Looking for Albert Cossery in Cairo

In the twentieth century, Egypt produced perhaps two great novelists: Naguib Mahfouz, who remained in Egypt all his life and wrote in his native Arabic, and Albert Cossery, who emigrated to France and wrote in his adopted French. They were born and died only two years apart, and wrote about Egypt their whole lives, but as Daikha Dridi discovered, Cossery’s choice of language and adopted country doomed him to oblivion in his native land.

1- In front of her computer screen, the woman with the golden hair squints her brown eyes. Her fingers drum nervously on the keyboard; she has already entered the name of this damned writer numerous times and each time the answer has been a grey and empty page. She is the manager here, and the tension she radiates has brought to her rescue several of her salesmen. Elegantly dressed in navy blue suits, they always serve with a smile even the most finicky clients, here in the most prestigious bookstore in Cairo. She types and retypes the name in Arabic, trying out all possible spelling combinations as if it were a foreigner’s name. Around her, everybody picks up and repeats the question: “Albert… meen?” (Albert… who?). “If he writes in French like you say, we surely have his books in our French section”, she says, seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Yes indeed, the second volume of his complete works is available in the French section. “But what I am looking for is the translations of his novels into Arabic”, I say, again.

I end up exiting the bookstore, leaving behind me expressions of polite skepticism, glances that seem to say: if this writer is really Egyptian, he is certainly a total unknown, a loser.

Outside, standing up on the side walk, I wonder what other bookstore door to knock on. The brutality of the sun, added to the quotidian human tumult on Twenty-Sixth of July Avenue, is astounding. The idea that in Cairo’s most renowned bookstore nobody had even heard of Albert Cossery fills me with disbelief.

When the press announced the death of Albert Cossery in Paris, on Sunday June 22nd, I immediately volunteered to write an article about the aftermath of his death in his native land. So on Monday the 23rd, I went out and, on top of my usual daily newspapers, bought the very official Al Ahram and Al Akhbar. I was certain to find pictures, articles, tributes, maybe even few details that were still unknown about Cossery’s life before he went to Paris: words from his Egyptian friends and relatives, perhaps childhood pictures, the house where he was born… But in the end, I found not one word about the death of Albert Cossery in the Egyptian press. Nothing.

2- On Sunday the 29th of June, there was a tribute to Albert Cossery at the Journalists Union, at 7pm. The Union’s building is sheathed in a dark blue glass facade and flanked by a pair of dubious pink marble columns. A staircase of more marble, dark grey, leads up to a central door, giving the person who climbs the stairs the impression that they are walking toward their destiny. The aspiration to flashy splendor in the building’s architectural choices is however instantaneously tempered by the permanently sleepy expression on the face of the young man sitting behind a huge empty table at the right side of the entrance; he is in charge of helping the public find their way inside the building. Those who know the place also know that they will also find an identical young man with an identical sleepy expression sitting on a round stool inside the elevator, pressing the buttons for the users, spending all his days going up and down between four metal walls entirely carved with golden hieroglyphs. He of course has no idea where the tribute to Albert Cossery is happening.

A few steps away, cameras and spotlights and a young journalist full of curiosity showers Asma el Bakry with questions. El Bakry is the Egyptian director of two movies adapted from Cossery’s novels, Mendiants et Orgueilleux (Proud Beggars) released in Egypt in 1991, and La Violence et la Derision (Violence and Derision) made in 2003 but never shown in theaters. El Bakry is here for a projection of La Violence et la Derision, as a tribute to the writer. Inside, the meagerness of the audience is cruelly underlined by the immensity of the amphitheater. The event is presented by a fifty-something man who can barely contain his emotion. His voice trembles as he tells the audience: “I, an Egyptian, I learned of Albert Cossery’s death from a Lebanese colleague who called to ask me to write an obituary for [London-based] Al Hayat. I, an Egyptian, am ashamed to see that there was nothing more than three lines in the Egyptian press about this monumental writer. I will tell you this, even though I know that people won’t like to hear it: Egypt today is disregarding the death of a writer as important as Naguib Mahfouz, more important than Mahfouz…”. A shiver passes through the audience.

Later, at the end of the projection, El Bakry’s movie, obviously made on a miniscule budget, is relentlessly attacked by the audience. Despite some serious flaws, the movie is actually much better than most of what shows in Cairo’s theaters. But the comments here run to fussy critiques of the “primitivism” of the movie, of its “poor sound quality”, of its “very simplistic decors” or the “mediocre quality of the acting.” The only person who thinks to say something about the author of the novel annihilates the fans of Albert Cossery, who are, discretely, present here: “The humor of the author”, he says, “is a humor…how do you say.. a la francaise, sophisticated and delicate, nothing like our good old earthy Egyptian humor.” Asma el Bakry, hair entirely grey, with her famously blunt and booming voice, is rendered speechless.

“They don’t forgive him for having abandoned Arabic and emigrated to another language,” whispers the man with the shivering voice, sad as death. Head of the Cinema Club, it was he who thought to invite Asma el Bakry. His name is Mahmoud Qassem and he is the translator of Albert Cossery into Arabic.

