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Penned Down in Penitentiary: Four Egyptian Prison Novels

Tine Lavent By Tine Lavent Published on August 21, 2017

Written from a dark, smothering prison cell or drawn from memories of incarceration, prison writing has been a distinguished part of Arabic literature for decades. Through these literary works, those who have not experienced imprisonment themselves learn about the harsh reality within the walls of prisons like Al-Wahat and Qanater in Egypt, Tadmor in Syria, and Tazmamart in Morocco.

Although stories about imprisonment had seen the light of day earlier on, the number of works that could be defined as Arabic prison literature grew extensively from the early 1970s, when those opposing the regime were silenced, having been arrested on a mass scale. Novelists would write these books based on their own experience, or relate what had happened to other intellectuals who were in a constant battle against the authorities: poets, journalists, writers, cartoonists, academics… Not only to cope with the psychological state incarceration brings about, but also to resist to those in charge who caused it to happen, and even more so to honor the memory of their fellow prisoners, they put pen to paper—in itself a risky undertaking.

Prison novels revolve around obvious themes describing incarcerated life, such as the cruel body- and mind-scarring practices of torture, persecution, forced disappearances, violence, tormenting interrogations, and political assassination. These themes fit into the larger framework of life under dictatorship, justice, civil disobedience, free choice and notions of freedom, oppression, and frustration. Writers also dig into deeper topics like surviving, their state of mind, suffering and trauma, their fears, weaknesses and broken dreams.

One of the reasons why a vast proportion of Arabic prison literature flowed from the pens of Egyptian writers is that—sadly, up until this day—many, many of those opposing the regime in Egypt were imprisoned. As the late Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour describes in her essay on prison literature, hundreds were detained in between 1959 and 1964, after two military decrees were issued ordering their arrest. Most of the written accounts that describe this campaign are from leftist intellectuals, and came out only later in the 70s. In his article, 'A New Wave of Prison Writings After the Arab Uprisings?', Brahim El Guabli, professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, describes how, in Syria and Egypt particularly, prison novels are “a sign of determination to breach the taboos surrounding political detention.”

The list of Egyptian prison novels is endless and only some of them have been translated into English. Although these works were published decades ago, they are shockingly contemporary. It is unfortunately not hard to imagine that the aftermath of the latest revolution, with its broken promises and defeated dreams, will have more prison literature as a by-product.

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Sonallah Ibrahim must be one of the best-known prison writers in post-independence Egyptian literary history. Arrested with his comrades during the 1959-1964 crackdown, he wrote down his impressions in his cell in Al-Wahat, on Bafra brand cigarette papers that were smuggled out. That Smell, Sonallah Ibrahim’s semi-autobiographical debut novella, was originally published in Cairo in 1966 and was immediately banned by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s censors. The narrator, an unnamed political prisoner, has been released after five years in prison. We follow him as he roams around Cairo, a city he has come to dislike and that dislikes him. He meets his friends and family, or simply lies in his bed. Alienated, he seeks shelter only to be disillusioned by a society that has spit him out. Some flashbacks and regular evening visits by a policeman who checks on him during his house arrest are the only direct references to his time in prison. Called subversive for its content and revolutionary for its new sort of minimalist realism, the book is sometimes compared to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Translator Robert Creswell commented on it in an interview with Guernica magazine:

When the novel was published in the mid-sixties, Egyptian readers were shocked. Critics complained about the sex scenes (which are actually pretty chaste), but I think what really disturbed them was the style. Ibrahim gave Arabic rhetoric an acid bath. He stripped the language down to its bones—he got rid of metaphor, he refused to use fancy words. It’s a completely uncompromising book, and for me its bleakness is weirdly exhilarating.

As an appendix, Robert Creswell has added a selection of Sonallah Ibrahim’s cigarette paper diary to the 2013 English edition, which are fragments of the literary classics the communist writer read in books smuggled in by guards, and scribbles that would later galvanize him to write That Smell. It also contains a valuable introduction to the novel by the translator himself, and Sonallah Ibrahim’s introduction to the 1966 Arabic version. In more recent years, ironically, some serious question were raised over Ibrahim's character when he allegedly expressed support for current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

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Nawal El Saadawi, one of Egypt’s most prominent feminists and a doctor, author, and activist, wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison based on her 1981 incarceration at Qanater Women's Prison. (In 1994, the English translation by Marilyn Booth would appear on bookstore shelves.) As part of a round-up of more than 1,600 writers and politicians ordered by Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian feminist icon had been imprisoned, without charges or trial, for 22 days. She shared a tiny cell with a diverse group of twelve other political prisoners, both secularists and Islamists, and describes how they joined forces to demand better conditions whilst in prison. Her memoirs talk of women’s resistance to state violence, and of free speech and democracy, but she also goes down memory lane, thinking about her childhood. Often described as more effective than her fictional work, Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs is added to university reading lists worldwide, yet this book also sparked criticism. As writer/educator Nahrain Al-Mousawi writes on the Arab Lit in English blog, Nawal El Saadawi is “often read by critics as misrepresenting herself as a lone feminist campaigner—even in a women’s prison. Literary critics have considered her narrative voice egotistical and argue that her intense sense of injustice always appears in self-interest rather than on behalf of other prisoners.”

Two relevant works by writers who were not imprisoned are Salwa Bakr’s The Golden Chariot (1991, translated into English by Dinah Manisty in 1995) and Naguib Mahfouz’s  Karnak Café (1974, translated into English by Roger Allen in 2013). The first revolves around Aziza, who decides to create a golden chariot to escape from her prison cell and who tells the stories of her fellow inmates in the process, delivering a sharp critique on women’s issues. In the second, Hilmi, Ismail, and Zaynab are three idealistic university students. One day they disappear, only to be released months later with stories of their arrest and torture; their lives are about to be shattered even further.

Featured image via Japan Times.


Tine Lavent likes to play with words. When she is not surrounded by the books of the library she works at you might find her in a classroom talking about grammatical structures in Egyptian ... Show More