Gamal al-Ghitani: Heritage that runs into the present

18-10-2015 03:53 PM

Robeir al-Faris


The renowned writer and literary critic Gamal al-Ghitani (1945 – 2015) died in hospital early this morning after a long struggle with illness.


Gamal al-Ghitani is dead. Egypt feels the loss; Ghitani was a pillar of the Egyptian literary arena, and a writer whose works gained global renown for their profundity and genuineness.

Born on 9 May 1945 in Sohag. Ghitani was a journalist, author and novelist. He wrote historical and political novels as well as cultural and political critiques and was the editor-in-chief of the literary weekly magazine Akhbar al-Adab (Literature News) since it was launched in 1993 by the major Cairo publishing house Akhbar al-Youm and until 2011.


First brush with tyranny

Gamal al-Ghitani was born to a poor family in the Upper Egypt town of Juhayna, Sohag some 460km south of Cairo. When yet a child his family moved to Cairo where he apprenticed with a carpet maker, and later worked in one of the Khan al-Khalili carpet factories. In 1962, he received his diploma. He had already written his first story in 1959 at the age of 14 and continued to write on the side while earning his livelihood in the carpet industry.

During the 1960s and 70s, Ghitani’s career was heavily intertwined with the political situation in Egypt. He was imprisoned from October 1966 to March 1967 for his critical commentary on the regime of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. At the time, the Nasser socialist regime was at the height of the political oppression it is notorious for; Egypt was a veritable police State where criticism of the regime came at a hefty price in personal safety and freedom. The defeat before Israel, at the time Egypt’s archenemy, in the Six-Day War in June 1967, worked to reduce State tyranny, but only to a point. Nasser remained Egypt’s president till his sudden death in September 1970; Anwar al-Sadat succeeded him in October 1970 till he was assassinated by Islamist army officers in October 1981. During the Sadat time, Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, the aftermath of the war in October 1973 during which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal into Israeli-occupied Sinai; and abandoned socialism for market economy.


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Brilliant career

In 1969, Ghitani switched careers and became a journalist, working for the weekly State-owned newspaper Akhbar al-Youm, the flagship publication of the publishing house with the same name. At the time Egypt boasted only a handful of papers; the majority of them State-owned. He continued to write historical fiction; many of his novels were set in Cairo. He tackled cultural and political topics. In an effort to help promote Arab literary culture, he helped found the literary magazine Gallery 68 which soon became the mouthpiece of the writers of his generation.

In 1980, Ghitani was awarded the Egyptian National Prize for Literature, and in 1987, the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 1985, he became editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar, Akhbar al-Youm’s daily publication, and continued as contributing editor to Akhbar al-Youm’s literary section. From 1993 to 2011 he was the editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, one of Egypt’s prime literary magazines. In 2005, he won the French Award “Laure Bataillon” for translated literature, one of the highest French awards to be bestowed upon non-French writers. He was entitled for this award due to his epic work Kitab al-Tajalliyyat (Book of Illuminations) which appeared in its final Arabic form in Cairo in 1990. In 2009, he was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the award is worth about USD200,000 and is one of the world’s richest literary awards.

Gamal al-Ghitani was married to the Egyptian journalist Magda al-Guindy, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram’s children’s magazine Alaa’ Eddin. Together they had a son, Muhammad, and a daughter, Magda.



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Veils of satire

“I know him best for Hikayat al-Ghareeb (Tales of the Stranger), Al-Zayni Barakat and Al-Rifaee”, literary critic Hussam al-Hadad told Watani. “Ghitani profoundly and in masterful literary language wrote about Egyptians. He was concerned with the poor, a major sector of the Egyptian community. He clearly admired the Egyptian character, its strength, resourcefulness, and resilience. He was also an admirer of the Arab literary heritage which strongly featured in several of his works. His pen registered the tales and stories of the Arab region; so that his works became a historical source for stories not known to many of us. Ghitani is considered one of the most famous writers on the Internet since most of his books and novels are found on e-libraries.”

