how the graduation film, believed lost for decades, turned up in Moscow in 2001. Malas screened it at a festival in Doha (Russian dubbing and all). He then took the tape to Cairo, where 27 years after he made it (ironically appropriate for a film about belatedness), his film finally had its Egyptian premiere: an informal screening hosted by Cairo contractor Hussam Habashi in Louis 'Awad's old villa in Dahshur, with attendees including Al-Sayyid 'Adil, who acted in the film, painter George Bahgoury, novelist Gamal al-Ghitany, critic Ahmad al-Khamissi, who had also spent many years in the USSR, and of course Sonallah Ibrahim.

Malas recalls that Cairo screening as a bittersweet experience of attempted recapture, of nostalgia for a lost depth of meaning that may never have existed at all. Seeing the aging, no longer familiar faces in front of him, he thinks of "those among them who had died, of that in them which had died" (Film Notebook 10). He starts to wonder:

   Does this film still have any meaning? I wonder, has it lost its
   relevance? And if so, is it because of the subject, or because of
   the cinematic form? And when does a film lose its time? When does
   it start to get old? Or die? Or become meaningless? And is writing
   about it today just an attempt to endow it with some kind of
   meaning? A political meaning? A bibliographic meaning? An archival
   meaning? (11)

Yet the friendship with Ibrahim remained a touchstone in his self-narration. He went on to publish the present "portrait" twice, in different Arabic versions: first interspersed through the 302-page "film notebook" along with draft screenplays and photos from the set, and again revised into a coherent essay in his collection Madhaq al-balah (The Flavor of Dates, 5-29). (My translation follows the later text but incorporates a few clarifications from the earlier one.)

Perhaps that screening also encouraged Sonallah Ibrahim to open his own Moscow notebooks and transform them into his novel Al-jalid (published January 25, 2011). The book narrates a sordid cross-section of 1973 Russian and expatriate daily life: tiny miniskirts; overconfident African students; Russian retirees who can't afford a tin of meat; threesomes of drunks sharing vodka on the sidewalk; Brazilian girlfriends; a Kirgiz roommate who moves his Russian girlfriend into the shared room; pregnant Russian students; black-marketeering Arab diplomats; and a painfully remote experience of the October 1973 War. The rhetoric of Arab nationalism echoes differently from a distance: the 1956 anthem "This Land is My Land" is kitchenized to "This Egg is My Egg." Meanwhile, the USSR's Utopian promise is considered, then dismissed: "They build spaceships and they can't manage or be bothered to build a decent razor blade" (Al-jalid 11). The Soviet "friendship of nations" ideology is brutally satirized by a homophobic sexual assault on the narrator's East German classmate.

Yet for all its hypocrisies and failures, Soviet cultural policy accomplished something. For instance, it actually helped produce strong and deep friendships such as this one. The shared serendipity of Soviet scholarships allowed intellectuals from different Arab countries to meet, collaborate, and forge a friendship enabled (but not determined) by its setting in the USSR. These Moscow experiences deeply marked Arab students, though perhaps not quite in the ways Soviet policymakers had intended. (Malas shows us dorm discussions centered not on a Soviet or Russian syllabus but on Arab political concerns and mainly Western literature: "Dos Passos, Graham Greene, Freud, Dostoevsky, prison, Quneitra, love, womankind," Polish fdms, and an American pom magazine.) (1)

In Malas's memoir (though not in Ibrahim's fiction), this friendship can redeem the surrounding squalor. The sexual assault mentioned in Al-jalTd figures here as well. In detailing it, Malas emphasizes the limits of cosmopolitanism. He highlights that the assailants are racialized non-Russian Soviets including at least one likely Muslim from the Caucasus; he notes with irony that Syrians, from a "friendly nation," are supposed to be exempt from Soviet homophobic taunts; the only thing he shows as "bila hudud' (literally: "without borders"; "boundless" in this translation) is the cowardice of the student council's Russian president.

Yet, astonishingly, Malas's own response (as portrayed here) is all about Sonallah Ibrahim. The victim Kurt recedes from view. First the narrator is relieved that Sonallah has gone to bed and need not be traumatized by seeing this new violence. (Sonallah's prison trauma, omitted from Al-jalTd, forms the essential background of Malas's memoir.) Next he sees Sonallah awake, standing at his bedroom door in his pajamas, and hallucinates that shackled together with him is Shuhdi 'Attiya al-Shaf'i, the Communist leader who was arrested along with Sonallah and tortured to death in prison. Next he wonders, during a break in the violence: "Would Sonallah put this scene into his promised novel about Germany, or the novel he was sketching out now about the Soviet Union? Or had he missed the whole scene by going to bed early?" Then he turns to Haitham Haqqi and announces: "My novel has just found itself a realistic ending." He adds, to himself: "The novel is imaginary, but the ending is real." These four reactions encapsulate the young Malas's relationship to Ibrahim: There is protective tenderness, incorporation (where Malas almost appropriates Sonallah's prison memory of Shuhdi), admiring bemusement, and emulation.

Later, Malas imagines himself and Sonallah becoming one, their dialogue melding into a monologue

   in which a spoken sentence would intertwine with the sound of the
   pen with which I was writing my novel, and the crackling of the
   newspaper in Sonallah's hands as he opened it, or closed it, or
   threw it on the floor, then plunged the blade of the scissors into
   its flesh, mingled with his sighs.

What it boils down to, against the backdrop of the gruesome and socially destructive relations in the dorm, is a kind of platonic, artistically productive love. In translating this essay, I have tried to render that sentiment and its context as simply and clearly as I could. (2)

(Translated by Margaret Litvin)

* Alif thanks the author for his permission to translate this text from the original Arabic:


Introduction Notes

(1) He describes the friends discussing their dreams, a preoccupation that would bear fruit in The Dream and its "film notebook" (see Malas, 'The Dream").

(2) I am grateful to Ferial Ghazoul for her help and encouragement and to Mohamad Malas, Nawar Malas, Elizabeth Holt, and Robyn Creswell for helpful comments.

Works Cited

Chikhaoui, Tahar. "A Conversation with Mohammad Malas." Insights into Syrian Cinema. Ed Rasha Salti. NY: ARTEEAST, 2006. 138-43.

Ibrahim, Sun'allah. Al-jalTd [Ice]. Cairo: Dar al-Thacpfa al-Jaclrda. 2011.

Malas, Mohamad "Burtrayh Sun'allah Ibrahim [Portrait of Sonallah Ibrahim]." Maaxaq al-balah: Ym>miyyat [The Flavor of Dates: Diaries], Damascus: Dar Ruffif: 2011. 1-29.

--. "The Dream: Extracts from a Film Diary." Trans. Rebecca Porteous. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 15 (1995): 208-28.

--, dir. Al-kull ft makanihi wakull shay' 'ala ma yuram, yasayyia al-dabit [Everything is in Place, and All is Well, Officer Sir]. All-Soviet State Institute of Cinematography, 1973.

--. Al-kull ft makanihi wa kull shay' 'ala ma yuram, ya sayyia al-dabit: Mufckkirat film [Everything is in Place, and All is Well, Officer Sir: Film Notebook]. Damascus: Dar al-Mada li-l-Thacpfa wa-l-Nashr, 2003.


In my "Moscow Notebooks" for 1968-1974, I came upon the diary that 1 had written about the novelist Sonallah Ibrahim. Here I've extracted it from the context in which I wrote the notebook, because I felt that it depicts a kind of special "portrait" of the novelist. A portrait drawn not so much of him as of his world, as I contemplated him during our life together in Room 403 of the student dormitory of the Cinema Institute (VGIK) in Moscow.

Sonallah came to Moscow to write.

I wonder, was it because he could not live anywhere else?

Or was it curiosity to try out the Soviet experience, to immerse himself in its politics, economics, society, and women?

And was this "curiosity" somehow linked to the five years of his life that Sonallah had spent in Egyptian prisons as a Communist?

When Sonallah lived in Berlin, he was employed at an East German wire service. But in Moscow he needed an official justification to stay. So he applied for a scholarship to study filmmaking. One of the serendipities of our friendship was that this application brought him into the group of students taught by the director Igor Talankin. After Talankin met with Sonallah, he realized, as he told me: "Our task with Sonallah has to be not to turn this writer into a filmmaker, but to weave the cinema into his literary fabric."

In his first year, Sonallah lived in a room he shared with other roommates in the dormitory. The sound of his typewriter, its early-morning and late-night tapping, would drift over from his room down the hall to the room where I was living with Haitham Haqqi and Samir Zikra.

One day, I heard that he was looking for me and wanted to meet me. That made me happy. The desire was mutual; I aspired to get closer to him.

When we met, he hid behind a laughter filled with cynicism. When he took off his snowy overcoat, I noticed a special human beauty, a flash of sweetness. Something about his appearance reminded me precisely of a monk.

In those brief moments, like a flash of lightning, I saw them together, him and my dear friend Vera. I didn't know why I felt that they shared more than a resemblance. (By the way, the name "Vera" in Russian means "faith"--ordinary people use it to mean "religion.")

Sonallah seemed more introverted, more deeply folded in on himself, than I needed him to be. More than he needed himself to be, I think. Maybe this introversion grew from his experience in that vast sea of boredom and cruelty.

When he went back to his room to go to bed early, I would wonder to myself: Doesn't life seem hard and cruel when the world becomes a collection of things to be known, observed, and recorded?


January 6

He had given me his novels to read: the unpublished manuscript of his novel Sixty-Seven and his beautiful novel That Smell. I had felt while reading them that Sonallah himself, his flesh and blood, was jumping out from between the lines of his novels and staring the reader in the face, gloating.

A few days later, Sonallah told us the story of his arrest and imprisonment.

It was New Year's Eve. The year 1959 was descending on us. I had come home after a New Year's party and started getting ready for bed, when they came and took me. I recall how we stood, one next to the other, silently, in the lorry. Each one buried in his own situation and his private world. It was an absurd sight, since many of us were still in our pajamas.

This dark truck drove around the streets of Cairo, which were asleep that night--the streets of Cairo tlmt never sleep. My hands were cuffed together in the same set of chains with Shuhdi 'Attiya al-Shafi, as we drove from prison to prison: from The Citadel to The Oases to AbuZa'bal.

After the "welcome ceremony" at The Oases on that cursed morning, they took Shuhdi, and we didn 't know what they had done with him.

The next day we heard rumors that they had killed him!

This tale of Sonallah's rang with a special personal rhythm. His desire to tell his story carried a special flavor that cocooned us from everything else. Even my dear friend Vera, who did not understand Arabic, was following intently and with sympathy. Vera had taken refuge in our room from the fifth-floor girls, who were intently mixing flour with salt and waiting for midnight, when they would throw one of their shoes out the window, after which they would go down to the street, and each one would welcome the first man she saw--from his name she would know the name of her future mate.

Sonallah's outpouring, on this Russian Christmas night, seemed like a mixture of sadness and blood. Our eyes searched for every whisper exhaled by these memories.

Suddenly, in a way that reminded us of Russian thunder, our German friend Kurt burst in, drunk, with his shirt unbuttoned, showing his chest on which dangled his loosened necktie.

At that time, Kurt was staying with us. He had come back from [East] Germany to continue his studies at the Cinema Institute.

Kurt had special feelings for Vera and it made him happy to see her. But when he came in that night and saw her, he felt embarrassed.

He sat down with us and beckoned Vera closer to him. He was shocked to find her so absorbed in something she couldn't understand, and when the tale went on for some time, and Kurt couldn't bear his exile among us, he stood up and said in a cinematic way: "I feel, my friends, that I'm like a broom in the corner in this room. I'm alone. So alone!"

The room fell into a gloom charged with contradictory feelings. Kurt's words began to echo and expand, then return toward us soaked sometimes in loneliness, sometimes in isolation.

What bothered us most at that moment was the interruption of the story's flow between its two vital poles, murder and sulfuric acid. (1) Kurt's feelings at that moment cut across those two poles.

Kurt gathered up all his things, threw his room keys on the floor, and slammed the door behind him as though he were leaving us forever.

Each of us was lost in our own silence. After a while, Sonallah got up and went back to his room to sleep.

After midnight, and after the noise had died down from the girls throwing their shoes out the window and chasing their men ... we heard a loud, desperate knock on our door. When I opened it, Kurt staggered in front of me and collapsed on the floor in the hall, stammering disconnected words, saying in a German accent:

"Blad'l Those bitches beat me up."

Kurt was shivering, his clothes torn, his feet bare, his face bloody. His big eyes held back tears. Haitham and I grabbed him under the arms, alarmed and distressed at his condition, and pulled him into the room. We stretched him out on the bed and started wiping the blood, trying to figure out what had happened. I went to peel off his clothes and discovered his underpants were gone.

Contradictory scenarios went through my mind. But the heavy blows that had covered every part of his body with dark blue bruises and sharp fresh red cuts told us that the urgent thing right now was to calm him down and help him rest.

When I spread the blanket over him he grabbed me, pulling me closer in a wave of emotions, pain, and gratitude. I bent over his face and went to give him a kiss, but suddenly, to my disgust, he put his tongue out.

I backed off a little.

Kurt calmed down, then closed his eyes and slept.

I felt relieved that Sonallah had already gone to bed, before seeing this new violence!

I went out into the hall for a smoke. Then I wanted to empty my bladder before returning to my room. While I was in the bathroom, I heard a noise, which turned into yelling, then I heard one of the doors slamming violently into the wall.

I hurried out and was surprised to see Haitham Haqqi standing trembling, the door of our room swinging on its hinges, some stuff scattered inside near the door, and other things thrown out into the hallway.

I ran back toward our room and found that three of the Soviet students had invaded it. They were stomping around shouting angrily, their red faces dripping with sweat.

I was surprised to see my friend Yadigi standing among them, calling for calm. His Kazakh eyes were warm slits of decency and fear.

Meanwhile, the Student Council president leaned against the wall with his head bowed, his silence testifying to his boundless cowardice.

One of those three angry guys had features typical of far East Asia. He was short, with a round face and thick glasses.

The second one's features were Siberian, as though he were a creature hidden behind a delicate complexion, frozen solid by frost, with a mustache that stuck up as though woken by a sudden sting, while his long straight hair fell down over his forehead.

The third was clearly from the Caucasus, wearing glasses with round black frames.

Kurt, at that moment, was crumpled in the corner. Totally naked, trying to stand up in silence, his member dangling between his legs, hiding his pain.

The three kept on kicking Kurt from place to place with their strong legs, shouting over and over: "Blad' ... Suka ... Whore! Bitch! That faggot was being fucked ..."

"We beat up the one who was fucking him."

"But we want to finish the job. And don't any of you try to interfere!"

When Haitham and I tried to say something, one of them turned to us and said, "Arabs! Fags like him! Or why would you be taking him in and protecting him?"

At that, the Student Council president was forced to intervene right away. In a thunderous voice, he cut off that line of commentary: "Shut up! Don't say that! These are Syrians!"

They stood up together, grabbed Kurt, and threw him out into the hall. Then they kicked him toward the stairs, where he rolled down to the lower floor. Meanwhile, the girls from the floor above had gathered and were standing around on the stairs.

The three, with the Student Council president behind them, headed down to interrogate Kurt in their room.

Then I noticed Sonallah in the doorway of his room, standing there in his pajamas as if pinned to the floor. I don't know why I saw Shuhdi 'Attiya al-Shaf'i standing there with him, handcuffed to him in the same chain, as though they had just woken up together.

Yadigi left in despair. Moments later, there was no one in the hall but Haitham and me. We had lost our courage or our desire to go back to our room.

A full hour passed ...

Many questions went through my head. The last of them was: would Sonallah put this scene into his promised novel about Germany, or the novel he was sketching out now about the Soviet Union?

Or had he missed the whole scene by going to bed early?

Close to dawn, they brought Kurt back to our room wrapped in a gray blanket--the dumb hatred overflowing from their faces.

They threw him on the bed, then left, repeating: "Under the Soviet constitution this thing is punishable by five years. We saw them with our own eyes."

The guy from the Caucasus said, looking back at us without breaking his stride, "Maybe this stuff is common in your countries! But in our country we have to kill people like that."

We remained silent until they were totally gone.

I turned to Haitham and told him ironically: "My novel just found its realistic ending!" Then I whispered to myself: "The novel is imaginary, but the ending's real."

We went into the room. Kurt had sunk into sleep and pain.

I took the glass of tea by my bedside and drank the dregs, thinking that I absolutely had to start working on my novel. Meanwhile, Haitham picked up [Tawfiq al-Hakim's] The Diary of a County Prosecutor and started rereading it.

