Jacinto in Cairo

23 June 2006

Sonallah Ibrahim

I went to (another) rooftop party last night, knowing in advance I might have the chance to meet Sonallah Ibrahim, the Egyptian novelist. He's an intimidatingly uncompromised intellectual. For example, he was to receive a LE100,000 (USD16,000) award at a government-sponsored literature conference in 2003. As the conference convened just three weeks after the death of Edward Said, the Minister of Culture dedicated the conference to his memory. Well, Sonallah Ibrahim gets up to give the keynote/acceptance speech at the end of the conference and (I quote):

"spoke, in his unsettling ten-minute speech, about Israeli rulers being received in Arab capitals with open arms at a time when 'Israeli troops are invading whatever remains of the Palestinian land... carrying out a methodical and systematic genocide against the Palestinians."

He proceeded to turn down the award because, in his words, "'it is awarded by a government that in my view lacks the credibility that would make this award worth receiving.'" "Ibrahim [then] walked out, leaving the cheque and trophy on the podium, many of those sitting in the front rows angry, and at least half the auditorium applauding."

Anyway, that's the sort of man he is. When I saw an opportunity to introduce myself I did so, and we chatted briefly about my reasons for being here (I'd be suspicious too!) and then about Cairo. I commented that it's a pretty easy transition because I live in New York which is also a very energetic city. And with perfect deadpan aplomb he replies, "Too energetic." After gleaning that little gem, I walked away happy.

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