Gamal al-Ghitani: كتاب التجليات (The Book of Epiphanies)
The first point to make is though this book has been translated into English, the English translation is only a very abridged version of the original. If you want to read the full book, you will have to read it in Arabic or, as I did, in French. As for the title… Epiphany means manifestation and though it is often used in a religious sense, that is not necessarily what it means, though the various epiphanies in this book are both religious and non-religious. Theophany might be an alternative translation. The title comes from Kitāb Al-Tajalliyāt by Ibn Arabi, the mystic and Sufi scholar, whom we shall meet in this book.
One of the pleasures of reading books from other cultures is that you discover a lot that you probably do not know or only know to a small degree. This also means that some of the characters, events and, indeed, phraseology may mean a lot more to a native of the country of the author than to the foreign reader. This is certainly the case with this book. A knowledge of the history of early Islam and indeed, of Islam generally, particularly Sufism, and also of Egypt under Nasser is certainly useful though, with the footnotes and Wikipedia to help, I found I was able to cope and, as always in books about cultures I know little about, my reading made be more knowledgable on both topics which, as far as I am concerned, is certainly an added benefit.
Our hero is called Gamal and is clearly based on the author. He has been away, mainly, he indicates, to find himself. On his return, he learns that his beloved father has died. He does have an epiphany, involving those that are most important in his life, including his relatives, particularly his father, but also involving three other key characters, Nasser, Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and Ibn Arabi, the mystic and Sufi scholar.
As in many worthwhile books, our hero sets out on a journey. This journey, however, is not a conventional journey. While he does sometimes use conventional transport, clearly much of his journey is more in the spiritual realm. Indeed, the journey itself may be described as a vision. At one point he tells us that he is flying in the clouds and he will later tell us that he has travelled millions and millions of light years. Initially, he is accompanied by Husayn ibn Ali who was the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and who became a martyr. Husayn acts as his guide, in a way similar to Virgil acting as Dante’s guide.
The book is actually divided into three sections called, respectively journeys, stations (in the sense of stations of the Cross) and states, though I did not find these three distinction useful.
Gamal is first interested in his own family and he goes back in time, witnessing his father’s birth, his own birth and the birth of his son, at which, of course, he was present. He will later witness his mother’s birth. However, he also witnesses his grandmother’s brutal murder. However, it is above all his father to whom he is devoted and throughout the book, we will follow the story of his father, though his mother will play a greater role in the second part of the book and, indeed, the book ends with her death.
We are also following the history of early Islam, primarily the period after the death of Mohammed, when there is a power struggle. We meet many of Mohammed’s relations/descendants and learn about the struggle for power of which Husayn’s martyrdom is part.
We also follow Nasser and his story. Gamal (I shall use Gamal to describe the character in this book, who is, of course, based on the author, as he is so described in the book, and al-Ghitani when I am specifically referring to the author) has mixed views about Nasser. Nasser, at least in the West is known primarily for two things – his nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the subsequent brief war, and the conflict with Israel. Al-Ghitani was a war reporter and saw the defeat of the Arab forces by Israel. Both as regards this war and the Suez Canal conflict, he clearly supported Nasser and is highly critical of the subsequent rapprochement with Israel, as practised by Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor.
Though Nasser has clearly been important to al-Ghitani, it has not all been positive. We see Gamal imprisoned under Nasser and beaten by a guard. However, Nasser continues to serve as something of a guiding light, particularly in comparison with his successor. We see Nasser on numerous occasions, both during his life and appearing after he is dead, as other characters do. One interesting feature is that, in several instances, Nasser and Gamal’s father seem to overlap and even become one and the same person. Presumably, al-Ghitani is making out that Nasser is the father of the nation. Nasser certainly comes under attack, both from his critics in Egypt but also from abroad, where, we are told, Mossad, the White House, the Pentagon and other related enemies are opposed to him. However, Gamal’s father is very supportive of Nasser, saying he protected the weak against the tyranny of the powerful.
The first part of the book, under Husayn’s guidance, is carried out under the auspices of the Divan. Divan is normally a high government authority in Islamic states but here it (or, rather, she, because it seems to be female) is some sort of mystical being. She is very tall but, as we are told, there are no words to describe her. She rules the world and questions Gamal as to his aims (Have you fought to reach your goals, have you aspired to knowledge?)
