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from the May 2007 issue


“As I see it Gamal al-Ghitani is the most important Arab novelist today, a conclusion I have reached after following his literary career for more than four decades. What makes his world special is his ability to make it continually new. Over and above this is the inspiration behind his contemporary writing style, namely his rendering of both Arab and popular traditions, and at the same time, his ability to express contemporary issues.”—Naguib Mahfouz 

He was of an old family, much noted, mentioned in manuscripts that have yet to be printed. He personally was well known, much in demand in the town and elsewhere.

Those with experience in climbing its four corners assert that his extraordinary gifts were obvious. His steps over the stones had a different rhythm and, despite his forefathers' long history, he brought to it something that no one before him had, for no one before him had ever reached the summit by night.

And when! On dark nights when there was no moon at all and the stars were extinguished.

Everyone who had anything to do with such things knew him—the specialists in antiquities, the officers and policemen on duty or who came on some transient mission (usually the guarding of important personages making the customary tour), the owners of tourist companies, the senior guides and cicerones, the translators, and the foreigners from divers parts who visited the pyramids more than once and were drawn to him.

Presidents, kings, and princes, international and local stars of the cinema, fashion designers, perfume experts, and wealthy people with boats, some passing through, some moored there long term, all made a point of seeing him. In the guest parlor of his house he hung a letter from the Office of the President thanking him for the extraordinary effort he had displayed in climbing the Great Pyramid seven times in succession without a break before Indonesian president Ahmad Sukarno, guest of the state.

Praise was nothing new to his forefathers. Al-Balawi in his History mentions that Ibn Tulun praised and admired one of them and al-Maqrizi included an account of one in his Rhymed Biographies, a not insignificant part of which is lost. Al-Maqrizi says that Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad used to make excursions to Giza specially to see him and follow his progress. Napoleon Bonaparte advised the scholars of his expedition to sketch his great-great-grandfather but they failed because he was so fast, so agile, that he dazzled the eye.

It was a family deeply versed in the skill, through which knowledge of the routes leading to the summit had been long passed down. At a certain age, perhaps seven, a son would be instructed by his father in the first steps and then bit by bit he would be drawn in until it became his never-ending aspiration to shorten the time.

Some of those knowledgeable in secret marks and talismans claim that the pyramids grow smaller every one hundred years by one degree. This was not something to dismiss lightly. The mere dislodgment of a stone from its place or the crumbling of the edge of another could lengthen or shorten the distance. In short, it might call for a new path to be found.

What he made bold to do, what he eventually achieved, made him an example to be cited and a model to be emulated by those who would come after him, for he was able to shorten the time twice in ten years, from eight minutes to seven and a half, and then to seven—a record nowhere to be found in the works of reference, ancient or modern. His accomplishment became iconic of the achievement of a difficult goal in a short time.

His renown spread. People took a liking to him and praised him much.

He was an only child, coming after a wait of many years during which his parents had submitted to God's decree and fate. When he arrived, they feared for him the evil eye and the envy of men, and protected him with anxious care. He never wore brightly-colored clothes but was wrapped in black. Circular tattoos were drawn on his forehead in dark coffee grounds, and on his cheeks and on the tip of his chin. Despite his mother's care lest he be exposed to a flutter of wind, a passing breeze, she refused to call him by a girl's name or to hide his maleness in girls' clothes, as was the custom of those with few children—though had she done so, none of her relatives would have been any the wiser, for the boy had a round face; wide, deep-set eyes; and pretty features. All who saw him averred that he kept his gaze fixed on the pyramids, on the west, and that when his mother picked him up, he would twist around, and when she turned him to one side, he would cry loudly. With time she came to understand this and would only suckle him seated with her back to the pyramids. Then his lips would fasten on her breast, and when he had had enough he would fall into a deep sleep.

Was he drawn by some hidden force of which he was unaware?

Was he answering a call no one, yes, no one else could hear?

