Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The unique project of Gamal Al-Ghitany

News that Gamal Al-Ghitany, Egypt and the Arab world’s leading contemporary novelist, is ill in hospital has drawn renewed attention to the work of this major cultural figure, writes Nabil Abdel-Fattah

The unique project of Gamal Al-Ghitany
The unique project of Gamal Al-Ghitany
Al-Ahram Weekly

Gamal Al-Ghitany, the Arab world’s leading novelist, is a unique personality. His own life is like an exciting novel about love and the struggle with life and surmounting hardship and about courage, patience, persistence, stubbornness, intelligence, wit, flexibility and firmness. It is like a novel that touches on the ability to contain the impact of blows from adversaries and from those who envy his outstanding talent, as well as from those who dislike him personally or who resent his ability to understand life and people, culture and the arts, the state and authoritarian power, the wiles of the press and how to counter the many rivalries in Egyptian and Arab cultural life.

Indeed, Al-Ghitany’s life is like a novel that interweaves numerous other novels within itself, one populated by diverse voices of varying degrees of forcefulness and existential crisis. This is a novel that tells the story of a self-made man, born in Cairo but with Upper Egyptian roots, who managed to defy the pressures of life and who, almost like someone out of ancient Greek tragedy, was tossed on the waves of cultural and political change and the breath-taking rush of changing meanings and events.

How did he manage to overcome the circumstances that seemed as powerful as inevitability and the fate that seemed to stand between a Cairene youth and the acquisition of knowledge and high cultural standing? How did he summon up the reserves of courage and persistence needed in order to break through such barriers and fix his name to the Egyptian and Arab novel, entering into the realm of world fiction through the translation of his works into French and other languages?

An Egyptian Arab writer of international stature is manifested through his narratives, his characters, the living people he creates who carry with them simple and complex human concerns and turn them into voices laden with values, dilemmas and the fates of human beings in general regardless of their respective histories, affiliations, cultures, shares of good and bad, beauty and ugliness, and how these things interweave.

Al-Ghitany’s career is the meta-novel of a great and tenacious writer who has done battle in the arena of histories, personalities, institutions, symbols and policies in his country and in the wider Arab world. It speaks of an exceptional individual who holds within himself a blend of goodness, kindness, tenderness, generosity and deep affection for his friends, family and all who love him. In other words, Al-Ghitany is the epitome of the Egyptian human being, someone inclined towards goodness and kindness who is peace-loving and disinclined to quarrel with others, someone who has a special ability to celebrate new talents and innovators and work to introduce them to his own readership.

On the other hand, Al-Ghitany can also be a fierce combatant when countering an assault on his own stature or value, or an unwarranted attack or distortion. It is then that his self-defence mechanisms kick in in the midst of a literary and cultural community given to malicious gossip when confronted with a true talent that compels widespread attention due to an outstanding creative output resulting from hard work in a cultural environment with limited opportunities.

Al-Ghitany built himself up through his unique blend of talent and persistence in the acquisition of knowledge. He read widely and discerningly in the seas of Egyptian, Arab and world culture, breathing in their spirit and probing the depths of their histories and thereby establishing himself as an outstanding intellectual even before his fictional output established him as an outstanding novelist.

His erudition, combined with his rhetorical skills, led him to become one of the most prominent Egyptian and Arab journalists. As a war correspondent, he was in a position to analyse the complex military and human aspects that shape the lives of Egyptian soldiers, conveying these to readers in clear and moving tones through his skilful reportage for the Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Life on the front lines naturally heightened questions of patriotism and life and death in the mind of this young reporter who would soon turn to fiction. But in addition to his work on the battlefield, Al-Ghitany’s journalistic expertise was also shaped by his previous work at the newspaper itself. Armed with research skills and the keen nose of a field reporter he was able to expand his expertise in reporting and editorial writing, this soon qualifying him for the position of editor of the literary section of Al-Akhbar.
From there, he went on to found one of the most important experiments in Egyptian cultural journalism, Akhbar

Al-Adab, a literary review Al-Ghitany created which filled a huge vacuum in Egyptian culture at a time when cultural magazines were disappearing, Egypt’s regional cultural presence was ebbing, and Egyptian critical and creative writings were being published in the Gulf, Iraq or Lebanon, or in newly founded Arab newspapers in Paris and London, rather than in Cairo itself.

Akhbar Al-Adab quickly became a window through which Egyptian and Arab intellectuals and others could familiarise themselves with world literatures and cultures. But not only did it present the latest trends in poetry, the short story, the novel and literary criticism, but it also offered insight into the Egyptian and international fine arts, bringing together the narrative and visual arts in a way that helped shape the appreciation of the magazine’s readership.

One of the most important aspects of Akhbar Al-Adab was its discovery of the 1990s generation of writers and beyond and their unique and changing narratives, creative spirits and perspectives on life against a post-modernist backdrop that focused on the sensational and on a revolutionary movement in the senses and sensuality.

In Egypt, this was a time of the difficult birth of the individual in an environment shaped by political authoritarianism, conservative and Salafist social and religious values, human degradation in the crush of daily life, and various duplicities and hypocrisies. These generations found in Akhbar Al-Adab a refuge from the dearth of a dynamic critical movement elsewhere that would be able to appreciate and re-express their new narratives and language.

