Sonallah Ibrahim: 1970 (The Last Days)
No, this is not a science fiction novel about the end of times but a novel about the last days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. If Nasser is still remembered in the West it is for two reasons – his nationalisation of the Suez Canal and Egypt ‘s involvement in the Six-Day War and the subsequent War of Attrition. Particularly after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Nasser was revered in the Arab world but hated in the West. However, in Egypt, while he certainly improved the standard of living, like many self-styled socialists/communists, his commitment to human rights was poor. Sonallah Ibrahim was jailed for seven years by Nasser, but released after five when Khrushchev visited the Aswan Dam. Clearly, Ibrahim had no love for Nasser as this book shows, though what he describes in this book is by no means all bad.
Nasser died at the relatively young age of fifty-eight (from a heart attack). He was a heavy smoker and diabetic and had other health issues. This book follows the last few months of his life.
We open with him worrying about the War of Attrition. but also about his various ailments. Your legs hurt. The pain from the inflamed nerves shot up your leg and into your atrophied gluteal muscles and your thighs. (As you can see, the book is told in the second person.)
Nasser likes following the news and reads various newspapers and Ibrahim’s technique is to mix in snippets, which include world news, Arab world news, local news, both political and more mundane, details of the various actions both by Egypt and its allies and by Israel and its allies (i.e. mainly the US) and even adverts. These snippets take up a significant part of the book.
Much of the story concerns the internal politics and we meet a host of people, whom most westerners will know little or nothing about, though Anwar Sadat plays an important role as he is Nasser’s deputy at the time of this book. Ibrahim is not too flattering about him, either. Whatever Sadat’s failings were, he was entirely devoted to you, and had managed to convince you that he had no thirst for power, no desire to take your place though he does seem to have had links to the CIA. Other politicians come in for mockery and disdain, particularly Gaddafi.
We follow Nasser’s story (though not chronologically) from his early days in the army and his involvement in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the revolution that got rid of both the monarchy and the British and Nasser’s rise to power.
There is a lot about the internal politics as there are plots and counter-plots and Nasser is never entirely sure whom he can trust and who may have sold out to the West, or, indeed, other powers (apparently quite few, though we and, presumably, Nasser himself are never sure what is fact and what mere conjecture/rumour.)
The main focus is on the war with Israel as this is what is happening in the last few months of his life. After the Six-Day War, he felt he had no choice but to resign, not least because of his poor choice of commander-in-chief. However there was a huge surge of support for him and not only did most Egyptians urge him to reconsider so did various foreign figures, and many in the Arab world, including the Soviet leadership, UN Secretary-General U Thant and even General de Gaulle. He stayed on.
There are a couple of telling pieces here, in which Ibrahim clearly accepts that Nasser was perhaps not all bad. Firstly, he needed sophisticated anti-aircraft systems from the Soviet Union and not just the weapons but the men to operate them. The Soviets are reluctant but Nasser brilliantly outsmarts them and gets his way.
The second issue is when he is resigning. He wonders what he is going to do after resigning, realising he owns no property and has very little money. I doubt that there would be many people in Nasser’s position elsewhere in the world who did not have large sums of illegally obtained money and property stashed away.
He has a cynical but perhaps highly accurate view on the Israel-Arab conflict: You said that you had never thought of war as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In your opinion, there were other ways to outdo them. Israel was just an arm of US imperialism which wanted to control the Middle East’s oil and resources. The real battle was with the US, the mastermind behind them. He knows that the US is trying to undermine him as they see him as their main enemy in the region. He was despotic in may ways: The truth was plain and clear. You couldn’t tolerate any opposition, even from those closest to you. Was he, as he claimed a socialist?The answer is a qualified maybe. Ibrahim, not surprisingly, focuses on the episode when Nasser clamped down on the Communists and imprisoned many of them Ibrahim included.
There is no doubt corruption was rife though he did clamp down on it when his own family members took advantage of their relationship to him. Several of the news snippets mention examples of it happening though, at least as regards financial corruption, Nasser seems to have been fairly innocent.
The last few days of his life are described in detail, when the Jordanian Civil War is embroiling the Arab nations even while the dispute with Israel continues. There were rumblings in the Western papers, in Saudi Arabia, in Beirut. They all said that Abdel Nasser was finished and Israel was waiting for the call from Cairo asking for the terms of surrender. Interestingly, he seems to think about his own limitations: It bothered you, when you thought about it: A country that puts its affairs in the hands of one man, no matter how great the man, no matter how many victories he achieves, will always fail.
If someone sent me to prison for seven years for reasons I considered unjustified, I do not think I would have anything positive to say about him. Ibrahim points out Nasser’s faults and weaknesses but, on the whole, he seems to have a generally positive view of Nasser and, moreover, he accepts that most of the Arab world and some from the rest of the world also look at him a great leader. Given his successors, particularly the recent ones, that may very well be the case.
First published in 2020 by Dār al-mustaqbal al-ʻarabī
First English translation in 2023 by Seagull
Translated by Eleanor Ellis