Ghitani’s novel Waka’ee Haret al-Zafarani (The al-Zafarani Files), in which everyone in al-Zafarani Alley suffers impotence except one man, is aptly highlighted on the (American University in Cairo) AUC Press website: “An unknown observer is watching the residents of a small, closely-knit neighborhood in Cairo’s old city, making notes. The college graduate, the street vendors, the political prisoner, the café owner, the taxi driver, the beautiful green-eyed young wife with the troll of a husband—all are subjects of surveillance. The watcher’s reports flow seamlessly into a narrative about Zafarani Alley, a village tucked into a corner of the city, where intrigue is the main entertainment, and everyone has a secret. Suspicion, superstition, and a wicked humor prevail in this darkly comedic novel. Drawing upon the experience of his own childhood growing up in al-Hussein, where the fictional Zafarani Alley is located, Gamal al-Ghitani has created a world richly populated with characters and situations that possess authenticity behind their veils of satire.”


Illuminator stories

The ‘Prince of the Martyrs’, General Ibrahim al-Rifaee, is the noble officer who laid his life for Egypt during the October 1973 War. Rifaee was the founder and leader of the “Group 39 Combat” which Ghitani had the privilege to be close to, and wrote about it in capturing literary detail in his epic work Al-Rifaee. The novel, first published in 1978, is set as a countdown diary of the last 13 days of Rifaee’s life. It depicts in poignant true-to-life detail the general’s courage and heroism at war, his fierce search for any of his missing men, and the other side of his character: the tender love he displays towards his family.

The Kitab al-Tajalliyyat is partly autobiographical, partly historical and was the outcome of Ghitani’s feeling of loss upon the death of his father in 1980. The incident, according to Ghitani, led him to look back to older models in the search for a form that would do justice to “the life of this modest man, which had so completely disappeared”. Conventional biography could not achieve this; Ghitani found what he was looking for in the works of Ibn Arabi’s (1165 – 1240) Al-Tajalliyat (Illuminations). The result, was Kitab al-Tajalliyat, in which the narrator is guided through a series of illuminations, some sacred, some profane, that reveal features of his own life and of that of his father, as well as of the larger historical events that both lived through.


Spies and informers

Critics are almost unanimous, however, that Ghitani’s masterpiece is Al-Zayni Barakat, a novel which deals with the terror and suppression enforced by intelligence and police officials. He skillfully makes use of historical facts and settings to tackle contemporary social and political issues. Al-Zayni Barakat was first published in 1974 and is an allegory of Nasser’s police State—and any police State, for that matter—where spying on people by all means and for no apparent reason is later used to cruelly oppress these people. The renowned Palestinian poet Edward Said notes in his foreword to the novel that Zayni Barakat obviously corresponds to Nasser.

Ghitani sets his novel during the period of al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghuri (reigned from 1501 to 1516), the second-to-last of the Mamluk Sultans, when the Mamluk Dynasty was on its last legs; the Ottomans conquered Egypt and overthrew the Mamluks in 1517. The novel was later made into a successful TV drama series.

Zayni Barakat is given one of the most powerful positions in Egypt, the Muhtassib (Market Inspector). Through his post, he not only oversees most aspects of commerce, but is also responsible for safeguarding public morals. The official decree regarding his appointment remarks on his virtue and integrity, his honesty and righteousness, his strength and firmness, his revered respectability, his showing no favouritism to the high and the mighty, his piety, and he impresses almost immediately by coyly turning the position down. He is eventually persuaded to accept it through public pressure, and is also appointed Cairo governor.




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All-time model

Al-Shehab Zakariya Ibn Radi, the former Kabeer al-Bassasseen (head of intelligence or chief spy), is one of Barakat’s enemies but realises that his best interest lies in cooperating with him. Together, they spread spies and informers everywhere and prepare for every single person a ‘file’ that includes all details about his life, family, interests, and connections. They justify their spying by claiming they fear an Ottoman plan to invade Egypt.

The incident of Ali Ibn Abul-Goud is a turning point in the story. Sultan Ghuri sends Goud to Barakat so he would get Goud to tell about the place of a huge amount of money he had stolen. Barakat fails to make Goud ‘confess’ so he resorts to harsh treatment then outright, cruel torture which then extends to anyone who Barakat thinks is withholding information on the matter. The mask falls off and the tyrant bares his fangs; unalloyed brutality follows.

The novel ends with the Ottomans occupying Egypt. Barakat disappears for a few days then reappears and is appointed to his same previous post. He was in fact secretly communicating with the Ottomans to facilitate their entrance to Egypt. Ghitani brilliantly succeeds in showing how strong intelligence systems are and how invincible; the intelligence officer is the same in every era: Mamluk, Ottoman, or modern times.





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