Books

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 7 May 2024

El-Ghitany

Remembering Gamal El-Ghitani

Today marks the birthday of the great novelist Gamal El-Ghitani (9 May 1945-18 October 2015). El-Ghitani was the founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab, Egypt’s foremost literary publication. He was also a founding member of the seminal Gallery 68 group and magazine, which defined the Generation of the Sixties, and a pioneer of his own unique narrative style drawing on historical texts. Later, as an editor and public intellectual, he became a kind of shadow minister of culture and a social critic of the highest calibre.

El-Ghitani’s family hails from Sohag in Upper Egypt, but he arrived in Cairo as a child. In his adolescence he worked in traditional crafts in Khan Al-Khalili, struggling to sustain himself. Precocious and determined, El-Ghitani nonetheless published his first short story when he was only 14. Before joining Akhbar Al-Youm, where he would become a war reporter covering the 1973 war, he was imprisoned for a year for speaking out against the regime in the wake of the 1967 war. He became the literary editor of  Al-Akhbar in 1985.

A prolific and influential novelist and a close friend of Naguib Mahfouz’s, El-Ghitani weaved heritage into modernity and helped to revive previously forgotten texts, such as the history of Ibn Iyas. His fiction focuses on Cairo as a place of identity and cyclical history. Zayni Barakat (1974), for example, set in the 16th-century Mamluk Cairo, traces the path of a ruthless and corrupt agent of dictatorship, Zayni Barakat Ibn Mousa, who institutes a system of spying to tyrannise the city. With its references to Nasser-era Cairo, this gives the novel the dimensions of a powerful political statement. The novel was adapted for television by director Yehia Al-Alamy.

El-Ghitani is one of the most widely translated Egyptian authors. Much of his work is available in excellent English translations. His books include Waqaei Haret Al-Zaafarani (Chronicles in the Zaafarani Alley, 1976), translated once by Peter O’Daniel in 1986 and another time by Farouk Abdel-Wahab in 2009; Mutun Al-Ahram (Pyramid Texts, 1994), translated by the great Humphrey Davies in 2007; Nethar Al-Mahw (Traces: A Memoir, 2005), translated by Nader K. Uthman in 2020 and the Mahfouz Dialogues (2006), also translated by Humphrey Davies in 2007.

In 1980, El-Ghitani was awarded the Egyptian National Prize for Literature. He received the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987. In 2005, he won another French award for translated literature, the Laure Bataillon, for his giant three volume publication Kitab Al-Tajaliyat (The Book of Epiphanies, 1983-1986), also available in English from the AUC press. In 2009, he was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Rinn (2008).


On Palestine, Noam Chomsky-Ilan Pappé (translated by Salem Adel Al-Shehab), Jadal Publications, 2024, pp237

 

This translation by Salem Adel Al-Shehab of Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé’s 2015 book On Palestine was published in the wake of the ongoing genocide in Gaza following the October 7 attack.

The first part of the book is a series of conversations between Chomsky and Pappé, moderated by Frank Barat. The second part is a collection of essays written by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

The significance of this book is that it presents a deep analysis of the reality within Israeli society, including its conflicts and class struggles. The book also delves into the comparison between the two cases of South Africa and Palestine as a case against imperialism and apartheid states.

Pappé is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine: A History of Modern Palestine and The Israel/Palestine Question, while Chomsky is one of the leading critics of US foreign policy in the world. He has published books, articles, and essays on global politics, history, and linguistics. The two figures share experiences and understanding of Israeli society and provide insights into the most important transformations that have occurred in public opinion.

This translation also raises questions about the meaning of activism and the reality of the anti-Zionist movement as well moral stances on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and attempts at greater effectiveness towards the public opinion and how to create pressure channels.


Basim Khandaqji, Qenaa Bi Loun Al-Samaa (A Mask, the Colour of the Sky), Al-Adab Publishing House, 2022, pp237

 

The winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), sometimes known as the Arabic Booker, is by a Palestinian writer and poet who is in an Israeli prison as we speak. Born in 1983, Basim Khandaqji studied journalism before being given a life sentence by the Israeli Occupation in 2004. 

One day, Nur, an archaeologist living at a refugee camp in Ramallah, makes an unexpected discovery. Rifling through an old coat at the camp, he stumbles upon a blue identity card in one of the pockets. To his surprise, the card belongs to an Israeli citizen. Nur decided to adopt the identity reflected on the card. He would pretend to be this Ur, hoping it might grant him new insights, in an attempt to understand the Zionist mindset, but also give him basic rights he has always been denied. The question remains whether Nur can throw away this new found occupier’s mask that grants him access to everything.


Mohamed Kheir, Marhalet Al-Noum (Sleep Stage), Al-Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2024, pp150

 

The new Mohamed Kheir novel is another fantastical meditation on the human condition. It revolves around Waref Shahine, a man in the throes of an identity crisis after spending seven years in prison. Shahine was charged for a ridiculous crime, and now he must confront a completely transformed city. He roams the streets as a stranger as if searching for something familiar as though he had no awareness of the place or memories in. He finds himself in a totally unfamiliar forest with Khedival buildings in the background that he can clearly remember. He suddenly sees tulips that don’t even grow in Egypt with rabbits running in the greenery and even a gazelle. While all this confusion confirms his isolation, they also underline a state of personal and historical despair and loss.

Kheir is a poet and lyricist as well as a fiction writer. His collections of short stories include Remsh Al-Ain (2016) and Afareit Al-Radio (2011). His collection of vernacular poems Leil Khargi (Ext. Night, 2001) received the Ministry of Culture Award. His second novel Eflat Al-Asabei (Slipping, 2021) made a remarkable impact in its English translation, published by Two Lines Press, and his latest novel was published last year under the name Tamshia Qasira Maa Lulu (A Short Walk with Lulu) also by Al-Kotob Khan Publishing House.


Salah Eissa, Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti: Al-Intellegencia fi Asr Al-Qawmia (Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti: The Egyptian Intelligence in the Era of Nationalism), Al-Karma Publishing House, 2024, pp176

 

A reprint of the great journalist and researcher Salah Eissa’s important study of the great historian Abd Al-Rahman Al-Jabarti and the educated Egyptian class in the era of nationalism, this is a powerful and absorbing read. Eissa writes that, “to some degree, the problem of awareness of our Arab heritage is almost an example of the problem of our awareness of the present, and accordingly our interaction with it. We rarely look at the past with a view that sees the comprehensiveness of its economic, social and intellectual phenomena, while some overwhelm themselves in memorising texts and repeating them in a mechanical way that turns them into categories that transcend time and place, others deal with these texts away from being sacred texts, but are at the same time unable to understand it as part of a bigger phenomenon.”

Eissa, a leftist public intellectual, was born in 1939. He started his career as a short story writer before turning to historical writing and political history. He edited, ran and co-founded many newspapers and magazines, and at the time of his death, he was the head of the board of Al-Qahira cultural magazine. Among his best-known books and The Orabi Revolution, The Princess and the Effendi and Raya and Sakina’s Men. 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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