Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 October 2001
Issue No.555
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Gaballa Ali Gaballa:

From an antique land

The secrets of Kemet are secret no longer

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah

In a country renowned, as no other, for its treasured antiquities, a place whose very identity -- and, even more critically, whose very livelihood and economic well-being -- is bound up with its priceless antiquities, you'd expect the man who heads the antiquities department to be grave and vainglorious. On the contrary, he has a warm handshake and a hearty laugh. Always excellent company, he is rarely seen in public without a good-humoured smile. Yet there is a serious side to him. He possesses that most uncommon of qualities: common sense.

An affable and down-to-earth man, Gaballa Ali Gaballa, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), nevertheless possesses a sharp intellect and a quick mind. Naturally merry and mirthful, as his subordinates will readily tell you, he can be a most exacting boss who does not suffer fools gladly. He has no time for those who fail to measure up to his high standards. He adopts this severe personality when hard at work. An easy, loquacious man by nature, he chooses each word carefully when necessity dictates. And, more importantly, he avoids exaggeration and stays calm under pressure. These are qualities Gaballa needs in abundance now that he heads what used to be the Egyptian Antiquities Department. He knows how to ease away tension with a joke, and to temper merriment with seriousness.

But then, of course, Egyptians are notorious throughout the Arab world for their sense of humour. Gaballa's convivial nature has injected some sanity into his daily grind at the department he heads. At one time, before he took charge, the antiquities department played second fiddle to many. International expectation demanded an overhaul of the SCA. Gaballa was determined to restore confidence and credibility; and there is not a shadow of doubt that he turned it around. Egyptians and foreigners, Egyptologists and bureaucrats alike extol his professionalism and sing the praises of his competence.

(photos: Khaled El-Fiqi)
Gaballa found himself obliged to sweep out the dusty corners both literally and symbolically, and open the windows to let in the fresh air of new thoughts and ideas. "It is unthinkable that we could let some people off the hook because they cannot handle matters." His swarthy complexion suddenly turns a shade darker as he lets loose in a no-nonsense tone. But no: he will not name names or point fingers of accusation at less motivated colleagues and long-departed predecessors. "It was a collective effort," Gaballa says of the SCA's revamping, with humourous and self-effacing Egyptian understatement.

Truthfulness, poise and tenacity are words that come to mind regularly as one listens to Gaballa. They are, along with openness and intimacy, useful terms with which to describe his attitude to his work, and life generally.

Like the vast majority of his compatriots, Gaballa was shaped by poverty, hardened by a struggle for existence. He flourished where many others have floundered. He is also a son of the soil, whose greatest pleasure is visiting his aged mother in their impoverished ancestral village buried deep in the Delta. He was raised without any of the modern amenities we take for granted. But "without television, you read more books, spend more time talking to people, have nicer dinners..."

Gaballa was born in the village of Kufour Al- Raml -- Sand Hamlets. "Even in ancient times the Delta had sandy patches," he points out. He is acutely conscious of the continuities in Egyptian history, the points of intrinsic sameness with Pharaonic times. In the essentially flat openness of the Nile Valley and Delta, any mound of sand is a gebel, or mountain, to the Egyptian peasantry. Desert, red or unproductive earth, is distinct from the rich black earth, Kemet, of Blessed Egypt proper, enhanced annually over millennia by the silt flowing freely downstream from the very depths of the African continent.

The Nile is the Bahr, Sea: Egyptians are not seafaring people, and dislike open expanses of water. But Gaballa made up his mind early on to move beyond the restricting confines of the village he so loves. He first left the village when he was 14, for a brief trip to Cairo. He was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the great metropolis. Later, he was to cross what remained, to a peasant's mind, forbidding seas in search of knowledge and higher learning.

"Egyptians basically have a peasant culture. That distinguishing characteristic was as true of ancient Egypt as it is of contemporary Egyptians. It is especially poignant since almost all the peoples who inhabit the countries neighbouring Egypt, with the notable exception of the Nubians to the south, are nomadic pastoralists," Gaballa explains. And he is proud of his peasant stock, of his rural and very modest background.

Both his parents were illiterate. His father was a typical patriarch of his time who towered over the family. He was not disinclined to hit his children even when they were grown men. But they loved and revered him because they knew he had their interests at heart.

