New Arabic translation gives Golo’s adaptation of Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars more layers of life
Cossery and Golo’s Proud Beggars - Courtesy: The Ninth Art

About half a dozen French graphic novels are currently being translated into Arabic, awaiting publication by the end of 2018. The first to come out in this series, facilitated by the French Cultural Center and translated by Mona Sabri, was Golo’s Proud Beggars (2009), an adaptation of Albert Cossery’s novel published under the same name in 1955. It was widely considered the chef-d’œuvre of the Egyptian writer, of whom Henry Miller wrote in 1945: “He touches depths of despair, degradation and resignation which neither Gorki nor Dostoevsky has registered.”

Golo (born Guy Nadaud in 1948), was predominantly loyal to Cossery’s novel in his adaptation. It opens with a nightmare the protagonist, Gohar, is having, where all of Cairo, including the pyramids, is sinking in a flood. He then wakes up to find out that his bed has been soaked by water draining from his neighbors’ apartment overhead, where a dead body is being washed. The beginning reminds me of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s opening scene of Watchmen (1986), where a man is being pushed out of the window. Both scenes evoke the fragility of human life and prompt the reader to wonder how the deaths that feature in the opening foreshadow the novel’s upcoming events. But, whereas Watchmen revolves around superheroes falling out of favor with society, Cossery and Golo draw up philosophical antiheroes, who, by refusing to adapt to social norms and traditions, transcend the limitations of poverty and social hierarchies, thereby also escaping the spheres of government control.

Cossery and Golo draw up philosophical antiheroes, who, by refusing to adapt to social norms and traditions, transcend the limitations of poverty and social hierarchies, thereby also escaping the spheres of government control.

The graphic novel form, which began to flourish in the 80s and 90s, especially in the United States through works by Moore, Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller, reached Egypt in 2008, namely with Magdi El-Shafee’s Metro (soon after its release, however, copies were withdrawn from the market and the novel was banned on grounds of “violating public decency,” not to be available again in Cairo until 2013). Graphic novels can be perceived as an extension of the comic, primarily aimed at an older audience and relying on similar narrative techniques as the mother-genre: the literary novel.

Whereas the 1980s were chiefly dominated by fantasy or science fiction graphic novels, like Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) or Moore’s V for Vendetta (1989), graphic novels post-2000 were characterized by a more realist approach, with notable works such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009). There are many artists like Golo who draw and write themselves, while others team up with writers. Recently, more and more classical novels have been adapted into graphic novels, such as Don Quixote (2012), The Trial (2013) and Moby Dick (2015).

It is noteworthy, however, that Golo beat them to it by publishing Proud Beggars in 2009. The events of the novel take place during World War II, at the time when the US was developing the nuclear bomb, an element that corresponds to the nihilistic philosophy of Gohar, a former university professor who “wasted his life teaching philosophy,” as he later comes to realize the absurdity of all human endeavors. Thus, he decides to live like a bum or an ascetic, disposing of rank, money and comfort. Only the hashish, provided to him by the ugly, unemployed Yakan, awakens his senses.

In Proud Beggars, Golo demonstrates his keen knowledge of Cairo’s streets and alleys, particularly the Azhar district, where the events of the novel take place. “One can see in Proud Beggars just how much Golo knew Egyptian faces, and Egypt in general. His faces are very Egyptian,” says comic artist and editor of the graphic short story collection Out of Control (2011), Rania Amin. “In my opinion, he grasped the Egyptian spirit most through the little details, like children playing in the streets, the shops and the buildings.”

The lives of Cossery and Golo seem very much intertwined, as they were both heavily influenced by Egyptian and French cultures alike. Contrary to Cossery, who chose to live in Paris, Golo came to Egypt in the 70s and stayed until only three years ago, when he moved to the comic capital of the world: Angoulême, France. During his stay in Egypt, Golo produced some of his most important works: Stories from Cairo (2004, 2006), My One Thousand and One Nights (2009, 2010), which is currently being translated into Arabic, and The Colors of Infamy (2003), also adapted from a Cossery novel by the same title (1999) and translated into Arabic in 2016.

The translation of Golo into Arabic might rekindle Egyptian readers’ interest in the largely-forgotten Cossery, who never received the recognition he deserved in his country of origin, contrary to his status in France, where he is still being honored. In Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Palme d’Or-nominated film The Image Book (2018), during one montage, Godard reads from Cossery’s 1984 novel Ambition in the Desert.

Cossery was born in 1913 to Syro-Lebanese parents in Fagala, Cairo, where he lived until he moved to Paris in 1945. There, he encountered French literary giants like Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet and Albert Camus, with whom Cossery was particularly close. It was Camus who introduced Cossery to his publisher Edmond Charlot, who later published Cossery’s first novel, Men God Forgot (1941).

It is worth mentioning that Cossery refused to adopt French citizenship, although he wrote only in French. His fiction, however, revolved mainly around Egypt and the Arab world, just like the Syrian Rafik Schami’s fiction, written in German, revolves around Syria.

Golo, on the other hand, arrived in Cairo in his 20s, when he was a young artist publishing comics in the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and was instantly taken in by its streets and culture. Later, he moved to Qurna, near Luxor, where he acquired a house. This move was pivotal to his autobiographical graphic novel Chronicles of a Necropolis (2011), which he created with his wife Dibou, about the ancient pharaonic city. This house is now being transformed into an art residency for international and Egyptian comic artists alike by the Cité de la BD, a public French cultural establishment located in Angoulême.

In Egypt, Golo produced drawings for the state-owned Sabah Al-Khair magazine and Ahram Hebdo. He organized many exhibitions and workshops, which Shafee believes lay the cornerstone for the rise of the graphic novel in Egypt. According to Shafee, it was one workshop in particular, which was led by Golo in Townhouse in 2002, that resulted in the publishing of Metro. The workshop also created the incentive for launching the CairoComix festival in 2015.

Mohamed Salah, illustrator and writer at comic magazine Tok Tok (2011–2016), remembers the impact that Golo’s 2002 workshop had on him.

“It made me perceive the graphic novel more seriously and in a more professional way. Golo is kind of a mentor to me. His drawings have a rare quality, in that they bring out something unique and particular, especially his illustrations of shaabi life. There are small details in there we are all familiar with that we tend to take for granted, maybe because we see them every day,” says Salah.

The workshop may have also laid the foundation for Al-Fann al-Tasea (The Ninth Art), an initiative founded by Mohamed Shennawy in 2012 with the aim of cultivating the culture of comics in Egypt, which used to issue a magazine about the evolution of comics in the Arab World under the same name and also published Tok Tok. It is also the publisher of this recent translation of Proud Beggars.

Cossery and Golo’s Proud Beggars - Courtesy: The Ninth Art

The biggest challenge, obviously, lay in reversing the dialogue from left to right in Arabic, and I was happy to see that the publishers made it work seamlessly. The quality of the publication is also remarkable, as it does justice to the bright, lively colors that illustrate Golo’s apparent joy in drawing up Cairo’s grand landmarks of colonial architecture, as well as the shabby Azhar alleys, with their ancient buildings and mosques. The Mirrors Cafe in particular, now known as Al-Fishawy, is frequently illustrated, sometimes without any speech balloons so that readers can relish the drawings without distraction.   

Besides adapting Cossery’s dialogue, Golo stuck to the plot of the novel by instilling narrative passages that explain the characters’ inner thought process. It is the setting — the rich, crowded streets and alleys of Cairo — where Golo lets his imagination run free, and where he excels in bringing to life a variety of memorable vendors and pedestrians roving around. Readers can immerse themselves in these drawings as though they were classical paintings, discovering new details and cleverly hidden secrets every time. It is almost as if Golo is a voyeur, infringing on the privacy of the city’s inhabitants, exposing them in all their humanity, vulnerability and occasional ugliness.

It is almost as if Golo is a voyeur, infringing on the privacy of the city’s inhabitants, exposing them in all their humanity, vulnerability and occasional ugliness.

His drawings comprise endless everyday images from Egyptian street life: imprints of blood-drenched hands on walls to ward off the evil eye; frequenters of street cafes reading newspapers and smoking shisha; shoe polishers crouching unobtrusively in corners; cigarette butt collectors and sex workers.

Proud Beggars was clearly inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), as it involves a murder case and long stretches of dialogue laden with psychological allusions between the investigating police officer and the murder suspect. Nevertheless, Cossery, contrary to Dostoevsky, did not elaborate on the Christian concepts of guilt and repentance. Cossery’s murderer is apathetic to his crime, like that of Camus in The Stranger (1942). According to Cossery’s Gohar, ancient belief systems — comprised of clearly defined principles like justice and punishment — have no value in a politically corrupt society, where a murderer is not pursued in order to instill a missing sense of justice, but for bureaucratic reasons; to uphold the clickety-clack of flawed machinery.

“Many readers might see some kind of resemblance between Gohar and his Cossery, who also lived without social ties or a regular job,” says French literature expert Hanan Munib. “To him, life was kind of absurd; it did not deserve the seriousness humans invested in it. He was against all social obligations, like marriage for instance. He relished his freedom and lived a modest life in Paris. I remember when he was about to be honored in Cairo for his work before he died — he was surprised and argued that there was no need for it because he ‘just wrote books.’”

In 1991, the late Egyptian director Asmaa al-Bakry made a film adaptation of Proud Beggars, starring veteran Egyptian actors Salah al-Saadany and Mahmoud al-Gendy. Like Golo, she stuck to the original story and dialogue, and even kept in the investigator’s homosexuality. Only the end deviated from Cossery’s version, particularly with Bakry’s emphasis on the symbolism of the atom bomb.

Munib remembers a 2004 podium discussion in Cairo’s Arab World Institute, where an agitated Cossery accused Bakry of having ruined his novel, although she isn’t sure whether he meant Proud Beggars or The Jokers (1964), another novel by Cossery that Bakry filmed in 2003.

Golo managed to shrink Cossery’s 230 pages to 80 for his graphic novel. Consequently, the sequence of a few transition scenes struck me as a little abrupt. The novel also contains a lot of witty and semi-philosophical dialogue, which, from a visual perspective, is not very practical in the graphic novel format. Yet, whereas some graphic novelists tend to stick to one-dimensional narrative constructions, as illustrated in the Superman Tales for example, here the adherence to Cossery’s text adds a sophisticated literary quality to the graphic novel.

Shafee is hopeful that this recent translation of Golo will spur the translation of more classic graphic novels to follow, in order to draw more Egyptians to the genre. “There are amazing graphic novels that I would love to see published in Egypt. Particularly Moebius’s work, or Akira (1982 – 1990) by Katsuhiro Otomo — Manga in general,” he says.

Sabri, the graphic novel’s translator and a professor of linguistics at Al-Azhar University, translated Proud Beggars into the Egyptian dialect, rather than classical Arabic. Although Cossery wrote in French, she says, his characters spoke Egyptian. This shows in their cursing, or in some colloquial terms they use, like “Oh, black day!”

Sabri attempted to use an Egyptian vocabulary that was likely to have been spoken in the 1940s, where the novel takes place. Therefore, she includes outdated words, such as azizi (my dear) or mamnoun (grateful) or makhour (brothel). She agreed with the publisher, however, to refrain from fully printing cursed words, but to indicate only the first two letters and let the reader put the rest together.

After finishing Proud Beggars, I took a stroll in the Azhar district, where I was overcome by a sense of familiarity, recognizing and recalling Golo’s faces, so elaborately portrayed in his drawings, which drove me to pay more attention to the little intricacies and peculiarities that comprise life on the chaotic streets of Cairo.

Despite the realism attempted by Cossery and Golo, however, they romanticized poverty to an incredible extent. Sabri points out that Cossery’s characters are controversial, and yet she refrains from criticizing them. It seems to me, though, that Cossery deliberately sought to provoke his readers by creating characters who turn our presumably self-evident principles upside down, and perceiving misery and poverty from a different angle is in line with that — it is a way of mocking socially-encouraged ambitions of status and wealth. In that sense, Golo’s bright and colorful drawings not only successfully grasp Cossery’s humor and biting sarcasm, but also train the eye in recognizing the footnotes, or peripheral matters, of our existence.

Cossery and Golo’s Proud Beggars - Courtesy: The Ninth Art

The upcoming fall promises to be a most exuberant one for the flourishing graphic novel scene in Egypt. In August, Deena Mohamed will release her first graphic novel, Shobeik Lubeik. In September, new publishing house Nool Books is set to publish five graphic novels in Arabic, by Egyptian, Arab and international artists. Also currently being translated into Arabic are French comic artist Enki Bilal’s The Dormant Beast (1998), the third part of Best of Enemies by Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. (2014), in addition to Jean Harambat’s Ulysse (2014).

Sherif Abdel Samad 

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