Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.

A Splendid Conspiracy – Albert Cossery

Since reading his novel The Jokers several years ago, Albert Cossery, the French-resident, Egyptian-born, Syriac-descended anti-materialist author, I have been an admirer of his work. A Splendid Conspiracy is the fourth of his novel I have consumed. While there is a lot to admire in these books, each successive one has rubbed away some of the shine. None of them has lived up to the promise of the The Jokers and each has further revealed some of the warts that plague Cossery’s striking worldview.

The semi-autobiographical hero of A Splendid Conspiracy is Teymour, the heir to the fortunes of a landowner of a small Egyptian city. Dismissive of the pursuit of material goods, the doddering, illiterate old man is nonetheless overawed by the prospects of a diploma in chemical engineering and therefore sent his son to Europe for an education. Teymour, equally unmoved by material things except insofar as they can be consumed, naturally took the opportunity to indulge in the licentious pleasures of European capitals, but, after six years, his father has summoned him. Being without a degree, Teymour pays for a forged diploma and returns home. Fortunately for him, Teymour is rescued from his boredom by an old friend Medhat and Imtaz, a famous actor whose looks are not diminished by his failing eyesight. This troika is determined to entertain themselves by observing others making fools of themselves. While people’s sexual and materialistic foibles are entertaining enough on their own, Medhat has an elaborate prank planned for the wealthy and lustful Chawki, far beyond the usual ploy of summoning him to risqué parties at the home of his former mistress so that she can berate him. So the conspirators set to work.

At the same time, there is a second conspiracy taking place in town. Rich men from the countryside are disappearing from the streets. They are presumed dead, but their bodies are not found. The authorities are at a loss as to what is happening and suspect that the secretive conspirators with no regard for decency and a tendency to randomly purchase things like a school girl’s uniform are revolutionaries or terrorists behind the murders. This is despite protestations of their informer, the young intellectual Rezk who does not believe that these men who are so decent to him could be guilty of such heinous crimes.

A Splendid Conspiracy unfolds at the intersection of these two conspiracies. Its strengths are common in Cossery’s work: scathing critiques of the pursuit of material wants and an elevation of the pursuit of happiness to a divine mandate. There is even something of a touching love story in the novel between Teymour and a saltimbanque, a street performer who entertains people on her bicycle. Much of the story is imbued with little moments where Cossery magnifies the various greeds of each individual character, with the heroes claiming that title because they are greedy for entertainment rather than sex or money or status. A Splendid Conspiracy also wrestled with the theme of longing to be somewhere else, with the characters divided between those finding the small city to be an exotic land filled with wonders, those finding it a bore compared with the wonders of faraway lands, and those who think people are exactly as entertaining everywhere.

The problems with A Splendid Conspiracy are, unfortunately, also common to Cossery’s work. I largely excused the problems with women when I reviewed The Jokers because the critique remained on materialism. In the rest of his work there is more bitterness toward women in general and a greater obsession with young women. The latter is particularly true in A Splendid Conspiracy. For instance, Medhat keeps an eye out for prepubescent girls who he believes will be both beautiful and licentious when they hit puberty and Chawki lusts after young women and laments that his former mistress is old and ugly in her early twenties. Even in a culture of fetishizing teenagers and sexualizing young girls, this near-universal obsession in A Splendid Conspiracy could be tough to read when the frame of the novel seems to condone rather than condemn this interest. What’s more, this is not presented as a cultural norm, but something for the purpose of the men’s pleasure and the only moral quality to it existing in the motives of the men. Chawki is a miser and a slave to his lust and therefore his obsession is something that can be exploited. Medhat, a married man, is in control of his and only looking out for pleasure. Even Salma, the former mistress and a liberated woman eventually proves desperate to cling to her material things.

The portrayal of women presented enough issues for me that I can’t categorically recommend this novel, but, at the same time, the social critiques of materialism and longing were more substantive than even The Jokers. This is solidly my second favorite Cossery novel and worth a read, even if it is also worth looking in askance at the gender politics.

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Next up is an espionage thriller set in China, Night Heron by Adam Brookes.

Autumn Quail – Naguib Mahfouz

Isa ad-Dabbagh is a young bureaucrat in Egypt who is flourishing through a combination of nepotism and corruption, and is about to rise to the top levels of government although he is only in his thirties. Then the revolution of 1952 where the army outlawed the political parties takes place. Isa is an early victim of the purges, set adrift, but not killed. In his own words, banished without being exiled from the country.