No one could be sure, and when he listened to his mother's memories of his early days (she would try to provoke him, to drive him to speak, to explain), he would confront her with the same confident, affectionate smile.

His mother didn't know if he remembered the moment of his weaning, when before sunset she followed his father and entered seven paces within the ascending passage. She uncovered her breasts, whose nipples she had smeared with bitter aloes, and (poor mother!) his cries rang out. But he had taken a step toward his peculiar purity of being.

His father did not hide his early pleasure at his only son's fixation on and constant orientation toward the pyramids. He did not wait but started to instruct him in the secrets of the routes that lead to the summit, of which it is said that there are four (though others, among them masters, assert that there are eight). At the age of eight, he accompanied his father to the halfway point, at ten he stood next to him at the summit, where matter ends and the void begins, while his father pointed out the landmarks near and far. By the time the boy reached twelve, the father was able to sit among the spectators and follow his son's footsteps, his nimble leaps from one stone to another, as he climbed up or down.

It seemed as though all the skills of the family, both those that had been lost and those that had survived, had found a secure refuge in him. He learned to read and write, and his teachers were pleased with him and said that he was sensible and serious beyond his years, much given to silence, economical in his speaking, and chaste.

Once he took his father aback with a sudden and unexpected question:

"Did any of my forefathers climb the Middle Pyramid?"

His father did not want to show his consternation, or to tell him of the dangers innate in the ascent of that particular pyramid. A part of its rosy-colored, granite cladding, steeped in signs and letters, still covered the summit. He wanted neither to scare the boy nor to make light of the matter but decided to be truthful and hide nothing, though with caution. There was, after all, something mysterious about the boy, something that made the elders with all their dignity fall silent at his approach and treat him with affection and respect. His father told him of the one incident that had occurred in three generations, when a son had attempted that ascent. He made no explicit warning, but was afraid that the boy might also make an attempt. Nevertheless, though the treasured son often returned to his enquiries and investigations, he never did so. His great interest remained focused on the Great Pyramid, and especially its summit, its final point. He often climbed up there following some inner impulse and spent long hours alone, puzzling his father and frightening his mother, especially in view of his unyielding silence, his tight-lippedness. He would stare fixedly at the pyramids for hours, worrying his parents so that his mother secretly asked the Moroccan sheikh to prepare a charm for him that would protect him from perils and the unexpected twists of fate, but the Moroccan, the marabout, who lived in his own time and silence, told her that her son had no need of such things because he had been chosen.

Chosen for what?

The Moroccan neither explained nor commented. That is how they are—a difficult race from whom to pry the truth.

This did not put a stop to his parents' constant anxiety over him, and especially not that of his father, who, as he grew weaker and as his strength started to fail, kept to the house. Many strange oft-repeated and well-known stories had he heard of his forefathers, and yet of none equaling the feats of his son. They still told the tale of his great-great-grandfather, he of the one leg, and how he had been able to climb the pyramid, leaping and bending and leaning his weight on the huge stones in their courses. And of how his great-great-grandfather had spent a whole month on top of the Great Pyramid, during which he had neither descended nor been supplied with even a crust of bread or a sip of water, some averring that green birds had fed him dates and syrup. The narrators of the traditions assert that in those days the summit had no room for more than a single person, but was so polished and clean that it seemed to want for not even one hand's span of space. He had heard of one of his relatives who in days gone by had set off, entered, and disappeared, so that all hope of his return was lost, but who had appeared again after twenty-four years, all of which he had spent in the depths of the pyramid.


He would not answer.


He would not explain.

The boy showed a special interest in the forefather who had stayed alone on top, at the end point, for a whole month. It is true that he didn't persist in his questions, did not ask for much by way of explanation, but one word from him who was so given to silence counted for much. When he made these enquiries, his mother would look at him hard, her heart beating, even hold her breath.

