The Turban & the Hat
By Sonallah Ibrahim
Dar al-Mostaqbal al-Arabi, 2008
Throughout his career, Sonallah Ibrahim, one of contemporary Arabic literature’s most respected figures, has balanced a sense of outrage at the political and moral corruption permeating the neocolonial situation, against the subtler devices of literary writing.
In the novels Zaat and Warda, Ibrahim manages to bring a high-powered lens to the consciousness of two very different subjects — a middle-aged bureaucrat and housewife in Cairo in the early 1990s, and a revolutionary female Marxist guerilla in the mountains of Oman in the late 1960s. These are characters drawn in a precise manner, who somehow remain contextualized by the public events unfolding around them. This is no mean feat and was largely achieved through Ibrahim’s masterful utilization of a large amount of material — newspaper headings, advertisements, statistics, diaries fictional and actual — juxtaposed with his restless yet intimate observation of his subjects’ daily lives, in the kitchen, in a government office, in the faraway mountains of Oman. In these novels, one encounters a consciousness that is complex and autonomous as well as historically determined.
But in his latest outing, The Turban and the Hat, Ibrahim spectacularly fails to achieve that balance. Here he eschews his razor-sharp montage of the historical document to attempt producing one himself. The Turban and the Hat is the fictional memoir of an unnamed protégé of Abd Al Rahman Al Jabarti, the scholar and celebrated Azharite sheikh whose History of Egypt is one of the prime sources for the historiography of the French in Egypt. This protégé, like his master, witnesses firsthand the three years of French occupation at the turn of the eighteenth century.
Through our narrator’s diary, we’re introduced to Cairene society as it adapted to the region’s first experience with Western colonialism. The diary takes us from highly improbable events, like a torrid affair with Napoleon’s French mistress in Egypt, to the prison of the citadel; from the plague-swept battlefields of Acre to the offices of the French-established Institute of Egypt, where the protagonist works as a translator; and, of course, to Al Jabarti’s household, to which our protagonist belongs. Despite the range of events, one is mostly haunted by a growing sense of tedium as he endlessly sifts through accounts of their unfolding. One suspects that the reader’s inability to engage with the consciousness of the protagonist, our only source of access here, in any meaningful fashion beyond the rudimentary and well-rehearsed positions inhabited by the Arab political left, greatly damages the work.
Using the past to comment on the present has been a staple of modern and contemporary Arabic literature. It is also one of Arabic literature’s great limitations, forcing texts to rely on symbolism, restricting the possibilities of engaging with an Other, transforming all into shades of the contemporary self. It is therefore surprising that in a recent review published in a local daily, it’s this very trope that is praised by the critic. The novel is peppered with embarrassing instances, like claims that Napoleon once had plans to turn Palestine into a homeland for the Jews (which sounds to these ears like purely xenophobic fantasy). Comments about Egyptian national selfhood also ring false — this might have been a historical turning point where a sort of national self-consciousness was being forged; however, one finds it highly unlikely that declarations for national unity by the Coptic militia leader Yaqoub would have come out of the mouths of these eighteenth-century Cairenes. It is a tone that to a large extent manages to betray the very historical veracity that Ibrahim so strenuously strains for (a period piece in an almost cinematic sense — well-researched usage of names and turns of phrases, a wealth of geographical details from the period, and a font from the historical era). In the end, these lines seem more fitting to the mass-produced, feel-good nationalist dramas broadcast on Ramadan TV sets every year.
One has to acknowledge, however, that what makes The Turban and the Hat different from many of the historical dramas in recent Arabic writing is Ibrahim’s insistence on profoundly implicating the local order in its own downfall. Al Jabarti opens his own chronicle of the French presence in Egypt with a Qur’anic quote to the effect that it is only darkness that brings darkness upon itself. This is a sophisticated critique of the social system and especially its oppressive and exclusionary policies toward slaves and dhimmis — practices that are implied to be at the root of socioeconomic, and thus political, evil. It is also not the easy, oft-repeated mantra about the short-sighted corruption and weakness of Arab rulers that is the efficient disclaimer inhabiting any self-respecting hysterical patriotic text. But again, if this is a victory, it is one that Ibrahim the moralist, rather than Ibrahim the novelist, scores.
Our protagonist and narrator, who is Al Jabarti’s young apprentice and secretary, follows his master in keeping a diary of the events that unfold around him, starting with the Mameluks’ rout at the hands of the French and ending with their humiliating departure. He, however, draws an important distinction between his and his master’s practice: “The sheikh concentrates his writings on public events avoiding the discussion of private matters — I decided not to imitate him and I narrated my encounter with the slave girl.” By choosing to reveal the realm of the private, Ibrahim strives to produce a fiction that might possess more truth than the mere recounting of events via historical documents.
If only it were so. The stylistic limitations of the diary, especially a fictional one removed a couple of centuries into the past, leave us with a tedious recounting of one public happening after another. Although the protagonist’s affair with Pauline (Napoleon’s mistress) is recounted with lots of physical detail, the overall tone remains rather too literary. A tone that might have been acceptable in a novel becomes a problem in a diary because it detracts from the illusion of its being personal. Ibrahim fails to communicate the sense of urgency or wonder that that exotic relationship must have produced. The limitations of the form are most apparent at the end, where the protagonist’s sudden transformation into a nationalist activist rings false. For if our sometimes naive hero stands in for the prototypical colonial intellectual, a slow acquisition of a growing political consciousness is the arc he has to follow.
Still, the book is not without redeeming elements. And because the text that is produced is forced — being a personal diary — to reflect the consciousness of the subject, interesting (and possibly accidental) side effects are produced. When we note that horrific events like pogroms directed against the Coptic population, or the casual rape of a slave girl by our untroubled protagonist, are recounted coldly and almost casually, a potentially sentiment-free literary space becomes possible. The possibility of encountering the crystal-hard false consciousness typical of a self-serving member of a local intelligentsia becomes clear. If only this incongruity were pushed further, it could have yielded a more brutal and infinitely more engaging text.