Gamal al-Ghitani: In Memoriam (1945-2015)


Graphic by Michelle Jia

by Mohammad Salama

It is difficult to bid farewell to Gamal al-Ghitani: a friend, an author, a true Cairene who taught us how to read and admire our history, walk in our cities, feel the power of narrative, and stand in awe of its literal and allegorical significations.

After several encounters in Cairo over the years, I was fortunate to see Gamal al-Ghitani one last time when he visited the Bay Area four years ago to deliver a series of talks on his life and work. As usual, his presence was charismatic, his exuberance infectious, as he talked about his life, his early childhood, his quests, and his literary and cultural career. He also spoke of Sufism and of the art of weaving both carpets and language. He talked about the struggles with his heart condition and his gratitude to the USA for two things: the American heart surgeons who saved his life and NASA, which for him symbolizes humankind’s ardent investigation of the unknown mysteries that lie beyond the confines of this Earth. But most captivatingly and uninhibitedly, al-Ghitani spoke of his own humble beginnings as a writer and of the vexing question that stayed with him throughout his life and marked his literary career: mathaa hadatha lil-ams (what happened to yesterday), which is the motif of my own reflections about him.

Al-Ghitani fell ill a few months before he finally passed away on October 18th, 2015. Those who loved him and admired his contributions to Arab literary and philosophical thought knew that his illness and a three-month coma with a weak heart at an advanced age all worked against his survival. Yet, his passing was a shock. It was painful to realize that those prolific and skillful hands that wove more than fifty remarkable narratives over fifty-five years (he began writing when he was fourteen) had surrendered the pen at last.

“He was Cairo itself,” remarked his (and my) friend Nezar Al-Sayyad in an email correspondence as we both bemoaned his loss. “Seldom can a single individual capture the complexity of a city like Cairo but it happened with Gamal… He had both the beautiful gift of turning history into literature, and the uncanny ability of making fiction, in turn, living history.” If I were to think of an epitaph for al-Ghitani, al-Sayyad’s dignified words could hardly be improved upon.

Death is overwhelming to the living. It shocks despite its inevitability and it prompts us to go back in time and reflect. My last memory of al-Ghitani was a graceful dinner following a memorable talk, an unforgettable night of memories, nostalgia, dhihk min al-qalb (genuine laughing from the heart), thanks to his sharp wit and ingenious sense of humor. This will always be my last memory of him: a radiant smile and a deep sense ofridha (contentment) that he probably derived from his sufi (mystic) reflections on the world. I took notes on much of al-Ghitani’s memorable talk that remarkable evening not knowing exactly what I would do with them. I thought perhaps I would refer to them in a future essay on his work, but I have never gotten to it. It is befitting now to share some of those reflections in paying homage to al-Ghitani:

I remember a moment in 1959, I forgot which day it was; but it must have been in the winter because I recall the window of the room firmly shut and the blankets piled on top each other as I sat on the edge of the bed. I remember the desire, a hidden, vivid desire, compelling me to pick up the pen and start writing my very first short story, Nihayat al-Sikkir (The Drunkard’s End), about a pauper acting drunk in order to justify stealing a few loaves of bread.

The world is grateful to that moment too! From it came a flow of unmatched writings interrupted only by circumstances beyond his control including illness and imprisonment. That moment brought us such masterpieces like “Memoirs of a Youngman Who Lived a Thousand Years,” “Guardians of the Eastern Gate,” “Pyramid Texts,” “The Excess of the City,” “Stories of the Institution,” Zayni Barakat, The Zafarani FilesThe Book of Epiphanies, Naguib Mahfouz Remembers, “The Epistle of Insights” and “Destinies,” “The Call of Absence,” and many more. Al-Ghitani could talk about his writings and the moments that propelled them for hours. He had a rare talent to dive into the past and bring it back to life. He even tried to remember the moment of his birth, but failed. He grumbles:

Unfortunately our minds retain nothing, no picture, sound, or feeling, that reminds us of the moment of our arrival in the world, to existence, when the umbilical cord is cut and the newborn is separated from the mother.

I am certain he must have tried many times to retrieve some flicker of memory from that past because this is who he was. Al-Ghitani is not just a historian; in fact, it is an understatement to call him such. But if one insists on describing his passion for history then we might call him more appropriately ‘al-‘A’ish fi al-Tarikh, “the liver in history,” because for him history is a living preoccupation, an organism that never ceases to dwell on the present. He is well aware of the difference between history and memory. How memory is in many ways subjective, but how it is also what gives us identity and a sense of belonging to our surroundings. He reflects on how children come into language and start wondering about the meaning of life, about where they come from, and what it all means. But al-Ghitani himself had a completely different question as a child: “what happened to yesterday?” He asks this question as he reflects on his humble beginnings:

My imagination was a like a shore in the midst of a natural state of isolation, and this perhaps was caused by the isolation of a poor family migrating from the deep south, sharing one room. My father was a low-ranking white-collar worker who had endured difficult challenges that prevented him from completing his education at al-Azhar. This left him with a steadfast determination to educate us all. He often said: “I do not want you to go through the hardships that I have endured.” I was the third to be born and the first to survive. Two brothers came before me, Khalaf and Kamal. Both of them passed away at an early age, Khalaf before I was born, and Kamal around my first birthday. I don’t remember anything about him.

He may not remember Kamal, and certainly not Khalaf who died before he was born, yet he still writes about his inability to remember as he pays tribute to their very short lives. This is the art and the ethos of al-Ghitani, an author sensitive to the ravages of time, a man unafraid of recording the loss even though he knows full well that his writing records its own failure to capture a painfully unmastered past. Al-Ghitani’s two brothers lie in the heart of this mysterious yesterday, the agent of death and the graveyard of human lives. Gamal al-Ghitani, like his two siblings Khalaf al-Ghitani and Kamal al-Ghitani, has now yielded to yesterday’s implacable sweep.

“What happened to yesterday” thus becomes in essence a question of unresolved grief and nostalgia. Yet, in that very yesterday, al-Ghitani is able to find solace and valediction for the loss of his father who died while al-Ghitani was away. When he discovered Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Ghitani felt indebted to him for the solace and transcendental language offered in his work, connecting the spiritual experience with human existence and allowing him to soothe his cares and overcome the tribulation over his father. This immersion in sufi diction and history led to the emergence of a new language in al-Ghitani, one that has become the hallmark of his work:

Although I am not a sufi in style, I still subscribe closely to a sufi vision of Time. I found accurate expression for my internal agonies in this tradition. In fact, my own agonies drove me to immerse myself in a sufi vision of the world. I was not in search of mere technique or style, but I discovered in the language of Sufism clarity and loftiness of diction even more poetic than poetry itself. If you haven’t yet read them, I would invite you to read Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi’s Divine Signs, or ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jilani’s The Complete Human, or al-Hallaj’s Tawasin.

As I explain below, the language of Sufism not only becomes al-Ghitani’s signature narrative tool, but also alleviates his own anguish over the loss of his brothers and father by allowing the enormity of his mourning to dissolve in vaster realms of the sublime. The resolution for al-Ghitani lies in a language in continuous dialogue with history, one which treats the fleeting “yesterdays” of our calenderical world as neither fixed nor complete. This is how the language of art defies death in al-Ghitani:

It [yesterday] is a question of time – we could only imagine it, pinpoint the imaginary signs that register its progress, namely, the language of calendars, beginning with the seconds all the way up to the days, the months, the years, and the centuries. It is however impossible to for us to influence the movement of time, slow it down or speed it up. What remains implausible is the possibility of returning to any point in time that has elapsed. I do not know what mysteries determine my path but I am certain that this question, which began early with me, is my motivation and incentive. Al-ibda’ yaqhar al-‘adam (Creativity vanquishes nothingness). This is exactly what our ancient Egyptian ancestors expressed in their buildings, drawings, and writings: these are the human endeavors that oppose obliteration and stand tall in the face of nothingness.

Write, make art, and live, or abandon it and perish into nothingness. This time-defying spirit, in which eminent authors like Shakespeare composed much of their work, is at the heart of al-Ghitani’s art and makes him not just for his period, but for all time, as Jonson has remarked of Shakespeare. A single reading of any al-Ghitani’s works leaves one with this touch of eternity.

I want to share a story I never told al-Ghitani. Even though he and I did chat about this particular work, I never had the chance to tell him how I stumbled onto an Arabic version of his Mutun al-Ahram (Pyramid Texts) during graduate school and how it changed my life. It happened on a cold winter day when I was struggling with graduate work in Wisconsin. Al-Ghitani could not know that a novel of his, in Arabic, would find its way to a section in the public library in Madison Wisconsin that contained books in foreign languages. Mutun al-Ahram, which in so many ways helped me find my own path, includes a main character in its first matn(text), al-Shaykh Tuhami, who is a talib ‘ilm, (a seeker of knowledge) in unfamiliar lands, who travels from the extreme south of the Moroccan desert in order to pursue a religious degree from al-Azhar, the well-known Islamic university in Cairo, and one of the oldest universities in the world. After he graduates, he returns home. As soon as he reunites with his mentor, the latter asks him about the pyramids. Al-Shaykh Tuhami’s quick reply is in answer to what he thinks is a strange and irrelevant question by his mentor:

“I do not have anything to tell you about the pyramids.”

Hearing this indifferent response, al-Shaykh Tuhami’s spiritual mentor rebukes him immediately: “vain is the pursuit of a learner who lacks the desire to learn. Didn’t you pass by Cairo twice?” In shame and confusion, al-Shaykh Tuhami leaves Wadi al-Zamm and heads back to Cairo, this time determined to learn about the pyramids. His passion for comprehending the triangular structures overrides all else. He rents a cottage by Nazla-t-al-Samman near the road leading to Abu al-Hawl (Sphinx). He gazes and gazes at the pyramids from every angle, at every degree of light from sunrise to sunset, at nighttime and before dawn. He never takes his eyes off the pyramids. He is afraid of coming too close. It suffices to look at them from a distance.

Many Egyptian writers have addressed the pyramids in their fiction, but none comes closer to the Sufism of the sublime with which al-Ghitani delineates the mystic experience of al-Shaykh Tuhami and other characters as they encounter the pyramids; not Naguib Mahfouz or Ahmad Bakathir, or Abdelhameed Juda al-Sahhar; not Adil Kamil or Zaki Sa’d, nor Muhammad Jibril, nor Yusuf Kamal Abu Zayd. Not even Germany’s celebrated 18th-century philosopher and aesthetician of the Sublime, Immanuel Kant, who in fact uses the pyramids as an example of the sublime, even though he never saw them with his own eyes.

Coincidentally, at the time I stumbled onto Mutun al-Ahram, I was studying Kant’s Critique of Judgment in a graduate seminar in which the magnificent Jan Plug led us through the incalculable, incomprehensible, or as he called it, the “tear-ifying” horizons of Wordsworth’s “Crossing the Alps” section in The Prelude: “The immeasurable height/ Of woods decaying, never to be decayed/ The stationary blasts of waterfalls.” Kant resorts to powerful natural elements and impressive man-made architectural artifacts in order to illustrate the imagination’s failure to comprehend the totality and magnitude of external objects in one whole and thus form an aesthetic judgment. Kant’s account of the pyramids comes close to al-Ghitani’s depiction and is worth quoting in full:

Hence can be explained what Savary remarks, in his account of Egypt, viz. that we must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from going too far from them. For if we are too far away, the parts to be apprehended (the stones lying one over the other) are only obscurely represented, and the representation of them produces no effect upon the aesthetical judgment of the subject. But if we are very near, the eye requires some time to complete the apprehension of the tiers from the bottom up to the apex, and then the first tiers are always partly forgotten before the imagination has taken in the last, and so the comprehension of them is never complete.