His father said that there was no place for such fears; the boy was sensible, and if he could climb on his own, traverse that taxing height, and display the zeal that had gained him such admiration and made him in such demand, there was no call to show a fear more fitting for young children.

His mother would say that he would always be a little boy to her, even after he got married and had sons and daughters, and Godspeed the day of his wedding, once He had sent him the right girl to look after him and keep him content.

Only once did she say that his long silence worried her.

It never occurred to those who saw him climb that he was capable of such silence. His ascent was different, and his father loved to watch it. The moment he touched the stones of the pyramid, a vitality would be released in him, an energy would surge up. He skipped, he jumped. He never looked upward but moved from here to there with a confusing grace, as though following an unheard voice that guided him or stretching out his hand to others that none but he could see who would lift him as he confronted two high, conjoined rocks over which he must leap if he were to shave off one fraction of a second. Indeed, even the color of his skin would change. Close to the summit it would take on something of the color of the stones, which had long ago lost their covering—a middling color, between yellow and white and brown, and sometimes of a shade that defied accurate description—as though he were made of the same material and connected to it by invisible threads. God! Were it not for his son's constant dreaminess, and the way his eyes wandered into the distance, the father would have left this world with his heart at rest concerning him.

In fact his parents kept their fears much to themselves. They watched him with astonishment, with reserve, with fear lest he fall in a moment of ecstasy or surrender himself to the dominion of some mysterious power whose nature was known to no creature of God's. Charms and holy spells would avail him nothing in repulsing such harms. Not everything that the pyramids and their surrounding graves embraced was there for the seeing, exposed.

He was devoted to the pyramids, his eyes always upon them even when on top of them. He never ceased in his circumambulation of the Great, the Middle, and the Small, the finished and the unfinished, the covert and the overt. An obsession such as this was nothing new and aroused no concern, for he was the son of a family whose links to the pyramids were ancient. However, the lynchpin of his thoughts was something other: What lay behind the pyramids? The concerns of his equals in age did not engage him. Even his adolescence brought with it none of the pitfalls into which those making the transition from one age to another, and especially from childhood to manhood, usually fall.

Girls and women of divers nationalities offered themselves to him openly and clung to him. One of them offered to take him with her to Germany, where he would find everything he wanted, whatever he asked for, for her circumstances were easy and she traveled to and visited other countries, to see and observe. Another woman, from Japan, never stopped expressing her infatuation through letters that reached him regularly. She held a distinguished political position in the ruling party. Even men became obsessed with him, some who had come to see the pyramids seeing instead only him—his figure, his grace, his features that seemed to have emerged from the walls of a Pharaonic temple (as a high NATO official living in Luxembourg put it).

He knew well how to respond, whether with a gentle excuse or a resolute, unanswerable rebuff. He knew well how to express himself using the fourteen languages that he had learned and most of which he spoke well, though he could not write them, as was the case with most of the inhabitants of the area who mixed with the endless stream of foreigners from every corner of the globe. He was distinguished from the rest, however, by his ability to read the inscriptions and pronounce the hieroglyphic language, a skill he acquired from the older inspectors of antiquities, to whom he was related and who sought his help in numerous undertakings. It was he, for example, who identified the place of the stone that fell on the day of the celebrated earthquake, on which occasion a high official at the General Authority for Antiquities who has since died, God rest his soul, shook his hand once he had descended, looked at him, and then addressed those around him with the words:

"He knows more about the pyramids than any of us."

Did the man know something of the boy's secret?

One may be sure that he did not, for he had never sat with him or listened to him. Nevertheless, from certain signs he had received from the boy, from expressions the boy had uttered and from other indications not all of which could be easily paraphrased, he had come to some understanding.

When the boy started to express his thoughts to his father, the latter hid his apprehension. The man had advanced in age now to the point where all he could do was listen. And what he heard stirred up in him echoes of things he had revealed to no man.

