Ihsan Abdel Kouddous, translated by Jonathan Smolin, I Do Not Sleep: A Novel (Hoopoe, an imprint of The American University in Cairo Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you translate this book?
Jonathan Smolin (JS): I translated this novel because there was an urgent need for Ihsan Abdel Kouddous to appear in English. Ihsan was one of the most prolific and popular writers of Arabic during the twentieth century. He wrote over twenty classic novels and six hundred short stories. Almost fifty films, including some of the most important films in the history of Egyptian cinema, were adapted from his work. He was also one of the most productive Arabic journalists of the twentieth century, writing at least one and sometimes several political and cultural editorials each week for decades. Yet, somehow, none of his writings have been widely available in English. After reading his novels, I picked I Do Not Sleep as the inaugural translation because of its masterful plot, thrilling pacing, and brilliant character development. The novel was a sensation when it was first serialized in the mid-1950s in Rose El Youssef, Egypt’s most popular weekly at the time, inspiring both indignant outrage and devoted admiration for the way it broke taboos on gender, sexuality, and family life. Even though the novel was written almost seventy years ago, its timeless themes of repressed sexual desire and destructive jealousy resonate as powerfully today as in the height Nasser’s Egypt, when the novel was published.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JS: As I wrote in the introduction to the translation, I Do Not Sleep can be read on two entirely different levels. On one level, it is an epistolary novel written to Ihsan Abdel Kouddous by a young woman named Nadia Lutfi. In the letter, Nadia recounts coming home from boarding school to discover that her bachelor father has gotten married. Engulfed in jealous rage, Nadia plots to expel her new stepmother from the house and install a new wife, whom she carefully selects for her father. The novel could therefore be read as a sensational confession of family scandal. On another level, however, the novel alludes in shocking ways to Ihsan’s own personal history of collaborating with the Free Officers before the 1952 coup to spark the revolution, expel the British from the country, and embed Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. In this reading, I Do Not Sleep represents a metaphorical confession of Ihsan’s own anxiety, regret, and despair at the results and consequences of working to inadvertently install military dictatorship in the country.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JS: I Do Not Sleep was a major turning point for Ihsan. The novel was significantly more complex and longer than his previous work. It also stirred up public controversy much more than any of his previous fiction. Rose El Youssef, where the novel was serialized, received hundreds of letters from readers about the novel, many of them expressing outrage at its depiction of female sexuality, scandal, and deception. Mothers accused Ihsan of harming the morality of their daughters while others accused him of being an existentialist, a term synonymous at the time with licentiousness. Many readers, including the Emir of Kuwait, expressed their tremendous admiration for the ground-breaking novel. The development of the narrator, Nadia Lutfi, was so convincing that many men wrote into the magazine asking to meet her or even proposing marriage.
As for my work as translator, this is the first novel that I have translated from Egypt. My first two translations were ground-breaking police novels by the Moroccan writer Abdelilah Hamdouchi (The Final Bet and The White Fly). I then translated the masterful A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by the Moroccan novelist and dramatist Youssef Fadel, a novel which explores the 1970s in Morocco, a period of human rights abuses known as the Years of Lead, through a fictional collage of real-life memoirs of political imprisonment. I Do Not Sleep, an Egyptian classic written and set during the mid-1950s, is therefore a major departure for me as a translator. Nonetheless, I took on the project out of a deep conviction that there was an urgent need for Ihsan to appear in English, a sentiment that I felt about both Hamdouchi and Fadel before I began translating their work.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: Ihsan is still so popular across the Middle East, yet he is completely unknown outside of the region. First and foremost, I want the wider English public to discover this brilliant writer for themselves. He was such an innovator, combining elements of the popular press with fiction on a wide scale for the first time in the Arab world. His language is crisp and catchy, almost cinematic. His topics are universal in their appeal—jealousy, desire, rage, regret—but he embedded them all firmly in the historical moment in which he wrote, which was the height of Nasser’s Egypt. I also hope that people interested in the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular read the novel. Much of the history of modern Arabic literature has been impacted by what novels have been translated to English. Ihsan, therefore, has not received the critical attention that he deserves for his role in developing and popularizing modern Arabic fiction. I hope that the appearance of I Do Not Sleep—as well as my forthcoming translation of another masterpiece of his—will help rewrite this history.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JS: I am currently editing my translation of another masterpiece by Ihsan, tentatively entitled A Nose and Three Eyes. This novel was first serialized in 1963-64 and set off a scandal that engulfed Ihsan and the magazine where it was published. By the time the novel was completed, Ihsan became the first novelist brought before the Egyptian parliament under charges of harming public morality. Once Ihsan was interrogated by the police for the novel, he took his case directly to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ended the prosecution. Nonetheless, as a result of the novel, Ihsan lost his long-time position as editor-in-chief of Rose El Youssef and was exiled from Egyptian public life for nearly two years. With the publication of A Nose and Three Eyes in English, readers will not only encounter Ihsan at the height of his literary powers but also discover the scandal, little known until now, surrounding the first novelist in the modern Middle East charged with harming public morality for writing fiction.
