The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz had many apostles. But none managed to carve out for himself a special place in modern Egyptian culture more than novelist Gamal El-Ghitany.
Like Mahfouz, El-Ghitany grew up surrounded by the remains of Fatimid and Mameluke Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, he was not drawn to the city’s bustling life as much as he was to its mysteries, historical as well as spiritual.
His most famous novel Al-Zayni Barakat is a perfect example of delving into and presenting these mysteries. In the first paragraph, El-Ghitany describes 16th-century Cairo as an anxious woman hurrying through the evening light, aware of the threats lurking in the dark and waiting for the safety that dawn brings.
She watches and listens as passing figures come and go. Some of these seem to accentuate the menace of the night, while others might herald safety and hasten the coming of the dawn. These figures are never clearly defined. They appear without any clear explanation of where they come from, and they do good as well as evil.
Sometimes, they persuade us to like them, presenting themselves as the saviours of an Egypt that at the moment in history described in the novel was on the verge of losing its independence and becoming a province of the Ottoman Empire. But more often El-Ghitany allows us see through the façade and understand the pillage and treason that underlie what these supposed saviours are actually doing. We remember that in the very first paragraph of his novel the woman feared rape and violence.
Al-Zayni Barakat, like other works by El-Ghitany, can be seen as a historical novel, rich in its merging of fact and fiction and of its evocation of the period it covers in terms of language, setting, pace, and feel. It can also be seen as a political critique of periods of modern Egyptian history. For some, however, this novel, like many other books by El-Ghitany, is best understood as a conceptualisation of Egypt as a woman seen from the perspective of one of her lovers, one of her siblings, and one of her sons.
The feminine essence, some would say the feminine divine, pervades El-Ghitany’s writings as a presence that inspires and guides and as a meaning that the male protagonists of his books encounter on their journeys and almost always come to appreciate and, it is to be hoped, understand towards the end of them. For El-Ghitany, Egypt is the embodiment of a feminine essence, and he was a seeker on the path of incorporating elements of her meaning and her wisdom into his consciousness.
In El-Ghitany’s autobiography, entitled Dafatir Al-Tadween (Documentation Dossiers), he hardly ever recounts events, preferring instead to focus on how his knowledge and understanding evolved, as if his life were an upward trajectory marked by books, encounters, choices, perspectives, which, mostly lived in Cairo, finally brought him out of the confines of darkness and ignorance and towards enlightenment, in the end landing him at the gates of the meaning of his entire journey.
Seen from this perspective, Dafatir Al-Tadween is a story not of an eventful life but of a mental journey.
El-Ghitany was a product of an Egyptian mysticism that subtly mixes traces of the country’s foundational myths with what it has received and internalised from its exposure to the spiritual in Christianity and Islam, all of which has found its way into the vortex that is the collective Egyptian psyche.
This product is a mix in which the spiritual, the earthly, the pragmatic, and the sensual intermingle. Concepts are hardly ever explained, and ideas flash by but are never pinned down. The objective is for feelings to be stirred and their meanings internalised. The seeker’s hope is for an internal unfolding to take place and for an enlightenment within to be achieved.
It is thus not surprising that often in El-Ghitany’s novels the protagonists seek and find hidden secrets, often in manuscripts that only yield their meanings after arduous efforts. Often these manuscripts are found in old houses where layers of history have accumulated. Passers-by might just see ruins. But seekers, if they exert effort and pay attention, are rewarded with buried treasures.
Not all such seekers end up being rewarded, however. Repeatedly in El-Ghitany’s work, including in Al-Zayni Barakat, key characters, particularly those standing in for ordinary Egyptian people, end up being oppressed, marginalised, and frustrated. They find no treasure, and instead they lose what they started with. They observe and narrate what is happening around them, but they seem unable or even uninterested in changing or influencing their environment.
In Al-Zayni Barakat, the main Egyptian character in the novel ends up losing not only his possessions and position, but also his ability to tell us, his readers, what is happening to his society and to himself. This relates to recurring traits in El-Ghitany’s portrayal of a large section of the Egyptian population, being its timidity and caution, especially in the face of undefined and murky threats like the ones that the woman at the beginning of the novel fears and senses surrounding her.
Al-Zayni Barakat himself, the person who speaks the least in the novel that bears his name, is perhaps a case study of the journeys entailed by Egyptian mysticism. He is the inspector-general of the country’s markets, and he has almost unlimited power. Many people hail him as the redeemer Egypt needs, the source of the dawn that will save the country from the threats lurking in the night it is going through.
Al-Zayni Barakat transcends barriers and finds bridges to people and real connections to society. In the few words that El-Ghitany gives him – he leaves us uncertain about his origins – Al-Zayni Barakat shows himself to be alive to the importance and meaning of the country he has come to control. In sections of the book, he seems to embody a magical interconnectedness between authority, righteousness, and true love for others. He seems to be the prodigal son who has returned to teach what he has learnt.
Yet, we also see a darker side of this man that leaves most readers convinced that in reality he is just a cunning schemer who is only after power. Some may even be convinced that he is an ever darker and more sinister presence and a personification of the ills that lurk deep in the Egyptian psyche and that have repeatedly led it to believe in self-aggrandisers who seduce through illusions and leave desolation in their wake.
For other readers, however, El-Ghitany’s open-ended narrative in his novel, particularly about Al-Zayni Barakat himself, makes this character a symbol of the potential of Egyptian society’s collective will. In this view, he is neither a saviour nor a threat. Instead, he is the embodiment of what the collective will can make of Egypt, either a heaven of feminine essence or a purgatory of material darkness.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly