At a memorial to Gamal al-Ghitani last Tuesday, Humphrey Davies read the seventh chapter of one of the books of the author’s that he had translated himself: The Pyramid Texts (1994). Titled Luminosity, the chapter is about a flash of incandescent light, sighted near the pyramids, that brings the narrator an obscure ease.
“I chose it to a large degree because it embodies very much the essence of his writing and his particularly individual vision,” Davies told an audience of literary figures, researchers, activists and fans. “This is a book that is about the pyramids, but it’s also written in the form of a pyramid, each chapter getting shorter so that at the very end one arrives at what is essentially an annihilation.”
The quiet room, the American University in Cairo’s Oriental Hall, had filled up slowly. There weren’t a whole lot of people attending, but those who did had much to say. A picture emerged of the writer as a much-loved, major influence in and beyond Egypt’s literary scene, an advocate of freedom of expression and thought, a patriot in a good sense, and a thoughtful father and husband.
Ghitani, who passed away on October 18, published more than a dozen novels and short story collections between 1969 and 2008, many of which have been translated into English and French, gaining worldwide distribution and attention.
His novels include his masterpiece Zayni Barakat (1974), which is set in Egypt’s 16th-century Mamluk era but is also a clear critique of the authoritarian regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and Zaafarani Files (1976), in which impotence affects the residents of a Cairo alley that is then isolated by the rest of the city.
Among his non-fiction books is The Mahfouz Dialogs, which was translated by Davies for the AUC Press in 2007. It documents conversations, memories, jokes and views on culture and politics that Naguib Mahfouz, 34 years his senior, had shared with him.
Born in 1945 in a village in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag, Ghitani was raised in Old Cairo’s Gamaliya district, of which Mahfouz often wrote. He grew up reading Mahfouz’s novels, fascinated by the idea of contemporary novels set in such an old neighbourhood.
“Gamal al-Ghitani infuses this sense of identification with Egypt, an identification which he expresses in sense both metaphysical and deeply lyrical,” Humphries said. “That’s an unusual combination of qualities to find in an author.”
Samia Mehrez, director of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, knew Ghitani for 35 years and he became a great influence, professionally and personally.
“I consider myself one of the many that Ghitani influenced greatly,” she said. “When I was doing my PhD on his works, I was faced with a lot of challenges from my professors, since at the time he was still an emerging author. But I insisted and they had to comply. It was an honor that my PhD became the first in English to be written on his work.”
Studying Ghitani’s work and absorbing his passion for heritage helped her understand the relationship between literature and history and the relationship between authors and historians. This was the basis of her first published text (1994’s Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani).
“Gamal al-Ghitani was obsessed with Cairo,” she continued, a fact that seems it could equally apply to herself. “He has prepared several tours with thousands of people over time to see his Cairo with so much warmth and happiness. He considered it a duty to transfer his love for Cairo to others.”
After training as a carpet designer, Ghitani started out as a journalist and was a war correspondent with the Egyptian army in the 1967 and the 1973 wars, starting to write his own literary works at the same time.
He founded weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab in 1993 and was its editor-in-chief until 2011. Published by state-owned news organization Akhbar al-Youm, Akhbar al-Adab is one of the main sources of culture journalism in Egypt and the region, with a curious, open-minded approach that has not been shy of criticizing the Culture Ministry nor of courting controversy. It has also regularly translated international works into Arabic.
“Ghitani is not only a journalist, he is an institution,” Mehrez said. “There has never been a literary journal with a wider distribution in the region like Akhbar al-Adab. It is not just a space where articles on literature and culture are printed. It has played a crucial role in birthing important Arabic literary figures who started in the newspaper. Ghitani gave space for new voices in literature and published their works, with an open, adventurous flare in his choices of authors.”
An Akhbar al-Adab journalist, Hassan Abdel Mawgoud, praised Ghitani’s leadership style as both firm and nurturing, and his ability to produce very regular articles and literary works. “He taught me how to work under pressure,” Abdel-Mawgoud said. “I was very attached to Ghitani not just on a professional level but also on a personal one.”
The event had started with Mehrez reading a moving letter from Ghitani’s wife, journalist Magda al-Guindy, the editor of children’s magazine Alaaeddin, who could not make it for health reasons. As well as hailing his love for Egypt, both geographically and historically, she spoke of sharing her life with him for 41 years, of how he supported her and their two children in their search for knowledge.
Mehrez talked about seeing Ghitani take his six-year-old son Mohamed to the French Institute to see Shady Abdel Salam’s 1970 long, somber historical film The Mummy. “It was wonderful moment for me because it taught me what one could give their children even at such an early age,” she said. She also remembered receiving a phone call from Ghitani when she was teaching his daughter Magda at university. He told her not to treat his daughter differently to the other students.
When the floor was opened up to the audience, minorities’ rights activist and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim also told a story about Ghitani as a father. During a birthday party for his daughter when she was little, Ghitani asked why one of her close friends was not invited, and she told him it was because she was Christian and her other friends would not come if she did. Much dismayed, he started looking into why these young girls were developing sectarian ideas.
Ibrahim wrote an op-ed in Al-Ahram newspaper about this story and the Minister of Education at the time. He discovered that one of the teachers was feeding these ideas to the young children. The minister ordered that she be transferred to a school in Upper Egypt, prompting Ghitani to wonder why she was moved, as she would likely end up spreading sectarian tension in Upper Egypt too.
“This situation is what drove me to study closely the topic of minorities in Egypt,” he said “And so this small incident changed the course of my thought and career. Until now, this is an issue that we suffer from in the Arab world.”
Both his Guindy and Mehrez spoke of Ghitani’s unshakable belief in freedom of thought and expression throughout his career and writings. Zayni Barakat vehemently criticized corruption and totalitarianism, and Ghitani had already spent five months in prison in 1966 for dissent. He often wrote op-eds and public statements in support of authors whose works had been banned or deemed blasphemous by the authorities. Like many cultural figures of his generation, he was overwhelmingly against Islamism.
Mehrez remembered how, when he headed a jury she was a part of for the Sawiris Foundation writers’ prize, he managed to bring conflicting opinions together to reach a democratic consensus. Many others in the room also spoke of Ghitani as a humble man who was respectful of others, as a human being who believed in the importance of knowing one’s own history and culture and in giving people a chance to prove what they can achieve.
The commemoration event was organized by several AUC departments: the Center for Translation Studies, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the School of Library and Learning Technologies, and AUC Press, which has published several translations of his works. Egypt and the region has lost many cultural icons in 2015, and the memorial proved that Ghitani is one of those who will be remembered and taught for generations to come.