From Whence ‘Authentic’ Egyptian Literary Culture?

Egypt undoubtedly occupies and has occupied a central place in Arabic literary production. Is this the result of colonial-era pressures and boundary-making? Or is it because of a long-standing and particularly Egyptian love of writing?

It would be interesting to hear how novelist Gamal al-Ghitani might respond to Tamim al-Barghouti‘s recent points about the nature of authentic* Egyptian culture. Al-Barghouti, during his talk at the mid-February “Narrating the Arab Spring” conference, said that Pharaonic history, as it is currently understood, is not an organic part of Egyptian identity, but is rather an extension of colonialism.

This, he said, is because Egyptians’ current understanding of ancient history was dug up by the French and re-presented within the European colonial framework.

Al-Ghitani, on the other hand, sees strong—although not particularly specific—linkages between the ancient and contemporary Egyptian cultures. His early and acclaimed novel Zayni Barakat (trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab) was set during the Mamluk period. But after writing this novel, he recently told Daily News Egypt’s Heba Elkayal, he “began to extend my attention to Ancient Egyptian history, which I labeled as the era of continuity and discontinuity.”

Al-Ghitani continued:

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.

Al-Ghitani discussed, in particular, his novella Pyramid Texts (trans. Humphrey Davies) with Elkayal. Al-Ghitani also returns to similar themes in the introduction to Re:viewing Egypt, a photography book that was also recently translated by Davies.

I haven’t seen traces of ancient Egypt in contemporary literary work, although I suppose I’m not sure what they would look like.

More arguments against a literary link to ancient Egypt:

Reader Celine Seid very helpfully reminded me of two recent rebuttals of any connection to pharaonic history, one fictional and the other non-. The first is from Alaa al-Aswany, roughly, in If I Were Egyptian:

But what really makes me angry is when we flatter ourselves with the pharaohs …. Certainly the pharaohs were a great people, but what have we got to do with them?

And the second from Ahmed al-Aidy’s Being Abbas el-Abd, trans. Humphrey Davies:

You want us to progress??

So burn the history books and forget your precious dead civilization.

Stop trying to squeeze the juice from the past.

Destroy your pharaonic history.

And when you’ve done, please, stop boring through new walls in the Pyramids. What good will it do to discover their true entrance or where the entree was where the Great Pharaoh used to receive his hand-outs from the Envoy of a Friendly Power before offering him the petit fours??

Try to do without the traffic in the dead.

Elkayal’s interview with al-Ghitani on DNE: Part 1 and Part 2

*Always an asterisk with the term “authentic.”