Albert Cossery: Egypt’s Wayward Son
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Tuesday, April 24, 2012
When Egyptian author Albert Cossery died in 2008 at the age of 94, there were only a few pieces in the Arabic-language press noting his passing. None of those were from Egypt. Though the obituaries praised his work – including eight novels and some short stories – some questioned whether Cossery could even be considered an Egyptian author.
Cossery referred to himself as an “Egyptian writer who writes in French.” He was born to a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family in Egypt, but after leaving his birth country in 1930 at the age of 17, he settled permanently in Paris in 1945. Cossery’s popular image is rooted in his lifestyle as a Parisian dandy. He lived out of the Hotel Louisiane until his death and stepped out only to buy cigarettes and food or to sit at a café for hours. In his older years, he lamented the fall of the grand cafés due to an influx of tourists: “The people are very different, they seem ugly.” Yet Cossery never wrote about Paris. All his novels are either set in Egypt or in locales that bear a very close resemblance.
Cossery was a misfit in both Parisian and Egyptian societies. It’s perhaps his outsider status that gave him an impeccable eye for the absurd of the street. His characters are society’s outcasts: beggars, prostitutes, and image-obsessed flâneurs. All are inspired by Cossery’s memories of Egypt. In an interview with Banipal before his death, Cossery said:
“Unfortunately, most readers imagine my characters to be fictitious because they are unable to see anything other than the conventional in people. However, I could not invent all I write about. I travel to Cairo to meet the people and when I stroll amongst a crowd, whether in public squares, popular markets, or cafés, I listen to their conversations.”
In his 1964 novel The Jokers, or Violence and Irony in Arabic, Heykal and Karim are two dapper pranksters who seek the downfall of a dictator not through violence or revolution, but from praising him to death. They post fawning posters of the leader on the streets and write fulsome letters to the local newspapers. For Heykal, the self-styled revolutionaries and their serious efforts to overthrow the regime only lend legitimacy to a buffoonish dictator.
“To kill him [the governor] would be blasphemy. That’s what the pigheaded revolutionaries who fought him outright didn’t get: that they were giving him a reason to take himself seriously.”
After the fall of Mubarak, Cossery’s irreverent take on revolution and poverty has been met with renewed interest in the United States. In 2011, Proud Beggars and The Colors of Infamy were re-released by US publishing houses, providing a curmudgeonly lens for interpreting the country’s revolution. Earlier, in 2010, an English translation of The Jokers was released with an image of what appears to be former Syrian President Hafez Assad on the cover. Despite the Cossery comeback in the US, his work continues to languish in most Arab countries.
Four of his novels have been translated into Arabic, including The Jokers and Proud Beggars. In 2008, Algerian journalist Daikha Dridi traveled to Cairo and couldn’t find a single copy of Cossery’s work in the city’s libraries. She met with the translator of Cossery’s work, Mahmoud Qassem, and discovered that he had translated the novels without pay. Unfortunately, he was forced to censor one line of Proud Beggars. The line, "I want to sleep with you" was translated, "I like you." Egyptian director Asma al-Bakry made The Jokers into a film in 2003, but it was never publicly released and has been screened only once immediately after Cossery’s death.
Egyptian author Ibrahim Farghali said that Cossery is not widely known in Egypt due to a lack of quality translations and his Francophone leanings. Despite this, Farghali sees Cossery as an Egyptian author. “From the point of view of his writings, and his subjects and characters, he seems like he knows Egypt very well,” said Farghali.
Cossery’s characters eschew society’s suffocating definitions of dignity and shame. In Proud Beggars, Gohar, a drug-addled former university professor, kills a prostitute with little more than a shrug. Yet the substance of the novel is in Gohar’s reveling in the “utter frivolousness” of life, as seen when he comes across a shop that sells absolutely nothing.
Yassine Temlali, an Algerian journalist, said that even though Cossery writes in French, remnants of colloquial Egyptian speech mannerisms come out in his writing. “For me, his work is something like a ‘Francophone equivalent’ of the work of Naguib Mahfouz,” he said. Temlali notes that Cossery is better known in leftist and intellectual Francophone circles in the Maghreb, especially Algeria.
Unlike Mahfouz, Cossery remained estranged from Egypt for most of his life, but one hardly senses any detachment in his writings. Instead, Cossery upturns the norms of Egyptian life by deliberately rejecting every kind of conventionality. Perhaps this is why, in 1938, Cossery signed the degenerate art manifesto penned by Egyptian surrealists that denounced censorship at the hands of fascist European governments.
Cossery had an undeniable anti-authoritarian streak, as well as a distrust of revolutionary actors, who he portrayed in his novels as equally concerned with solidifying their own grip on power. Temlali described Cossery as a “desperate and pessimistic writer,” but also as “a ‘writer of the people’ who described his way of life and his places, but he was not a revolutionary writer. His weapon – and the weapon of his characters against injustice – was the derision and the humor, not the rebellion.”
Cossery never sought legendary status. He only had one request for the future: “My only aspiration is for my books to be available.”