Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

A spirit of enchantment
Last month Cairo celebrated 100 years since the publication of Qassem Amin's "The Liberation of Women". Fayza Hassan reviews the book and reflects on the model and its inspiration

A new course of action
The full text of Qassem AminOs concluding chapter of The Liberation of Women.

Women's Voices
Classical Poems by Arab Women -- A Bilingual Anthology, Abdullah al-Udhari, London: Saqi Books, London, 1999. pp240

Confronting loss
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, Dunya Mikhail, Cairo and Leeds: Ishtar Publishing House, 1999. pp123

Novel knowledge
Tashazi Al-Zaman fil Riwaya Al-Haditha (The Fragmentation of Time in the Modern Novel), Amina Rashid, Cairo: GEBO, 1998. pp194

Moveable feast
Mulid! Carnivals of Faith, Photographs by Sherif Sonbol, Text by Tarek Atia, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp96

A regard from afar
Les Couleurs de l'infamie, Albert Cossery, Paris: Editions Joelle Losfeld, 1999. pp132

Two literary journals
*Journal of Arabic Literature, Volume XXX, No. 2, Leiden: Brill, 1999
*Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures, Volume 2, Number 2, Basingtoke: Carfax Publishing Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1999
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
and Periodicals:
*Al-Hadatha Al-Tabi'a fil Thaqafa Al-Misriya (Dependence in Modern Egyptian Culture), Sayed El-Bahrawi, Cairo: Mirette Publications, 1999. pp233
*Fi Wada' Al-Qarn Al-'Ishrin (Farewell to the 20th Century), Ramzi Zaki, Cairo: Al-Mostaqbal Al-Arabi, 1999. pp442
*Al-Yahoud fi Misr Al-Mamloukiya (The Jews in Mameluke Egypt), Mahasen Mohamed El-Waqqar, Cairo: GEBO, 1999. pp471
*Misr wa Riyah Al-'Awlama (Egypt and the Winds of Globalisation), Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp264
*Taw'am Al-Solta wal Jins (The Twin Issue of Power and Sex), Nawal El-Sa'dawi, Cairo: Dar Al-Mostaqbal Al-'Arabi, 1999. pp257
*Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, November 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
*Al-Arabi, a monthly magazine, November 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
*Mediterraneans: Voices from Morocco: a quarterly publication, winter 1999
*Ahwal Misriya (Egyptian Chronicles), a quarterly magazine, autumn 1999, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
*Al-'Osour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 1, 1999, Cairo: Dar Sinai
*Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, Oct 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
*Amkena (Places), an occasional publication, 1999, Cairo: Samizdat
*Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), Monthly literary magazine, Oct. 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
*Nour, Occasional Review of Books, Fall 1999, Cairo: Arab Women's Publishing House

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Les Couleurs de l'infamie, Albert Cossery, Paris: Editions Joelle Losfeld, 1999. pp132

A regard from afar

Cossery From Asmaa El-Bakry's Mendiants et orgueilleux
Admirers of the Franco-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery need only be told that in this novel, apparently his last and 15 years in the making, the master is on fine form. That characteristic blend of Olympian detachment and fine-grained moral inspection is shown to great effect in Les Couleurs de l'infamie (The Colours of Infamy). For those who know Cossery only from Asmaa El-Bakry's film adaptation of his novel Mendiants et orgueilleux (Proud Beggars), now astonishingly a decade old but still enchanting audiences worldwide, this valedictory piece will serve as good an introduction as any to its author's work, which, including Les Couleurs, now runs to not quite ten slim volumes.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Cossery, now aged 86 and unable to speak following a throat operation two years ago, has given up writing with this latest novel ('Albert Cossery n'écrira plus', Le Monde des livres, 15 October). Since leaving his native Egypt for Paris some 50 years ago, in which city his occupation has been to observe the passers-by from the vantage point of a street-side café in St Germain-des-Prés, Cossery has, the French journalist goes on, been able to develop indolence "as at once an art of living and a metaphysical world view -- a sort of non-lazy indolence that pertains mostly to a resistance to varied external demands, but also to the active contemplation" of the world.

