CHICAGO: In “Ice,” written by celebrated Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim, Shukri, a 35-year-old graduate, is pursuing his studies in Moscow in 1973. The winter is harsh, global politics are rampant and life in the “heart of the socialist utopia” is seemingly desperate, painful and brimming with history. Based on his own experiences studying at the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography, Ibrahim’s book weaves between his life, that of his friends, and the international politics that seem to change the world around them.
Soviet life is tough in the Brezhnev-era. Revolutions and past leaders are still vibrant in people’s minds. At the university, students go about their days as they walk through the city and its political banners that read “Forward Towards Communism” and “Long Live the Soviet People, Building Communism.” The winter is harsh as Shukri endures below-freezing temperatures and illness. His friend still cries over the death of Khrushchev, whose funeral Shukri attended with a journalist friend, recalling that he passed the graves of Chekhov, Gogol and Mayakovsky.
Shukri’s views are cold, methodical and often misogynistic as he describes life in Moscow as if keeping a diary. In between what is happening in the city, students from all over the world keep each other updated about global politics: Jordanian courts hand down the death sentence to 36 Palestinian freedom fighters, the Soviet’s push an Iraqi Ba’athist narrative to round up Nasserists, Libya recognizes East Germany, a military coup in Chile, war with Israel begins, America signs a cease-fire in Vietnam, eastern-European politics, and in his own country of Egypt, his friend writes to tell him not to return.
Between watching movies, reading books, going to the theater, working on his Arabic typewriters, listening to Muhammed Abdel Wahab and Farid Al-Atrash LPs, and passing through famous sites such as Pushkin Square, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Kremlin Clock and St. Basil’s Cathedral, Shukri moves through life quickly and without second thought, his friends and interactions limited and on the surface.
Ibrahim spent five years in political prison in the late 1950s to early 1960s. “Ice” was originally published in Arabic in 2011 and then translated into English by Margaret Litvin and published in English by Seagull Books in 2019.