Tag Archives: Egypt

An early post-colonial novel about internal exile

The back cover of the republication of Beer in the Snooker Club by Wauigh Ghali (1928?-69) claims that “if Holden Caulfield had grown up in 1950s Cairo rather than in New York City, he would have found himself a kindred spirit in Ram Bey. I think any resemblances between Beer in the Snooker Club and Catcher in the Rye are very superficial. There is some resemblance between Salinger’s Mr. Spencer and the Londoner to whom Ram has a letter of introduction, Dr. Dungate, but Ram is older than Holden, far more sexually experienced and assured, and far more politically aware. Both despite the phoniness of others and of their cultures, but Ram is far more aware of his own phoniness than Holden is. (And both novels meander a bit, though Ghali’s has characters who are developed more than Salinger’s, who are IMHO props for his solipsistic narrator.)

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Moreover, Ram’s ethnicity is not fudged as Salinger’s Holden Caulfiield’s is: Ram is a Copt, for him an ethnicity with no religious content, but a threatened minority status in Nasser’s pan-Arab (Muslim though not Islamist) autocracy. The militaristic Muslim state targeted the cosmopolitan (partly Jewish, but not only Jewish) elite, many of whose members (including the hanger-on Ram, whose dead father lost all his wealth before the revolution of 1952) did not speak Arabic. He was educated in Anglophone schools with Francophone relatives condescending to the Muslim majority, the fellaheen (now more commonly Romanized as fellahin). The books he read were English, and before going there, Ram was a fervent anglophile… and unable to feel at home in either the old or the new Egypt with colonial or post-colonial oppressions.

A sponger from the old elite class, Ram is in love with a communist Jewish woman from a very rich family (that has lived in Egypt for five generations, though she is the first member of it to speak Arabic), Edna Salva. Edna pays for the expenses of both Ram and his pure-hearted schoolmate Font going to England. Font has an affair with one of Dr. Dungate’s daughters; Ram sleeps with another visiting Egyptian, Didi (whom I think is also Coptic, as Font also is), even while being supported by Edna. (and only years later does Ram tell Edna that he had joined the communist party in the UK, explaining: “this knowledge of history and politics and literature had to be channelled towards something or other if I weren’t to go mad.”

Back in Egypt after the Suez Crisis of 1956, Ram gathers evidence of torture of communists and other opponents of the Nasser regime, cadges drinks, etc. from his affluent schoolmates (NOT Font who takes a job attending to the Cairo Snooker Club owned by another affluent classmate, Jameel) and proposes to both Edna and Didi in quick succession.

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The narrator is outraged by the difficulty of getting an exit visa from Egypt and, then, by his treatment by British immigration officials, though with help from Dr. Dungate he manages to get a student visa to extend the ten-day tourist visa on which he arrived in London.

There is a lot of alcohol in the book, not just in the title (at the club, Ram adds Vodka and whisky to the local (Stella) beer approximate the British Bass Pale Ale, which is unavailable in Egypt). I didn’t notice any mention of religious opposition to or interdiction of alcoholic beverages in the semi-autobiographical novel. (Ghali, like Ram an impoverished member of a non-Muslim, non-Arabic-using rentier family, attended Victoria College in his native Alexandria and in Cairo in the late 1940s, spent some time without obtaining a degree at the Sorbonne in the early 1950s, and lived partly in West Germany, partly in England after leaving Egypt a second time and for good in 1958.)

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(Muizz Street, photographed by Joonas Plann)

As a tale of disillusionment and alienation, Beer in the Snooker Club is bitterly funny (unlike Holden, Ram has a sense of humor, and considers joking what Egyptians do best), though I find it difficult to accept that it provides “uncanny parallels to today’s Egypt” (as Negar Azmi claimed in the New York Times, 9/11/11 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/books/review/what-do-egypts-writers-do-now.html?pagewanted=all). The lack of jobs and the concomitant exodus of many of the educated after the failure of “the Arab Spring” is a parallel, if not a surprising, let alone an uncanny one, to the stunted social revolution of 1952. (Azmi also invokes Holden Caulfield and treat Ram as “articulat[ing] the identity crisis of a generation,” as Holden did. (Oddly, neither the back cover of the Vintage reissue nor Azmi’s essay mention Cairene Noble laureate, sometimes socialist (Wafd) and always anti-Islamist Naguib Mahfouz, although Azmi mentions Alaa al-Aswany’s mega-best-seller in Arabic, The Yacoubian Building, and Lexy Bloom (on the back cover) mentions Ben Lerner’s modern classic of young male disillusionment, Leaving the Atocha Station. In its Africa-to-Britian trajectory, apter comparison would have been to Sudanese (upriver) somewhat-later novel of return from England, Season of Migration to the North, by Ghali’s contemporary Tayeb Saleh (1928-2009) or to the novels of Francophone Cairo-born novelist of Greek Orthodox ancestry predecessor, Albert Cossery (1913-2008), such as The Jokers and Proud Beggars; Cossery maintained that laziness was not a vice, but a necessary basis for contemplation, a sentiment Ram might have shared had he read French instead of English).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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More Albert Cossery fiction

