Egypt’s cinematic gems: Beggars and Noblemen

The first time I heard of Albert Cossery’s Mendiants et Orgueilleux (Beggars and Noblemen, 1955) was when I saw Golo’s 1991 graphic-novel adaptation of it.

The French comic artist, living between Paris and Cairo’s historic Sakakini district (next to the Sakakini Palace where filmmaker Asmaa al-Bakri was born), fell in love with the story of a murder investigation in a Cairene brothel during the last days of World War II. Golo’s fascination with the lives of poor people in Egypt and the captivating details of haphazard human survival on the edges of the city’s endless maze of intestines fits perfectly with the belief of Francophone writers in the wretch.

Cossery, son of early-20th-Century middle-class Egyptian French schools, was a big lover of the bohemian life. He was attracted to Cairo’s version of bohemianism and the ways in which global economic and political structures produced naturally bohemian types of people and feelings.

When I was looking for a translation for “soulouk,” the closest Arabic word for “bohemian,” I faced a dilemma. “Bohemian” seems to have a strong association in English with a privileged, mostly well-educated person’s conscious choice to rebel against the way they’re expected to live, deliberately leading an alternative lifestyle.

Cossery himself might be one of these bohemians. He lived most of his life in a hotel in Paris Saint Germain. He never had to work and was proud of it. He could afford this partly because of how rich his family was. He said: “In the East when you own more than you need you stop working, unlike in the West, where you always have to work to make more.”

The laziness philosophy that he was fond of and explored in the lives of people like Gohar, the main character in Beggars and Noblemen, seems to me a bit problematic when the motives behind his laziness and that of these characters is very different.

Bakri’s 1991 movie adaptation, like a hangover, swings smoothly between different corners of a poor Egyptian neighborhood, following the laid-back way in which people seemingly got on with their lives. The fear of the atomic bomb, which might have been a source of great anxiety and existential depression for people in the West at that time, is present, but dealt with in a very nihilistic way. It’s seen as a laughing matter and a way to mock daily local fears and anxieties. Everybody is so poor and everything looks pathetic and on the brink of collapse. Cairo is pale, unsaturated and damp, and against this backdrop, the red tarboushes of the men provide the main splash of color and are present in almost every scene.

Bakri, who passed away earlier this year, assisted Youssef Chahine among other directors, and in some ways you can tell her films are those of a Chahine mentee. In Beggars and Noblemen, her first feature, you can certainly see the notorious late-Chahinian Franco-Egyptian renaissance palette, with his classic melodramatic compositions served on luxurious orchestral silver trays.

The film was shot on location and there seems to have been a lot of effort put into making it look and sound good — Bakri was a veteran documentary-maker by the time she made this — yet it feels like it was made 10 years earlier than it was, and, while it was very competently made, I can’t find in it a personal charm or signature that I seek out in other works.

A bit like in classic Naguib Mahfouz, the story stretches to cover a set of small-community characters that each seem to symbolically reflect a Shakespearean human characteristic. Early on we hear an anecdote of a community electing a donkey to parliament to take the piss out of their rulers.

The way the characters look and dress, in front of the epic hybrid architecture of historic old Cairo and European colonialism, reminds me of Golo’s visual adaptation. The camera mostly sits very still, or very economically and elegantly slides on tracks to follow long sophisticated conversations about humanity, life, the meaning of evil and stuff.

Gohar (a convincingly unkempt Salah al-Saadany) is a classy disillusioned intellectual who was once an angry university professor yelling big-time statements at students about faked history and man-made borders. He’s now sleeping on newspapers in a cold empty room on a rooftop somewhere enjoying a frugal, hash-smoking life of non-belonging.

Surrounded by extreme, A-Thousand-Nights-type mini-stories of miserable human beings dancing on the strings of pleasure and basic fears of ceasing to be, Gohar is respected by everybody around him, even though he doesn’t fit into social structures. People seek his advice and wisdom and he infects everybody with his way of living and philosophy, even the fierce police officer who is trying to find a killer.

The movie has a very interesting police officer character I’ve never seen the likes of in Egyptian cinema before. Like most cinemas in the world, Egyptian cinema has a famous stereotype of the evil, high-powered police officer practicing oppression on anything that moves. The famous trick of showing the soft side of an evil man, or the human side of a villain, is done in a very unusual way in this movie. Watch it!

Another unusual thing about Beggars and Noblemen is its cast. Ahmad Adam plays Yakan, the small dealer who’s half-educated and a huge fan of Gohar, reciting very sophisticated existential lines with conviction. He comes across as a young actor who truly wants to make something good out of his work. Adam later became very famous and successful playing the funny character of Al-Armouty, the eccentric countryside know-it-all troublemaker he recycled over and over and over again in many works. Adam has always tried to make work that serves a purpose and says something, but his interests have tended never to exceed the ceiling of “globalization is evil, the world is run by idiots, look at the starving children of Africa,” and these rather tacky kinds of causes.

Recently Adam was one of the strong supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s June 30 takeover. In his entertainment TV show, where he does stand-up comedy and other stuff, he criticized anti-Sisi voices and social media anger against the way Sisi runs the country. It truly dazzles me and scares me to death the way people like Adam once stood in front of a camera and tried to change the world in that direction, then totally changed their minds.

What is it that people get over-exposed to (or maybe under-exposed to) that helps them very peacefully and comfortably change the way they see the world to that extent? And also, how much can a movie like Beggars and Noblemen do to the audience if it fails to influence people who’ve been that close to its anarchic message and core emotional fuel?


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