With the death of Gamal Al-Ghitani (9 May 1945 – 18 October 2015), the Egyptian literary scene lost one of its most formative voices of the present age. Born to a humble family in the Southern province of Sohag, he moved to Cairo with his parents and is said to have started writing at a young age.
While being trained as a carpet designer near to the well-known market Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo, he continued writing short stories depicting the environment and the people around him. His career being intertwined with the political scene of the 60’s and 70’s, he was imprisoned from October 1966 to March 1967 due to his critique against Nasser’s regime. Al-Ghitani was also a co-founder of Gallerie68, a magazine that became the literary voice of the so-called 60’s generation of writers in Egypt. It was edited by Edwar Al-Kharrat (*1926) – an acclaimed writer himself – with eight issues published from 1968-71.
In 1969 he started working as a journalist at Akhbar Al-Youm, a weekly Egyptian newspaper. Like other Egyptian writers, he had to “come to terms” with the political powers, a balancing act between freedom of expression and earning a living. It was and is not rare to find writers, some of them more critical to the power structures and the government than others, to ensure income by writing articles or columns for state-owned newspapers.
His novel “Zayni Barakat” (1974) which is set in the Mameluke era and seen as a veiled critique to the regime of the then president Gamal Abdel Nasser (reg. 1956 – 1970) is one of the most famous. It displays the structures of authoritarian rule, the utilization of fear, espionage and corruption by the groups in power and broaches the issue of religion, double standards and superstition. . Zayni Barakat was written under Nasser’s successor Anwar as-Sadat (reg. Oct. 1970 – Oct. 1981). For his three volume oeuvre “Book of Illusions” (Kitab Al-Tagaliyat, 1983-86) Al-Ghitani was awarded the French Award “Laure Bataillon” for translated literature in 2005. This award, the most prestigious in France for non-French authors, sheds light on the range of his work and the recognition of his name at the international level.
To break the rules of truth-telling conventions of realist narratives and to imitate the themes and narrative techniques of the Arabic literary heritage, was a characteristic trait of Al-Ghitani’s novels. He belonged to a generation of writers that had rediscovered indigenous forms of narrative heritage. Playing on “magic realism”, this approach was common in Third World literature. Al-Ghitani is praised for his description of the life of the poor and marginalized in Egyptian society, the struggles of the powerless against those in power and for integrating historic elements and heritage in his writings. Al-Ghitani was also editor-in-chief of one of Arabic’s leading literary newspapers, Akhbar Al-Adab, from 1993 to 2011.
What shouldn’t be left unmentioned…
On the political level, Gamal Al-Ghitani expressed his concerns about the intrusion of religion into the political sphere, namely attempts stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood after its long-term member Muhamed Morsi came to power in June 2012. While criticizing the involvement of religion, the concern about islamization of state institutions and of the jurisdictional system is understandable, Al-Ghitani’s unfettered support for Abdalfatah Al-Sisi and the military regime was a blow not only for some of his fans. From someone who experienced the consequences of totalitarianism, the restriction of freedom of expression, one doesn’t expect justifications for the crackdown on demonstrators, journalists and other dissident voices by the military forces. The glorification of Sisi as Egypt’s savior from extremists and foreign conspiracies in comparing him to Nasser, seems absurd and outrageous to many. It is to mention that he was not alone with his eulogia on the military forces. Some illustrious intellectuals like Alaa Al-Aswani share his views and openly advocate their support.
Why this should be mentioned? Maybe because intellectuals should stay critical of society, power structures and regimes of all shades. And also while praising them and underlining the importance of their work, commentators should not ignore the ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of it.