In early April, Egyptian and Arab as well as world culture lost one of the most renowned and talented as well as socially committed novelists and writers of the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the third millennium, namely the late Gamil Atteya Ibrahim. He was a great friend of mine and a wonderful human being, someone who I came to know in person almost 35 years ago.
He belonged to what is known in the history of Egyptian literature as the “Generation of the sixties,” which also included a number of other outstanding novelists, poets and literary critics. Among the names of the writers and novelists belonging to that generation are the late Gamal Al-Ghitani and the late Ibrahim Aslan, in addition to Bahaa Taher, Yehya Al-Taher Abdalla, Sonallah Ibrahim, Youssef Al-Qaid and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, only to mention a few examples among this broad array of talented but also socially committed Egyptian writers, novelists and intellectuals.
In fact, Gamil Atteya Ibrahim was one of the main founders of a journal that embodied the intellectual paradigm of the “Generation of the sixties” in Egyptian literature. The name of the journal was “Gallery 68”.
While he was living in Geneva, Gamil Atteya Ibrahim was also surrounded by a very distinguished group of Egyptian writers, novelists and intellectuals, including Bahaa Taher, the late Khairi Aziz, Fawzia Asaad, Fawzia Ashmawi, Mohamed Tawfik and Amani Amin, in addition to other writers and novelists that used to visit the city regularly such as the late Nemat Al-Beheiri and Assem Hanafi. We held many informal gatherings and lengthy discussions, in which we exchanged insights into the state of culture in the wider world while focusing on culture, literature and arts in Egypt and the Arab world.
The intellectual work of Gamil Atteya Ibrahim also belonged to what is called “the literature of exile”. In 1979, he moved to Geneva as the representative of both the Middle East News Agency (MENA) and the Egyptian Radio. For the last four decades he lived in Switzerland, the only change being that he moved to Basel after getting married, although he continued to work in Geneva until a few years ago when he retired. When he began to suffer from health problems, he decided to stay all the time in Basel.
He leaves behind him a broad, diverse and rich legacy of novels, collections of short stories, other literary works and many articles. Beside his social commitment, similar to that of his peers in the “Generation of the sixties,” his work also had another distinctive feature in its use of history and its handling of historical events.
Perhaps the most outstanding example of a literary work dealing with history from a literary standpoint was his Trilogy. The three parts of this had interesting titles connected to three important years in the contemporary history of Egypt, namely “52,” “54” and “81”. Some years ago, I published a lengthy review article on the Trilogy in the monthly cultural magazine Al-Hilal, which was founded in the 19th century and is one of the most prominent literary reviews in the Arab world.
The three years that Gamil Atteya Ibrahim chose as the titles for the three parts of his Trilogy corresponded to the history of the 23 July 1952 Revolution. “52” was the year of the revolution and “54” was the year when there was a rift within the ruling Revolutionary Command Council between those who wanted to see a return to the multi-party liberal democracy that had existed prior to July 1952 and those who wanted to see the revolution continue until it had achieved its declared goals on the political, economic and social levels. “81” witnessed the assassination of late president Anwar Al-Sadat at the hands of a militant group coming under the mantle of what became known as Political Islam.
The Trilogy constituted, according to the words of the author himself, an attempt to understand what had happened in Egypt in these years and why it had happened in the way that it had. He showed in many of his works, as well as in his conversations, a deep-rooted interest in understanding “revolution” in general. Yet, the Trilogy, like many of his other works, also clearly demonstrated how attached he was to his country, Egypt, and how advanced, and also how meaningful, were his feelings of patriotism towards his Arab identity, particularly on the cultural level.
He was never neutral in his works, including in the Trilogy, and he always took the side of the real interests of Egypt, from his perspective, and was always intentionally biased towards ordinary human beings, to the “masses,” while also appreciating the role of progressive intellectuals in society.
The third part of the Trilogy, “81,” showed his interest in trying to understand the phenomenon of what came to be called Political Islam. In addition, the Trilogy as a whole reflected his in-depth analytical, critical, historical and comparative reading in the dialectics of the role of the intellectual in the society, as well as the interaction of that intellectual with the outside world while representing the culture of his or her own people.
The Trilogy is rich in discussion reflecting the intellectual, cultural, literal and artistic wealth of the author on the different ideologies that have excited the world over the past half century and more, with these being locked in an incessant conflict to win the hearts and minds not only of the Egyptian or Arab peoples, but also of all the peoples of the Third World, whose countries won their independence, at least on the political level, in the aftermath of World War II and particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
Another sign of the importance of Gamil Atteya Ibrahim’s Trilogy was its adaptation by Egyptian TV some years ago as a popular TV drama series called “Years of Love and Salt,” some of which was shot in Geneva.
Gamil Atteya Ibrahim had a worldview that governed his opinions on various issues. He was a firm believer in inter-cultural dialogue as a means to know more about the other. He contributed to many initiatives, particularly in Europe, aimed at enhancing inter-cultural interaction as a means of building common ground, or at least of enabling mutual understanding that would lead to mutual respect and promote, at both the European and global levels, a culture of tolerance towards the “other”.
The writer is a commentator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly