The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Remembering Gamal al-Ghitani

I have been thinking about the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, who passed away this week. Then a friend in Milan sent me the picture below, of a signed copy of his novel Zayni Barakat, which has somehow ended up in her library in Italy rather than mine in Morocco. 

When I became the culture editor of a little independent weekly called Cairo magazine, back in 2005, one of the first things I did was visit al-Ghitani in his office as editor of the well-known literary magazine Akhbar El Adab. I can't remember how I got the appointment in the first place. He was very kind, patient (with my poor Arabic), helpful (with my questions about contemporary Egyptian literature) and mildly flirtatious (in an unthreatening "if only I was 40 years younger" way). I made it a habit after that to come see him now and then.

Zayni Barakat
By Gamal al-Ghitani
Buy on Amazon

Zayni Barakat, which is based on his knowledge of Egyptian medieval texts, is a complicated political allegory about power, surveillance, propaganda and torture -- a very good, disturbing novel.

I also quite enjoyed the premise of The Zaafarani Affair: An alley in Cairo is struck with impotence, and shunned by the rest of the city out of fear it may be contagious.

The other book of his that is lovely -- a book I struggled through when teaching myself to read Arabic -- is Magalis Mahfouzia (later translated by Humphrey Davies as The Mahfouz Dialogs), his collection of anecdotes and quotations by his beloved mentor Naguib Mahfouz, gleaned from the many years he spent attending Mahfouz's various regular "salons." (It was also thanks to El Ghitani that I was able to attend one myself, and meet Mahfouz before he died). 

I never visited al-Ghitani after the 2011 uprising in Egypt (although I think we spoke on the phone once). His healthy was poor, and I was very busy. I'm afraid that, as with many leftist/nationalist intellectuals of his generation, his a view of the "second revolution" that put Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in power would have differed from mine and disappointed me. But I will always remember him as a one of my first and most charming encounters with Cairo's world of letters.