zayniZayni Barakat, probably Jamal al-Ghitani’s most famous novel, first published in serial form in the magazine Rose al-Yusif in 1971 and then in book form four years later in 1974, is set in Egypt in the 16th century, between the years 1516-17, when Ottoman armies defeated the forces of the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Al Ghuri at the battle of Marj Dabiq.

As Roger Allen notes, it was:

“written in the tense and recriminatory period that followed the defeat of 1967, a time when…there was a profound reexamination of the very bases of Arab cultures and the contemporary societies constructed on their alleged principles.” (196)

In this context, al-Ghitani is attempting to do something radically different than a writer like Muhammad Sayid a-Uryan’s على باب زويلة (On the Gate of Zuwayla, 1947). While Uryan depicts a historical period, in Zayni Barakat this period in Egyptian history (1516-17) parallels another (1952-67), capturing the essence of the past and seeing in it the reflection of the contemporary reality. As Stefan Meyer notes:


Ghitani works at grafting the form of the modern novel onto the material of the historical novel, using a veiled technique to comment on the present by confirming it in the past. The lack of characters that can be connected to historical record is a clue that this is a fictive text meant to present an image of present day reality in veiled form.

As Edward Said pointed out in a foreword to the translaton, Zayni Barakat clearly corresponds to Gamal Abdel Nasser:

Al-Ghitani’s disenchanted reflections upon the past directly associate Zayni’s rule with the murky atmosphere of intrigue, conspiracy and multiple schemes that characterized Abdel Nasser’s rule during the 1960s, a time, according to Ghitani, spent on futile efforts to control and improve the moral standard of Egyptian life, even as Israel (the Ottomans) prepared for invasion and regional dominance.

Samia Mehrez in her essay Al Zayni Barakat: Narrative as Strategy argues that by evoking this parallelism, al-Ghitani tries to represent and come to terms with his own historical present without directly addressing it, and describes this in terms of Barthes’ ”new type of scriptor, halfway between the party member and the writer.” Another way of putting this is in David Cowart‘s terms, as the past becomes a “distant mirror” of the present.

While al-Ghitani recreates a historical era, the contemporary relevance of the picture that emerges is impossible to overlook, as the narrative describes a popular figure who increasingly becomes an integral part of a dictatorial regime, culminating in a depiction of a disastrous defeat whose impact on the people is all the more shocking because it is so unexpected. In  both the past and the present it reflects, even as events of enormous importance are taking place, information is so controlled that there is a

“constant interplay between the discussions among people who know and the announcements to the Egyptian people of part or all of what it is that they know, manipulated by both occasion and the selection of both material and language to meet the needs of authority and power.”

The means by which the  people are made aware of the defeat is through a proclamation in the name of the khunkar, an Ottoman Turkish term. This might be seen as symbolically reflecting the shock of the new reality, described by the first-person narrator (the only example of a first person narrator in a novel with a variety of narrative modes) the Venetian traveler named Visconti Gianti:

These days the whole of Egypt is in an uproar. This is a Cairo I don’t recognize, not like the one I got to know earlier. People’s way of talking has changed too, I thought I knew the language and its patois pretty well. The city looks like an invalid on the point of bursting into tears…like a blindfolded man on his back waiting for some hidden fate to strike him…Ottoman soldiers are roaming everywhere, attacking people’s homes. In these times walls have lost all value, the concept of a door is nonexistent.

From this opening, the narrative goes back in time until it returns at the end. This is suggested in the quotation at the beginning, “every first has a last and every beginning an end” which is not a platitude so much as an indication that the beginning of the novel is in fact the beginning of the end and not the chronological beginning.


The narrative returns after the opening section to the chronological beginning of novel, where there is a decree from the sultan that Ali Ibn Abi al-Jud is to be removed from the post of muhtasib and Zayni Barakat appointed in his stead.

This is a source of anxiety for Zakariyya Ibn Radi, “the eyes and ears of the sultan,” the chief spy of Cairo, who immediately sets his espionage apparatus to work, his spies reporting back all they learn about Zayni. The title character then stands at the center of the novel, between the Sultan’s authority and Zakariya’s espionage network. There is one more figure of authority in the novel: Shaykh Abu al-Su’ud, a Sufi master, whose narrative emerges in chapters with the title Kum al-Jarih, the name of the village he holds court over. When Zayni is appointed, the Shaykh summons him, and he accompanies one of the Shaykh’s followers, the Azhar student Sai’d al-Juwayni. Meanwhile Zakariya employs another Azhar student, Amr ibn al-Adawi to spy on Sa’id. As Allen puts it:

The narrative threads thus work down and up the chains of authority, from the Sultan to Zakariyya, from the Shaykh to Sa’id, and from Amr to Sa’id. In the midst of the maze, the mysterious figure of Zayni manipulates all possible angles.


Similarly, Walid Hamarneh notes that Zayni is

“analogical to the real center of the narrative, namely the nexus of power/knowledge. Power…the creation, perpetuation and preservation of power centers, the relationship between power and authority, and the mechanisms of repression and domination, past and present, are what is central to the novel”

Al-Ghitani gradually builds up a narrative which depicts the layers of subjugation, repression and espionage which holds the state together. The internal events of the narrative are recounted under the narrative umbrella of its six sections (canopies) framed by the vision of Gianti who is returned to in the final section, with the title “kharij al surdaqat” – outside the canopies. Within the six large sections, there are a number of subsections, some reports and proclamations and the words of heralds, some under the names of people who narrate: Zakariyya, Sa’id and Amr in the third person as well as the narrative of the Venetian traveler, in the first person.

