From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’ performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics didn’t help bolster nationalism: of the 85 athletes who participated, only five won medals. Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian officers, including future Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, formed the Free Officers Movement. Originally organized to reinstate institutions removed by the government, the movement grew in strength—and ambition—during the Arab-Israeli War. By 1952, the officers not only overthrew King Farouk, but they ended the British occupation and established Egypt as a republic.
Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim lived through the period leading to and following the revolution, and he has written about the effects it has had on his country. His first novel, That Smell (1966), was written 12 years after Nasser’s rise to power, and according to an article in the New Yorker, which called Ibrahim “Egypt’s oracular novelist,” anticipated Nasser’s fall: a year after it was published, the Israelis defeated Egypt during the Six-Day War and took control of the Sinai Peninsula. Ibrahim wrote That Smell after spending five years as a political prisoner; it was during that time when, according to an article in the National, he conceived the idea for Stealth, which was originally published in Egypt in 2007.
The period of history leading to the revolution forms the backdrop of Stealth; however, it isn’t so much a political novel as it is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is an 11-year-old boy who closely observes the actions of adults, including his father, Kahlil, a retired military officer, whom he lives with in a dirty, bug-infested apartment in Cairo. The boy spends a lot of time spying on his father, as well as his friends and acquaintances. If he’s not peeking through keyholes to spy on their private, intimate moments, then he eavesdrops on their conversations. In fact, he seems much more interested in the world of adults than other children, as he only seems to play with other children when he’s forced to.
One person who should be encouraging the boy to play with others, but isn’t, is his father. Instead, the father drags the boy along on errands or visits to friends or family, and this sometimes lead to conflict between the two: “The chemist. His shop is clean and gives off a smell of phenol. A glass bowl is piled high with chocolates and sweets. I pull my father’s hand towards it and he scolds me.” In fact, Khalil tends to lose his patience with the boy, whose clumsiness sometimes causes accidents. Even when something happens that isn’t the boy’s fault (for example, a jacket gets ripped by one of his classmates), he worries about getting scolded. That’s because if the father’s not giving him dirty looks, then he’s lashing out at him.
Ironically, his father isn’t helping matters: Despite his age (he already has two adult children) and his ailing health, he doesn’t give his son a lot of independence. For example, although the boy does plenty of homework throughout the course of the novel, Khalil solves his math problems and writes his English compositions for him. Also, the father won’t let the boy haggle with merchants and even helps him go to the bathroom. However, as the novel progresses, the boy starts to push back, albeit in subtle ways. During a holiday, after he accidentally spills ink on his suit, he questions his father’s choice for an alternative. Later, after catching the father misbehaving, the boy lets his feelings be known.
Unfortunately for the boy, the father is the only real parental figure the boy has. His real mother, Rowhaya, has mysteriously disappeared, although memories of her—as well as possible clues to her disappearance—haunt his present-day world. He has an older half-sister, Nabila, who’s too spoiled by her husband, Fahmi, to pay much attention to the boy. There are also other women, including a couple of maids, who fail to fill the void left behind by Rowhaya.
He not only lacks good examples at home but at school, too. His instructors—at least the ones he’s writing about—are not putting that much effort into teaching. Early on in the novel, his English teacher gives the students the option to leave the class instead of staying for the lesson. Another teacher seems to want to do nothing but draw during a session:
Another student wants help from the teacher. A third one follows him. A fourth and a fifth. Each of them leaves the class after he does their drawing for them. After a while, our numbers dwindle until I find myself sitting alone. I take my notebook and go to him. I put it in front of him without a word. He neither looks at me, nor speaks to me. . . . I go back to my seat. I put my notebook in my satchel, pick it up, and head towards the door. I turn around to look at him. He is absorbed in his drawing.
As you can see in this excerpt, Ibrahim, with the help of translator Hosam Aboul-Ela, keeps the boy’s language uncomplicated as he writes about the banalities of his existence without judging them. At first, it seems like it was written this way to reflect the boy’s age and education; yet the writing is very clear, and the boy’s short sentences have a rhythm all of their own. Also, as mentioned before, there are subtleties in the boy’s text. For example, Khalil forces his son to wear pajamas at a party over his sister’s because that’s all he has. Later, he writes, “Uncle Fahmi tells me: ‘Go with him.’ I bend my head down and look at my pyjamas. ‘I don’t feel like it.’” These three deceptively simple sentences tell us a lot about the boy’s feelings.
In fact, Stealth is proof of Ibrahim’s ability not only to revisit pre-revolutionary Cairo in precise, intricate detail, but also to revisit childhood innocence without tainting it with adult experience. The fact that Ibrahim was 70 when this novel was first published makes this ability even more remarkable. It took many decades for Ibrahim to give us this novel, but because of his persistence of vision, he has given us a novel with power. And power in literature is something that cannot be corrupted.