Nothing much happens in The House of Certain Death, first published in French in 1950as La maison de la mort certaine) by Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery (1913-2008). Surprisingly (or willfully!) it ends with a rabble-will-rise invocation by the tenement tenants of venal landlord Si Khalil. It is especially surprising in that before that they could not agree about anything, constantly quarreling and often cursing each other while, with good cause, fearing the building will collapse. Before the solidarity imagined for the end, the best those living there hoped was: “The house will fall on our heads, but there are a lot of us. We shan’t all be killed. Some will survive and know how to avenge the others” (Abdel Al’s articulation of their fatalism)

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Cossery mentioned reading Gorky in prison, but Gorky (along with French “naturalism”) also seems to have influenced Cossery. Or at least I don’t see the form as much influenced by indigenous Arab models… This might be because of my ignorance, but I don’t think it is.

Cossery aimed to show “limitless ugliness of life” in an Egyptian city slum and certainly succeeded in that: there’s lots of degradation and decay on view (from back in the reign of King Farouk).

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My favorite Cossery fiction available in English is his third novel, The Lazy Ones, (first published in French in 1948 as Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile) in which Serag mystifies everyone by seeking to break loose from his eternally sleeping family and fantasizing about work. Outside his family everyone he encounters wonders why he would want to work if he didn’t have to. Inside the family, repose is valued more highly than sex. The servant Hoda, whom Serag’s brothers lust after, wants Serag, who is not interested, regarding sex as a drain of his limited energy that should be devoted to leaving the house of sleepers and finding work

There is also Mimi, a painter who thinks artists must be pederasts and who longs for his former classmate of Serag’s older brother Rafik (who in turn misses the prostitute he almost married and is contemptous of Mimi, even suggesting that he isn’t a real invert).

And the father (Hafez) is trying to arrange a marriage despite his growing hernia (as large as a watermelon). The matchmaker telles people that he has diabetes. In her view only righ people could eat enough sweets to become diabetic, to that this is a selling point.

 

©2017, Stephen Murray

Also see my review of Proud Beggars. Cossery’s forebearers were Greek Orthodox, not Muslim; all eight of his novels were about Arabs.

The most effective weapon of the weak may be parody, but like satire, some will take it literally

Born in Cairo of Lebanese and Syrian Greek Orthodox parents Albert Cossery (1913–2008) spent ten years in the Egyptian merchant marines before starting to write caustic satirical novels in French. He was discovered by Henry Miller and Albert Camus (not a common pairing!). His 1993 novel La violence et la dérision (Violence and derision) translated into English by Anna Moschovakis and published as The Jokers in the estimable New York Review Books series.

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Though the setting is not named, it is a port city, presumably in Africa, like Alexandria. Autocrats lacking in any sense of irony or any other sense of humor rule the country. The regime crushes dissent.

As a student, Karim had been an opponent of the autocracy, but has settled down to making kits and avoids any political remarks. If pressed, as when he is hauled into the police who want to eject him from his rooftop apartment the overlooks a thoroughfare, Karim praises the regime and all its functionaries to a degree that makes even the pompous officials uncomfortable.

With his friend Heykal, Karim begins a campaign of parodying the local governor with posters of such extravagant praise that they make him a laughing stock. From that success, they go on to launch a campaign to raise a public statue of the buffoon. Mockery, ridicule, satire are among the weapons of the weak, specialties of Czechs in particular, but available to Arabs, too.

Alas, one of Karim’s former comrades in opposition to the regime, the deadly serious Taher is outraged that serious revolutionaries such as himself are being blamed for the subversive campaign of excessive adulation of the nonentity governor, so even as the central government is blaming the governor for puffing himself up, Taher is bent on conventional (violent) means to combat the government.

Ultimately, the joke is on the jokers and it is unlikely that anything will improve for the governed.

Along with the campaign of out-bombasting the bombastic autocrats, there is a poignant story of the mother of a teacher who has lost her mind, and some tenderness from a friend of her son. And kite-flying. And even hints of redemptive love for a 4-F character.

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The novel is a brisk 145 pages.

John Buchan’s introduction provides an overview of Cossery’s life and works.

 

©2010,2017, Stephen O. Murray