Shakedown: Cossery in Egypt


Arts & Culture

Egypt’s political efflorescence has inspired a surge in Western readership for its novelists, and few have benefitted more than Albert Cossery. An expatriate who lived in the same Saint-Germain-des-Prés hotel room for the last sixty years of his life, Cossery’s eight novels celebrate a highly attuned lethargy, the slow-burning ire of pranksters and misfits. But with countless Egyptian activists jailed, tortured, and killed since 2011 by the entrenched organs of the state they sought to overthrow, one might dismiss the renewed interest in his works as well-meaning, if solipsistic. It doesn’t help that the man, who died in 2008, seemed to have written off the revolutionary enterprise altogether: “There’s nothing worse than a reformer. They’re all careerists.” But this was before last week, when the Harlem shake fully arrived in Cairo, and four guys arrested in their underwear prompted the youthful vanguard’s latest tack: the formation of a “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle,” which, as its first action, shut down the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood with a four-hundred-strong throng of syncopated dancing.

The reaction to the Harlem-shaking of the Brotherhood’s headquarters was more than a convenient vindication of Cosserian thought—it reminded us of a truth he gently but persistently nudged along his whole life: in a world of unsmiling authority and unswerving ambition, the prank is the apotheosis of political action, the only point of escape. And nowhere else did he lay this out more comprehensively than in 1964’s The Jokers, his fifth novel. Though impossible to mistake for a political pamphlet, the book is a brilliant defense of the democratic cause, fully capturing the distance between revolution as a struggle for a liberal social justice and a simple audition for political power. And so, as time has turned Tahrir’s pyrotechnics into a quagmire of entrenched interests, Cossery’s point about the futility of revolution’s claims against avarice has grown steadily more astute, even prophetic.

The Jokers begins with a parting of two friends and failed revolutionaries, Karim and Taher, freshly released from prison. While Karim renounces his revolutionary past in favor of the freewheeling society of pranksters (the titular “jokers”), Taher perseveres in his violent cause with the clean-cut and self-serious mien of “a low-level office worker.” Karim joins the other jokers in humorous takedowns of state authority, but Taher becomes their suspicious antagonist, an ineffectual bore who might as well have been torn straight from the pages of Naguib Mahfouz, himself a mannered civil-servant-turned-author and globally recognized as dean of Egyptian letters.

Later, Heykal, a major character and joker-in-arms of Karim’s, explains that “any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way.” Taher retorts: “[E]xcuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight.” Fun, however, was exactly what the four pharmaceutical students who initiated the recent Harlem shake chain-reaction were after. They weren’t political activists, and were arrested on indecency charges. This, in turn, prompted four hundred youth to gather in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, quaking to that beat until they literally brought the house down—the Brothers turned off the lights and vacated their offices.

The final turn of this saga is by far its greatest, and is straight out of the Cosserian playbook. Seemingly inspired by the protestors, several junior members of the Brotherhood donned masks depicting opposition figures and enacted their own shake, only to find themselves ordered to remove the video minutes after they had uploaded it. Widespread ridicule followed, both of the pathetic has-been quality of their belated shake and the stern idiocy of their superiors within the party who sought to have it removed from the web.

Similarly, the climax of The Jokers occurs when the pranksters finally succeed in humiliating their target, the governor, into rumored resignation. They had covered the city in sarcastic and servile posters, even building a statue in his honor. Starting with a chuckle and ending in cacophonous laughter, this large-scale farce proceeded swiftly and devastatingly, striking at the “worst kind of egotism”—the self-regard of the powerful. While the pranksters considered their next target, Taher made a bomb and killed the outgoing governor. The jokers are “appalled by the gratuitous violence.”

Slightly before this ending, Heykal grumbled: “I prefer a laughable tyrant to a dead one. The pleasure lasts longer.” It’s meant to be the comic whine of a child on the brink of losing his plaything, but it strikes at something deeper. The half-serious, languid demeanor of Cossery’s protagonists is very different from dead-end inaction. It’s a thoroughly gimlet-eyed posture, one that “refuse[s] to be seduced by the strange buffoonery of the world.”

Though he left Cairo at twenty-one, Albert Cossery never forgot its condition, even as he sat daily at Brasserie Lipp, a dandy to the outside world. Henry Miller, who helped get Cossery’s first book published in the United States, confirms this preoccupation, writing in a 1945 essay, “Despite the seemingly unrelieved gloom and futility in which his figures move, [Cossery] nevertheless expresses in every work his indomitable faith in the power of the people to throw off the yoke.”

It’s a message that also finds affirmation in the work of Sonallah Ibrahim, the political prisoner turned Cairene slacker-novelist whose debut work, That Smell, was published in translation by New Directions two weeks ago (and happens to have been translated by Robyn Creswell, this magazine’s poetry editor). This darkly biting take on politics is finally seeing the light of day as a global literature, though its origins are in the tragic failures of Egypt’s mid-century political transition. Today’s rise of a suppressive Brotherhood in the face of Tahrir’s youthful spark has bred a new, mordant pranksterism, reminiscent of Albert Cossery yet unencumbered by the weight of history. With the “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle,” this strategy may have finally found its rightful place in Egypt’s opposition politics.

Mostafa Heddaya is a writer in New York and the coeditor of American Circus.