After this initial journey, Gamal is on his own and he continues his journey, travelling in both time and space, jumping backwards and forwards in time. His father also accompanies him at times, turning up in the seventh century, for example. He will later be accompanied by Ibn Arabi, a thirteenth century Arab mystic and Sufi scholar, who clearly has been influential on al-Ghitani. Other mystics and scholars will make occasional appearances.
We follow Gamal’s life and that of his family in great detail, their various ups and downs, financial problems, his arrest and torture and, of course, deaths. More particularly, we learn a lot about the early days of Islam and Gamal and his father are transported to that era. The Israel-Palestine conflict is key, as mentioned, and we get various images from that. One striking one is Nasser being physically attacked by Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Menachem Begin and John Foster Dulles. We also get the image of an Israeli officer planning to kill Gamal’s father, the horse stumbling and the officer falling and being dragged to his death.
Al-Ghitani is highly critical of Anwar Sadat. Nasser’s successor. He refers to Kissinger as dear Henry, apparently the term that Sadat used to refer to Kissinger. Sadat, while mentioned on several occasions, is never mentioned by name. Clearly Gamal and his father saw Sadat as a traitor and specifically mention their horror at seeing an Israeli travel agent in Cairo with an Israeli flag flying, offering trips to Tel Aviv.
We see the horrors of war. Injured men appear and some of al-Gitani’s friends were killed and these are mentioned and seen. One poignant image is of a young Palestinian boy, Hamed, whom Gamal sees on a trip to Beirut. The boy is in a refugee camp but comes to the port to work, carrying, cleaning and other odd jobs. Gamal takes a surreptitious photo of him. He will later see a photo of the boy in a newspaper, his throat slit, as some bandits entered he camp, raped his eleven year old sister and then kill her and the rest of the family. Hamed is one of the people he will meet on his extraterrestrial travels.
This is a very long book – 857 pages in the French editions plus footnotes, while the Arabic edition is 815 pages. The English edition, by comparison, is only 249 pages, so a lot is missing. I have not seen the English text so cannot tell what is missing. I do enjoy long books like this, as you can get completely immersed in the story and characters. I won’t deny that this book, at times, did drag a bit, as we learned perhaps a bit too much of the details of Gamal and his family but, overall, it is a very fine novel and all credit to Seuil for publishing it and Khaled Osman for translating it. I cannot believe they made much money out of it.
Al-Ghitani integrates the story of his family, from the birth of his parents onwards, with the history of early Islam, Islamic philosophy and, in particular, Sufism and the recent history of Egypt, including the British occupation in the late nineteenth century, Nasser and the Suez Canal and the ongoing conflict with Israel. Much of the philosophical/spiritual/mystical element comes from various distinguished (and long since dead) scholars and mystics and is supplemented with numerous wise sayings, mostly from the Koran, out how to be a better person. Many of these apply, regardless of your religious affinities.
Gamal, our narrator and alter ego of the author, jumps around in time and space, with the key characters – Gamal, his father, Nasser, Ibn Arabi and Husayn appearing in various places and different eras at will. In other words, the four dead ones, i.e. all but Gamal himself, are relevant to all eras, as least as far as the history of Gamal and his Egypt is concerned. We do visit other countries – Lebanon, Morocco and Iraq, for example – but the majority of the book is set in Egypt.
Above all this book is abut Gamal finding himself and, to do so, he needs to get in contact with the key things in his life, namely his family, the recent history of his country, which has been somewhat troubled and, for him, what might be the most important, his religion and its history. That he is able to go backwards and forwards in time and space gives him a unique experience of his family history, Nasser and the early history of Islam, augmented by his contact by various scholars and mystics who are there to guide him to the right path.
First published in 1983-86 by Dār al-Mustaqbal al-ʻarabī
First English translation in 2012 by American University in Cairo Press
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Note this is a substantial abridgement of the original Arabic
First published in French as Le livre des illuminations in 1990 by Seuil
Translated by Khaled Osman