Repression and Power: Satirical Novel Recounts 1970s Egypt

By Zeina Schlenoff

The Committee
By Sun’Allah Ibrahim
Translated by Mary St. Germain & Charlene Constable
With an Afterword by Roger Allen
Syracuse University Press. Middle East Literature in Translation, 2001

“The Committee,” which reads very smoothly in this excellent translation, is narrated by an unnamed intellectual as he faces a mysterious committee in a place that very much resembles Egypt during the 1970s. First published in Beirut in 1981 as “Al-Lajnah,” Syracuse University Press has made this English version available as part of its Middle East Literature in Translation series.

Our narrator, we are told, has served time in prison for political reasons. For the last year he has been preparing for a job interview with the Committee, and he is ready to do whatever it takes to get the position he desires. The novel opens with his arrival at the Committee’s headquarters, where the reader waits nervously with the narrator as the members convene. When the interview finally begins, the Committee tests the narrator’s knowledge of a wide range of topics pertaining to Egypt and to world events, from wars and revolutions to inventions and the Great Pyramids. Asked to single out a defining achievement of the century, the narrator expounds at great length on the history of Coca-Cola. Not impressed, the Committee members subject him to all manner of bizarre humiliations, mental as well as physical. Later, the Committee asks him to conduct “a study on the greatest contemporary Arab luminary,” and he chooses “the Doctor,” an opportunist who rose from a poor family to become a prominent and influential figure. Through his meandering explanation of this choice, the narrator unveils a sad reality of his contemporary Egyptian society, where power and connections have become tools for both the socially inferior and the economically superior to achieve success.

The members of the Committee are mysterious and anonymous. Some “wore large dark glasses to hide their eyes,” while others “held a paper so close it almost touched them.” They speak their own language, apparently not Arabic. Throughout the novel, Ibrahim maintains this aura of mystery, depicting the Committee as heartless, ruthless, and bureaucratic, its power limitless. Though the narrator’s determination remains unshaken, and the nature of the job he seeks is never revealed, in the end he is subjected to the Committee’s “harshest punishment.” He recounts, “Then I lifted my wounded arm to my mouth and began to consume myself,” an allegory of the harassment and punishment reserved for those who do not conform.

“The Committee” is a satirical novel, rightly described by Roger Allen in his afterword as “Kafkaesque.” It recounts an era of economic and social crisis in Egypt under Sadat’s “open-door” economic policies. Sun’Allah Ibrahim, through mockery and satire, reveals the illness that swept through Egyptian society during the 1970s and impugns the effects of globalization and Westernization on poorer nations. Ibrahim cleverly weaves together a tapestry of tangled events that leads the reader, ultimately, to see the dangers of capitalist globalization.

More than two decades ago, Ibrahim anticipated the consequences of globalization for developing countries, but also made globalization a scapegoat for his nation’s domestic illness and failed policies during the 1970s. Criticizing the polarization of power exercised by transnational companies, be they Coca Cola or the Doctor’s, and the control they wield over poor nations, he presaged the effects of modern-day economic colonialism.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid