A severed human head is floating in the sky above the holy city of Kufa. After a while it spots an iridescent green bird slowly approaching it. When the bird is close enough, it becomes apparent that the strange creature has a human face. The head recognises the features of Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian officer who led the assassination of President Anwar Sadat during the Victory Parade in Cairo on October 6 , 1981, and was executed together with the other conspirators by a firing squad the following year. The bird inserts its beak into the flying head’s mouth and gives it three drops of a sweet drink that immediately alleviates its hunger, making it forget the taste of all the food ever consumed before. There is a bleeding wound in the body of the anthropomorphic bird. A drop of its blood flies into the outer space to become a star, the Star of Khalid. When the bird flies away, the head continues its solitary travel through the air until it sees somewhere in the desert a group of armed men. The troop of seventy is led by the second president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, and its mission is to take revenge on the murderers of Husayn ibn Ali, son of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was killed and decapitated in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680. The participants of the punitive expedition eventually come toe to toe with an enemy force comprising thousands of fighters. The opposing coalition includes the army of the second Caliph of Umayyad Caliphate Yazid ibn Muawiya (it is they who slaughtered Husayn and his companions), Israeli troops, agents of Mossad in mufti, US quick reaction force servicemen, and mercenaries of all types. Amidst this motley rabble, cowardly keeping to the rear, is discernible Nasser’s notorious successor Anwar Sadat. The other well-known political figures supporting the assassins of Husayn are Jimmy Carter, John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, Moshe Dayan, and Ariel Sharon. A ferocious battle ensues: the arrows are fired, the lances are thrust, and the swords are crossed. The supporters of Nasser (most of them were killed in the Arab-Israeli wars in another spacetime) put up a stiff resistance, but the strengths are unequal, and they fall one by one until there is only one man standing – their leader. The enemy fighters close in on the defenseless Nasser from all sides and pierce him with arrows. The treacherous Sadat delivers the coup de grâce by lopping Nasser’s head off with a sword. The horde of marauders then pounces on the headless body and rips its clothes off for souvenirs. The flying head contemplates the massacre with great bitterness, knowing all too well that it cannot interfere and change anything. It’s role is that of a passive observer. What makes the whole thing even more unbearable is the fact that amongst the fallen supporters of Nasser is its father. The head belongs to the acclaimed Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, and it was detached from his body some time before by the great master of Sufism Muhyiddin ibn Arabi aslo known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar.
A hasty disclaimer is in order. This wacky episode is in no way representative of al-Ghitani’s novel, and, if you approach it expecting something in the vein of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning with Oriental colour, you will be gravely disappointed. Despite its non-linear structure and a heavy slant towards the supernatural or, rather, the mystical, the book mostly deals with a very straightforward story based on the biographical facts of the author’s life as well as the life of his parents. It is a very personal book that can even be regarded as an exercise of self-therapy couched in the form of a novel. I ended up having love/hate relationship with it. It certainly did not turn out what I had expected it to be. At some points I found it hard going and even thought of abandoning it altogether. Nevertheless, I am glad to have experienced this peculiar novel, for I have learned a lot of new things and had an opportunity to look at the known political and historical events from a perspective different to the one I am used to. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that it is an important literary accomplishment that should not be ignored by a serious reader of world literature. As you probably know, last year Gamal al-Ghitani passed away. I have decided to read and review The Book of Illuminations as a tribute to one of the most important contemporary writers in Arabic. While working on this review I benefited a lot from Ziad Elmarsafy’s study Sufism in the Contemporary Arabic Novel that has a whole chapter dedicated to al-Ghitani’s book. Where the credit is due, I will say so. The numerous annotations by Khaled Osman, the translator of the book into French, have also been of great help: without them a lot more would have passed over my head than it eventually did. I also apologise in advance for all the inconsistencies in the romanisation of Arabic terms here, but since different sources used different approaches to this task, I resigned myself to keeping the transliterations the way they had been presented in each of the texts I consulted.
First things first. Some of you may ask: “Why did The Untranslated choose to review a book that has already been translated into English and is easily available to anyone interested?” Well, not so fast, folks. Let the fact that Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel can be found in English (published as The Book of Epiphanies by The American University in Cairo Press) not mislead you: it is just a partial translation of the original work. It is enough to compare the page count: the French translation which I have read has 874 pages, and the Arabic original – 815 pages. Now compare that to the piddling 288 pages of the English version: to say the least, a lot has been left out. As I have already said elsewhere, it is my philosophy not to read a book at all rather than read its abridged translation, which is why I regard al-Ghitani’s novel as good as unavailable in English, and will continue to look forward to its complete translation.
