Gamal Al-Ghitani: Infinite journeys

Dina Ezzat , Friday 11 Feb 2022

In this year’s Cairo Book Fair, Dina Ezzat traced the notion of life as a journey in which birth and bewilderment are followed by death or rebirth in the late Egyptian novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani’s seven-volume memoir and the work of contemporary Greek novelist Amanda Michalopoulou.

Gamal Al-Ghitani
Gamal Al-Ghitani

A quarter century years after the publication of the first instalment of the late novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani’s strictly non-autobiographical memoir, Dafatir Al-Tadwin (or “The Composition Notebooks”) are as compelling as ever. Written over 10 years, the seven-volume Composition does not so much recount the life of Gamal Al-Ghitani (1945-2015) but reflects on the stories that life gave him as they unfolded.

“I lean forward, staring into the mirror. Those are my features. I know them perfectly. I recognise them. These are the traces of my passions: my descent into the abyss, defeats, the glimmers of my hopes, the misfortunes of my yearning, my lack of vigour, the urgings of my youthful passions, the domains of my nostalgia. All this looks back at me from my reflection – so who sees whom?”

These are the closing lines of the fifth volume, published in 2005 in its Arabic original by Dar Al-Shorouk and in English translation by the AUC Press 15 years later. It is the lengthiest of The Composition Notebooks, which number nearly 3000 pages in total, and each of which can stand alone as its own narrative. Entitled Nithar Al-Mahw (Traces in English), the fifth captures many phases of the author’s life from early childhood to relative old age when he was feeling that the moment of “completion” was approaching – or rather speeding up to him.

Ultimately, Al-Ghitani, a novelist known for literary works that carried a strong infusion of history and spirituality, wrote his memoir not just to state the facts but to reflect on the unknown side of our stories, including the nature of creation, the meaning of existence and that of death. The duality of birth and death is crucial. In general, the duality of beginnings and ends is poignantly present in these volumes, in a way that makes the text very relevant to the thoughts and sentiments of many who reflect on the meaning of life. Other dualities include passion and fear, journeys and loneliness, victory and defeat.

Even the cities that he writes about seem to emerge in the context of dualities whether with each other or with Cairo, Al-Ghitani’s most central setting, whose profile is particularly present in the fifth volume. Here as elsewhere Al-Ghitani is celebrated for his thorough take on the city. His works on Cairo are paramount. However, the Cairo he depicts in his Notebooks is not quite the Cairo he wrote and talked about throughout his career. It is rather the Cairo he felt and lived as a child who came with his family from the heart of Upper Egypt to an older quarter of the city that would continue to hold him captive.

But the journey as he shares it is less about the stages of life than about the elements that bring those stages together. Love and desire, darkness, sunsets and sunrises, riverbanks and the seaside are all various aspects of the journey, while palm trees, windows, trains and land are unfailing reminders of where it started, how it can be perceived and where it would end.

In the first volume, Al-Ghitani writes about the day his father took him back to his Upper Egypt hometown to “properly introduce him” to the palm trees of the family. He also writes, in the fourth volume, about a growing affinity with the soil of the land once both parents had found their final resting place within its layers. Throughout the seven volumes, Al-Ghitani is traveling around the life he lived “as a lone stranger who always feared a sudden death in a far-away land”. In the course of these travels, it becomes hard to separate reality from dreams – or apparitions. After all, for him, life is about all these things combined.

It is really hard for a reader to determine whether the women who appear in these volumes are all real and whether the experiences Al-Ghitani shared with them are part of a wistful trip of the mind whose every reference to womanhood is intertwined with the notion of creation. Often the author writes about a perceived connection between “feminine beauty and the immaculate core of the universe”. Women of many names, associations and functions are very present in every single volume of the memoir. Their voices and words, especially those of the mother and daughter, echo often and clearly through the text with a reminder that the real journey Al-Ghitani is sharing is essentially one of coming to life and of giving life - just as much as one of living intensely.

The presence of women in The Composition Notebooks is so strong that it is not outweighed by the otherwise very opulent references to the cities of his travels. The women seem at times to melt into an abstract feminine entity – perhaps that of a drawing on the wall of a Pharaonic temple or tomb. Certainly, as he often reminds us through the pages of the seven volumes, Al-Ghitani is committed to sharing his experience with no shame or pretension. However, what he is sharing is far more than the text of a simple story. It is rather a text that generates questions that many might wish to ask.

The act of disclosure is intense and frequent. And just as Al-Ghitani enjoyed looking through windows at cities, at women, at life, real or imagined, The Composition Notebooks act as a window on the life of the author with his most inner fears and scepticism, unanswered questions and unapologetic indulgence. The reader gets to look on the author’s unsettling first encounter with the idea of death, his perplexing first experience of sexuality and his failure to answer his daughter’s question on whether or not we see God or why we look up to the skies when we address God if we don’t actually see him up there.

The one topic Al-Ghitani all but abandons, the mysticism of being in a state where he looks at himself as another, is sublimated into those segments on the experience of being a military correspondent who covered the battles the Egyptian army to liberate the land Israel occupied in the June 1967 war. There his recollections are not enigmatic at all. He recalls the long training he had to go through before going to the front, the soldiers on the battlefields, certainly with a special reference of the Commandos martyr Ibrahim Al-Rifa’i who died in operation during the October War, and the moments of fear.

