Thursday 31 January 2013

The Day I Met Gamal El-Banna

Yesterday, at 93 years of age, Gamal El-Banna passed away after a struggle with illness. He was a towering thinker, often controversial (at times for his supporters and detractors alike), a profoundly courageous mind, and a man whose massive body of work will live for long.

El-Banna dedicated his life to two causes. The first was the rejuvenation of Islamic jurisprudence, which he believed had been overtaken by a deeply rigid and innovation-aversive mindset that he saw as having clouded the essentially progressive nature of the religion. The second cause, which had been deeply overshadowed by the first, was his leftism.

Nearly a year ago, my friend and brilliant journalist Jess Hill informed me she was looking for an interpreter to do an interview with El-Banna, asking me to find her someone. I immediately volunteered to do it in exchange for cheesecake, being genuinely excited about the idea of meeting the man. 

I was given a landline to call him to set the appointment. I called, and nothing happened. After a couple of days of trying, finally someone picked up. A senior, calm and immensely reassured voice answered, and it was him. Within 30 seconds the interview was set, and a couple of days later we went to see the man.

We were lost for quite a bit in the mazes of old Cairo until we finally found the building where he lived. Once you enter his office, the first thing that will make you gasp is the sheer amount of books he owned. There were thousands of books, categorised, sorted out alphabetically and thematically, and many more were on the floor waiting to be sorted.

Your eyes would not have mistaken how old El-Banna was. But they would also not mistake how lucid he was. He was writing an article for Al-Masry Al-Youm when we met him, on traditional pen and paper to be sure. He was generous with his time, answered all of our questions, and he invited me to visit him on a friendly basis. I did try that one time, but I was informed by his assistant that he was not of good health at the time. Regrettably, I never saw him again.

El-Banna was the half-brother of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna. In fact, Gamal El-Banna's last name wasn't even El-Banna, but he took up the name as his pen name. He held a genuine and profound respect for Hassan El-Banna whom he called "Al-Ustath Hassan" and not Sheikh Hassan, holding on the idea that only an Azhar graduate could carry the mantle of "Sheikh," and Hassan El-Banna wasn't. He talked for ages about the tenacity of Hassan El-Banna's dedication to building the Brotherhood, and how the man was an organisational genius in his opinion. Simultaneously, he was also in deep disapproval of what the Brotherhood - which he never joined - was turning into in the last days of his half-brother's life. As for the Brotherhood today, well, he loathed it. He believed in the separation of religion and politics, and he believed in progressivism, two things he saw the current Brotherhood as the absolute opposite of.

It is unclear who will carry forward the school of thought that El-Banna represented. But until one or more such names do come forward, El-Banna's huge body of work alone is something that would take years to read.

On the way out, I took the picture above. He also told me a very interesting historic fact about the desk in the lower part of the photo. But that is, well, for another day.


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