The original title of the novel is Kitāb Al-Tajalliyāt, where the first word means “book” and the second one is the plural form of the word tajallī which, being an important concept in Sufi philosophy, is rich with connotations and, therefore, can be translated in various ways. Here is what Ziad Elmarsafy writes in this regard:
The signifier tajallī from which the title is taken covers a wide semantic field. In The Book of the Definitions of Sufism Ibn ʿArabī defines it as “The secret illuminations that are revealed to the hearts [of the believers]. Revelation of this sort is a privilege reserved for the initiated, making manifest the presence and behaviour of the divine in the cosmos. […] In Ibn ʿArabī ‘s Kitab Al-Tajalliyāt, the author relates a series of dialogues with all of his [dead] predecessors on the Sufi path, who appear to him through the process of tajallī. Were we to attempt a synthesis of the semantic field of tajallī in Ibn ʿArabī’s idiom, we would say that the word refers to the apparition, revelation, disclosure or unveiling of a given thing, person or idea that would normally be hidden in the order of the unknown or unknowable.
Not only does the title of al-Ghitani’s novel contain this rather complex term, but, taken as a whole, it is an allusion to the name of a treatise by one of the most celebrated Sufi mystics of all time. Of course, such homage found in the title of a novel is not such a rare case. We can recall here, for example, William Gaddis’ masterpiece The Recognitions whose title has been borrowed from a third-century religious romance believed to have been written by Clement of Rome. The French translator of al-Ghitani’s novel in his introduction states that although the literal translation of tajalliyāt is “theophanies”, he has chosen to render this word in French as illuminations (illuminations) to reflect better the way the Egyptian author utilises the term, for he applies it for a wide range of the narrator’s mystical experiences that are not limited to the manifestation of the sacred, but also include the apparition of the profane. Taking my cue from Khaled Osman, I am going to refer to the novel in English as The Book of Illuminations.
One of the cornerstones of Sufi philosophy is the notion of journey or voyage (safar), the category which is applied to the spiritual journey of the novice on the way to unity with God. Such a voyage will consist of different stations, and the traveller may experience a number of states. The station (maqaam) denotes a certain stage in Sufi’s development achieved through his own hard work and through the guidance of his mentors. Each maqaam is a merit earned by the Sufi’s conscious endeavors on the spiritual path. In contrast, the state (haal) is a transitory state of mind that is granted by God to the mystic, and, being a product of God’s grace, it cannot be attained by intentional effort. All these concepts are used by al-Ghitani as the titles for the three parts of the novel: 1. The Journeys, 2. The Stations, 3. The States. Thus, just by looking at the title and the table of contents, we get a hint that the novel is steeped in Sufi philosophy, and that the novelistic form has been used to disseminate among the readership some of the concepts developed by Sufis, most probably presenting them in a new light. One realises upon completing the novel that these assumptions are actually true. In an article, the author himself stresses the tremendous role played by the writings of ibn Arabi in the composition of the Book of Illuminations.
I have relied upon the language of Ibn ‘Arabi. I have made pains to penetrate into its secrets, into the essence of this essential writing which is rare in the entire corpus of Arabic prose, into that amazing imagination which runs free with its particular visions and its ability to manifest itself.
In this respect, the book Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is thick with the presence of Ibn ‘Arabi. He is a leading personality, and, as such, has guided me and solved problems that I have faced. He has made me see the truths of being and the details of humanity. Just as he ventures the propagation of an epistle in his amazing general introduction to the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, I have ventured the propagation of my view. What I want is to announce it to my people and to the children of mankind. Six-and-a-half years were spent in the writing of the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. Time shaped its production since my dear mother passed away three years into the writing of this book. It seems that the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is externally an expression of pain brought about by loss and death. However, essentially, it is an expression of life and the rare struggle on the part of those who are simple for the sake of the continuation of the dearest thing the Creator has given us.