Perhaps his lucidity on the battlefield stems from the fact that he was so far away from all the direct elements of his constitution that he could see everything, himself included, in black and white, with no illusions or confusion. After all, he writes, “one can only see oneself when he is so far from everything and everyone that he has for long belonged to”. Though not lacking in energy, the war segments are similar in their clarity to images that seem to have stayed in the memory of Al-Ghitani throughout his life, including the image of a man who moves so steadily among the carriages of a shaky train while holding a tray that has no less than 20 cups of tea on it to promptly serve without tremor.

Trains too are essential to Al-Ghitnay’s journey(s) because as he wrote it was abpard trains, including that train that took him away from his parents to live and work away from Upper Egypt, that he first cultivated the solitude that would allure him to the passion of looking out of windows into open spaces, endless cities and skies. The Composition Notebooks are very rich in stream of consciousness – including the unmistakable smells and images that travel from past to present and back in endless journeys. In their intensity and highly questioning nature, they have what it takes to help readers unpack their own journey and look at themselves in the mirror. This is an essential part of the book’s sustained appeal it still carries – along with the very poetic prose it comes with.

Greece was the guest of honour at the Cairo International Book Fair this year. Amanda Michalopoulou, a contemporary Greek novelist, was in town to sign copies of the Arabic translation of one of her most widely translated novels, Why I Killed My Best Friend, participating in a seminar on the introduction of contemporary Greek literature to Egypt.

Born in 1966, Michalopoulou has put out eight novels and three collections of short stories. She must be one of the most translated contemporary Greek writers. Originally published in 2014, Why I Killed My Best Friend appeared with Al-Araby Publishing House in Egypt. It is a novel about a woman who is forced into a journey back to the roots and the struggle she has to go through to adapt to a setting she is not comfortable with.

Roots and compatibility are among the central issues that haunt Michalopoulou’s writing. During the Cairo International Book Fair, she told me that Why I Killed My Best Friend is “a story metaphor on coming to your roots and how you feel down when you don’t identify with the common feelings”. The protagonist chooses to bond with another woman. It is when Maria finds Anna that she starts relating to her surroundings, slowly. But the close friendship comes with painful and at times devastating fall-outs. However, those painful sentiments never eliminate the need for an emotional alliance.

“Maria creates an emotional alliance” to get through what is expected to be her new norm, Michalopoulou explains. The pursuit of emotional alliances, she adds, has certainly been key during the imposed isolations that came with almost three years of the pandemic. Isolation, she said, should be an act of choice for those who wish to pursue it partially or fully. However, with forced isolations that came often during the past two years, there was an intense search for emotional alliances to overcome the imposed, prolonged solitude.

Michalopoulou herself became very stubborn in the face of the pandemic-imposed isolation. She joined a small group of friends who would “cautiously break” the lockdown regulations and go on a search for different “tastes of life”. Unable to go anywhere, Michalopoulou and her friends shared their own cuisines – Italian, French and even Egyptian offered from an Alexandrian Greek. This, she said, is about the “originality of finding a new approach to cope”. Coping with forced agonies is yet another key line in her literary work, especially for her mostly struggling and often victorious woman protagonists including that of the inevitably shocking The God’s Wife, which came out in late 2019 while the world was in the grip of the pandemic nightmare.

Michalopoulou’s best known novel, The God’s Wife “finds a remote inspiration: in the Greek mythology – but only to an extent. It essentially evokes the question of what would happen if God has a wife and what role would play and how she would be addressing God. For Michalopoulou this is not necessarily, or essentially, about the question of faith or lack thereof but rather about the question of equality and the lack thereof. It is, she says, certainly about power and domination.

Michalopoulou insists that communicating out the voices of women in her novels was never a designed act. “They just come subconsciously to me,” she stated. She added that those voices became even more pressing in the wake of the MeToo Movement. However, Michalopoulou does not wish to be a novelist confined to the skin of a feminist – at least not in the orthodox sense of the word – because, ultimately, her work asks questions about power and emotional alliance as part of an attempt to understand “the purpose of life”. That is the core issue in The God’s Wife. “How did we arrive here? What is the purpose of life? I combined that idea with the children’s questions about what God is and if God existed and where God came.”

It is, she added, an attempt to “redefine the way we are in a relationship”. These, she said, are universal questions that apply in all societies. And this universality must be among the reasons her work is so popular in other languages, helping bring international attention to contemporary Greek writing. Translating books from the Greek, Michalopoulou said, is not at all easy. “We are a small linguistic community,” she added. The English translations, she argued, are always a door opener in this sense because they allow a much wider community of publishers to read the full text and decide on having it translated into their own languages. The Egyptian translation of Why I Killed My Best Friend was actually made from the English text and not the Greek original.

Michalopoulou is hoping that celebrating Greece as the guest of honour of this year’s Cairo International Book Fair will bring about more attention to contemporary Greek literature. Having embarked on writing children’s books now, Michalopoulou is also hoping that her children’s stories will prompt the interest of a translator. Those books, she says, is where she can be her nine-year-old self, asking the same universal questions of the now 55-year old novelist but from a child’s perspective. “I started writing children’s book before I had my daughter but when I had her I started writing for her age,” she says.

Michalopoulou’s children’s books, she says, are no less feminist than her novels and short stories. They depict children growing up in households with strong women and men who accept partnership with women. Like her novels, her children’s books are never short on poetic images and the search for love. These, she says, are the things that help people move on. Indeed the concept of re-birth is essential to Michalopoulou’s work. Often people cannot do without re-birth, she argues. Today, she said, people need to be reborn in a post-pandemic world – even by simply willing a clearer image of the meaning and purpose of life.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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