By Heba Elkayal
Gamal El Ghitani’s writing on Egypt is first and foremost sensitive to and celebratory of the notion of the Egyptian identity vis-à-vis its history, starting with Ancient Egypt to the Mamluk era to modern day.
In his works — which include modern classics such as “The Zafarani Files,” “Zayni Barakat” and “Rinn” among many others — Egypt’s history retains an allure that has mystified him ever since he was a young boy living in the district of Gamaliya. It has also been a conduit for an analysis of how the identity of Egyptians as a people and as a nation was formed.
One year after the revolution, as Egyptians negotiate with an Islamist parliament and engage in a power struggle with a ruling military council, El-Ghitani’s works are as relevant as the day they were published. His novella “Pyramid Texts”, first published in 1996, with its prose rhythm and its narrative complexity, is even more important today for its message of respecting history.
On Feb. 29, El-Ghitani will give a reading from “Pyramid Texts” at the “Festival of Egyptian Culture” in Frankfurt. Well into its fourth month, the grand celebration of Egyptian contemporary arts opened last November with a series of visual art exhibits, film screenings, music performances and book readings. The fest resumes its activities this month with more book readings, more art exhibits, more music performances, a stand-up comedy show and a theater performance scheduled for the next couple of months.
In a conversation with El-Ghitani, Daily News Egypt delves into issues of history, literature, identity and the arts.
Daily News Egypt: What do you feel is the core value of your work?
Gamal El-Ghitani: I don’t have superficial stories. Works like “El-Zeyni Barakat” have become classical stories, and they’re understood by the young generation as well. “Pyramid Texts” is relevant today because it’s a study of the Pyramids, a reminder of history and perseverance.
How do you tackle history through storytelling?
First, it was Mamluk history that inspired “El-Zeyni Barakat.” Afterwards, I began to extend my attention to Ancient Egyptian history, which I labeled as the era of continuity and discontinuity. People don’t know that this era of ancient Egyptian culture has not ended. It still lives on inside Egyptians. In recent years, this culture has been infringed upon or altered by a forceful wave of Wahhabism that has come in, particularly from Saudi Arabia, and this has resulted in Egypt getting weaker culturally and intellectually. In essence, I paid attention to history in “Pyramid Texts” because of my obsession with the idea of time.
One of the most important elements of the book is facing the notion of nothingness which is represented in leaving behind a physical legacy of buildings; that one’s name will be preserved through this physical structure. This notion is in line with an Egyptian belief that the legacy of the name is like the legacy of a person.
How did your relationship with the Pyramids develop?
I contemplated the Pyramids for long periods since I was a child in Gamaliya. We used to live on the fifth floor. Cairo’s skyline was devoid of the high buildings we have today and so it was possible to see the pyramids before sunset with clarity in the late afternoon. Afterwards, I visited it as a child, as a teenager, and I flew above it as an air force pilot, flying between them. I contemplated them from all angles. I’ve seen the Pyramids at every moment of the day’s 24 hours.
In 1997, I spent a couple of nights inside the Pyramids. The first night was alone and the second was with colleagues from [literary publication] Akhbar Al-Adab. We were putting together a special supplement on the Pyramids. I slept in this tomb and I wrote about it.
I wanted to experience something more substantial, I had read about a beam of light that makes its way every day into the Pyramid. It’s supposed to settle on the head of the pharaoh during a particular moment at sunrise and I wanted to capture this light. But it didn’t happen, I didn’t see it. It could have come as a flash of light but I didn’t catch it. I experienced a darkness that I had never experienced before, a darkness that could never be explained. Despite being an air force pilot and a boy scout and having slept in caves and in the desert, and in prison…I never saw darkness like this, like velvet. After a certain period, you becomes one with the Pyramid, that’s the feeling that you acquire inside.
You play with the symbolism of the Pyramids both architecturally and narratively? Why were you so compelled?
I have a theory about the Pyramid: it’s like a person’s body. When a person goes into the Pyramid, it’s like as if his life process is being re-enacted but in reverse. First you have to stoop into a low passageway, and then suddenly you step into a great space which I think is one of architecture’s greatest accomplishments, symbolizing the greatest period of youth and freedom in a person’s life, which then leads upwards to a hall that forces you to crawl on all fours to reach the tomb which represents the position of a person at the beginning of his life.
This represents the birth of a person. It can also be united with the absolute, when a person dies, becomes an aspect of nonexistence, without which you won’t have existence.
I had wanted to create a piece of writing that would simulate the essence of the Pyramids; that would measure up to the architecture of the Pyramids, attempt to explain the meaning of the Pyramid in an unconventional manner, because I don’t have a conventional manner of narrating or writing my stories.
The narrative arch of this story was composed of 14 chapters, the first being wide and then further on the line become few, to produce chapters that contain nothing, no words.
The Pyramid’s group of massive stones also starts in a large wide group until it reaches a point at which all ends and at which all else begins. It ends with a tangible and visually concrete sense, and there’s an intangible un-visual beginning and this is the real story of the Pyramids.
The Pyramids represent one’s allotted time in life. You are born with a finite amount of years. Every year, they decrease. At the end, one’s life can close abruptly, but it’s a single point at which everything ends. The Pyramids too a metaphor of man’s life and its limited nature in time.
Yet surely the Pyramids were not only representative of symbolic ideas? “Pyramid Texts” made many different references to them.
The Pyramid is a political metaphor of the Egyptian state as central governance. All the potential political candidates talk about decentralizing Egypt without knowing anything about the history or nature of Egypt. If they had read history, they would know that if Egypt became decentralized, it would fragment, because what held Egypt together was a central figure capable of controlling a nation and the harvest of the Nile on a yearly basis.
What does the title refer to?
Until the fourteenth century, historians, including Makrizi, had spoken about the Pyramids being covered in writings of a golden color, so when the sun came out it would sparkle. What the text was, we don’t know and won’t find out. Even the exterior of the Pyramid has disappeared save for a small segment on the top of Khufu’s [Cheops] Pyramid.
The characters of the various chapters don’t necessarily represent me, but represent different ideas that might inspire the imagination about the Pyramids and about life. I touch upon the idea of desecrating that which is sacred; that death is experienced individually by all of us and cannot be shared; the idea of achieving unity and peace in your solitude in death and becoming one with it as the buried pharaoh would be in his pyramid tomb. There are a lot of words and ideas that can lead to this, this construction of ideas, and inspire the imagination to such a degree.
Tomorrow, El Ghitani discusses further the “Pyramid Texts,” the current state of Egyptian culture and the future of post-Jan.25 Egypt.