Gamal al-Ghitani is a reporter at the newspaper Akhbar al-Yom(News of the Day), and the Editor-in-Chief of Akhbar al-Adab(News of Literature). As such, he's definitely a part of the state apparatus, because there is a lot of governmental censorship and control of the media. His books are still critical of the government, but in subtle, round-about ways - the one we read was called Zayni Barakat and it is about an eponymous 15th-century judge in Mamluk Cairo who is a critical parallel of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Sonallah Ibrahim, on the other hand, is a real rarity in Egypt - a true professional writer. Since books in Egypt are printed in runs of several thousand, it's a hard way to make a living. But he wants to be truly independent from the government and so he has lived a very modest lifestyle, almost below the poverty line(which in Egypt is very low indeed). He was even offered a literary prize by a governmental literary body that included a cash prize of almost $100,000, but he turned it down, saying:
We have no theatre, no cinema, no research, no education. We only have festivals and conferences and a boxful [referring to Egyptian television broadcasting] of lies.
I met Ibrahim first, last night at my professor's apartment here on the upper floors of the dorms where many of the teachers live. She has a really amazing place, with a stunning view of Cairo where you can hear all the muezzins calling to prayer at once. Most of our class was there, about 12-14 people, and we asked him some questions and then had dinner and it sort of relaxed into a dinner party. It was quite entertaining and enlightening, and though he spoke softly and alternated between English and Arabic, he was quite an entertaining guy and made a few funny quips - notably, when he heard we were studying Arabic literature, he asked "Why? What do we have worth studying?" He was a very thin, dark, mild-looking man, with an unassuming manner and a big shock of grey curly hair, almost Einsteinish. He also said John Grisham was one of his favorite American authors, although I couldn't tell if he was being tongue-in-cheek.
al-Ghitani couldn't have been more different. We met him at his office this morning in the imposing(for Cairo) main building of Akhbar Al-Yom, and we sat across the desk from him and talked in Arabic and English for a while. He was a much more imposing figure, bigger and more lively and self-confident. His great passion is Islamic Cairo or al-Qahirah al-Qadeema, and he offered to give us tours of it later - unfortunately, he's going to the US and won't be back until I have left. His office was very imposing and official, which seemed appropriate to his relatively "insider" status compared to Ibrahim.
All in all, it was an interesting and educating two days.