3- Dar el Hilal. One of Egypt’s oldest publishing houses, located in the Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood. A neighborhood that surrounds with affection and veneration, with sounds, warmth and smells, the mosque that bears the same name: Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the prophet Mohamed. Swarming streets and a ferocious sun. Dar el Hilal is deployed in a magnificently built edifice, sober and colossal. A building that seemed to have been forgotten by men. Inside, everything speaks of a past opulence: exaggeratedly wide corridors that connect through arched gates, impressive crystal chandeliers hanging from ceilings so high they seem inaccessible.

At 11 am, Dar el Hilal is plunged in a deep, Cosserian slumber. The offices seem entirely empty, the yellowish antiquated telephones on the desks do not ring; all is silence, calm and tranquility.

Mahmoud Qassem welcomes me with a wide smile. He is wearing a pale green short-sleeved shirt and, curiously, he dangles on his feet a pair of red and very worn-out women’s slippers. He is not only a novelist, but a movie critic, author of an encyclopedia of Arab cinema, author of an anthology of Francophone Arab literature and the director of the children’s books section at Dar el Hilal, an institution that was nationalized under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

This man is totally in love with Albert Cossery. He has decided, on his own initiative and sometimes without even asking permission from the French publishers, to translate into Arabic four of Albert Cossery’s novels: Mendiants et Orgueilleux, published in 1988 by the very official Egypt Book Agency, La Maison de la Mort Certaine (Dar Souad El Sabah, 1992), La Violence et la Derision (Dar el Hilal, 1993) and finally Les Faineants de la Vallee Fertile (Wekalat El Sahafa Al Arabiya, 1996). Published in limited editions, none of these translations are anywhere to be found today. “Nobody asked me to do any of this. I translated these novels out of love, I wanted to show Egyptians that this writer has totally shaken the landscape of Arab and Egyptian literature”, he says passionately, “I did not earn a cent on this work.” At the beginning of the nineties, Mahmoud Qassem had the chance to meet with his idol during a rare and brief trip that Albert Cossery took to Cairo. He recalls this moment with joy, saying he dragged Cossery to meet Naguib Mahfouz: “I wanted the two monuments to meet. But then I was so ashamed when I discovered that Mahfouz did not know who Cossery was. Mahfouz’s ignorance was the proof that he was not such a great author.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mahmoud Qassem is that he is not really a francophone. We have been conversing quite naturally in Arabic when he leans toward me, as if confessing a secret, and says in hesitant French: “You know, I do read and understand French perfectly, but I still don’t feel comfortable speaking it. I grew up poor, I did not go to foreign schools. I learned French in the Egyptian public school, and cultivated it by myself later on.” Albert Cossery is in fact the reason Qassem decided to improve his abilities in French, so that he could translate him into Arabic.

And yet, francophone Egyptians who are perfectly bilingual do exist.

4- Cairo University, Department of French literature. “Francophones are a marginalized elite in Egypt. French has long been the privilege of an aristocracy who lived far away from the realities of the country. I know what I am talking about, because I am part of it. That is also the reason why I know that an Egyptian who writes literature in French will never be a best-seller here.” Gusine Gawdat teaches literature and she has long made her students study Albert Cossery. Fascinated with his talent, she nonetheless acknowledges that she has long nourished a resentment toward “this Egyptian who went away, who has deliberately chosen to leave the Arabic language.” “Understand me”, she said, “Egypt is not the Maghreb. Here, French has never been an imposed language, but a chosen one”. She also blames Cossery, mirroring the attitude of state cultural institutions, for his “unforgiving and fierce way of looking at the Egyptian society: when you read him all you see is misery, laziness and corruption”. Professor Gusine Gawdat, a woman who is much warmer in reality than what her words make her sound, tells me at the end of our conversation, in a surprisingly intimate tone that recalls the bitterness of former lovers: “Now I do not have any resentment for him anymore. May he rest in peace”.

5- Back to Dar el Hilal. I have to swallow before gathering the courage needed to ask Mahmoud Qassem the question that cannot be avoided.

-“Is it true what the French press writes about the Arabic translations of Cossery?”

Mahmoud Qassem becomes as pale as his shirt, and in a tone that breaks my heart, he asks me:

-“What do they say? That they are bad translations?”

-“No, not bad. Censored”.

Relieved, as if life has breathed back into him, he tells me with an astonishing frankness that he did change one sentence in Mendiants et Orgueilleux: “I am the one who told the French journalists about it, I knew that if I did not change that sentence the whole book would have never been published. The publisher was a government agency where they controlled everything; none of the other novels I translated were censored, because the publishers were private”. The sentence that was changed was when a police officer tells the young man Samir: “I want to sleep with you”. Qassem turned it into: “I like you”.

And I like him, this “non-francophone” who decided to improve the small knowledge of French he received at the school of the poor, so that he could translate into his own country’s language an immensely talented writer. I like this man in red women’s slippers, which are certainly more comfortable here in his office than the everyday shoes of a poorly paid state employee. He is one of the best living tributes his country has offered Albert Cossery. The little else that there was was meaningless fuss, petty and empty.

Daikha Dridi