Book Review: Love, prison and revolution in one book

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 28 Mar 2016

To write the trilogy, Gulpery relied on memoirs she used to write in French since she was a little girl on the encouragement of her teacher

Thulatheyet Gulpery (Gulpery’s Trilogy) by Gulpery  Aflatoun, Translated by Suheir Fahmi, Najet Belhatem and Magda El-Reedy, National Center for Translation, Cairo 2015. pp.819

Although this book exceeds eight hundred pages, it will be fun for the reader to get submerged in it and it is worth the effort. While the book’s title is Gulpery’s Trilogy, it comprises three parts; Gardens of Time Past, The Prison’s Journey and From One Death to Another.

Gulpery Aflatoun is a member of the Egyptian landed gentry and her family has a relation with the Egyptian royal family through marriage. Her father’s grandfather is Hassan Ismail Abdullah Al-Kashef, which meant at the time a high inspector and it is similar to a governor nowadays. It seems that one of the founders of the family, since its origins are Circassian and Turkish, worked as such.

Besides belonging to the landed gentry, she is the sister of the late leftist painter Inji Aflatoun, who was imprisoned for several years during Nasser’s rule in the fifties of the last century. Her lifetime husband is the Marxist economic thinker Ismail Sabri Abdallah, whom she coincidentally met in Paris in the forties where he was studying economics and she arts. She was searching for someone to teach her Arabic, which wasn’t used within the Egyptian aristocracy houses except by the servants!

Gulpery (naturally a Turkish name carried by many members of her family and it caused her much trouble because of the difficulty in pronouncing it) is also a poetess composing poetry in French. Her only collection was published by one of the biggest French publishing houses specialising in poetry; after she was recommended by French high caliber literary figures such as Elsa Triolet, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard.

Gulpery relied, according to what she mentioned several times, on memoirs she used to write since she was a little girl. This was because her teachers in the Sacré-Cœur School encouraged her and always gave her the highest marks in composition, which were written in French, of course. Those memoirs helped her immensely in drawing this vast portrait of Egypt over six decades of the last century in which the personal intermingles with the public. But love and only love soared and kept appearing to the extent that the memoirs could be viewed as a long love story between Gulpery and Ismail Sabri Abdallah.

The writer devotes the first part Gardens of Time Past to her childhood and girlhood, to that velvet world of the Egyptian aristocracy in the early years of the last century, to Shubra and Zamalek palaces and the nuns’ schools. When Gulpery reached eighteen years and according to the traditions performed at the time was introduced to Her Majesty Queen Nazli, while she also met King Farouk of Egypt on different occasions. The writer draws enchanting scenes of the parties of aristocracy, its extravagance and manners in a detailed and accurate way. She was raised along with her sister Injy by their mother who was separated from her father who was also her cousin. She was attracted to poetry while Injy was drawn to painting and at the same time she joined the underground Communist Party. It is a well known historic fact that a number of the sons and daughters of the Egyptian aristocracy founded and participated in leftist organisations in the forties of the last century; making huge sacrifices, presenting a rare example for commitment to political action and struggle and believing in ideas that in the least it meant that they went in separate ways from the class within which they were brought up.

As for the second part The Prison’s Journey, it is the longest part in which she narrates her journey with Ismail Sabri Abdallah whom she met and married in Paris immediately. Gulpery wasn’t interested in politics and after her poetry collection was published; her interest was focused on European literature and poetry. She remained speaking broken Arabic. All that was important, she loved Ismail, felt safe with him and believed in him as a human being.

Anyway, they lived for a few years in sheer happiness where he worked as an academic professor then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser appointed him as his economic adviser but after a few days was arrested and imprisoned. Since that day, Ismail became a regular guest in the Nasserite prisons. He was followed by his sister-in-law and her husband in imprisonment and the same accusation were leveled against them. Gulpery, the aristocratic lady, whose Arabic vocabulary wasn’t useful, what she belonged to and her ideas didn’t help her to face such a catastrophe. Frequenting lawyers, visiting prisons, asking the assistance of human rights organisations, writing petitions, collecting donations and attending court sessions all these were unbearable and beyond the limits of imagination. However, in all this she was engaged and also acted formidably.

Perhaps this is the most significant part, for being indeed magical; where she was obliged to mingle with ordinary people, obliged to be engaged in real life, especially that her husband was imprisoned several times and once for a five years period from 1959 to 1964 within a comprehensive campaign that included several hundreds of communists who were detained in Al-Wahat Prison and were subjected to horrific torture to the extent that sometimes some of them were killed as a result.

The third part: From One Death to Another includes her life with Ismail after his release and due to his proficiency he was appointed in many academic and economic positions even President Anwar Al-Sadat chose him to be the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs during the whole decade of the seventies. She stops her memoirs at a decisive moment when her husband was imprisoned once again in the famous September 1981 arrests while she was in Paris for a medical trip. She was obliged to return immediately to start the same previous confrontations with the authorities with the aim of releasing him… The memoirs precisely stop the night before Ismail’s release.

Finally, Gulpery wrote her memoirs in French, though wasn’t published, while the Arabic translation was issued recently. However, she wasn’t able to see it for she has passed away in January 2011 a few days before the revolution.


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