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.
On Feb. 29, the El Ghitani will give a reading of his novella, “Pyramid Texts,” at the “A Festival of Egyptian Culture” in Frankfurt.
In part 2 of this interview, the novelist further discusses the “Pyramid Texts,” the current state of Egyptian culture and the future of post-Jan.25 Egypt.
Daily News Egypt: How did you weave all these various ideas and elements into such a short novella?
Gamal El Ghitani: I’ve included words and parables that are meant to express small ideas in the story but also meant to be the words that were to be placed on the walls of the pyramids. It’s about the idea of maintaining a particular artistic aesthetic, an element of musical tempo in the story and the language. I was focused on ensuring that the music of the text was poetic and paid homage to the pyramids.
I’ve spent years contemplating and pondering the pyramids from the moment I was a young boy living in Gamaliya, and I’ve witnessed the infringement upon them physically over the years with the dramatic build up of houses around the pyramids and the cultural desecration we now experience. Had it been in my hands, I would have not allowed any building for a [radius] of five kilometers around the pyramids.
What will you be discussing in your lecture in Frankfurt?
I’ll be reading various extracts from the book and I’ll answer any questions asked. But in addition to the book reading, I’ll try to explain or relay the significance of the pyramid in our Egyptian history. This structure is simply not for architectural and historical purposes only, but have philosophical, Sufi and political meanings and implications.
What’s the relevance of the book, particularly to the current events we’re experiencing?
There’s a cultural gap few are interested in. There’s a new cultural paradigm being defined after the revolution, its most important element is the fall of this curtain of fear. No one is fearful anymore. A new culture of expressionism is being formed and one of its most important elements is the return to the idea of what it means to be Egyptian.
For a while, the idea of nationalism had eliminated the older phase. Then, an increase in religious inclinations not only weakened this sense of Egyptian identity because of the argument that an Egyptian identity stems from pagan ideals, but it was also considered something negative according to ultra religious groups like the Salafis.
A central point emerged during the revolution, an equalizer that was Tahrir Square. The symbol of the flag returned once again … though I don’t like the current flag and wish to create a campaign to change it. Is there any country that has the color black in its flag? We used to have a green flag with a crescent and three stars! The current flag is not a comfortable one.
Some might argue that this is the flag that the military stepped into Israel with but we also crossed into Qadesh during the Battle of Qadesh with a flag that no one remembers! So we need a flag that is reflective and more expressive of an Egyptian identity. But to suggest that right now in light of the presence of Islamists … they will probably get the Saudi flag as a replacement, and we’ve seen that in Tahrir, because people see it as the flag of Islam. I believe this is dangerous to the image of Islam, because connecting the shahadah [professing the acceptance of God and Prophet Mohamed] with the sword is wrong. That is my opinion and the [Grand] Shiekh of Al-Azhar also agrees with this point and has spoken about it before.
How has culture changed over the past year?
There’s a war. I write a weekly column, “Osoul wa forou” (Roots and Branches) about what remains of ancient Egyptian culture. I don’t like using the term ‘Pharaonic’ because it connotes tyranny of a pharaoh, but I don’t think this accurately reflects the nature of their great civilization. There was no element of fascism to their civilization.
What was needed was a great leader who can unite people during the flooding of the Nile in order to properly allocate all the resources amongst Egyptians. I believe the Pharaoh was a symbol of mercy not tyranny, but the problem is that there’s a harmful viewpoint of ancient Egyptian history that has dominated the reading of history. This is a sensitive topic particularly in this current time, but I try to touch upon it.
The Quran depicts the Pharaoh as a tyrant; this negative portrayal has influenced people’s viewpoints of this element of history which Egyptians are otherwise proud of. What was said in the Quran about Pharaoh was intended for only one Pharaoh, not for pharaoh as a title, or single entity.
Generally, I think this is a cultural reality that would require time to change. At the moment, the conditions are ripe for dogmatic religious attitudes to flourish, and the two waves of religiosity could clash soon, culturally and ideologically.
Do you think the revolution will still be as influential and have the same meaning in a hundred years’ time as it does today?
At the moment, there’s a fight for the revolution to be repressed and ensure it has no effect. The former Mubarak regime has not ended and there are people who will gain more from the failure of this revolution. I believe that the long-term effect of the revolution has not been set in place.
The 1919 revolution, which had a clear moment and a leader in Saad Zaghloul, only exhibited its cultural impact years later because the influence of the 1919 revolution could only bear fruition about five years later and it showed in the arts.
We saw the rise in popularity of sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, the return to an old style of architecture, the emergence of the architect Hassan Fathy, and others. We also had Om Kothoum and Abdel Wahab in music in music. In literature, we had Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfik El Hakim and Hussein Fawzy— the liberal school that we, the generation of the 1960s, were indirect students of.
We became an extension of the revolution’s influence. We, leftists, were against the 1952 revolution from a democratic standpoint, because we wanted more democracy and socialism. When we demanded that from Nasser, he imprisoned us. The conflict with Sadat was deeper. We agreed with Nasser on a few points: a project for education, equality and support of the poor. With Sadat, the aspiration for those ideals ended in the reality that we’re currently experiencing: the Mubarak regime and the corruption.
What’s the influence of the Islamist parliament on Egypt socially and culturally?
In the short run, I’m pessimistic because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis are coming in not as a temporary government and not as a party that will make use of this limited opportunity as a party and [then] leave. They have a 100-year project to establish an Islamic nation. What we’re witnessing is behavior not of a party but of changing an identity, changing Egypt into an Islamic nation.
Unfortunately, I see no united front to face this mentality. The notion of the revolution that happened to provide freedom for citizens is now being challenged.
How to balance it out now or resettle matters is to create a front that will confront this. But I feel that even in the near future, this won’t materialize easily because the youth are in disagreement, cut off from their predecessors and because there’s a power struggle. When you come to consider the potential presidential candidates, there is not one suitable candidate, not even the best of the worst of them.
The power struggle and agreement that has been potentially made between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government goes against the nature of Egyptians. There’s no public awareness to what is happening. The only force that is working in one direction is the Muslim Brotherhood; now is their time. The situation of the Copts is a very difficult one and we must avoid the escalation of tension and sectarian strife.