January 9

Everything I had known about Sonallah before led me to wonder: Does a person just fill up with suffering until he's full, and then lose his capacity for further suffering? Sometimes Sonallah seemed to be a person called to boredom: He was a good listener, but he never seemed alarmed by what he heard, and if he spoke, it was only to express an opinion.

I would always notice his comments and try to search out the order--internal, conceptual, emotional--in which he arranged things inside his world.

Not one of the rest of us, for instance, had ever described Samir Zikra as "helpless." Maybe because we all tended to sort people by their voices, whether they were quiet or loudmouths, and Samir's voice was plenty loud. But Sonallah described him as "helpless," which seemed strange at first and made me think. Especially since Samir--ironically--was the only one of us who had ever called Sonallah himself "helpless!"

Every morning when Samir came back to our room from the bathroom after running into Sonallah doing his morning calisthenics in his pajamas in the hallway, he would make fun of Sonallah, calling him "pathetic" and imitating his exercises with big exaggerated movements. I didn't find that image funny at all, especially since Samir immediately followed it with lots of talk about his great sympathy for Sonallah. I could barely contain my fury at the sight.

I was hoping for a real friendship with Sonallah. I hoped to understand what it took to get through to the secret inner universe he hid behind a delicate bundle of nerves, behind his beautiful, deep eyes that watched the world, their sparkle concealing a cavernous sadness.

From time to time, Sonallah would repeat that the European did not need his psychology dissected anymore, after his whole culture from Darwin to Freud to Marx had dissected it. And I would wonder: And what are our dissection needs, Sonallah? What can we do, far from the anatomizations of Darwin, Freud, and Marx?! If the European novel is stuck in a closed circle, then what were we supposed to do with the Arabic novel?

I told Haitham Haqqi, imposing on myself a promise from which it would be hard to escape: "I've finished writing my first novel!"

Haitham answered: "You wrote it so quickly?"

I said: "It's not long. Just 100 pages. What helped me write it was that I chose to make the protagonist the place itself."

He said: "Sonallah will read it first, of course. Then us. That is, if he doesn't make you throw it in the garbage."

I told him Sonallah believed everything had a right to exist. Then we recalled what he had said about this era, that it wasn't the era of geniuses, and that everyone should just present himself in his own manner and style.

Then there was a long silence.

Then Haitham said, preparing to go out: "So from now on, you're a novelist!"

I felt strange in the face of that description, then I felt the blood welling up inside me like an eruption. I drowned.

From that moment, all I could think about was writing a novel about Quneitra.

Haitham went out quickly, perhaps hurrying to a date he didn't want to miss. Alone, I searched for my first novel, but found only pages that were still blank. From the next room, meanwhile, came the tapping of the typewriter keys under Sonallah's fingers, then they started to grow further apart and to sound tired, as though about to stop.

That day Sonallah told me: "I just have one page left to write, and Najmat Aghustus [August Star] will be done."

As for Kurt, he remained a prisoner in our room. He didn't get much better. He never got out of bed. His bruises turned darker, and his face became paler.

Sonallah took a long drag on his cigarette and looked out the window in silence ...

Then he started talking about same-sex love in prison. A refuge, in most cases. An attempt to break out of the feelings of alienation and loneliness.

His talking about prison led me to talk about the screenplay we were preparing to write together for our graduation film. We agreed that this screenplay would not try to express the cruelty or harsh circumstances or repression found in Arab prisons ...

Instead, we would look for something that would make the film more timely, though based on the experience that Egyptian intellectuals had lived through in the early 1960s.

And although the defeat of June 1967 was the "break" that would never leave us, the two of us still had enough esteem for Gamal Abdel Nasser to keep us from falling into the trap of the unpatriotic attacks against him that were so common these days. We preferred to point our artistic guns at "the system."

As we worked on the draft, I noticed how important it was for Sonallah to reveal the role of the political news in the lives of Egyptian detainees. He would often talk about how the inmates would hatch insane plots to smuggle Egyptian newspapers into the prison, and the psychological effect of getting hold of one of these newspapers.

As Sonallah presented pictures, examples, and individuals, I realized that the system, in its fever to condemn them, had targeted the best of the intellectuals and the most active creative people in the life of Egyptian society. It led me to imagine that actually all Egyptian intellectuals were communist. And to wonder whether this prosecutorial fever hadn't really been targeting culture itself rather than just the Communist Party?

Sonallah's deep nostalgic tenderness for a person who had been much loved by the prisoners, whom they called Shaykh al-'Arab; and his nostalgia for the role that he himself had played, inside the prison, as "The News Reader"; the state of that country, sending its intellectuals off to prison and its army off to war--all this played a large role in building the structure of dramatic elements for our proposed screenplay project.

We decided afterwards that Sonallah would go off and write his "notebook" about prison, prior to writing the screenplay.

While Sonallah was writing the screenplay, I kept being pursued by a feeling that we had missed something in the elements we had lined up for the film. And in the throes of this feeling, I came upon an idea that I began to chant like a mantra: Synchronicity! i. e., simultaneity!

The issue of synchronization between sound and image in the cinema, and the difference in the time it takes sound to reach the ear vs. the speed at which light reaches the eye, like the time lag between lightning and thunder ... That's what gave me the idea. So the climate of the prison, full of anxiety to catch the political news, was the dramatic space of the film. And the events of the film should take place during the war of June 1967. I understood that the drama had to de-synchronize the anxiety from the events. That is, the prisoners had to receive several-day-old newspapers with news of war victories, even while the war had already ended in defeat. So the prisoners would be living in a state of victory when the rest of the country was already in a state of defeat.

The prisoners would be victims of asynchronicity, time lag, just as we on the "outside" were victims of hypocrisy.

This idea became the nerve of the screenplay and the soul of the film we were making--the soul of a film whose events took place in the setting of the prison, without leaving its walls.

