That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim Review

“That Smell” by Sonallah Ibrahim is a groundbreaking work in Arabic literature, distinguished by its raw portrayal of disillusionment and alienation in post-revolutionary Egypt. Published in 1966, the novella has had a profound impact on Egyptian and broader Arab literature, marking a departure from traditional narrative forms and offering a stark critique of the socio-political landscape of its time. This article delves deeply into the historical context, plot, themes, characters, literary style, and the reception and legacy of “That Smell.”

Background and Historical Context

Sonallah Ibrahim, born in 1937, is an Egyptian novelist known for his politically charged works. “That Smell” was written during a tumultuous period in Egypt’s history. The 1952 revolution, led by the Free Officers Movement, had overthrown the monarchy and established a republic under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Initially, there was widespread hope for social and economic reforms. However, by the mid-1960s, many, including Ibrahim, were disillusioned with the regime’s authoritarianism and lack of genuine democratic progress.

Ibrahim himself was deeply involved in the political movements of the time. He was imprisoned from 1959 to 1964 for his communist affiliations, and this experience profoundly influenced “That Smell.” The novella reflects the oppressive atmosphere of Nasser’s Egypt, characterized by political repression, censorship, and a pervasive sense of disillusionment.

Plot Summary

The novella follows an unnamed protagonist who is released from prison after serving a five-year sentence. The narrative begins with his release and documents his attempts to reintegrate into society. As he navigates through Cairo, he struggles with feelings of alienation and disconnection. The protagonist’s days are marked by monotonous activities—wandering the streets, visiting old acquaintances, and engaging in fleeting sexual encounters.

The narrative is fragmented and introspective, capturing the protagonist’s internal turmoil. He visits a brothel, attempts to reconnect with his family, and reflects on his past and present state. His interactions are marked by a sense of detachment, and he finds little solace in the familiar surroundings of Cairo. The novella ends ambiguously, with the protagonist’s future uncertain and his sense of purpose unresolved.


Alienation and Disconnection

A central theme of “That Smell” is the protagonist’s profound sense of alienation. Having been imprisoned during a formative period of his life, he finds himself disconnected from the world around him. This alienation is not just physical but also psychological and emotional. He feels estranged from his family, old friends, and society at large. The novella captures this disconnection through the protagonist’s aimless wanderings and fragmented thoughts.

Disillusionment with Post-Revolutionary Egypt

The novella is a scathing critique of post-revolutionary Egypt. The protagonist’s disillusionment mirrors the broader discontent with Nasser’s regime, which had failed to deliver on its promises of freedom and social justice. Ibrahim portrays a society marked by political repression, corruption, and stagnation. The protagonist’s sense of purposelessness reflects the collective disillusionment of a generation that had hoped for significant change.

The Burden of the Past

The protagonist is haunted by his past, both personal and political. His time in prison has left deep psychological scars, and he struggles to come to terms with his experiences. The novella explores the theme of memory and trauma, highlighting how the past continues to shape the present. The protagonist’s inability to move forward symbolizes the broader societal inability to overcome past failures and injustices.

The Search for Identity

The novella delves into the protagonist’s search for identity in a rapidly changing world. Released from prison, he must navigate a society that has moved on without him. His search for meaning and connection is emblematic of a broader existential quest. The protagonist’s fragmented identity reflects the fractured nature of post-revolutionary Egypt, where individuals grapple with questions of self and belonging.

Character Analysis

The Protagonist

The unnamed protagonist is a complex and multi-dimensional character. His experiences in prison have left him physically and emotionally scarred. He is characterized by a sense of detachment and disillusionment, struggling to find his place in a society that seems indifferent to his existence. His introspective nature and fragmented thoughts provide a window into his internal turmoil.

The protagonist’s interactions with others are marked by a sense of disconnection. He attempts to reconnect with his family, but these encounters are awkward and unfulfilling. His sexual encounters are equally devoid of meaning, reflecting his struggle to form genuine connections. Throughout the novella, he remains a solitary figure, embodying the themes of alienation and disillusionment.