Moreover, Al-Ghitany introduced many new Arab writers, as well as translations into Arabic of the works of a new generation of writers from around the world, in Akhbar Al-Adab. He was the first to have drawn attention to new and talented writers specialising in cultural issues. Some of them were also creative writers who have since made important contributions to enriching the Egyptian and Arabic novel, while others have gone on to become prominent and influential cultural journalists.

Some of his most important cultural contributions stem from his interest in the Arab literary heritage. He supervised the publication of a series of works in diverse genres from this heritage, for example, not least of which was the famous Bulaq edition of The Thousand and One Nights, along with volumes of historical poetic works and works derived from the Sufi heritage and forays into spiritual enrichment and metaphysical consciousness.

Such contributions were extremely important from a number of perspectives. For one thing, they represented an attempt to contemporise this heritage and make it relevant to today’s generation in its capacity as a rich and luminous example of literary creativity that breathes authenticity while imparting historical depth to modern experimentation. At the same time, his contributions gave new generations of writers, intellectuals and lay persons the opportunity to read major historical texts they would otherwise never have had access to.

Al-Ghitany’s selections from such texts reflect his extensive knowledge of the Arabic literary heritage. His thirst in drinking at the well-springs of this heritage helped inspire some of the landmarks of his open-ended literary voyage, from his astounding first work, “Papers of a Young Man who Lived a Thousand Years Ago,” to the novel Al-Zayni Barakat, another major early work set in the Mameluke era and drawing from its rhetorical and linguistic modes.

The latter novel serves as a mirror or series of masks for contemporary figures and for the existential, human and political concerns familiar from the pull between freedom and authoritarian repression. Such features are what gave Al-Ghitany’s works their unique status among those of his contemporaries and among writers who had been heavily influenced by the translated works of Hemingway and other western or Russian literary giants.

Al-Ghitany brilliantly succeeded in emerging from what might be termed the Mahfouzian, after the Egyptian Nobel laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz, fictional frame-of-reference which laid the foundations of the legitimacy of the novel in Arabic literature. While deeply influenced by Mahfouz, Al-Ghitany moved beyond the realm of Mahfouz’s creative tradition in order to create and develop his own world. At the same time, he took from Mahfouz the same spirit of persistence, system, and strict professional dedication to his creative work in spite of his journalistic commitments that had marked the earlier master. This was one of Mahfouz’s most important lessons and one that Al-Ghitany fully grasped and applied assiduously.

From the Sufi heritage and its diverse output, Al-Ghitany borrowed the experiences and concepts of love, rapture, self-effacement, and spiritual ascension, as well as clarity of language and restrained lyricism. His three-volume work Tajaliyyat (Illuminations), with its particular vision, voice and language, was a major product of this creative quest. But Al-Ghitany’s existential experience also had other sources, among them his passion for architecture and music from all ages, whether Pharaonic, Roman, Greek, Coptic, Islamic, modern or postmodern.

In fact, his acute and deeply sensitive aesthetic and musical sensibilities gave him the power to “hear” the music of the structure and stone in houses, mosques, churches and other buildings.

This art of listening to the musical creations of carved stone helps explain his love for the Cairo Gamaliyya district and its ancient alleyways, buildings and spaces, together with their hidden underlying philosophy.

Al-Ghitany could be said to be the Al-Jabarti, an early 19th-century Egyptian historian, of the post-millennium city of Cairo, a modern chronicler of the historical narratives and fluctuations that time and men have carved into its spaces.

He is the guardian of memory, the memory of the city, of Egypt through its various epochs, of the modern state, the army, the people, and the bureaucracy. He is the guardian of the shadows as well, and this in turn requires a sharp and vigilant acumen capable of discerning what lies behind the facades of places and people and of retaining this information in the flash of a moment’s glance and contemplative query.

His visual memory is also not restricted to the city of Cairo. It extends to everywhere he has visited, including Paris, New York, Chicago, Cordoba, Fez, Marrakesh, Beirut and other cities where he has probed hidden corners and the stories they have to tell, committing all this to heart in every sense of this expression.

Al-Ghitany’s is one of the most important Arab literary voices in terms of its humanitarianism and other properties. It is little wonder, then, that he is one of authors most frequently translated into French, Éditions du Seuil, the Paris publisher, having published some of his most important works, including Al-Zayni Barakat and the Tajaliyyat, in French translation. This translation and publishing activity abroad underscores the value accorded to Al-Ghitany’s work in France and elsewhere in the West, also helping to promote Arab and Egyptian fiction abroad.

He possesses an extensive personal library of books in Arabic that not only contains some major treasures but also houses a rare collection of music from all genres, Arabic, western, Asian, traditional, folk and modern. Seldom does one find such a collection outside public and specialised libraries. But such are the tools and instruments of this gifted and supremely erudite intellectual.

Gamal Al-Ghitany is an ongoing Egyptian and Arab literary project. Unique in the history of the Arabic novel, his is a project that goes beyond his time and extends well into the future. His is thus a unique voice that soars above the chorus of contemporary Arabic fiction, one whose special aesthetic is difficult to imitate, borrow from, or surpass in terms of the quality of his project, its idiosyncratic language, and its fictional achievement.

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