The novelist and journalist who fell for Islamic Cairo and war

Mohammed Saad , Monday 26 Oct 2015

The life and works of the iconic Egyptian writer, Gamal El-Ghitani, who passed away last week, earned the title of the Guardian of the Egyptian Memory

Gamal El-Ghitani
Novelist Gamal El-Ghitani

Gamal El-Ghitani, the late Egyptian novelist and journalist, was interviewed by journalist Sayed Mahmoud in 2009. The interview was published in the same year by Al-Hayat newspaper in celebration of 50 years since the writer of 'The Papers of a Youngman who lived a Thousand years' first began work.

The interview also celebrated the writer that inscribed his name in the history of Old Islamic Cairo, carving a very special place for himself in Arabic literature, using a very unique language that was inspired from the Mamluk era -- an era that was deemed as a time of degradation -- until he came along to change that.

El-Ghitani told Sayed Mahmoud: "I didn't decide to take writing as a profession, I followed the instinct that led me to this fate, you can say that writing is the one who seduced me. I'm the son of a simple family. None of its members were aware of this creative activity, my father's biggest concern in life was to help me continue my education, but I knew how to read very early and knew with it the joy of getting out of the narrow world.

"I started writing while I was going through puberty, my first complete text was in 1959, and when I look back at the path I have taken through fifty years I remember the picture of the alley that I came from, and see the status I'm in now as something close to a miracle."

Gamal El-Ghitani, the second most translated writer in Egypt, who passed away last week, after a two month long coma that he slipped into in mid-August, and never returned from, has achieved great success and has left his traces in both the literary world and journalism, his works having been translated into many European languages. He is considered the successor of the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who is one of his masters.

His success in journalism is equal to that of his literature as he was one of the most brilliant war reporters during the sixties and the founder of the first weekly literary magazine almost thirty years later, the prestigious Akhbar Al-Adab.

Al-Ghitani reminisced: “Since I started I was so strict with myself but until now I get a feeling of shock and surprise, that my life has been stolen from me, thus my awareness of what is left for me is even sharper, because what is left is limited, even after all of what was achieved.

"The second thing that I think of is that I'm satisfied with what I have achieved from success, especially in my main goal, which is the what I call my 'literary singularity', and that goal has been achieved with huge success, but since I don’t give all my time to writing, I feel that I could have written more books, and when I read the phrase 'a prolific writer,' I feel a bitterness, because I could have done more.

"Especially because I'm full of ideas- I’m not one of those writers who complain about the lack of inspiration, maybe the only wish that I couldn't achieve until now is devoting all of my time to writing, as I'm still earning my living through my job as a journalist."

Ghitani was born in Upper Egypt on 9 May 1945, to a poor family, before they moved to El-Gamaliyya neighborhood in Cairo. El-Gamaliyya, with its rich heritage and architecture, was where Ghitani’s consciousness was shaped as an author as well as being the setting of many of his novels. He absorbed every letter that Naguib Mahfouz wrote about Old Fatimid Cairo, and became one of his main inspirations.

The writer, who is best known for al-Zayni Barakat, discovered his passion for old Islamic texts written by historians from the 16th century in the mid 1960’s. These texts not only enriched his knowledge of Old Islamic Cairo where he lived but also gave him a very rich linguistic source which he would derive much from later. It allowed him a different literary language and style, seeking a different form and pattern for his novels that differ from the form of western literature.

"Living in Gamaliyya at the heart of Fatimid Islamic Cairo, presented me many questions about place and history, questions that I had to search for their answers. During my journey I discovered that the peak of Arabic rhetoric was in the Mamluk era, and while I read more and more in these old texts, I felt the importance of the historic periodicals that date back to the 16th century that speak with a very clear Egyptian Arabic and this is how I carved my own style," Ghitani said in the interview.

The main issue for Ghitani was to break from the traditional patterns of the Arabic novel and forms that came from western literature, and the way to do that was through diving into the Islamic heritage that he was surrounded by, and by the year 1974, he had discovered his own voice in al-Zayni Barakat, the jewel of his works, that was turned later into a very successful TV series in Egypt.

In al-Zayni Barakat, Ghitani tried to show how the tyranny was illustrated in the domination of the security apparatus of the Mamluk era, based on the historic text of Muhammad ibn Iyas (born 1448), Bada'I al-Zuhur fi Waqa'I al-Duhur. The text, which dealt with accidents that took place centuries ago, was actually a projection of the repression of Nasser's era, especially in the 1960’s.

Nasser's regime arrested Ghitani and put him in jail in 1966 for a year, with charges of being a member of a leftist group, yet he was released from prison in March 1967, in virtue of the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's condition before he visits Egypt that all writers in prisons should be released.

One of Ghitani's most formative experiences was his work as a war reporter on the frontline during the war of attrition (1967-1970), as it affected many of his political views half a century later.

Ghitani has always held the military in a very high place even when they interfered in politics. He was a very strong promoter of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that led Egypt after the revolution in January 2011. Though he was very critical of political Islam, especially in its most powerful representative in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which he opposed and spoke publicly against, even when the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was in power. He was also in favor of the military intervention that overthrew Morsi in July 2013.

After the war, Gamal El-Ghitani started working for Akhbar Al-Youm, the state owned newspaper that made most of his fame as a journalist and as a diaries writer. In 1993, he made his dream come true by founding the first weekly cultural newspaper, Akhbar Al-Adab (literature news), and his view was to create a platform for intellectuals, not only a space where cultural news is shared.

Throughout the years, his journal became the one of the most famous cultural newspapers, not only in Egypt, but also in the Arab world, as it attracted writers from all over the region and extended its focus point beyond local literature.

This legacy made it hard for many people to remember Ghitani as only a novelist, as his traces in the Egyptian journalistic scene are unmistakable.

The writer of al-Tagaliyyat (The Revelations), became known to the Egyptian public through his very famous TV show where he roamed Fatimid Cairo, explaining every corner and every piece of the Islamic architecture that he loved.

In al-Tagaliyyat, he moved into another phase of writing, where he theorised what he was trying to do in his earlier works in very fine literary language, mixing it with his autobiography.

Gamal El-Ghitani's love and passion for the Egyptian Islamic architecture and written legacy earned him the title that he deserved as 'The Guardian of the Egyptian Memory'.

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