Autumn Quail follows Isa through his decline over the course of several years, marching through his relationships with three women. At first Isa is engaged to Salwa, a wealthy cousin whose mother covets his meteoric rise through the state bureaucracy. However, once he loses his position the family cuts off the pending engagement and, impotent, Isa has no choice but to relent. Then, while moping in Alexandria, he solicits the services of a young woman Riri, who forces her way into his life as a mistress and cleaning lady until he discovers that she is pregnant and throws her out with nothing. Finally, Isa forces his way into a marriage with a thrice-married and barren heiress and succumbs to boredom and sloth.

The first relationship he dreams would be happy, but only in that it represents all his success, while he sabotages the second two, becoming enraged at a child he doesn’t want and women he doesn’t love as he clings to the past and they look to the future. Isa suggests that he genuinely loved Salwa and it may be interpreted that his relationship with her would have been strong. However, Mahfouz presents her as an immaculately-credentialed empty vessel that perfectly matches the smooth and selfish corruption embodied by Isa. The relationship might have worked, but together they represent everything wrong with the system.

Amid this series of excruciating romantic misadventures is the emptiness within Isa once his purpose in life, politics, has been stripped of him and given to rivals. The emptiness threatens to consume him and there is a lingering question of whether the revolution will bring about meaningful progress. Yet, other than a war with Israel that takes place overhead and is a topic of conversation with Isa’s formerly-political friends, the broad ramifications of the Revolution are not actually felt. The questions of hope and progress are played out, but only in Isa’s head, not in the streets or prisons of Egypt.

Ultimately, I found Palace Walk to be a more powerful story than Autumn Quail, but where the former is a domestic epic, the latter is a small story of quiet desperation.

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I am nearly caught up with things I’ve meant to post here, but still have a review of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads to come in the next day or two. Next up, I am currently reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.

Beer in the Snooker Club – Waguih Ghali

“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Perhaps our culture is nothing but jokes.”

Told from the point of view of Ram, the scion of a Coptic family in Egypt’s elite, Beer in the Snooker Club is a window into the upper crust of Egyptian society in the wake of King Farouk’s ouster in 1952. The revolution is forcing the rich to give up much of their money, but they remain diverse–coptic, jewish, muslim–and live blindly within their clubs, ignorant of the wider world around them. Ram, short for Ramis, is disdainful of his myopic peers, and refuses to play nice with them in order to ensure his own comforts, instead preferring to leech off wealthy friends and live gambling windfall to gambling windfall. In general Ram gets by because of his charm and connections, but uses his education to mock most of his peers, and particularly his cousin Mounir to his face.

The story, with Ram as narrator, consists of two settings. The first, which comprises both the opening and the closing, is Cairo, with its gambling clubs and family residences. Sandwiched between these, however, is a partially narrated stay in England, in the immediate buildup to the Suez Crisis. Ram goes to England with his friend Font and their teacher, benefactor, and (for Ram) lover, Edna, a jewish heiress some five years their senior. The trip is significant for their relationships, including offering struggles at the consulate, with former British soldiers, with money, and with Ram’s descent to bitter flippancy, but Ram only describes the falling out with Font and Edna, not any of the potentially more significant events that transpired, including the actual outbreak of the conflict or his deportation.

Ram describes his situation as “suspended between eras of civilization.” Farouk’s monarchy has fallen, Nasser’s revolution has proven inadequate, and Egypt remains at the mercy of American fact-finders and British whims, which now cater to the new ruling elite. The old cosmopolitan ruling class is beginning to fall apart. One of the main tensions in the story is what it means to be Egyptian and whether one should consider themself as a citizen of a country or a citizen of humanity; Ram looks to the latter, but most do not.

Beer in the Snooker Club is a tight little love story centered on, as Edna once calls him, “lonely” Ram. This part of the story was fine, though I liked the women Ram liked more than I liked Ram, who was sort of a petty man who would claim he thought about the greater humanity, but really thought about immediate, simple pleasures. At least in this particularly retelling where there is a sense of both supreme ego and also self-loathing. What made it remarkable to me, however, was not the story itself, but what the story danced around. Major events, either for the characters or for the world, were not narrated, but happened offstage only to have their consequences come to bear in the personal relationships. To whit, Ram is deported from England (but has a major development while there), Edna receives a nasty scar across her face from a whip, Font goes off to fight at the Suez, and all of these events inform the action back in Cairo. Perhaps most importantly, Ram becomes involved in a scheme to publicize the brutality of the new regime. The question is will his political beliefs or his interest at immediate satisfaction win out.