Secondary Characters

The secondary characters in “That Smell” serve to highlight the protagonist’s sense of isolation and the broader societal issues at play. These characters include:

  • The Protagonist’s Mother: Her interactions with her son are marked by a lack of understanding and emotional distance. She represents the older generation, unable to comprehend the changes and struggles faced by the younger generation.
  • The Protagonist’s Friends: The protagonist’s encounters with old friends are characterized by a sense of estrangement. These friends have moved on with their lives, while the protagonist remains stuck in the past. Their interactions underscore the protagonist’s sense of disconnection from his former life.
  • Sexual Partners: The protagonist’s sexual encounters are devoid of emotional connection, highlighting his struggle to form meaningful relationships. These encounters are depicted in a stark, almost clinical manner, emphasizing the protagonist’s sense of alienation.

Literary Style and Techniques

Sonallah Ibrahim’s literary style in “That Smell” is characterized by its stark realism, fragmented narrative, and introspective tone. These techniques serve to enhance the themes of alienation and disillusionment.

Stark Realism

The novella’s realism is evident in its detailed descriptions of the protagonist’s environment and experiences. Ibrahim portrays Cairo in a vivid and unflinching manner, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. This realism serves to ground the narrative in a specific time and place, highlighting the socio-political context of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Fragmented Narrative

The narrative structure of “That Smell” is fragmented and non-linear, reflecting the protagonist’s internal state. The story is composed of a series of vignettes and introspective passages, capturing the disjointed nature of the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences. This fragmentation mirrors the broader societal disarray and the protagonist’s sense of disconnection.

Introspective Tone

The novella’s introspective tone allows readers to delve deeply into the protagonist’s psyche. Ibrahim’s use of internal monologue and stream-of-consciousness techniques provides insight into the protagonist’s thoughts, memories, and emotions. This introspection enhances the themes of alienation and disillusionment, allowing readers to experience the protagonist’s internal struggle.

Minimalist Style

Ibrahim’s writing is characterized by its minimalist style, marked by sparse prose and understated descriptions. This minimalist approach serves to highlight the protagonist’s sense of emptiness and disconnection. The novella’s brevity and conciseness add to its impact, creating a powerful and evocative narrative.

Reception and Legacy

Upon its publication, “That Smell” was met with controversy and censorship. The novella’s frank depiction of sexuality and its critique of the socio-political landscape of Nasser’s Egypt led to its initial banning. However, despite (or perhaps because of) this censorship, the novella gained significant attention and acclaim, both within Egypt and internationally.

Critics have praised “That Smell” for its literary innovation and its unflinching portrayal of disillusionment. The novella is considered a seminal work in modern Arabic literature, marking a departure from traditional narrative forms and offering a bold critique of authoritarianism and societal stagnation.

The legacy of “That Smell” extends beyond its immediate impact on literature. The novella has influenced subsequent generations of writers, both in the Arab world and beyond. Its themes of alienation, disillusionment, and the search for identity continue to resonate with readers, making it a timeless and relevant work.


“That Smell” by Sonallah Ibrahim is a masterful exploration of alienation, disillusionment, and the human condition in post-revolutionary Egypt. Through its stark realism, fragmented narrative, and introspective tone, the novella captures the profound sense of disconnection and disillusionment experienced by its protagonist. Ibrahim’s critique of the socio-political landscape of his time, combined with his innovative literary techniques, has cemented “That Smell” as a seminal work in modern Arabic literature.

The novella’s themes and characters continue to resonate with readers, offering valuable insights into the complexities of human nature and the socio-political challenges of the modern world. “That Smell” stands as a testament to Sonallah Ibrahim’s literary genius and his enduring contribution to Arabic literature, providing a powerful and evocative narrative that remains relevant and impactful to this day.

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