J: When will Hoopoe Press publish the next translation of Ihsan’s work?
JS: Spring 2023, assuming no Covid delays!
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter One, pp. 18-23)
I was fourteen. I had an older schoolmate named Kawthar. Kawthar wasn’t my friend, but I liked her. She was dark, beautiful, stylish, confident, and nice. She walked as if she were floating on air and talked as if she were singing a beautiful tune. Her smile was radiant and when she let her long black hair hang down her back she was like an angel protecting night from day.
All the girls loved her.
During summer break, I met Kawthar on Sidi Bishr beach in Alexandria. There wasn’t anything between us but a passing “hello” that we’d exchange every morning while we were walking on the beach. Days passed, and I noticed that my cousin Medhat was following her wherever she went. He’d spend the day under the umbrella in front of her cabin, only getting up from under it when Kawthar left her cabin.
It was easy to see that love had sprung up between them. That kind of pure, innocent love that grows between a girl whose family kept a close watch over her and a young man with strong character and good intentions; a love that doesn’t usually go beyond words exchanged stealthily behind the cabin, far from the family’s eyes.
My cousin didn’t tell me about his love, but he became more interested in me, inviting me to sit with him under his umbrella. He’d talk to me for a long time, finally ending with him chatting about my school and classmates. He knew Kaw- thar was my classmate. He wanted me to talk about her, but I ignored what he was after and I kept quiet. When you read my story, you’ll know that I’m good at staying quiet.
Then Kawthar became interested in me. She started trying hard to befriend me. She insisted on inviting me to her cabin and giving me ice cream. But, without thinking about it, I blocked her attempts, ignoring the friendship she was offering me.
The wicked feeling started creeping into my chest.
I started feeling the ugly desire to destroy the doll . . . and there were two dolls in front of me to destroy!
I wonder what pushes children to destroy dolls.
I swear to you that I resisted this feeling and desire as hard as I could, with all my will and all my nerves. There wasn’t any rational reason making me revolt against this pure, innocent love. I loved my cousin like a brother and I wished nothing but the best for him. I just about loved Kawthar, and I wanted the best for her too. I had no excuse to hate them or envy them or fear one could harm the other. So why did I think about destroying them? Why did I commit a crime against them?
I succeeded in controlling this evil feeling all summer. All I did was spend a lot of time with my cousin, sitting with him under his umbrella and having fun with him, especially when Kawthar was in her cabin. Up until that time, I hadn’t launched into any set plan.
We returned to Cairo and went back to school, where I was surprised by all the girls talking about Kawthar’s love for my cousin Medhat.
I pretended to ignore all this talk. I didn’t join in and I didn’t encourage anyone to talk about it with me. But it started fanning the flames of evil in my chest, and the craving to destroy started to overwhelm me. When I went to bed, I started not being able to sleep. I’d think and think, until I came up with a plan and started executing it. I began savoring the feeling, savoring the fear, terror, and hesitation, the pleasure of putting my intelligence to the test, the intoxicating anticipation, the excitement of the gambler as he bets everything he’s got.
I was friends with one of the neighbor girls, who wasn’t a classmate. I came to an understanding with her and then told her about the plan.
I called Medhat and when I heard his voice, I handed the phone to my friend, who spoke with feigned anxiety and fear, as if someone were keeping tabs on her. I kept my ear pressed against the phone next to hers so I could hear.
“Hello? Medhat? How are you?”
“How are you?” he asked. “Who’s this?”
“You don’t know my voice, Medhat?” she asked. “It’s Kawthar.”