When he was 18, in 1957, Gaballa came to the capital with his father to enroll at Cairo University, but finding reasonably priced accommodation was a major hurdle. After a three- month search, he found a room in Ezbet Delewar with no running water and no electricity. He would study by the light of a hurricane lamp. As he sat cross-legged on the mattress in the frugal room sipping his tea with his father, he said confidently: "I am going to be a doctoral student and a professor, too." After a pause, he added: "I am going to study abroad." His father raised an eyebrow. "Wait till you complete your studies inside before you think about studying outside," he replied wryly. Gaballa simply followed his daydreams with persistence.

At university, he had to struggle to make ends meet. His family was without financial means. There was only one way out -- hard work. He knew he had to excel; and for four years, he was always top of his class.

His choice of specialisation was a pragmatic decision. The Faculty of Arts; but which department? He had always wanted to study philosophy, and so enrolled in that department. As a young man he was fascinated by Abu Hamed Al-Ghazali and Ikhwan Al-Safa (the Brethren of Purity); also, Hegel and Kant. "But I was so bored with the philosophy taught and it was such a let-down that I had to change departments," he sighs in recollection.

Gaballa had three options: archaeology; ancient European studies (Greek and Latin); or Oriental studies (Hebrew, Turkish and Persian). He heeded the advice of his old teacher in the village, who told him to choose the department with the fewest students, so that his excellence could shine. Gaballa opted for archaeology

Soon after he entered, the department was sub- divided into Egyptology and Islamic archaeology.

The major intellectual influences Gaballa acknowledges were interestingly diverse. His teachers were Ahmed Fakhri (history), Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr (archaeology), Girgis Matta (linguistics), and a Russian aristocrat who had escaped the October Revolution, Vladimir Goleneschief. "After graduation I was Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr's assistant, and I learned a great deal from him," Gaballa says.

Determined not to be seen as the country bumpkin, he was the only male in a class that held only three other students -- young women from relatively privileged middle-class backgrounds. He remembers that when classes ended for the day, his colleagues took first-class bus tickets while he took second-class. Even so, he was top of the class.

"Nasser died early," Gaballa sighs. "I owe everything to Nasser and the July Revolution." His graduation coincided with the beginning of the 1961 five-year plan, and he benefited from the equal opportunities the new regime was keen to offer. "Nasser was the reason why a peasant from humble rural stock could go to university at home and study abroad."

Gaballa left Egypt for England. He headed for Liverpool, which was then as it still is today: a very lively and cosmopolitan city. "I disembarked on English soil on a wet and miserable day -- 3 March 1963. It was a life's dream come true," Gaballa remembers. "The turning point for me was when I left Egypt for England," he adds without hesitation. He immediately enrolled at the University of Liverpool's School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies. His supervisor was a keen Egyptologist who was fascinated by Egypt and the Egyptians, a Professor H W Fairman who believed that in order to advance, enrich and further Egyptology, Egyptians must be taught the subject. Fairman was brought up in Egypt. He lived in the country until he was 13 years old, and he was delighted that Gaballa was his student. It was ironic that an Englishman was teaching an Egyptian Egyptology; but Fairman was no ordinary Englishman.

Can Egyptology be stripped of all political content? Gaballa met Fairman for the first time on 5 March 1963, two days after his arrival. Gaballa has a knack for remembering dates; perhaps it now comes naturally to him after poring for years over important historical events. "Professor Fairman looked at my shoes and pointedly said they were no good. They would not do for England," Gaballa remembers his old professor with much affection. He took Gaballa to a department store and bought him a pair of good English shoes. Fairman's wife, Olive, was not as generous or hospitable as her husband. "She grew up in the war years and, like many Englishwomen of her generation, suffered from a nervous disposition. She felt that her husband was giving his students too much attention and time." At one point, she barred the professor's students from entering his home. When Fairman was 67, he developed heart trouble and was treated by an Egyptian physician. The English Egyptologist was tickled to bits by this coincidence.

Fairman's condition worsened, and he was eventually confined to his home. "He used to tell his students when his wife was out and we would sneak into the house, leaving hurriedly before she arrived. It was like a game of hide and seek, and I think the fun and excitement kept the ailing professor alive." Unfortunately, Fairman died in 1978 -- but not before Gaballa had obtained a PhD. and returned to Egypt. With two of Fairman's other students, Gaballa wrote a book in his memory. "Such a warm and fulfilling relationship between lecturers and their students is a rarity today," he muses sadly.