Al-Ghitani’s innovations in methods of narration to depict this reality include the system of chapter arrangement and the division of the text, as well as the intertextual play involved in including authentic historical texts in the account by Ibn Iyas, an Egyptian historian of this period. This is heightened by the fact that Gianti informs us that his friend Ibn Iyas has permited him to quote from his account of Sultan al-Ghuri’s departure from Cairo to confront the Ottoman armies in Syria.

Ibn Iyas’  account, with the title Badai al-Zuhur fi Waqai al-Duhur (the best flowers on the events of fate) is cited repeatedly, in the account of the Battle at Marj Dabiq and when it comes to Barakat’s beating at the hands of his Sufi master, the two events being juxtaposed in the narrative.

Zayni Barakat makes use of historical documents throughout the narrative, embedding pastiches of medieval historiography as well as documents, letters, reports and public proclamations. Early on in the narrative for example there is an official decree issued by the Sultan stipulating the bestowal on Barakat ibn Musa the title of al-Zayni, the illustrated one. However, while Barakat is the focus of the work, he never speaks in the narrative. The reader’s impression of him is entirely built up through the textual sources which emphasize the mystery that surrounds his character. As Allen notes, there is a series of concentric circles of increasing distance set up between the outermost frame, Gianti, who knows least and speaks with a personalizing I, to the central focus Zayni, who is given no narrative voice at all, which creates an ironic narrative situation as

three narrators, the chief spy and the two Zzhar students, fill in parts of the cognitive space between the foreigner, to whom everything is strange, and the insider who gives the appearance of knowing everything and using such knowledge to his advantage.

Since “each of the contributors of novel’s narrative knows a certain amount and places the information at his disposal into the collective assemblage of documents,” Allen notes:

The picture that we receive is created by the way in which these various accounts interact with each other, all crafted through a virtuoso patchwork of “sources” of varying reliability.

This textual game enhances the sense of oppressive surveillance in the text and is employed for ironic effect. For example, Zakariya’s letters are headed  اللهم اجعل هذا البلد آمنا “God keep this country safe” at the top, a line increasingly at odds with accounts of torture and imprisonment. The sixth canopy  repeats the line ”God keep this country safe” and then attaches reports that are secret ”for the eyes of the spy chief only.” Among the most scathing parts of the book occurs in this section, under the title ”How can a spy be well-loved?” which describes the nature of the ideal spy. Another section is a report regarding the suggested notion of using numbers for people rather than using names, and the text of a fatwa which allows this in all religions, while yet another is regarding intelligence on intelligence, that is, how one spy should spy on another spy.

For spy chief

The ultimate irony comes with Zakariyya’s realization that

For months now he had realized that Zayni had not created a special information-gathering apparatus. He didn’t employ a single spy; they were all regular employees of the muhtasib…Zakariyya now realized that he’d been utterly and completely fooled. His dearest wish would have been to discover that al-Zayni actually did have a network of spies working for him, but the truth was that it was just a rumor put around by alzayni himself. The whole system was put together in the air; created, yet not.

In this context, the hypocrisy of the heralds calls of  ”نأمر بالمعروف و ننهى عن المنكر” (We ordain good deeds and prohibit the evil) becomes almost unbearable. This situation is summed up early on by Sa’id: هذا زمان الحيرة و سيادة الشك و فناء اليقين This is the time of confusion and the spreading of doubt and the end of certainty (69).

Sa’id, who is one of the four focalizers, is a stranger to Cairo, having come from Upper Egypt. Sa’id’s role in the narrative is to reflect the view of someone observing the shift from competition to cooperation between Zakariyya and Zayni signified in one of the canopies which bears the heading “Zayni and Zakaria fix many things.” He grows increasingly discontented with Zayni’s being embroiled in the plots of the sinister spy chief,  acting in a sense as the moral voice in the narrative, with a high poetic tone being used in both his narrative and that of the Shaykh. Eventually, his downfall is arranged by Zayni and Zakariya and discontent changes to active resistance. All this crystallizes in the moment when Zayni gives a speech at Azhar, and amid the chants of Long live Zakariya, Zayni forever, ”عاش زكريا دمت يا زايني” a voice from the crowd yells out ”liar.”

In the next section, there is a flashback to explain this incident, as Sa’id reflects over the manipulation and humiliation of himself and of the Egyptian populace. Following his shout, we are given one sentence, encapsulating his anguish in the cry “Oh how they have destroyed me and leveled my strongholds!” This comes just before Gianti’s final depiction of the devasted city, returning to the beginning.


As news of the disastrous defeat reaches Cairo, Sa’id’s downfall has been accomplished and Amr is dismissed for not being a good enough spy and Zayni is under detention. It is left to the Venetian traveler to narrate the outcome, and he tells us that after the disastrous defeat, Zayni reemerges – Ottoman currency has replaced that of the Mamluks but Zayni Barakat, ever a survivor, has been restored to office.

For al-Ghitnai:

The artist records things that are not mentioned in the writings of historians…his task is to preserve the essence of a particular temporal period from oblivion, from the relentless process of eradication within than fearsome cosmic void called time.



Studies of Zayni Barakat in:

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