Indolence is, in short, both a view on the world and a reaction to it. As if to demonstrate the practical value of this philosophy, during his recent stay in hospital Cossery had apparently prepared an active tactic to respond without too much effort to those enquiring after his health "in the form of small pieces of paper on which were written the usual responses". A nice illustration of the ethic in action, the anecdote reveals both the author's Nietzschean hauteur when it comes to the banal exchanges of daily life, as well as the considerable preparatory spadework such an ethic involves. While it is said that a well-known New York hostess, millionairess and 'trophy wife', condemned to community service for years of tax evasion, hired a small army to perform her penance for her, one suspects that Cossery, steeling himself for the necessary hypocrisy of at least responding to the demands of the outside world, and presumably morally more self-aware, wrote out those labels himself.

However Cossery has not written a lot, nor has what he has written been undertaken with anything less than Flaubertian standards of exactitude. It is said that a single sentence suffices for a day's work, though that sentence is turned with an exquisite care. The method pays off of course, particularly in passages such as the following with which Cossery opens his book.

"The human multitude," he writes, "which ambled along at the nonchalant pace of a summer stroll on the broken pavements of the thousand-year-old city of Al-Qahira, seemed to have accommodated itself with serenity, and even a certain cynicism, to the incessant and irreversible degradation of the environment. One would even have said that these stoic pedestrians walking under the shining avalanche of the sun kept up in their tireless wanderings a welcome complicity with the invisible enemy that was sapping at the foundations and at the structures of a formerly splendid capital city. Not perceiving the drama or the desolation, the crowd carried along with it an astonishing variety of characters made apathetic by their lack of work: unemployed workers, craftsmen without customers, intellectuals disabused of glory, minor civil servants turned out of their offices by a lack of chairs, university graduates weighted down by sterile learning, and finally those who laugh eternally, the philosophers who loved the shadows and peace and quiet, and who considered that the spectacular deterioration of their city had been specially conceived in order to sharpen their critical sense."

As is so often the case in Cossery's writings, the present novel contains its philosopher-figure in the shape of Karamallah, a dispossessed modern sage, who, in order to escape judicial persecution, takes up residence in the city's cemetery, the famous 'City of the Dead'. From this eyrie, Karamallah regards the city's goings-on with a magnificent disdain, occasionally emerging from the quiet with which he has surrounded himself to laugh at the antics of his fellow citizens. In so far as the novel may be said to have a plot, it concerns the gravitation of a young thief, Ossama, into Karamallah's protective care. There seems to be a Socratic dimension here, as the young man's talent is only drawn out, or made philosophically explicit, under the older man's gentle questioning. Together the two of them, aided by a third, Nimr (Ossama's former 'tutor'), expose to their own delight, though without any public aim, the corruption of Suleyman, a real-estate speculator recently implicated in the collapse of certain shoddily constructed apartment buildings, killing the unfortunate tenants. They do this apparently only to confirm their own suspicions as to the varied 'colours' of infamy, though Suleyman, who is less sophisticated, suspects blackmail. Nimr, in particular, has something of the joyfulness and happy criminality of the aged Fagin regarding the young Oliver Twist in Dickens' novel of that name and exuberantly captured by Lionel Bart in his musical Oliver! As is so often the case in Dickens, and is quite definitely the case here, the criminal elements get all the best lines.

However it would be idle to attempt to extract much of a philosophy from Les Couleurs de l'infamie. That it has one is assuredly the case; a slightly rancid existentialism wafts from these pages as surely as it does from the author's other works. But even if one suspects that Cossery's micro-communities of philosopher-thieves, or thieving philosophers, whose authenticity in the face of an infamous world is saved by their self-justifying pride (l'orgueil), are not models susceptible to general imitation, the book, nevertheless, is a delight.

Not only is there the marvelously elegant prose, in which no word is wasted (and existentialism, in whichever of its European variants, was hardly a philosophy known for its prose style), but there is also the author's patient irony, which embraces all his characters (even the philosophers), and makes one think that such moral precepts as this book contains are not simply or lightly held. There is, for example, a very fine conversation between Ossama and a young prostitute, Safira, in a café on Talaat Harb Street in central Cairo. The various shades, or colours, of this are very well drawn out in writing of great subtlety. And then there is the interview with Ossama's father in a derelict building in the Cairo district of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, the blind old man apparently believing that, if the building does not first collapse on his head, a representative of the revolutionary government will be on hand to reward his proud fidelity and his son's unambiguous 'business deals'.

This is a book short enough to be read at a sitting, like Cossery's other novels, and is one which provides a deal of (possibly rather jaded) pleasure. Has Cossery's work been translated into Arabic (or English)? If not, perhaps it should be, given the author's Egyptian birth and Cairene material, as well as the intrinsic interest of what is now apparently a finished oeuvre of real distinction.

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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