Claiming Back Sovereignty over the Arab World
This Year’s Ibn Rushd-Prize for Freedom of Thought will be presented to the Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim. He will receive the award personally on Friday, 26th November in Berlin.
Mr Ibrahim will be presented the Ibn Rushd-Prize for his enduring fight for freedom of speech and democracy in the Arab world. An independent jury, consisting of five prominent Arab intellectuals, elected the Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim to receive this year’s award.
Sonallah Ibrahim is, with the exception of France, not much known in the Western World. In the Arab World, however, the name of this important contemporary author is mentioned in one breath with such authors as Naguib Mahfous and Gamal al-Ghitani. He is not only one of the most famous but also one of the most controversial authors in the Arab world, since he continuously criticises Arab and especially Egyptian society for being undemocratic and corrupt. His first book The Smell of It was banned in Egypt, on account of its stark language and unvarnished content, from its publication in 1966 until 1986.
For Ibrahim, it is essential to depict a truly Arab view of matters, and this goes even as far as his usage of language. He abhors to be corrupted by using the language of those in power and instead strives for an authentic language beyond the rules prescribed by literary traditions. This was and still is revolutionary in a literary environment that demands strict adherence to traditional literary form, that expects authors to write on beautiful things in beautiful language, or, as he says, “to speak only of the beauty of flowers and the splendour of their fragrance, while excrement fills the street and polluted sewer water covers the ground and everyone smells it.” In his introduction to The Smell of It, he asks: “Does not the matter require some ugliness to express the ugliness inherent in beating, to death, a defenceless human being; in inserting an air-pump in his anus and attaching an electric cord to his genitals?”.
Sonallah Ibrahim spent more than five years in prison (1959-1964) related to the frequent collective arrest of intellectuals in Egypt in the sixties. Although he admits being traumatised for the rest of his life by his experiences in prison, he manages to have a positive outlook on those times, and regards these years of compulsory work and physical torture as his university, since co-inmates such as the famous Egyptian writer Mahmoud Amin el-Alem “taught me the true values of justice, progress and loving one’s country.”
Sonallah Ibrahim’s texts confront the modern systems of representation, the discourses of power, and the production of knowledge, focusing specifically on the position of the intellectual vis-à-vis authority. His other focus, however, is on economic and cultural imperialism, and in his more recent novels, Ibrahim confronts globalisation and its influence on Arab society. He accuses the political leaders of the Arab world of accepting American politics and enforcing them in their own countries, without taking sufficiently into consideration the interests of their own people. His latest novel Amrikanli means ‘American’ in Slang Arabic; but it can also be read as “Once I was my own master” (Amri kan li).
When Ibrahim was awarded the Award for the Arabic Novel in 2003, presented by the Egyptian Ministry for Culture, he created a scandal by publicly refusing its reception. In what was supposed to be his acceptance speech, he said that the award was “given by a government that does not have the credibility to award it.” He has been a full-time writer since 1975, assuring a basic income and independence by translations, writing teenager’s books and scripts for movies and TV.
Throughout his works, Sonallah Ibrahim has made a continuous appeal to retain a critical conscience, to see through and comprehend political connections and entanglements. His novels encourage the reader to resist and not to tolerate the deplorable state of affairs, but to fight them.
Mr Ibrahim will accept the award personally on November 26, 2004 at 5 p.m. in the Goethe Institute, Neue Schönhauser Straße 20, in Berlin-Mitte. A press conference will follow the award presentation; a reception with Arab coffee and bakhlava will conclude the celebrations and leave room for personal discussion.