January 25

Sonallah moved in with me to Room 403.

Here we were living together, each of us watching the other in secret, studying him, and writing in his journal.

Sonallah had released into the atmosphere of the room a highly contagious spore of the novel-writing bug. I caught it.

Sonallah would bellow from time to time: "I swear to God, I need a woman! Hey world, I want a woman!" He would repeat this shout, pace the room, sit down, take a drag on his cigarette, then shout out again. At those times, his face had the same expression as when he spoke about prison.

Sonallah's eyes, with his deep pain and longing, would radiate an unusual innocence that would rise in waves to their lids and then spread, making their whites brighter and their irises more luminous.

"Hey world! I want a woman! I swear I need a woman to love me!" His hoarse voice carried all the bitterness of his thirty-five years.

Now he sits sadly in the halls of the infirmary--Room # 6, the one assigned to those enrolled in the Cinema Institute like us--waiting for the doctor to examine his symptoms, those physical pains. And he says: "The woman who I feel could realize this dream for me, Mohamad! She's your friend Vera."

And in the evening he asked me: "You know why I feel really depressed?" He hesitated for a long time and then decided not to tell me. But in the evening when I pointed out the reason to him, he admitted it, saying: "I have no idea how I'm going to spend these five days coming up, when Vera will be gone from Moscow ... I am getting back the feeling of time that I had in prison, when I think of her departure. She's the one woman who can melt the ice I feel in my chest. When Vera is happy, I feel warmth flowing through me."

June 10

My dear friend Vera is in the hospital.

She suffered--both she and her roommate Rita from the fifth floor, home to the female students from all the Cinema Institute's departments-suffered a violent assault by the excellent Russian-Azerbaijani cinematographer V. P. The one who shot my film The Seventh Day [1972],

He beat her up because she was friends with me and tried to rape them both.

They have been moved: Rita to the neurological hospital, and Vera to the psychiatric hospital, to be treated for the shock.

What happened to Rita and Vera bewildered us. It made us wonder: What was this world really like that it could push a cinematographer like Mr. P., with his refined inner world and luminous cinematic sense, to storm into a room and assault two good young women so violently that they end up in the hospital?

Suddenly, we were scared of the desire to enter someone else's inner world: anyone's, as though the inner world were a minefield. Maybe we were afraid we would stumble on even more sadness.

Sonallah and I went out for a walk, drifting aimlessly, oppressed by what happened. We walked aimlessly, but some hidden power pushed us toward nature. Without noticing it, we entered the Exhibition Center, drawn to the "experimental forest." We found ourselves in Michurin Garden.

The experimental garden was so beautiful that its image began to blur in our minds with the standard pictures of lusty nature. The light reflected off the leaves of the trees, just as though they were gleaming with many little suns sending their tangerine flavor into the air, as the notes of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto played in my head.

Two strolling girls smiled, one of them very pretty and the other not at all. We approached them with curiosity, then turned sharply away from them and walked in another direction. The two girls stood there, surprised by this behavior, and then took off. Maybe we were somehow expressing our attitude toward them, our rejection of the nabor or set, the system common in all the markets of Soviet life. Anytime you wanted to buy something, shoes, clothes, tools, you'd find that whatever you needed was not sold separately but bundled with something else you didn't need at all. Today the nabor was these two girls. As though every girl had to stroll with a friend who looked nothing like her: Instead of a choice, you got a nabor.

We walked around all day and all evening through remote places far from Moscow. We crossed a road; we had no idea where it led, as though pulled by some obscure force. Maybe it was the magnetic power of the hospital where Vera lay.

We wandered through borderless forest groves, seeing nothing familiar but tram lines. Then, there suddenly popped up in front of us a pretty cafe, where we had supper and talked about childhood and about the mother and the beloved, and Sonallah told me about his brothers and his sister and about prison again. He told me about That Smell and his family's response to it. Then we were silent for a long time, blanketed by the silence.

When we got tired of talking and being silent, we went out and walked, and when we got tired of walking, we stopped and waited for that tram, planning to get on without knowing whether it would take us back to the city, or further out of it! Perhaps what we both wanted, and were afraid to say aloud, was that it would take us to Vera's hospital.

When the tram came, we got on. It was full of men and women returning from Sunday evenings in the country. The pretty ones were radiant, overflowing with life from their lovers' meetings.

September 4

Cold weather, rainy sky. We went out together like two old people who need the fresh morning air to renew their energy. Fallen leaves from the birch trees carpeted the street, stuck to the sidewalk and the asphalt. The red brick facades of the buildings looked darker and softer, and drops of rain welled up like tears on the edges of the umbrella covering us both.

We headed for the newsstand but found it closed. We went to get the mail and found no letters for us. So we bought yogurt and bread and some cheap liquor. Then we read a poster listing the films showing in Moscow, picked out a Polish film titled Anatomia miiosci (The Anatomy of Love), noted the days and times it was showing and which theatre, then turned around and headed home.

In the lobby, there was a confrontation between the students and the dorm head. The students had protested violently that they had seen rats on their floor. The administrator's face wore a disgusted look, probably from the effects of yesterday's vodka as well as her visions of the advancing rat army. We noticed with relief that the protesting students seemed to be cinematographers--from the second floor. The rats would take several days to reach our floor, the fourth.

Over breakfast, pouring the black tea, smoking cigarettes ... we entered the world of talk. We talked about writing and the novel and about Nasser, and that someone should really make a film about him. Sonallah said: "I feel that everything I'm doing is a preface to that postponed text. I'm fascinated by Nasser's suffering, his emotional torment, his power, and self-love. Through great effort, he fashioned the people's love for him, he manufactured it, in order to bask in that devotion. He was happy to be a leader."

September 7

The conversation flowed onward, never reaching shore, and today we got to Aden. On the way to Aden, we passed by ideas and projects and films such as Who's Afraid of the King?, Hussein Rex, and so on. This tour of ours ended late at night when Sonallah, stretched out on the bed, began to yell: "This is crazy. Can you believe it, people? Could I really have reached this age and not had a woman yet?"

September 15

Today Sonallah was very sad. He kept groaning and calling out: "Oh mama, come to me!" Between periods of silence he would say: "I'm so tired. I want to rest." When I would look at him, he would say: "You wouldn't believe how tired I am." I felt nothing but conviction that he was sincere. The day was nothing but cold and gray, and the fallen birch leaves found nothing to chase but the air.

The darkness advanced quickly until it descended completely, and only the spiral wire in the electric heater gave us any warmth and light. All that came to us was the tick-tock of the clock in a corner of the room, as each of us put his head in his hands and stared at a square of the parquet floor. Sonallah turned around, traces of tears visible at the corners of his eyes, and said: "If we were going to make a film today, it would be called Who's Afraid of Mo she Day an?! And after that, we can make Who's Afraid of the King?, and then the third film should be Nasser."

At that moment, we heard a sound through the wall, a woman's strange moan. We felt confused and wondered: Was it the moan of a woman at her climax, or was she about to die? Each of us tossed and turned in bed for a long time. Then Sonallah turned on the light and leaned his head against the wall, then lit a cigarette and began to blow out smoke as he softly hummed the 'Abd al-Wahab tune they used to hum in prison, "When Evening Comes."

October 5

Sonallah woke up today saying, "Tell me, Malas. What am I supposed to do now?"

Later during the day, he said: "The advisor has started organizing armed brigades to round up the Communists and leftists. And these brigades started by targeting a big group of university students chanting 'Honor the creed, not Sinai!'"

"Demonstrations are starting again in the streets of Cairo. A friend sent word advising me not to come back to Egypt now, and I received news of another friend who had decided to lose himself in the wilds of Africa rather than return ... The prisons are full, and I'm terrified even of the thought of prison." He said this and a layer of lost calm returned to his face. We were standing in the entrance hall of the Foreign Literature library, where Sonallah had started going through Egyptian newspapers of the past six years, paper by paper, item by item, in the framework of a new novel project he called The Egypt Notebook.

He turned to me with a face overflowing with sadness and said: "Let's run away to Aden!"

After a long conversation about revolutions and conspiracies, about Dhofar, and about Aden, we wondered: Do they need us there?

In the evening, on our way home, the things of the day began to fade from the surface of the mind, and as Sonallah admired the pretty young women returning from work to their warm homes, I imagined them as flashes of shooting stars raining onto the sky of his soul.

He said: "I'm sick and tired of the literary form of novel that people write today."

He became more animated, as though from suppressing the exertion of reading and clipping all those newspapers. In order to build his novel on the newspapers of his country of the past six years.

He said: "I'm looking for a form that will let me say everything. I need to say that this is Nasser, and this is Sadat, and this is 'Ali Sabri ... and to tell the whole story of this whole long conspiracy."

When the conversation turned to Nasser the human being, calm and goodness returned and his face smoothed out--and he seemed to me to resemble the victim who loves his torturer.

Before returning to the reading room to peruse the six years of newspapers, he said: "Every day I read a month of newspapers, then I rest for a day. So it takes me a month to read a year's worth. At this rate, I need six months." Then he left, complaining: "God, I'm so tired! Mama, I'm tired!"

October 6

I got home from the shoot and found a note on the door of my room written in big letters with a pencil. It said: Today war broke out between Israel and Egypt and Syria.

October 19

Maybe we didn't know for sure how this night would go, but one thing we knew for sure would stop shooting: our film.

October 24

After Sonallah's nap, which was sacred, we started making tea. We had a totally unexpected guest: Gula Azimzadeh. This student in my cohort was in her fourth year at the Institute, and she had never visited me before. A female Muslim director, full-bodied and full-spirited, overflowing with simplicity. Among us in the class she seemed like she was holding tight to the middle position between the regime and the opposition, and as though she was squeezed between two millstones: what she saw around her and her loyalty to her family.

She told us about her father, a well-regarded Azerbaijani writer, who wrote socialist realist stories in all sincerity, and who wrote traditional novels like Tolstoy the elder (i. e., Lev Tolstoy, of course). Her father also wrote in the literary genre known as the ocherk, about whose literary character the Party had issued a proclamation. He was also the editor-in-chief of the main cultural magazine in Baku, the capital.

She told us about her mother, who although she was a prominent painter who painted reality in an impressionist style to which the Party had not objected, kept telling her: "If you don't get married this year, I'm going to lose my mind."

Gula said: "Everyone in Baku, in sorrow and fear, thinks that I'm in Moscow spending my days running from one guy to another--and meanwhile I don't dare get close to anyone, even now."

She thought that by visiting us now she could get over her fear.

She doesn't smoke, doesn't drink alcohol, and when we offered her a cigarette with her tea, to puff on ... she took it, looking around and whispering: "Do you ever get any visitors from Baku?" She only lit her cigarette after making sure that we didn't know anyone but her from this place, Baku.

When we asked her, with literary interest, about the sexual life of her father, Gula grew alarmed. Then she calmed down and flatly denied that her father had any emotional attachments beyond her mother. This denial was wrapped in the "cellophane" that he was too busy for any of that. After considering the matter, she said that her parents' relationship was based on eternal love, which protected their marriage.

When she spoke about love, we were surprised, Sonallah and I, to see how it was almost a dazzling and mythical thing for her.