I read that this book is a semi-autobiographical work by Waguih Ghali, and I suspect that another of the tensions alluded to in the text is a result of this. Beer in the Snooker Club was originally written in English and thus the (anti)hero has an English education and is somewhat dismissive of those Egyptians with their hoighty French education and describes Arabic as a language for the common Egyptians. This stood out particularly because the French-educated Albert Cossery took a similar approach to describing jokes as central to Egyptian culture and it was the Arabic-language author Naguib Mahfouz (several of whose books are on my to-read pile) who won the Nobel Prize. I prefer Cossery of those I’ve read thus far, but they tell different stories and are coming from different parts of Egyptian society.

Ghali published only the one book, having committed suicide in 1969 before finishing his second novel. There were points at which this narrative seemed to skip around, but, ultimately, Beer in the Snooker Club is a moving story about Ram’s maturation and subsequent dissolution. I may not hold with his actions, beliefs, or entire world view, but I felt for him and in this sort of story that is sufficient.


Next up, I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s Nebula, Locust, and Hugo award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

A few thoughts about Late Hellenistic Egypt

A few weeks ago I was in a bar with a friend of mine, a diplomatic/US and the World historian. In the course of our conversation, we stumbled onto late-Hellenistic Egypt and Cleopatra, a topic I was to give a lecture on to my advisor’s class. I mentioned Egypt’s relative weakness and, in my opinion, unimportance in the first century BCE. He was taken aback by the way I dismissed Egypt, noting the glamor, the wealth, the prestige, and the grain. I shrugged and alluded to Augustan propaganda and the work of another diplomatic historian slated to take up a post here at the university in the fall.

Before I expand on these thoughts, I should lay my biases on the table. I don’t like Ptolemy (#teamSeleucus) and Egypt itself holds minimal allure for me. Certain issues do, certainly, but I have limited interest in the poetry, the technology and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or even the dynastic intrigue and incest. Some of this disinterest is my dislike of Ptolemy, some of it is my contrarian streak in that Ptolemaic Egypt gets a ton of attention because there is evidence for it, not necessarily because it is inherently interesting. Yes, it has its place and I am grudgingly grateful for their diligence in appropriating literary works. But Egypt, with all its potential is not “all that,” so to speak.

The potential is the key here. Egypt is comparatively defensible as an entity compared to the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Nile is potentially prosperous in agricultural products, and Alexandria is well situated for trade in the Mediterranean. But by the first century BCE, the Ptolemies were not capitalizing on this potential. There were problems collecting taxes, as well as droughts (despite the Nile’s reputation, this did happen at times–the story of Joseph comes to mind). There were also local rebellions with a variety of causes and Egypt lacked a native military infrastructure, so the kingdom relied on mercenaries. Add in dynastic intrigue–exiles, assassinations, and children aspiring to rule in the place of their parents– and this is not a situation conducive to exploiting the potential.

But what about the scene of Antony cutting off Rome’s grain supply? Rome did get grain from Egypt–one figure gives ⅓ of the total imports came from the Nile. “Rome” used more Egyptian grain than that, too, but the Urbs Roma usually imported most of its grain from North Africa and Sicily. Without looking into it too deeply, I would more equate Egyptian grain to Middle Eastern oil. The US doesn’t get much oil from the Middle East, but it needs oil from the region for two things: military use and price regulation. The US needs x amount of oil in the system or else the price will rise prohibitively and the US needs to supply troops in the Middle East and Europe where it is more cost-effective to purchase it locally. Rome did locally supply troops as best it was able, including legions along the northern frontier raising cattle for meat and leather and republican armies requisitioned supplies (or accepted gifts, same thing) from client kingdoms, including Egypt. By the same token, Rome needed to keep grain prices to remain stable in the Mediterranean, particularly since Urbs Roma was not the only large city that needed to import grain, so the halt of the Egyptian supply could cause a catastrophic economic ripple effect, but not necessarily because people in Rome were starving from the outset.

