BEIRUT: The Pyramid Texts, which evolved into the Book of the Dead, are the oldest religious writing from ancient Egypt that are known to us today. A collection of spells and legends, the texts form the basis of much Egyptian religious theology and literature. The oldest of the Pyramid Texts were found, in the form of funerary inscriptions, on the walls inside the Pyramid of Unas in the region of Saqqara. In myriad, diverse ways, they describe the resurrection and ascension of the pharaos to the afterlife. What binds them together is their emphasis on the eternal existence of the king and their tendency to equate the sky with the realm of the afterlife.
Gamal al-Ghitani's "Pyramid Texts" was first published in Arabic as "Mutun al-Ahram" in 1994. An English edition, by award-winning literary translator Humphrey Davies, was published earlier this year by the American University in Cairo Press. Ghitani uses the ancient texts as a point of departure, interpreting them, extrapolating from them and twisting them into fiction in a volume that is more a collection of stories than a novel. His take on the original Pyramid Texts is as intriguing and mesmerizing as the spells that are thousands of years old. They are, as Ghitani writes, "too marvelous to ignore and too mysterious to comprehend."
The great secret of the pyramids and the mystery of man's place in the universe are recurrent themes in the book. Ghitani's volume demands a slow, ponderous read. But the subject matter crackles with controversy. Readers who are genuinely interested in (and relatively knowledgeable of) mystical and spiritual writings will consider Ghitani's book a gem; those who prefer their literary texts more concrete and grounded will probably find themselves flipping through the pages in frustration.
Yet Ghitani, considered by many to be Egypt's "cultural guard," plays on the slippery nature of the original spells to build his story, putting forth a series of meanings, disciplines and theories about life and death, and intertwining them all to form an engaging, at times magical tome.
Before he was a major contemporary novelist and an accomplished literary critic, Ghitani worked as a craftsman. He designed intricate carpets, and the influence of that labor permeates his writing, which exudes both serenity and a wild imagination. As with the Pyramid Texts found in Saqqara, Ghitani's tales are not easily deciphered. They raise numerous questions about the quest for knowledge, death, resurrection and the afterlife.
Ghitani was born in 1945, into a poor family from Sohag in Upper Egypt. When he was a child, he and his family moved to the infamous Al-Hussein neighborhood of Old Cairo, where he trained as a carpet maker. Later, in 1969 he joined the editorial team of the daily newspaper Akhbar al-Yawm, a leading Egyptian newspaper.
A prolific writer, Ghitani is now the force behind the weekly supplement Akhbar al-Adab, Egypt's leading literary publication. He has published 13 novels and six collections of short stories. "Zayni Barakat" is probably his best-known novel in English translation.
In structure, Ghitani's "Pyramid Texts" follows the architecture of the pyramids themselves. The 14 spells that make up the book, each more abstract than the one that came before, grow shorter and shorter from beginning to end, eventually tapering into thin air. The last page of the book reads: "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."
In the first text, entitled "Anticipation," a Moroccan sheikh draws wisdom from the pyramids and spends years contemplating them in the hope that he will one day be able to understand their mysteries.
Caliph Mamun summons Ibn al-Shihna to take measurements of the Great Pyramid, only to be told that the measurement at the midpoint is equal to that at its base. "My lord," the measurer in the tale "Realization" explains, "there is no slope and no decrease."
In "Ecstasy," a couple enter the pyramids together and are overcome by desire. Their act of love caves into something "both like and unlike cinders."
The specter of the pyramids is ever-present in the sixth story, "Shadow," in which a mysterious visitor waits patiently for the shadow of one pyramid to diverge from its path to confer immortality.
Davies' translation succeeds in rendering the author's meticulously crafted and notably sensual accounts. Responsible for translating Naguib Mahfouz's "Thebes at War," Elias Khoury's "Gate of the Sun" and Alaa al-Aswany's "The Yacoubian Building," Davies conveys Ghitani's prose with clarity and elegance. He captures the author's intricate meanings and symbols.
History and personal consciousness are the pillars of "Pyramid Texts." Even the most mystical of images carry strong social, political and psychological content. Ghitani's writing is, in fact, deeply entrenched in the traditions of Sufism and mystical Islam, all filtered through a fascination with ancient Egyptian civilization.
At times, echoes of Gibran Khalil Gibran sound in the text. At others, the shadow of Ibn Arabi's pantheism crawls across the page. Similar to ancient Egyptian mythology, where the pharaos and gods merge into singular entities, the author explores a thing and its opposite, such as knowledge and ignorance, and immortality and transience.
While Ghitani's novels are rooted in the past, his writing embraces the present and the future. "Writing is essentially about now, about today," he said in an interview with the newspaper Al-Ahram.
"Through persistence comes comprehension, provided there is commitment," he writes in the first text, "Anticipation," in what seems like a direct address to his readers.
Ghitani has witnessed a number of dramatic events in Egypt's history, namely the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. He was jailed from October 1966 through March of 1967 for criticizing former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's regime. Ghitani's earliest writings emerged from his prison term.
It is probably his experience in captivity that allows him to write so vividly about confinement, he explains, "and its different laws of time and space."
The second tale in "Pyramid Texts," entitled "Entry," tells of seven young men who enter the Great Pyramid of Giza, seeking illumination. "They penetrate its heart of darkness" as a group, but then they are forced to continue their pursuit on their own. In Ghitani's world, journeys of self-discovery can only be done by individuals.
Gamal al-Ghitani's "Pyramid Texts" is out now in English translation from AUC Press