Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Streets of Cairo, Circa. 2000

Of the many novels with settings in Cairo, Albert Cossery’s The Colors of Infamy captures the frenzy of the metropolis more vividly than all the others I have read.  Cossery’s novella was published in French is 1999, more than a decade before the recent events that have altered Egypt so thoroughly, though all the seeds of the current revolution are present: the decrepit sections of the city; the traffic on the streets, making them impossible for pedestrians to cross; the minions of street-people with little hope or expectations in their lives. The narrator—a professional thief—is stopped short in his tracks one day when he discovers a new occupation: Street Crosser.

“This was a new trade, even more daring that that of thief because one risked a violent death; it was a trade he could never have dreamed up even in his wildest theories about the ingenuity of his people.  The man who had invented this astounding profession in order to make ends meet deserved his admiration and undying friendship.  He would have liked to congratulate him and even write to the government to request that he be decorated as a model for a new generation of workers.  This inventor of a job as yet undiscovered by the hardened unemployed of the beleaguered capital was unquestionably entitled to a medal.”

Ossama himself—Cossery’s hero/thief—isn’t lacking in imagination.  The thinks of himself, “Not as a legitimate thief, such as a minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real-estate developer; he was a modest thief with a variable income, but one whose activities—no doubt because their return was limited—have, always and everywhere, been considered an affront to the moral rules by which the affluent live.” Sound familiar?  Ossama is simply trying to survive in a society ruled by crooks, “without waiting for the revolution, which was hypothetical and continually put off until tomorrow.”  And the system he’s worked out?  Dress like the well-to-do in expensively tailored suits and hang out in the haunts where the rich spend their time. He’s been, in fact, rather successful, since anyone looking at him would never conclude that he’s a simple pick-pocket.

One day the billfold that he picks from a man leaving the “Club of Notables” not only contains the anticipated money but also a letter addressed to a man who has been the center of an on-going scandal in the news for days.  The “fabulously wealthy real estate developer was being sued for causing the deaths of some fifty tenants of a low-rent apartment building constructed by his firm,” i.e., constructed from shoddy materials.  And the letter, “written by hand on the letterhead of Ministry of Public Works,” identifies the real estate developer’s accomplice in the government who, because of kickbacks, has hugely benefited.  Ossama reads the letter several times, recognizing its enormous economic potential for blackmail, yet also realizing that “he was holding a bomb in his hands and he did not know how to explode it.”

What slowly evolves is a dialogue about honor for Cairo’s poor.  Ossama’s education got him nowhere.  He was “starving to death in honesty and ignorance,” while the people at the top were getting filthy rich.  When he switched to pick-pocketing the rich, he felt that he was at least contributing something to society and to the economy.  The money he stole he spent at shops that would be out of business were it not for him and his peers.  As another character observes, “Honor is an abstract notion, invented like everything else by the dominant caste so that the poorest of the poor can boast about having a phantom good that costs no one anything.”

The ending of this deliciously wicked novel pits Ossama against the owner of the billfold, Atef Suleyman, the corrupt businessman, in a clever debate of values, class differences, and questions of one’s fate.  The dialogue—especially because of Alyson Water’s delightful translation—becomes the highlight of the The Colors of Infamy.  Sadly, this was Cossery’s final novel, reasserting once again his unofficial title: “Voltaire of the Nile.”

The Colors of Infamy
By Albert Cossery
Trans. by Alyson Waters
New Directions, 96 pp., $12.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail