Albert Cossery: Mendiants et Orgueilleux (UK: If All Men were Beggars …, later: A Room in Cairo; US: Proud Beggars)
Of the four titles we have in English and French, I think I prefer the US one as it best reflects the novel. The story is set in 1945 and is about a group of beggars in Cairo and the people they meet, particularly prostitutes and a police officer. Unlike the traditional beggars, they are not devious, venial nor particularly philosophical, though generally intelligent and educated. The main character is Gohar, a former university lecturer who had voluntarily become a beggar to bring peace to his soul. Gohar never has any money but, fortunately, he has a coterie of disciples and also does odd jobs for various people, such as writing letters for the prostitutes in Set Amina, the local brothel. His problem is that he is a drug addict and, on the morning on which the novel starts, he has no drugs. He needs to find Yéghen, his dealer, who is one of Gohar’s disciples. Even though Yéghen is also frequently broke and often on the streets, he seems to supply Gohar with his drugs free of charge. His other main disciple is El Kordi who has a low level editing job in a government ministry. El Kordi is in love with the consumptive Naïla, a prostitute in Set Amina and plans to take her away and help her get better.
But we start with Gohar who has had a bad start to his day, with the neighbour having died the previous day and the mourners making a lot of noise. He is looking for Yéghen but cannot find him. He ends up at Set Amina, where he finds the prostitute Arbana on her own, as the madam and the other girls have gone out shopping. He writes a letter to her uncle for her. She offers to pay him in kind and he seems to accept. We then follow Yéghen. He is also broke and tries to get some money from his mother, which he finally does. We learn of his life. He is often sent to prison but does not really mind it as he gets an easy job because he is literate. He now meets his girlfriend and a gay friend. However, back at the brothel, we learn that Arbana has been strangled, apparently neither for sexual or financial motives. We suspect Gohar and Cossery soon confirms this. Much of the rest of the novel is what happens as a result of the murder.
The police officer in charge of the investigation is Nour el Dine. We later find out that he is gay, with a rent boy who is not always accommodating. Meanwhile, he tries to be tough, which succeeds with some of the prostitutes and the madam, but less so with the clients including Gohar, Yéghen and El Kordi. He has his suspicions and soon realises that the murderer must be either a client or some other regular at the brothel. He suspects the (male) servant and then Yéghen but, eventually, decides it must be Gohar, though he can prove nothing. Yéghen, too, suspects Gohar, as Gohar knew some information that Yéghen had given Arbana only that morning but his reaction is not horror but a desire to help his friend escape to Syria, where he has always dreamed of going. Yéghen plans a drug dealing scam (selling fake heroine) while El Kordi, in order to get money to help Naïla, plans stealing from a shop in the European quarter. Meanwhile, Nour el Dine is getting closer to the truth.
The beauty of this novel is that the beggars all seem more than willing to help one another, even when they are completely broke, and also seem generally happy with their lot. No-one complains, except for Gohar when he cannot get his drug fix and El Kordi when his boss takes away his pen and gives it to another editor. Even the ending is totally unexpected and does not end up with the usual murderer being unmasked and sent to prison. It is a most interesting portrait of an aspect Cairo that westerners rarely see and gives us a very different view of our general stereotype of Egypt and Egyptians.
First published in 1955 by Julliard
First English translation in 1957 by MacGibbon & Kee
Translated by Thomas W Cushing (Proud Beggars); P.D. Cummins (A Room in Cairo/If All Men were Beggars)