The main impetus for writing the novel comes from Gamal al-Ghitani’s personal tragedy: the death of his father Ahmad al-Ghitani. When it happened, the writer was abroad and could not be present at the funeral. The ensuing feelings of loss, remorse and irreversibility inspired the author to write a novel in which his alter ego is granted the mystical gift of being able to travel in time by means of illuminations, thereby regaining the lost time when his father was still alive as well as rediscovering and reassessing his own self. In the introductory part called The First Illuminations the grief-stricken Gamal tells us how a mystical entity called the Divan is manifested to him and how its custodians endow him with the supernatural ability to travel within illuminations. We never get the exact explanation what the Divan is. When Gamal sees it for the first time he admits that his terrestrial vocabulary is insufficient to describe it. The best he can do is to say that some of the elements of this enormous edifice bring to his mind huge cenotaphs to unknown soldiers, the delicate façades of Asian temples, and natural canyons cutting through mountain ranges. It is some kind of mystical headquarters that oversees our world, rules over our destinies and determines the shape of things to come. Personally I was reminded of the Aleph from the famous short story by Borges. The Divan is governed by a triad of historical personages belonging to Ahl al-Bayt (literally “People of the House” a term used to denote the family of Prophet Muhammad). Its president is Sayyeda Zaynab, daughter of Ali and Fatimah, and her two assistants are her brothers Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, revered as the second and the third Shia Imams respectively. Every Saturday evening of Earth time the governors of the Divan hold a session during which they decide on the major events for the coming week.
Gamal’s wish to overcome the limitations of time and space is granted by the Divan. His subsequent journeys consist of three major stages covered in each of the three parts of the novel, and for each stage he is appointed a guide assisting him in each series of illuminations. In the first part his guide is Husayn himself. In the second part this mission is taken over by ibn Arabi. As for the identity of the third guide, it is open for conjecture, as Gamal is forbidden to reveal it. In the course of the mystic voyages under the guidance of the three masters Gamal revisits and relives both the past of his family and that of his country. He witnesses the events before his own birth, travels to the ancient times at the dawn of the Islamic civilisation, and also re-experiences the major events in his own life taking a detached view of himself. Following Gamal’s time travel is not always an easy task for the Western reader, as the amount of the required cultural baggage to fully understand the text is rather formidable. Just to give you the idea: imagine that you have to read Moby Dick knowing next to nothing about all the Biblical allusions running through it. Of course, you will be able to accomplish your reading, but your lacunae will be tremendous. In case of The Book of Illuminations, the concentration of all the Islamic lore diffused in it is even stronger: al-Ghitani integrates into his text numerous references to a variety of Sufi treatises as well as direct quotations from the Qur’an. Not to be lost in this wealth of information, the reader also needs a guide, and, luckily enough, this role is brilliantly fulfilled by the translator of the novel who has compiled an impressive collection of more than 300 end-notes explicating most of the obscure allusions and clearly indicating the origin of each Qur’anic quotation.
By visiting different episodes in the past as well as talking to inanimate witnesses of his family history, such as a stone wall, a palm tree, and a plot of land, Gamal gradually puts together the puzzle of his father’s life story. On the whole, it is a rather plain story of Ahmad al-Ghitani’s struggle at achieving social mobility and giving a better future to his children. Ahmad leaves his native city of Guhayna in Upper Egypt and sets out to Cairo in a mortician’s wagon with a big dream of receiving education at the prestigious Al-Azhar University and subsequently gaining financial stability and a higher social status. Although his ambitions mostly remain unfulfilled, he does manage to settle in the capital, get a menial job at the Ministry of Agriculture and later bring over his family. By his self-abnegating labour, grim determination and self-sacrifice Ahmad succeeds in providing for his children decent education and making it possible for them to escape poverty and get on in life. Despite all the supernatural elements and the mysticism, The Book of Illuminations is mainly a factological exploration of the destiny of a single Egyptian family being pushed towards a better life by the perseverance and stoicism of the father. The story of the al-Ghitanis is narrated with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, for the abandoned dream of Ahmad al-Ghitani has been vicariously fulfilled in the accomplishments of his son.