The last piece of this puzzle is Octavian. the master manipulator portrayed his war against Antony as a war of salvation against a powerful, extravagant other that could threaten rome. Sicily and Africa had also both suffered during the decades of civil war, so the grain supply was not as abundant in the 30s as it was at other times. Of course, Octavian had every reason to exaggerate the wealth and threat of Egypt, its corrupting influence on Antony, and the dire consequences of the grain supply in order to justify his war against Antony. Actium and the rest of the campaign were only as close as they were because they predominantly pitted Octavian’s Roman legions against Antony’s Roman legions. Egypt provided troops, sure, but Roman forces had defeated the Egyptian mercenaries in at least two invasions in the past decades and Egypt’s territory had only approached the boundaries of the early Ptolemies because Antony had given territory back to Cleopatra (and usually left the Roman tax farmers in place). Antony may have intended this to be a permanent restoration and to create a series of client kingdoms ruled by his and Cleopatra’s children, but the power still flowed from Rome. Egypt had enough potential that Octavian was prudent to take it for himself, but in the first century BCE the myth of Ptolemaic Egypt created by the early Ptolemies and encouraged by Octavian far outpaced Egypt’s actual position in the Mediterranean system.

The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”

p.43-4

The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–“honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.


[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Syria and Egypt

Moris and Assad

Assad, Morsi

I know a number of people who can’t stand Danziger’s Cartoons (or politics), but I have had a long-running soft-spot for some of his dark observations about politicians, political campaigns, and foreign leaders. But I wanted to actually deconstruct this cartoon about Assad and Morsi because I think that it doesn’t work.

The target of this comic is Assad, not Morsi. As such, it is the latest in a long series of cartoons in which Danziger is critical Assad being allowed to kill thousands of citizens in Syria and the joke is that if Assad is allowed to murder thousands of citizens in order to keep power, then Morsi should take a hint and do the same thing. Now that the joke has had any trace of dark humor flogged from it, I need to point out that the joke falls flat because, unlike the best observations Danziger makes, it shows no trace of awareness about the situation in that part of the world. Instead, it seems to have taken the casualty count from the civil war in Syria, the headline that Morsi was resisting protests, and a wise-crack that maybe Morsi ought to use military force to suppress the protests.

But Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military, led by General al-Sisi, a man who considers himself an heir to Nasser.[1] In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Assad praised the Egyptian military for removing him, saying: “Whoever brings religion to use for political or factional interests will fall anywhere in the world.” He draws a comparison between the Syrian opposition and Morsi’s government, suggesting (unfortunately not without a shred of truth) that he (and the army) is ruling a secular government and protecting religious minorities. Like in Turkey, the army in Egypt receives credit for ensuring secular government and stands apart from a government that leans toward one religious denomination or another. So Morsi never had control of the army and had its support for only a short time. Danziger’s joke targets Assad, but brings in Morsi even though their situations were nothing alike. The better comparison to Assad was Mubarak and could potentially be al-Sisi, but Mubarak is gone and al-Sisi is not (yet) a target. And then there are differences between Syria and Egypt in terms of ethnic and geographic makeup.


[1] The army has been saying that they are acting on behalf of the Egyptian protesters (who they may have incited) and limiting the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, to put it cynically, the problems that prompted the protests against Morsi’s administration were largely the same problems that prompted protests against Mubarak’s administration. I do not know what, if anything, Morsi’s government did to fix those problems, but anyone who supports democratic governments should be watching Egypt with some concern. Conversely, the past few years have been hopeful for democracy in Turkey in that the military has allowed top officers to be arrested and have not overthrown the Erdogan government. Of course, the result in Turkey has been massive protests met with curfew, tear gas, and arrests by the police.

A few thoughts on the third debate

*Warning: what follows are a few thoughts with some semblance of structure about the foreign policy debate from last night. I don’t like the foreign policy of either candidate and find the American political coverage both of the debate and of foreign issues to be utterly disheartening. I have done little to no new research on any of the topics, do not offer solutions (yet), and at several points make opinionated statements that I have not necessarily adequately defended with examples pulled from my recollection of the debate or by briefly skimming through the debate transcript. Words are wind.

-“There is no reason that Americans should die [when we have Afghans for that].”

