Several dozen obituaries have been written about Ghazi al Gosaibi in the past week. The Khaleeji literary giant passed away in Riyadh at 70 years of age after decades spent in public service.
He held a number of posts: as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Industry, he set up the petrochemical giant Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic); he was an ambassador to Britain; and finally, he was Minister of Labour from 2005 until his death. On a personal note, I wish he had turned down the last government post and dedicated his time to his writings. But Ghazi was supremely devoted to his government duties, and that might have been his greatest conflict.
Unlike the dozens of writers who penned an obituary for Ghazi, I had never met him in person. And yet, I feel as though I have known him. He is the only writer whose every publication I have read.
My favourite was one in which he filled in the blanks: Suhaim, the true story of a slave who was burnt at the stake for his mistakes as he recited poems about the tribal daughters he slept with. The tale was lost to Arab history and was only saved by Ghazi’s vast imagination.
Seldom do Khaleeji writers venture beyond the artificial borders that separate the indigenous culture shared from Kuwait to Oman and see themselves as sons of the blue waters of the Gulf. And yet, with An Apartment Called Freedom, Ghazi did just that.
Ghazi was a Saudi citizen who felt just as comfortable portraying Bahraini students as he would his compatriots. This masterfully written book revolves around four Khaleejis: Fouad, Yaqoub, Abdul Karim and Qassim studying in Cairo after the 1952 revolution. The students party with girlfriends and dabble in religion, politics and literature.
Bahrainis and other Gulf nationals received these stories as though they were written for them and about them. I can’t imagine another Khaleeji writer ascribing controversial traits to another nationality in the Gulf without being accused of political bias.
Few other writers have transcended the notion of distinct nationalities that is common among many Gulf writers today. The late Kuwaiti intellectual Ahmad al Rubie, who spent seven months in an Omani jail for fighting on the side of Dhofari socialist revolutionaries, also saw the Gulf as a cultural whole. Like al Rubie, al Gosaibi was part of a generation that believed in a single Khaleeji identity.
However, Ghazi’s most controversial moment came when he wrote a poem praising a Palestinian girl who blew herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket in March 2002. It was an impossible circle to square for many Arabs, since it came so soon after September 11.
Simultaneously, the memory of Muhammad al Durrah, a 12-year-old child allegedly killed by Israeli soldiers, was still fresh in many minds. That poem contained harsh criticism of the Arab world that still rings true today. Shortly after the poem was published, Ghazi voiced his support for a two-state solution for the Middle East conflict and the Saudi government-backed Arab peace initiative.
Ghazi has been the latest in a string of Arab literary figures to have passed away over the past decade. Others, such as Abdul Rahman Muneef, Mohammed Choukri, Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz, weren’t compromised or conflicted by government posts. But what concerns me the most with the passing of these literary giants is whether the new generation of Gulf and Arab writers will be as capable and brave in their writings as their predecessors.
The above writers, including Ghazi, had to struggle for the right to pen their thoughts; some were shunned, others banned, exiled – a few were jailed. Is the new generation of Arab writers willing to struggle and pay a price for their ideas? More specifically, is the new generation of Khaleeji writers willing to look beyond state boundaries as Ghazi and Al Rubie did, and see the vast, united expanse that is the Gulf and the Arab world?
As time passes, there will be more and more people like me who have been impacted by Ghazi’s writings. What is clear from where I stand is that Ghazi may have made better choices as a fiction writer than as a politician.
His relationship with the government may have put pressure and limits on his literary career, forcing him to put his public service first. Perhaps one day, like Ghazi’s rendering of Suhaim, some young Gulf writer will fill in the blanks of this complex writer’s life-long struggle.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 22nd August 2010