The boy said that this amazing stone structure, whether one be speaking of the Great or the Middle, was but an outward manifestation of something other, of a meaning, perhaps of a pattern, a truth, some power, maybe all of those. He could not be sure, but if he could know and become fully aware, he would settle down and feel peace.

What impelled him and moved him to ascend the pyramid, to commit its pathways to memory, to surpass the known, recorded, times, was not a desire to maintain a hereditary role that his forefathers had mastered so as to make a living and win the admiration of passing strangers. It was a means to become closer to that which he was seeking, that which had been tormenting him ever since he had become conscious of and grasped the difference between original and shadow, primary and secondary.

What lay behind that pattern?

Why did they come in this form?

How did matter connect with space?

This amazing base of huge stones which diminish the further we move upward till the mighty blocks disappear was, at a certain point, annihilated, after which began the void. The palpable, rising from below, dwindled into nothing, and the infinite began. The base was but an offshoot of the terrestrial world, an offshoot that extended to the entire planet and connected it to something more inclusive, while at the summit began that point, imperceptible to the eye, which is both the beginning and the end of all that lies beyond the capacity of the intellect to grasp.

It was that point that preoccupied him.

Was it earthly and tangible, or invisible?

Was it fixed like a trunk to the earth, or unbounded and connected to the edges of the universe?

He mentioned these things briefly and did not offer any explanations, perhaps because he did not wish to be explicit, perhaps because he did not himself yet comprehend. Undoubtedly he was pondering other things too, to which he did not allude. It was beyond his father to engage him in debate, especially now that his mother had gone to her eternal rest and the man's health had collapsed. When he saw his son standing in the courtyard at that moment when a white thread becomes distinguishable from a black, he said nothing, did not ask him in what direction he was headed at such an hour, realizing, maybe, the futility of such a question. He contented himself with gazing, with making his son's presence still sturdier, his determination yet loftier. With the experience of the long days that he had lived and that had passed through him, he felt certain that this was the moment in preparation for which his son had spent long years.

The son passed through the door out onto the ascending road. He did not stop for a moment or look behind him.

He began the climb easily, comfortably, not climbing now to show off a skill, to impress a guest, or to master a new route that would shorten the time, but out of obedience to a call. He felt a driving force, obscure in its essence, invisible to any witness, beyond the ken of any observer, leading him upward, to the summit. He had mastered many paths to that point, paths that threaded themselves among those stones that appear to the unfamiliar onlooker widely scattered, despite their adhesion, but which are in fact the essence of order.

On this ascent, however, he did not follow any of the paths he used by day. Instead he progressed by stepping on every one of the points that by day appeared to lie beyond reach, while his father, who had crept to the beginning of the road, averred that he was able to see him despite the weakness of his eyes, the dim light of dawn, and the absence of anything that could now tie him to him.

Those who know, those who have grasped some of what lies behind the veils and have groped their way to some familiarity with men's destinies, recount that at the instant of his arrival at the apex, the furthest attainable distance, he emitted a flash that reflected all the newborn light of the east so bright that it could be seen from afar, from every point on the horizon. It may be that he was wearing a traditional vestment of his forefathers. And he appeared almost to be dancing with joy, as though it were the first time for him to attain the summit, that tiny space on which an ancestor had passed an entire month without any known sustenance, that space that summarizes all that lies beneath it, all that buries itself deep in the belly of the earth, that awesome void that cannot be delimited, that erases all dividing lines, that equalizes all existing things.

That circling, bounding movement of his was but a prelude to his subjection to the onslaught of an unending series of illuminations that then permeated and swept over him, driving him toward, and driving toward him, the still center of the song, the source of every dream, the root of every yearning, the secret both of the upsurge of desire and of its extinction, the force that both bends the bough and rips it from the trunk.

From Pyramid Texts. Published 2007 by The American University in Cairo Press. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2007 by Humphrey Davies. All rights reserved.

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