In Liverpool, many studious hours were dedicated to deciphering the codes engraved on the ancient Egyptian ruins. Every night witnessed Gaballa's frantic, inexorable pacing. He had nightmares about not completing his PhD. His doctoral thesis examined narrative in Ancient Egyptian art. Half-way through, it suddenly dawned on him that his understanding of the concept of "narrative" differed radically from his supervisor's. "You have to convince me that you are right," Fairman finally told him. Gaballa analysed images and trawled through historical records, turning up some surprising results. He eventually worked out a theory that the Egyptians represented no narrative as such in their art. Their Cosmic Order was created once, and all art was a repetition, a faithful rendition, of the original. Everything, not excluding artistic expression, had to conform to the original Egyptian conceptualisation of the universe.

Consumed with commitments, he is clear about his priorities. "Family comes first," he says unequivocally. In Liverpool, Gaballa met and married the love of his life, Jenny.

Gaballa first met Jenny on 13 November 1965. It was love at first sight. Gaballa preferred blondes, and Jenny was a dream come true. As a Congregationalist, she had a puritanical sense of life. Her father, a Royal Airforce pilot, was more conventional Church of England, but Jenny was rebellious and had a mind of her own. Gaballa was Muslim, Egyptian and foreign. His worst nightmare had come true. What had he done wrong? His future father-in-law flew into a rage and gave Jenny a very hard time, but only managed to bring out the rebel in her. "We broke up three times, the last time for three months."

The disaster of June 1967 compounded matters. "The British press were mercilessly attacking Egypt and Nasser. We dreaded the six o'clock news. We saw the utter humiliation of Egypt on English TV. It was a bitter cup indeed," Gaballa recalls. "On 9 June, Nasser officially conceded defeat and tendered his resignation. It was the saddest day of my life. My father-in-law spread newspaper cuttings out on Jenny's bed for her to find. The pressure for us to break up was tremendous. Multi-cultural marriages were frowned upon in those days," he remembers. Gaballa was away from Egypt during both the 1967 and the 1973 wars. But that only enhanced his patriotic fervour. "My father-in-law was determined that his daughter would not marry a foreigner." Perhaps it was in the stars. Jenny played chaperon to her younger sister who was dating Gaballa's friend and fellow Egyptian in Liverpool. Their outraged father convinced his youngest daughter to leave her suitor, but Jenny persevered. In the end, "my best friend was my best man and her sister was the bridesmaid at our wedding."

Jennifer, an accomplished violinist, introduced Gaballa to classical music. He was in Liverpool during the Beatles' heyday, and the couple had a full social life in Liverpool of the swinging '60s. He learned something about British popular culture first hand. "The four years I spent in Liverpool: that was the best time of my life," he says.

Yet the British were sworn enemies for Egyptians of Gaballa's generation, who would never forgive them the 1956 invasion and interference in Egypt's domestic affairs. In Liverpool, however, he made the distinction between the British as a people and the British colonial authorities. Cosmopolitan Liverpool made all the difference and held the key. Cultural exchange, Gaballa is convinced, can bridge civilisational differences.

I remember Mrs Gaballa as my English- language teacher at Victoria College in Maadi and my private tutor. Gaballa remembers those now distant days when he used to drop her off at our house. Little did I know they had a baby boy, Hisham, whom Gaballa cared for while his wife was busy teaching. Now 32, Hisham is today a psychiatrist and lives in Merseyside. "Those were hard times," Gaballa explains. "It is somewhat strange, that throughout our 34 or so years of marriage, Jenny was the family's main breadwinner. She always earned more than I did." Even today, her salary as a teacher is higher than his, he explains without a trace of bitterness. He was a "new man" long before the concept became fashionable. Despite his rural roots, he is a most unconventional man. "Only when I worked in Kuwait and in Morocco did I earn more than she did," he says. In Kuwait, he virtually established the department of archaeology at the University of Kuwait. He was also visiting professor at Mohamed V University in Morocco.

Every century has left its mark on the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and although Gaballa's own academic specialisation is Egyptology, his domain now includes Islamic, Coptic, Roman and Greek art and architecture as well. He is determined that the secret workings of Egypt's rich heritage will not be buried in obscure academic journals; and judging from his record, that heritage will continue to fascinate multitudes world-wide.

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