Novel Reading Excercise–Tilka al-Ra’iha


Tilka al-Ra’iha (or “That Smell” or “The Smell of It”) was published in 1966 by Egyptian activist and writer Sonallah Ibrahim. This entry presents and exercise for advanced Modern Standard Arabic learners who may not have access to advanced literature classes to challenge themselves in reading a book that is both complex thematically but also relatively simplistic in its diction. As such, the work offers a good opportunity for language learners looking to make their first foray into reading Arabic novels, but also requires some guidance to make the most out of it. This exercise assumes that the learner has already completed the first three books of the al-Kitaab series and is familiar with most Arabic grammatical concepts at an advanced level.

After reading through the text, the learner can follow along with the following directed drills to dive deeper into its literary meaning while also applying grammatical concepts they have learned in the al-Kitaab series. Before proceeding, it is important for first time novel readers to note that in Egyptian printing presses at the time, the -ي- letter was printed without dots and appears as a -ى- and it is up to the reader to surmise when the -ي- is being used both morphologically and possessively.

These exercises ask the reader to pay very close attention to the words that make up each sentence, rather than conduct more abstract literary analysis. Indeed, like Hemingway, Ibrahim’s appeal and controversy derived largely from the content he left implicit. At the same time, the author deftly plays with the nuances of Arabic grammar to convey social and political messages that continue to be debated to this day. This guide helps walk the advanced student through this analysis.

Drill 1: Drawing Inferences from the Unwritten–Chapter 1

In contrast to the more classic literary works excerpted in the al-Kitaab series, Ibrahim’s diction is sparse and economical–something that shocked literary critics upon the work’s publication in the 1960s.

  1. Open the book and read the first chapter
  2. Underline new characters when they are introduced. Pay careful attention to whether they appear again and how they are referenced in the conjugation of various verbs.
  3. Focus on idafa phrases and possessive pronouns. How does Ibrahim’s style differ from the texts you are used to when describing how actions and things are ascribed to different people? How does he make use of the “hidden idafa” construct?
  4. BONUS–this is fundamentally a work of prison literature–and the first chapter is the only prison/jail scene described in the entire book. While some have described Ibrahim’s writing style as inherently political, what psychological trauma does this style of leaving out the most gruesome realities of his experience convey?

Drill 2: Acquiring New Vocabulary for Everyday Use and Description–the Middle Chapters

One common criticism of the al-Kitaab book series is that it focuses on often highly abstract concepts that are meant to prepare the learner for complex debates on political subjects but at times leave them ill-prepared to describe everyday actions at the advanced level. While Ibrahim’s plot is relatively dull, it does provide descriptions of common situations like: transportation, swimming, greeting guests at the door, as well as romantic scenes that reference a number of body parts and movements candidly in tame but descriptive detail.

  1. As you read through the middle chapters, pay close attention to movement or descriptive scenes.
  2. Compile a vocabulary sheet of new nouns and verbs that you may have not encountered before. The adverbs and adjectives should be relatively familiar. While some of these words will be Egyptian-inflected vocabulary, many will be useful for novel-reading in general given the prominence of the Egyptian press for much of the 20th century.
  3. BONUS: The middle chapters were heavily censored by Nasser’s regime due to what was considered sexually explicit content at the time. For the modern reader, it is quite difficult to understand why or what the regime found so offensive without context–or why this work gained the ire of censors while the works of Naguib Mahfouz remained largely untouched. If you have the opportunity to acquire the least censored version, consider the role of masculinity with specific relation to the verb forms used. Why might using more passive forms of the same verb instead of more active/assertive forms have causes such a stir? Why might the specific verbs used in relation to how the main character (a man) is behaving in romantic/sexual situations provoke censorship?

Drill 3: Literary Analysis through Pastiche–the Final Chapter

This drill is the most challenging but rewarding. The final chapter of the book describes perhaps the only dramatic and meaningful event save what happens in the first. By this point, you should be generally familiar with more classic styles of Arabic literary text through the fiction excerpts in the al-Kitaab book series. With that in mind:

  1. Focus on the passage where the main character talks about his mother in the last chapter.
  2. Briefly skim the fiction work of Book 3 al-Kitaab or any other passages of emotion you are familiar with.
  3. Try and rewrite the passage about the main character’s mother using more classic Arabic literary style. Try and think about how idafas and possession would be used differently, and focus on emulating adjectival and adverbial repetition appropriately. Evaluate this pastiche text in reference to the original novel’s text.
  4. Try and rewrite your favorite paragraph or two passage from any of the fiction works found in al-Kitaab book 3 in the style of Ibrahim. What words did you end up omitting, and why? What particles were you unable to include in the new version? What does this teach you about the message Ibrahim was trying to convey?
  5. BONUS: If you are familiar with a broader range of Arabic novels and Marxist/existentialist writing more broadly, how do you think Ibrahim may have drawn inspiration from authors like Sartre and Camus when writing this work based on the exercise?






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