Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Letters to the editor

Striking inadequacies

Much as I enjoyed reading David Tresilian's account of the collected works of the Franco- Egyptian writer Albert Cossery, recently published in France (Cairo Review of Books, January 2006), I think it possible that Tresilian has rubbed off some of Cossery's sharper edges in his attempt to portray him as a writer of sophisticated entertainments looking for opportunities to praise the virtues of "good- humoured and impecunious contemplation." Cossery, one might say, is a rather more disturbing author than Tresilian implies.

In Mendiants et orgeuilleux, for example, one of the novels that Tresilian considers in some detail and the basis of a well-known film, though the general drift of the novel is more or less as your reviewer implies, the characters looking for a kind of relation to the world that will minimise their implication in its less attractive sides, Cossery in fact dwells at length upon these less attractive features. One would not guess that from the review.

Your reviewer admits as much when he says that this novel, like the short stories collected in Les hommes oubliés de Dieu, is marked by protest at poverty and injustice. Yet, the review as it stands does not explore the possibility that it is this kind of "protest," apparently felt by Cossery throughout his career and presumably burning in him still, that powers the writing and not the positive moral stance Tresilian detects, namely "the virtues of intelligence, light-heartedness and, not least, friendship." This formula is in any case rather anodyne, and anyway it is only the weaker novels, such as Un complot de saltimbanques, that really justify it.

For the rest, what one takes away from Cossery's novels is above all their satire of the vanity and corruption of the powerful and the perverse cheerfulness of those who have no access to such appointments and prestige. Those in power, in Cossery's texts, are the victims of the author's often bitter satire, which is less gentle than your reviewer implies.

Another feature of the novels that goes unmentioned is the strong current of sexual exploitation they contain, ignored in the account, for example, of Mendiants et orgeuilleux. It is, after all, a young prostitute who is murdered in this novel, and there is something disturbing, even for those of us who generally admire Cossery's writing, in the fact that sexual exploitation is always seen as a fact of life for the author's male leads, who, indeed, generally go in for it. While the comparison with Camus's novel L'Etranger may be relevant, at least in that more of your readers may have read Camus, the murders in the two novels are not really equivalent: is there not something rather unthought-through, on Cossery's part, in having his male characters reach their mutual understanding over the body of a dead girl?

Your reviewer does not consider Cossery's latest book, Les Couleurs de l'infamie, unfortunately also his last, in which there is extended satire of the "revolutionary regime" that is just waiting for a suitable moment to relieve the sufferings of the poor, but has unaccountably not yet got round to doing so, and a description of the pathetic figure of a young prostitute, Safira. On the whole, Tresilian's review took its emphases from what Cossery himself has said, for example in his "Conversation" with Michel Mitrani. But even Mitrani brought up the issue of Cossery's ambiguous depiction of women, bringing them into his texts in certain stock roles, only to exclude them from the magic circle of male self-realisation.

Finally, Jean-Jacques Luthi in the book your reviewer mentioned ( La Littérature d'expression française en Egypte ) is rather more lukewarm about Cossery's writing than is the review itself. While one can find things to admire in Cossery's work, as Tresilian does, there is also a kind of protest in his books that does not come through very well in this review. There are also some striking inadequacies of thought and feeling, and these perhaps explain why they have not yet found their translator. However, it was good to see this rather neglected writer considered in some detail.

Fadwa Ali

Ibn Abdel-Wahab

Regarding your review of a new book on the religious thinker Mohamed Ibn Abdel-Wahab ( Cairo Review of Books, January 2006), I would like to make the following comments.

A commentator from the West has taken the writings of Ibn Abdel-Wahab, who died more than 200 years ago, and subjected them to study. The author of the book has apparently read all of Ibn Abdel-Wahab's books, studied his thought and examined his doctrines. But which doctrines has she in fact studied? It would be a serious error if in studying the words of Ibn Abdel-Wahab one were to be led away from his beliefs, which are those of Islam: belief in the tawheed, in the Creator of Truth and in the Lord of humankind.

Ibn Abdel-Wahab never invited anyone to study his doctrines. He invited people to believe in the tawheed. Unlike the authors of works of secular philosophy, such as those who have written on communism, liberalism, socialism or any form of humanism, Ibn Abdel-Wahab never invited others to study what he had written. He was inviting humanity to draw closer to the Lord not himself.

To suggest that Ibn Abdel-Wahab's thought should be restricted to a particular era or context, such as the Saudi context, or indeed that of any other culture or civilization, is another serious error. Human beings come and go, live and die, but the eternal Lord never dies. Divine revelation neither needs reform nor alteration: on the contrary, it needs to be understood as it is, and as the expression of the perfection of the Lord.

To sum up, those who have talents for research should turn their sights on other targets besides Ibn Abdel-Wahab. If it is guidance that they are in search of, they should refer to the guidance to be found in the book of the originator, creator, sustainer and maintainer of this universe. Here they will learn the divine message: "worship the creator not the creation".

Magdy Omar

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