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.”


  1. This raises some interesting questions about literature in general. As a Comparatist, I’d argue that in any culture the links between Modernity and the distant past tend to be ‘imagined’ (in Benedict Anderson’s sense) rather than real.

    Beyond traces, what continuity is there between the cultures of Ancient Egypt and its Modern re-imaginings? Probably very little. But other periods of the Egyptian past fare worse, for example the Greaco-Roman and Byzantine periods. Perhaps because these periods are seen as somehow foreign or Western.

    Does this mean that such re-imaginings in any way invalid? Not at all. One might as well ask how real (outside of the religious sphere, which is itself a re-imagining) are the links between contemporary Egyptian culture and early Islamic and pre-Islamic literatures of the Arabian peninsular.

    How we imagine our connections with the remote past reflects in many ways how we imagine who we are in our present, and use literatures (some of them set in the past) to imagine our futures or alternative socio-political-cultural possibilities that might otherwise be unimaginable.

    This doesn’t only apply to Egypt. What’s Westerness but a cultural re-imagining. While there might be some historical continuity between the Latinate Roman Empire, Medieval Europe, and modern European states, how ‘Western’ was ancient Greece?

    Not ‘Western’ at all, I’d argue. Indeed the term would be meaningless projected back 2 or 3 thousand years. Isn’t the strong connection between the West of Modernity and Ancient Greece really just an imagining of the European Enlightenment period, based on a highly selective reading of history and texts?

    That doesn’t make that imagining invalid, since it tells us a lot about how emerging modern Europe circa 1650-1800 saw itself. But it ignores continuities between Greece and the Middle East, the Indo-Persianate world, and, above all the Byzantine Empire and Byzantine-influenced cultures that if anything are as strong or stronger than the link with Greece through the West through Rome.

    Perhaps something similar applies to today’s Gulf states, with the strong imprint of the northern part of the Arabic-speaking world on the “official” cultures that are promoted through ministries of culture and information.

    Aren’t these official cultures, as expressed in official literature, school and university curricula, official architecture in many ways an imposition of the more authentic cultures of the region, as expressed in its dialects, popular proverbs and poetry, place names, foods, clothing and (vanishing) vernacular architecture?

    Don’t these living cultures present quite a different cultural reality than the rather dead and dry official ones? Cultures that show the cultural hybridity of the region, that reveal its status as a liminal zone where the Arabo-Semitic cultural continuum melds into the Indo-Persian one?

    Among the many texts I taught in Comp. Lit. classes in the UAE and Bahrain was The Epic of Gilgamesh. Bahrain is home to some 10,000 Bronze Age burial mounds, and is imagined as the Dilmun of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    A mythic understanding of this deep pre-Arab past is particularly important to the identity of Bahrain’s majority, yet economically and politically marginalized Shia community. Comparing scholarly and popular English editions of Gilgamesh we discussed the extent to which ancient texts in translation are ever fully ancient, and to what extent they are ancient themed creations of our present, connected to our hopes, aspirations, and expectations.

    Students discovered that while the scholarly edition didn’t read well as literature, it was ‘honest’ in indicating the text’s numerous lacunae, the longer ones sometimes filled in with textual material across a 1,000 year time span. The 1958 popular edition, however, read seamlessly and projected a late Modernist literary aesthetic on the remote Bronze Age past. Developing students’ critical reading skills in this way was important in a context where the official flow of information was tightly controlled.

  2. I think a skeptical outlook is well justified towards the notion that contemporary Egyptian culture is closely linked to or can be explained by characteristics of Pharaonic culture, and the points made by Tamim al Bargouthy and the above commenter all have merit. But that said, some aspects of culture do survive a remarkably long time. The first example that comes to mind for me is like the Anousim/’Crypto-Jews’ of Spain and Portugal who carried on practicing certain Jewish rituals after being forcibly converted to Christianity, passing down traditions through generation to the point where generations later people would still light candles and put bread and salt on the table on Friday, having no idea where the tradition came from. It’s not unlike the influence of some pagan traditions on Christian holidays like Easter and so forth. And of course language tends to bear an influence for a very long time – there are many English words that go back centuries and centuries and originate in times and places that most English speakers know little about and do not feel tied to. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine that some aspects of contemporary Egyptian culture actually can be traced back to Pharaonic times (and likewise Greek and Roman and Coptic periods, and so on). Wasn’t Shamm an-nassim originally a Pharaonic holiday? I’ve heard it said that certain aspects of Egyptian colloquial Arabic actually do come from the Ancient Egyptian – certain vocabulary words, syntax, the words people use with babies/very small children. Linguistics-wise, I’m not at all sure of the validity of any of those claims, but my point is, I don’t think they should be dismissed out of hand.

    1. I think it’s possible, although there are probably two different issues at play here: Is making this link “useful” or “positive,” and to what end is it done? And the second is a more scholarly “can it really be established”? I’m not entirely doubting it, although saying honestly, I don’t know what this link would look like, since I don’t know anything about ancient-Egyptian literature.

  3. Oh right. I kind of forgot that the original question was about whether there was a particularly Egyptian love of literature that dates back to the Pharaohs. I suppose that’s theoretically possible. It’s easier for me to conceptualize or point to concrete examples of things like holidays, specific rituals or words getting carried on and modified over time, rather than a broad cultural value like ‘love of literature,’ which seems somewhat suspect to me to begin with. (Are there cultures that don’t love literature at all, how could you measure that?). And yes, like you said, the question of whether any such links exist is a different question from the way that they are used in debates about identity and politics.

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