-Dear Mitt Romney, Barbados, Burundi, Palau, and the Vatican City are all four years closer to the bomb, too. That is how time works.

I sent out two tweets during last night’s foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (though I have since modified the wording of the first to make it pithier). I had one tweet for each presidential candidate, neither positive. For most of the day today I have monitored the coverage–everything from that this debate didn’t matter to which candidate appeared more presidential. Most of the coverage was inane, repetitive, and (if possible) more vapid than the actual talking points during the debate. Just one article truly went too far for me. I will get to this one in a moment, but I will say now that it was not the comments that Ann Coulter made. I’ve long since decided that, at least when I want to be serious, nothing she says is coherent or dignified enough to warrant a response. I prefer to deal with rational people and, as far as I can tell, she is not one.

To be honest, what Romney said scared me more than what Obama did. On one hand, I have significant qualms with how the administration is handling Iran, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and most of the rest of the world, not to mention drone attacks. On the other, I was never at any point surprised by what Obama said and I could see a mixture of pandering and basic precedent set in his first term in the answers. Romney never really provided answers of his own, but it was nonetheless interesting that he was the one who brought up the various militant Islamist groups that the President has not publicly addressed, particularly Mali and the student protests in Tehran.

Romney’s answers were often nonsensical, culturally imperialistic, and (borderline) offensive. To give one example, Romney repeatedly mentioned that Israel is the closest ally the United States has in the Middle East (Obama made the same claim at least once). This may be true, though I could easily see a case to be made for Turkey–a NATO member–officially and substantively being closer to the United States than Israel. On the Arab Spring, he said:

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president’s term and even further back than that, that we’d have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government, such that it didn’t explode in the way that it did.”

In short: perhaps this whole supporting dictators and rigging elections thing doesn’t work so well in this age of instant technology–and while we support free elections, did you really have to vote for those guys?

Romney also pointed out the opportunities for US business in “Latin America,” claiming that there were “language opportunities” (whatever that means), brazenly claimed that Europe would support whatever sanctions the US wants on Iran, and that his relationship with Netanyahu will help determine Israeli policy on Iran. Romney said that we need to “indict” Ahmadinejad, though for what, it isn’t entirely clear (something about his words inciting genocide?). And, somehow, the teacher’s union is a foreign policy imperative. Presidential though he may have seemed, my biggest sense was that the President’s primary critique of Romney–that his foreign policy is rash and all over the map–seemed to ring true. And, yes, the United States does dictate to other countries.

As has been noted in a few places, this debate was notable for what was left out. Europe was hardly mentioned, Central and South America came up rarely, and climate change was never mentioned. It was also remarkable in that the candidates often agreed. Neither wanted to be involved in the regime change in Syria and both support increased defense spending, and on a number of occasions Obama was forced to counter Romney’s statements with statements that the administration already does what Romney proposed. More egregiously, though, both candidates lived in a world of blissful ignorance about history of even relatively recent events. For instance, there was a lot of talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but none that the United States supported Hosni Mubarak for decades–not to mention at least one gloss made between Tahrir Square and Tienanmen Square. And, of course, there was the role of America in the world:

“I absolutely believe that America has a — a responsibility, and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that — that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections. Because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war.”

“America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”

The perpetual myth that is the American responsibility to civilize and defend the world–and the perpetual myth that democracies don’t go to war. Leaving aside that democracies don’t actually exist, the Melians probably have something to say about this and Kipling would love these guys. Sort of. They talk the talk, but really don’t want to get their hands dirty.

So, the article. I looked through the debate transcript and tried to recall some of my reactions from watching the debate last night. The accusation against Romney that comes up in the article posted above, but not here is that Mitt Romney made a geographical gaffe about Iran’s access to the sea. What we watched last night was an hour and a half of political bickering in front of a national audience and, for all we know, Romney might have been thinking about the Mediterranean as “the sea.” I would be more concerned if Romney was looking at a map and couldn’t figure out where Iran was, but I am fairly certain that he can pick Iran out on a map and would notice the other bodies of water. It is a misstep, but I dislike using this type of misspeaking to discredit his candidacy only slightly less than I dislike making fun of his name. It is something he said, but it is also something of even less significance than everything else he said during the debate.

If political language is meant “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” then it seems that now, more than ever, the media tries to do the same.