“Kawthar!” Medhat cried in a trembling voice. “I didn’t know how I could see you or talk to you since—”
“I can’t talk now.” My friend cut him off, mimicking Kawthar’s voice. “Au revoir.”
“But listen, Kawthar—”
“Later, later, Medhat.” She hung up.
I was exhilarated—by the cleverness of my own plan!
Two days later, we talked to Medhat again, my friend speaking as if she were Kawthar, using the same scared voice, rushed as if someone were keeping tabs on her.
“Listen, Medhat, come by tomorrow in front of the school as we’re leaving so I can see you. Au revoir.”
The poor guy didn’t get a chance to say a word.
The next day, I went to school pretending to be absent-minded, confused, and sad. I put my arm around one of my classmates.
“Can I tell you a secret?” I whispered, leaning toward her. “But swear you won’t tell anyone.”
My classmate’s eyes sparkled in delight. None of the girls at school knew a single secret about me. My beauty—and I’m not exaggerating if I tell you that I was the most beautiful girl in the school—pushed the other girls to try to gain my friendship and learn my secrets, but I’d frustrate them and not tell them a thing. I relished the knowledge that I was a locked box to them.
“I swear!” my classmate declared. “I swear I won’t tell anyone!”
“My cousin is driving by the school door to see me,” I told her, pretending to hesitate shyly. “I want you to distract Principal Zeinab so I can talk to him quickly.”
My classmate opened her mouth wide in shock. “Your cousin Medhat?” she asked.
“Do you love him?”
“Please. He’s the one who loves me.”
“So why haven’t you talked with your family about it?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“Tell me, Nadia, so I know how to play along with you.”
“He came to propose, but Daddy won’t agree to it until he finishes university, when I’ll be nineteen. He hasn’t come back to the house since.”
My classmate’s eyes became so wide that she looked like an idiot.
“But, but . . .” she stammered, then fell silent.
“But what?” I asked, knowing what she wanted to say.
I don’t need to tell you that my “secret” spread like wildfire among the students that same day, until it reached Kawthar.
I saw her from a distance, anxious and miserable, as if she’d aged a hundred years.
We walked out of school.
I played the role of the confused, nervous girl. I started looking around until I saw my cousin in his car. I then looked at my classmate as if asking her for help, pushing her to follow through on her promise. And, indeed, she started talking to Principal Zeinab while the students were getting in the school vans.
I walked toward my cousin’s car and started talking to him anxiously and hurriedly, as if I were committing a crime. I asked him about my aunt, his brothers, and my uncle in a tone closer to sweet nothings. He responded curtly, looking around shyly and hesitantly for Kawthar. I kept moving my head in front of him so he couldn’t see her.
I left my cousin and went over to get in the school van.
The students greeted me with winks and smiles, except for Kawthar, who was silent and introverted. Her face was pale, as if I’d sucked out all of her blood.
My classmate came over to me.
“What did he say?” she asked impatiently.
“He wants to meet me away from school,” I whispered. “But I don’t want to.”
I smiled to myself. I felt a wicked intoxication—the intoxication of conceit about my own intelligence.
After that, I was able to make my cousin wait in front of the school gates twice. Each time, I played the same role, sucking more of Kawthar’s blood.
I then moved on to the second part of the plan, as if the first hadn’t been enough.
For days, we didn’t call my cousin. Then my dear neighbor and I called him again.
“Where have you been, Kawthar?” I heard him say as if his heart were crushed under the weight of his desire. “You made me so worried that I looked through the phone- book for your number until I found it. But whenever I call, I hear a different voice and I hang up. Where have you been?”
“I can’t, Medhat,” my friend responded as I whispered the words to her. “I can’t call because the telephone is in the office and my father sits there all day long.”
“What then?” Medhat asked, as if looking for the path to salvation. “Will we just go on like this? For two weeks, I’ve chained myself next to the phone, waiting for you to call.”
“Listen, Medhat,” my friend said, pretending to be in a rush. “Send me a letter and I’ll write back. There’s no other way. Au revoir!”
“But wait, Kawthar!”
“I can’t. My father’s coming. Au revoir!”
Two days later, I went to the post office and got Medhat’s letter. I opened it and read it. I felt my heart plunge like it was running away from me. It was a pure, tender, elegant letter full of passion, love, and torture restrained by pride, like a man’s tears that didn’t fall but remained shining in his eyes.
I didn’t sleep.