Then suddenly, like someone running away from herself, she cut off this dangerous conversation, picked up her pens, and began to draw a picture of each of us.

First, she drew a portrait of Sonallah in pink pen, as though searching his face for a particular moment of profound and tortured transparency. Gula Azimzadeh's portrait made Sonallah look young, his will still intact, his eyes filled with an indescribable sadness.

She drew him another portrait in blue; it made him look older than he was, and although she captured the sadness in his eyes, he looked disgusted, gazing at the world with indifference and disdain.

The brown portrait that she drew of me looked like it was done from memory. She put it in her portfolio and said: "Now I'll draw you in the color of the Mediterranean." She looked at the color she had chosen and her eyes gleamed, then turned intense, solid, and opaque, surrendering to idealism wrapped in appropriateness, like everything in this Soviet Union.

Soon after the drawing was done, she left, sharing a parting joke and a boisterous chuckle. Each of us hung his respective portrait on his wall. We began to contemplate ourselves and contemplate each other as seen through the eyes of our friend Gula Azimzadeh.

October 25

White snow covers everything around us.

There is no mail for us.

Trying to lighten things up, each of us says to the other: "Maybe it's because of the war!"

Shooting is still stopped at our request, the Institute having granted this favor out of pity for us. We plunge into the issues of the nation and the issues of the film.

We are pacing around the studio among the prison sets.

Our open dialogue has gone silent. Each of us suffers at times from a testiness toward the other that is new to us.

The war? The film?

December 29

I went out to the Institute very early in the morning. On the way, I bought six impressive bars of chocolate. In the studio, when we resumed shooting the diploma film, the Institute director met me and thanked me for the New Year's card. I was surprised how quickly it had arrived.

I presented a chocolate bar to the film editor, Nina. Then I headed for the office of our producer Nadia, but I found Sonallah had preceded me, bearing his own special gift for her. Sonallah was sitting there looking embarrassed while Nadia clutched his present with her left hand and danced around the office with joy. She seemed all but ready to throw off what she was wearing and put on Sonallah's present right away. When I saw something gleam in her hand behind her gold ring, I proposed that she put a sign outside her office door saying she was in the studio for the film All is in Order, Officer Sir. She liked the suggestion.

I presented her with a bar of chocolate; she took it in her right hand, smiling like a charming, sensual pig. I went out to look for my mother-teacher, Emilia Kirilovna.

In the afternoon, I wanted to go home. I found Sonallah at the entrance waiting for me. I didn't ask him how he was doing.

We went out and bought two rare flowers, red damask roses, for our film's costume designer who was spending her New Year's in the maternity hospital. Each one of us carried "his" flower in front of him as though going to a mass or a funeral. We stopped by our place first.

At the dormitory door, the old supervisor Marina Mikhailovna, who had already begun drinking that morning, had stuck her cigarette in her mouth as usual, looking for someone to light it. Today, besides a box of matches, we presented her with a chocolate bar; we hoped that this would pay off if the fates happened to send us a woman this New Year's, and that she would repay our kindness and bend the rules just a little in the only area where she enforced them strictly: visiting hours for guests, especially female guests.

In the room, we tried to bind the stem of one of the flowers, which had broken; we failed. We dressed up and went out.

We took the tramway to Medvedkova, a neighborhood which seemed once, judging by its name, to have been a bear garden, before being settled by the class of peasants who moved in from the countryside. Graduates from the middling vocational institutes duly transformed (in accordance with Marx's "law of transformation of quantity into quality") into the working class of the socialist sector's factories, housed in that garden, thereafter finding nothing but vodka to fill their gaping spare hours.

The costume designer was giving birth just then. We couldn't say hello, even through a glass window. We left our flowers and departed.

As we walked through that bear garden, it occurred to us to go see the film The Pharaoh by the great Polish director Kawalerowicz. Sonallah said: "I'll come back to the Pharaohs one day and write a novel of love for them, even if I wait till the last day of my life to do it."

I asked him why he was now writing The Egypt Notebook if that was not what he wanted to do. He was taken aback for a moment, then covered it up with a burst of sarcasm: "Maybe because I want it to be the first of my masterpieces, but my great masterpiece is the Pharaohs."

He added: "I'll spend two years writing a novelistic trilogy about childhood, which--given its emotional power--shouldn't take too much out of me. Then I'll need two years to produce a novel about Germany, and about the same to write a novel about the Soviet Union. After that I will start on history, with a novel on al-Mutanabbi. (2) The summit will be a novel called The Prophet--which will be my only book to blend poetic and prosaic writing, because it will be built on the language of Quranic poetry. The Prophet will be the novel of politics, power, women, and sex. The final novel will be The Final Exhibition, about the human body--and after that, I'll kill myself."

"And that's my life, Mohamad!"

Of course I didn't ask him where the Pharaohs came into it. By now we had entered the cinema and sat down to watch Kawalerowicz's Pharaoh.

But Sonallah, after the beautiful film, started telling me, with unusual spontaneity, the story of a concealed love that had been preoccupying him in many silent moments.

"This love began right when I got out of prison. Although I've been gone for several years in Germany and Moscow, it's still burning inside me. This love began at a moment when I was going through a terrible spiritual collapse right after I got out of prison. She was the unsolvable enigma at the moment of that collapse. I decided to go abroad and get away."

The snow began to fall. We entered the beautiful Alexei Tolstoy Street. The streets were full of green Christmas trees, the balconies decorated with colored New Year's lights. It was the eve of the holiday.

December 30

Sonallah, the morning of this day, was afflicted with a foul mood, and with apprehension of New Year's Eve. When he didn't find hot water to shave with, he said: ya fattah ya karim! [O God, The Opener, The Generous!] In his effort to pull himself out of the rotten mood, he came across only one egg in the room. He went to the kitchen with it, singing: "This Egg is My Egg!"

I told him, "What did you need that egg for? It doesn't seem like you have any appointments with lady friends this holiday!"

He kept right on singing, to the military tune: "And my father told us: Tear our enemies to shreds."

He sucked down the egg, put on his Oxford overcoat as I called it, then put on his red scarf, his black hat, and his white glasses, and went out.

December 31

Since morning, we have been thinking about this holiday night with anxiety. We are possessed by an obscure feeling of fear.

In the evening, we cooked our dinner, ate, drank, and went to bed.

Each of us opened his eyes and found that darkness had settled and night had fallen.

Just before midnight, we had a visitor: Larissa from Tashkent, carrying a present wrapped in fir tree boughs. She was dressed up and wearing makeup, and she carried a small radio--in order, she told us mixing her sarcastic words with sweet laughter, "not to miss the midnight speech of Brezhnev, whom I hate."

Brezhnev spoke. The fireworks went off. We opened the bottles of champagne. Then came toasts, screaming, singing, and dancing in the hallways of the five stories of the dormitory and in the streets, immersing everyone.

When I opened my eyes, dawn was beginning to break. I threw on my clothes and went out to call Damascus. On the way to the telephone center, I tried to recall how we had spent that night, Sonallah and I.

He had read aloud to us from the letters to the editor in Playboy magazine.


On the first day of the New Year, Sonallah was sad. He went to the movies by himself, and when he got back, I found out that he had slipped on some frozen snow and fallen.

February 23

The cruel winter, combined with a stretch of various inflammations and infections, had succeeded in depressing us. Evening became the time for silence, morning for freewheeling talk.

The talk began when each of us rolled over in his bed to face the other ... then it continued with the sound effects of consuming the four daily slices of toast, sucking down an egg, and pouring black tea.

He liked to listen to Bach, and I liked Tchaikovsky.

We always sat in the middle of the room, looking like a theater set on a stage. Our fourth wall was the forest, apparently our only spectator for these daily performances. A few subjects always pervaded our dialogues: Dos Passos, Graham Greene, Freud, Dostoevsky, prison, Quneitra, love, womankind, and we always ended with the previous night's dreams.

At our lunch table, characters from the Revolutionary Command Council took the rostrum, from Nasser to 'Amer, Sadat, 'Ali Sabri, and Khalid Mohieddine. They were like spectral patrols secretly watching the performance.

When the music ended, the pillars of scaffolding outside the window would begin to move, carrying red bricks to their assigned rows in the hospital construction next door. Then Sonallah would resume his silence. He would pick up the old newspaper to go through it, then take the scissors to it and arrange the clippings side by side with his other clippings.

In the evening, our sporadic talk would often turn into something like a monologue issuing from the depths of the earth to the vastness of an eastern graveyard. A monologue in which a spoken sentence would intertwine with the sound of the pen with which I was writing my novel, and the crackling of the newspaper in Sonallah's hands as he opened it, or closed it, or threw it on the floor, then plunged the blade of the scissors into its flesh, mingled with his sighs.

At the end of the night, Sonallah would pull out the chair from under himself and stand up. He would walk to the window and open the little upper pane, pace around the room a little, take his pack of Cleopatras and slide out a single cigarette; then would come the sound of the match striking. He would squat down suddenly and there would be a lot of little rustling sounds as he rounded up the newspaper scraps he had thrown on the floor; then he would take them and go out into the hall, the shuffle of his feet receding for the four or five steps it took to get there, then returning, coming toward me from the hall mixed sometimes with the clicking of a woman's heels, or with some loud argument, or with the sound of potatoes being dumped into hot frying oil in the communal kitchen, or the sounds of the toilet flushing in the bathroom, likewise shared. The day's symphony would always end with Sonallah winding the alarm clock, giving it new energy to ring again. Then darkness, sending the tick-tock of time through the space of the room.

Today, Sonallah woke up earlier than usual. He didn't take his usual period of matinal contemplation in bed. He didn't bury his head in his hands. He didn't put on his glasses to stare at the little squares of wood flooring. He didn't start doing his funny calisthenic leaps. He didn't pick up his razor or the water bottle for the toilet. Instead, he got up in a hurry, smiled to the sun, and pulled out a knife, which he poked into the paper taped over the wood frame between the two panes of the window. Then he moved the knife, cutting the paper entirely, and pulled on the latch. The window opened and fresh air came into the room. He took a piece of rag, wet it with water, and began wiping away the sticky traces of tape on the window. The air became clearer and the sun brighter.

He sat down at his desk, picked up a newspaper from 1970, and stared at it for a while. Then he picked up his scissors and cut out a little piece. Perhaps it was a political news item or an advertisement or a notice of a wedding or a suicide or a case of madness. He pasted the item to a sheet of white paper, wrote two or three words under it, then repeated the same process with another newspaper from another day or another year.

He did these things again and again, over and over, as though the newspapers were endless. His papers piled up in front of him like the days.

Translation Notes

(1) In an e-mail from MohamadMalas dated October 3, 2015, he clarifies: 'This is to say that the conversation was cut off between the murder of the Egyptian Communist leader, Shuhdi 'Attiya, and the acid used to dissolve the body of Syrian Communist leader Farajallah al-Helou. But the text here explicitly refers to the interruption of Sonallah's story."

(2) Ahmad ibn Abu Tayyib (915-965), known as al-Mutanabbl or "the would be prophet," is often considered the greatest of the classical Arab poets. He wrote biting satires as well as laudatory panegyrics, and lived a tumultuous life including several periods of imprisonment and exile.
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Author:Malas, Mohamad
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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