In Mutun al-Ahram, al-Ghitani depicts al-Shaykh Tuhami’s relation to the pyramids in a manner similar to Kant’s reflections in his Critique, but al-Ghitani does not stop there. He exchanges the inexpressible essence of the pyramids in this architectonic text with a language that transcends mimesis or the mere semantic organization of words on a page. The pyramids in this first, almost untranslatable matn “tashawwuf,” become the desire for art, much like al-Ghitani’s own desire for writing which launched his prolific career. We see in al-Shaykh Tuhami al-Ghitani’s own urge for creativity and the fervent desire for art. What but art forbids all presentation, causes pleasure and pain, and bids the imagination to fail? What but art could save our imagination from dwelling on its own inferiority?

To conquer and transcend nothingness through art, al-Ghitani resorts to a meta-representational sufi language that perpetually signals to something infinite outside itself, something that it cannot capture or represent but could only allude to through the limited vocabulary of human language. The result is a diction that defies equivalence and perhaps even translation: tashwwuf, iighal, talash, idrak, nashwa, dhil,alaq, samt, raqsa. This level of semantic complexity and untranslatability is what lies ahead for al-Ghitani’s translators (who are certain to face a daunting yet incredibly rewarding task) as they work on many of his masterpieces awaiting translation.

The pyramids thus can only be represented negatively, through the inability of al-Shaykh Tuhami to come close to them. Kant uses the sublime as an example of the failure of imagination as it reflects on its own inferiority in a simultaneous process of attraction to and repulsion from an object which is not in itself sublime. However, Kant’s conclusion is only the beginning for al-Ghitani’s text, which reminds us that the pyramids are not just an illustration of art, but a colossal text, a magnificent constellation of signs that do not merely include texts on their walls but are themselves written and visible only to those who have “the vision” to read beneath their mere physicality and architectural marvel.

Phenomenology is complex in this sense, since looks can be deceiving yet looks are all we have. On his first religious education journey, al-Shaykh Tuhami sees nothing more than an insignificant piling of stones on top of each other as he tries to understand the mysteries of the universe in Azharite manuscripts and pedagogical tautologies. It is only on his second quest that he learns how to see and sees what it means to be a true seeker of knowledge. The return of al-Shaykh Tuhami, his renewed desire to “discern” and open his eyes to the pyramids, not only introduces him to the realm of transcendental eternity, but grants him a training of the soul which, even though he could only grasp it in flashes, immeasurably exceeds the administered and channeled education available in a religious institution.

The pyramid texts, the pyramids that are themselves texts, may thus remain incomplete and immeasurable in Kantian eyes (his philosophical eyes, that is, since he never saw them), but not to al-Ghitani, whose diction has transformed their incomprehensible totality in a manner never attempted before. To be fair, Kant never said that the pyramids were in themselves sublime, but the beholder’s perception of them is. In al-Ghitani, however, the pyramids present knowledge not only through the negation of knowledge, but more importantly after the failure of imagination to grasp them in their totality. Understanding the pyramids, or understanding ‘of’ the pyramids comes not just from an overload of apprehensions that causes the failure of comprehension (ergo sublime, in Kant).

In al-Ghitani, there is more to the pyramids than the mere distance or proximity proposed by an Egyptologist. Savary’s formula to perceive their magnitude, “neither too far way nor too close,” situates the Kantian sublime in relational visual perception. In al-Ghitani, the pyramids are phenomenologically and metaphysically textual. Perceiving them is thus beyond material vision. More appropriately, perceiving the pyramids is a linguistic act predicated not only on the recognition of their phenomenality, but on their readability as texts, in deciphering their inner content and its relation to their outer appearance. This is how the beholder, al-Shaykh Tuhami, is able to transcend the Kantian agitation triggered by the needs of knowledge and/or the needs of desire.

As the text proceeds, we learn that this hermetic knowledge, whether we understand it or fail to grasp it, is the only solace and consolation before a painful and unimaginable yesterday, that yesterday which took away al-Ghitani’s brothers, prevented him from being by his father’s side when he died, and yet spared him and gave him 70 years of life; that yesterday which also witnessed the creation of death-defying structures like the pyramids. The negative knowledge of that yesterday consoles us as we try to understand that there are matters lying beyond our understanding. It is somehow comforting to realize that our comprehension will always remain incomplete, that language understands the limits of representation yet tries it anyway, just as the pyramids embrace the death they were built to fetishize, yet defy it anyway.

‘Inda al-dhurwa yaqa‘u al-fanaa’ (At the climax lies ‘annihilation’) is the penultimate sentence that al-Ghitani’s first chapter celebrates. Al-fanaa’contains multiple meanings, death and the perishing of the physical body, but also a breaking through the confines of the physical world, or al-fannaa’ fi al-dhat (disappearance in the essence), namely, the attainment of maqam al-ittihad, that is, the mystical union with the Divine. The novel ends with a peculiar repetition at the apex of the pyramids: “La shay’. La shay’. La shay.’” (Nothing. Nothing. Nothing). If the apex/end of life seems to come to over-emphasized nothingness, and if the triangular sides of pyramids converge in mid air, signaling a dhurwa (an apex or a climax), then their climatic end in the sky, which parallels the end of human life, becomes the very affirmation of the life it repetitively negates. Al-Ghitani’s pyramids, shrouded in mystery, still stand for something else above themselves, the desire for eternity. Look no further than the pyramids, al-Ghitani says to his careful reader. They are the very evidence of the victory of art over nothingness, of the continuity of life despite the marked inevitability of death, just as his work is the sign of the classical defeat of time by his own pen.

Al-Ghitani leaves our world with a valediction that forbids mourning: art is the irrefutable proof that the phenomenological world is not all that there is, but a fleeting present, a yesterday tomorrow, so to speak, and a sign of a yet-to-come that eludes our grasp of the passing moment. This promise alone is what matters to al-Ghitani, for whom language is immersed in a task whose aim it does not yet know and can only salute from a distance. This is not to say that al-Ghitani’s social commitment to this world is absent. His first work is about the stealing of a loaf of bread for survival. We can clearly discern a perspective of social consciousness in his work and an urgent call for justice and social equality.

In fact, most of al-Ghitani writings correspond to a tight connection in which both the individual and the social are tied to what Frederic Jameson has famously referred to as the “Utopian impulses” of texts. We see his critique of the present in Zayni Barakat, and The Zafarani Files, in addition to other remarkable works that are yet to be translated into English, including “The Excess of the City” and the “Stories of the Establishment.” This is a rare quality of an author: to dwell on the sublime while making us the subject of our own involvement in, and perception of, the social world. In Zayni Barakat, social criticism and allusions to the loss of “utopia” in Nasser’s regime is clear, as Edward Said has remarked. But lest we forgot, before Nasser, anti-colonial resistance, freedom from England and the corrupt Egyptian royalty, as well as the desire for self-rule were in themselves Egypt’s very utopian project.

In the Pyramid texts, however, utopia functions differently. It provokes a reflection on what exists and an aspiration for what lies beyond. Above all, it is a text that becomes its own utopia, precisely because it is predicated on the desire to attain that which is already achieved in the very act of writing it. This aesthetic build-up of language till it becomes the celebration of the text is what al-Ghitani leaves us. All his fiction points towards absolute emancipation: a utopia. In this enveloping spirituality of art a future becomes thinkable. And while we might think that al-Ghitani is no longer with us as we dwell on this hope, we must remember that we are following a map that he already drew for us in his fiction, and that he not only remains a living present, but the very future that we all aspire to reach.

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