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Latest in a string of history-obsessed Arabic novels

Roving freely across a thousand years of Arab history, Gamal al-Ghitani's latest novel presents, like his previous works, a collage of the multifarious roots of Egyptian identity, writes Chandrahas Choudhury

Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, the author of history-rich novels such as Pyramid Texts and his latest, The Book of Epiphanies. Marwan Naamani / AFP
Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, the author of history-rich novels such as Pyramid Texts and his latest, The Book of Epiphanies. Marwan Naamani / AFP

The Book of Epiphanies
Gamal al-Ghitani
(translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab)
American University of Cairo Press

Arguing for the primacy of history writing to the effort of human beings to understand themselves, the great historian of western culture Jacques Barzun writes: "The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it."

This is an ingenious argument. But can we let it pass before considering what the novel form, which comes under Barzun's rubric of "art", might have to say in reply? After all, novelists often imagine the private lives of individuals from past eras, or reprise well-known historical events allegorically. Can such work be dismissed simply as "invention"?

Might it not be more true to say that at least in the best instances - Tolstoy in War and Peace, Rushdie in his comic linking of national and personal histories in Midnight's Children, the Indian novelist Yashpal in his epic novel about the partition of colonial India This Is Not That Dawn - the novelist is not just as much an agent and an adept of history as the historian? Such books might be said not to be history in the formal sense, but they are doubly so in a more informal way. They show us how "the use of history is for the person" not just at the level of writerly conception, but also inside the story, through the spectacle of protagonists being pressured by history, by past and present matrices.

A particularly revealing consideration of this question in the context of Arabic history and Arabic art might be found in the history-obsessed books of the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani. Al-Ghitani is one of modern Arabic literature's most prominent voices - founder and longtime editor-in-chief of the Arabic literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab, recipient of a Zayed Book Award and the Lettre Ulysses Award, and briefly jailed in the 1960s for his criticism of Gamal Abdel Nasser's repressive state. Hs books include Pyramid Texts, set in the Pharaonic Egypt before the advent of Islam, the great novel Zayni Barakat, set in the Mamluk era but also an allegory of Egypt under Nasser, and now the newly translated The Book of Epiphanies, which roves freely across a thousand years of Arab and Egyptian history.

Across these works, al-Ghitani makes a collage of the multifarious roots of Egyptian identity more complex than the nationalist identities asserted by the repressive Egyptian regimes of the 20th, or the new Egyptian identity asserted by the recent revolution and culminating in the victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in last year's elections. And stylistically, al-Ghitani draws on the indigenous traditions of Arabic narrative - works of history and philosophy by Islamic historians, Sufi parables and poems - to produce novels that might be thought of as Arabic not just in content but also in form.

This endeavour might be thought of as the shared project of the second generation of great Arabic novelists - writers from the 1960s onward like al-Ghitani, Sonallah Ibrahim, Elias Khoury and Emile Habibi - moving on from earlier pioneering works, such as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, that adapted the form of the western realist novel more or less wholesale to life in Egypt and the Arab world. (It is a tribute to Mahfouz's narrative agility that his work represents the concerns of this second generation just as surely as he embodied the first.)

In the modernist Arabic novel - with Egyptian novelists such as Ibrahim and al-Ghitani often at the vanguard - the narrative line is typically more jagged and fragmented than in the novels of old, and the focus and frame of narrative time is not just the society of the present day but the whole field of Arab history. One of the most ambitious, stylistically challenging, and open-ended - and difficult - of these books is al-Ghitani's 1983 novel Kitab al-tajalliyat, translated into French by Khaled Osman a few years ago as Le Livre des Illumations and now into English by the acclaimed translator Farouk Abdel Wahab (who died in April) as The Book of Epiphanies.

Al-Ghitani's books often draw on classical Arabic texts for their structure or language. In The Book of Epiphanies his sourcebook, so to speak, is the great medieval Arabic scholar Muhyuddin Ibn Arabi's enigmatic and digressive text al-Futuhat al-Makkiya, or The Meccan Revelations, written early in the 13th century and reverberating ever since though the halls of Arabic letters. Ibn Arabi writes towards the beginning of his book: "Neither this book nor my other books have been composed in the manner of ordinary books, and I do not write in the way authors normally do." The same could be said about Gamal, the narrator of Epiphanies, a character who begins as an individual in a particular place and time - Egypt of the present day - but progressively becomes a figure more and more ethereal, amorphous and disembodied, not so much a body but a super-consciousness glowing "like a nightlight".

Gamal is a man dissatisfied with his lot in life, spiritually ambitious, embittered by his nation's lowly position in the world and recent humiliations at the hands of its enemies (particularly Israel in the June 1967 War). In the manner of the Sufi initiate, he desires a release from his material and spiritual chains through an unquestioning submission to a sheikh or spiritual master.

Seeking a flight "from myself, within myself and to myself", Gamal hears his name being called out by a mysterious voice, and finds himself in the presence of none other than Ibn Arabi himself, the Shaykh Al Akbar ("Greatest Master"). He journeys with his guide into an unknown realm, and finds himself in front of the reigning spirits of the Diwan, the cosmic centre of the world. At the Diwan he is sent on a journey through various spiritual states or "stations", states in which he transcends time and space and roams through all of history.

Gamal's companions on his journeys are the three men who represent his personal and political traumas and obsessions. They are his late father, an immigrant from an Egyptian village to Cairo who brought him up lovingly but was neglected by him in his old age; Gamal Abdel Nasser, the proud Egyptian leader and Arab nationalist; and the nephew of Mohammad, Imam Husayn, whose martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala in 680CE is one of Islam's reference points. The figure of Nasser, indeed, is surprisingly sympathetic, considering that al-Ghitani was jailed by Nasser's regime, and shows al-Gitani has been able to subsume his view on history to the more religious and nationalist imagination of the protagonist Gamal.

This unusual triad helps al-Ghitani fuse Islam's historical and mythical pasts. And between them these three men also constitute a portrait of - and implicit criticism of - a widely prevalent view of Arab masculinity. There are almost no women in the book, and "the beloved" is a phrase used to describe the male spiritual master, not the wife or loved one.

Space and time are indeed dissolved in al-Ghitani's narrative, but in a historical and not a religious way. In the first half of the novel Gamal is no more than a spectator at the great scenes of Arab history. But as the novel progresses (as does Gamal through the "stations") he begins to inhabit the worlds, and bodies, of his forebears more and more from within. In the book's most affecting scenes, his consciousness fuses with that of his father as the older man arrives in Cairo and begins work as a lowly labourer.

Set up as a narrative in the tradition of a mystical spiritual quest, The Book of Epiphanies proclaims its independence from mystical literature in the protagonist's dissolution not into the infinite, but into the worldly yearnings of an impoverished, labouring man - Gamal's father Ahmad - for a wife, family and security just before he drifts into sleep. In The Book of Epiphanies, and the modernist Arabic novel more generally, we find doors into history on a spectrum that ranges all the way from grand narrative to the unexpressed thoughts of anonymous men.

 

Chandrahas Choudhury is an Indian novelist based in Delhi.