We are all traveling, even those who seem to be still, says Gamal Al-Ghitani in his new novel/diary “Men Daftar Al-Eqama (From the Book of Sojourn). In the seventh installment of his notebook of diary series, the author explores the concept of staying at one place, and contrasts it with traveling restlessly in the land of memories.
Although this notebook doesn’t compare well with his previous “Rinn, which is the Ancient Egyptian word for ‘name’ or ‘word’, in which he sets out to uncover what a name is, “Sojourn introduces some unique elements in storytelling mixing the forms of travel writing, diary and memoir to produce something quite rare.
The plot can’t get any simpler. Al-Ghitani’s protagonist is in a short visit to a European institute that hosts intellectuals to give them the chance to travel and work. The institute’s director gives him a voice recorder and suggests that he uses it to record whatever thoughts come to his mind, which is exactly what he does. This prompts him to sail in a sea of memories, often returning to shore.
Despite Al-Ghitani’s well-thought out and executed style, the over-saturation of “Sojourn with loosely connected short flashes of memories of a romantic and erotic nature, makes it at best unexciting, and at worst disappointing.
Although the stories centered on the theme of desire are diverse, this has not made them more interesting. Whether the object of lust is a Persian nurse, a Thai masseuse, a prostitute, an Egyptian maid, a Canadian phone sex enthusiast, a German air hostess, or an adolescent from Port Said, the stories are not compelling even though the protagonist misses no details in the relives.
Halfway through the book, it becomes hard to find purpose in the endless storytelling and descriptions in the fragmented stories author recalls. Al-Ghitani’s constant oscillation from dairy to memoir ultimately alienates the reader.
The book’s saving grace lies in the few passages of deep reflection he presents on the nature of memory, a refreshing surprise, as they are introduced unexpectedly.
“My spirit is nothing but a passage for ghosts that leave and return in unforeseen moments. They surprise me, face me, and turn their back on me. They meet me in corners which exist nowhere but inside me. In these corners, all the moments I lived hide away and all the words I spoke desert their contexts and vanish into the inevitable void.
Near the end of the book, the protagonist drops his sexual escapades and begins to recount memories of more general nature; his favorite coffee shop (ahwa) as a young man and how it had changed over the past 30 years. Issues like health problems and medical insurance start to haunt him more frequently.
He then starts questioning his own motives behind accepting the institute’s fellowship offer, even though he has no ties with anyone the country he is in. He ponders death and starts to hint that his storytelling might be an alternative to death, a means of self-immortalization.
Slowly but steadily, Al-Ghitani gives readers more hints that what he means by “sojourn and his stay at this European institute symbolizes our short lives on earth. Disconnected as they may be, our stories are all we have simply because they are all that we are, he seems to be saying.
“All my time is nothing but scattered phrases and stories that I try to recall; and to understand the ones which surprise me from somewhere far away. I live my stories. I am the narration of my stories, an inquiry, a question with no answer, a contract of whose details I am ignorant.