Besides narrating the story of his parents, Gamal al-Ghitani also tells us about the major military conflicts in the Middle East as well as about the host of political and social issues faced by Egypt during the presidencies of Abdel Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. At first glance, Gamal’s admiration for Nasser is liable to cause a certain bewilderment in anyone familiar with the author’s biography. It is exactly during Nasser’s regime that al-Ghitani was arrested for political dissent, put in jail and subjected to torture. The writer’s imprisonment and tortures are recounted in unflinching detail in the third part of the novel. In spite of all that, Nasser is represented as one of the narrator’s spiritual mentors. In one of the illuminations he even speaks in the voice of Gamal’s father. Sadat, on the other hand, is shown as evil incarnate. Never called by his name, he is referred to in the original Arabic as الجلف الجافي (al-jilf al-jaafiy). This alliterative epithet is rendered in the French translation as butor brutal, and the corresponding English equivalent would be “brutish boor”. By depicting Sadat in a most derogatory manner and by pouring on him torrents of curses, al-Ghitani shares the hatred of many Egyptians who believe that Nasser’s successor betrayed his nation when he signed the Camp David Accords with Israel’s Prime Minister. For this deed, in the writer’s view, Sadat has forever secured a prominent place among the arch-villains of the Arabic World. For Al-Ghitani the greatest virtue of Nasser is his care for the poor and the oppressed which found its expression in his socialist reforms. Nasser as the leader of common folk is opposed to the supercilious and luxury-loving Sadat who has alienated himself from the majority of his nation. The personal suffering of the novelist cannot overbalance what he sees as the biggest humiliation in the history of the Arab Republic of Egypt perpetrated by Sadat when he sat at the table of negotiations with the Israeli leadership. The writer’s opposite attitudes towards the two presidents are vividly presented in the illumination summarised at the beginning of this review: Nasser is depicted as the valiant champion of the just cause intent on avenging Martyr Husayn, whereas Sadat is shown as a cowardly and treacherous creep sided with Husayn’s assassins.
By mentioning the oneiric episode of the battle in the desert, I, most probably, will provoke a legitimate question: what is the meaning of al-Ghitani’s flying head that is observing this gory tableau? As I have already said, the head of the narrator was cut off by the Sufi philosopher ibn Arabi, and, in fact, it is just one of the several instances of the supernatural experience undergone by Gamal which Ziad Elmarsafy in his analysis of the novel identifies as “separation from the self”. When ibn Arabi’s sword falls on the neck of the novelist, this separation in the scholar’s words takes “brutal physical form”. The symbolism of decapitation in the novel is closely related with the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. When al-Ghitani finds himself transported all alone to the city of Kufa in the distant past and is approached there by ibn Arabi, he desperately begs the philosopher to reunite him with Husayn, his guide appointed by the Divan at this stage of his journey . By subjecting the narrator to the same fate as befell Husayn in his earthly existence, ibn Arabi both grants al-Ghitani’s wish and teaches him a lesson. As to what kind of lesson this symbolical execution exactly denotes, I guess there might be various interpretations, especially by those who are more familiar with Sufi philosophy than myself. As for the mystical separation of al-Ghitani’s self, one of its instances occurs when the writer is taking part in a literary colloquium in the Moroccan city of Fez. A mysterious stranger in a white bournous, who is invisible to everyone but al-Ghitani, beckons to the writer, and the latter splits into two versions of himself, one of which follows the summoner while the other stays in the conference room. The stranger takes the separated self of Gamal to the famous Al Qarawiyyin mosque where he witnesses all the major Sufi philosophers, mystics and hermits from all periods of history assemble for a prayer. After this grandiose spectacle, the double of al-Ghitani is catapulted by a rainbow into the outer space where he travels through the galaxies and nebulae at the speed of light. Elmarsafy identifies this incident as an instance of mi’raj or “spiritual ascension”. Although this term is primarily used with regard to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven, Sufis saw in mi’raj the culmination of the spiritual development and the acquisition of ultimate mystical knowledge. Another noteworthy doubling of the narrator takes place in an alternative past, in which the young Gamal lives with his family in Paris. In this version of the past his father works in an embassy; he is a poet and a political exile opposed to the regime of Anwar Sadat. Gamal meets a beautiful girl called Laura and immediately falls in love. They have a passionate affair whose outcome is a stunning revelation that Laura is none other than the female version of al-Ghitani. In general, the category of self is constantly challenged throughout the novel, being shown as unstable, unpredictable, and misleading. Not that one would expect something else form a book shaped to such an extent by the writings of Sufi masters.
For me The Book of Illuminations works best during its various miraculous and mystical moments, perhaps because they are unlike most of what I have encountered so far in Western literature. The weakest parts of the novel, in my opinion, are those in which al-Ghitani minutely narrates the everyday domestic problems of his family in Cairo. Although the hardships experienced by his parents and himself aroused my sympathy, I have to confess that all those recollections of childhood were a chore to read, and I tried to race through these episodes as fast as possible to reach the next instalment of fantastic journeys, transformations and revelations. It is a long and uneven novel that has as many flaws as merits, but despite my mixed feelings about it I consider my time with it well spent, and if I was given the supernatural ability to revisit the past like its protagonist, I would not try to dissuade my earlier self from reading and reviewing it.