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Graphic Literature

from “Proud Beggars”

By Albert Cossery & Golo
Translated by Lulu Norman
Albert Cossery's 1955 masterpiece, Proud Beggars, takes place in the squalid slums of Cairo. While some residents struggle with oppression, poverty, and corruption, others renounce the hypocrisy of society and embrace their freedom from the material world. Characters include the former university professor Gohar, who has thrown over his previous life to work as a bookkeeper at the brothel; his drug dealer and fellow "proud beggar," Yeghen; the melodramatic revolutionary El Kordi; his girlfriend, the prostitute Naila, whom he plans to save; Set Amina, the madam; and Nour El Din, a corrupt policeman. In this extract from the graphic version of the novel, the murder of a young prostitute sends an undercover policeman to the brothel in the guise of a rich merchant from out of town.
Captions: [By granting Set Amina license to resume her business, Nour El Din let himself be guided by the hope that he’d find the individual he was looking for, following the axiom that the culprit always returns to the scene of the crime. To this end, he’d entrusted one of his best detectives to make enquiries at the brothel, passing himself off as a rich provincial merchant.] Set Amina: You see! They’ll be the ruin of me, I’m telling you. Will that man never leave? Man: Calm down, woman! Policeman or not, he’s still a client! Set Amina: Call that a client? May illness rid me of clients like that. Man: Be quiet, he might hear you. Set Amina: Let him hear! After all, I’m the boss in my house! [Gohar wasn’t haunted by the ghost of young Arnaba. He’d happily gone back to his work as bookkeeper and man of letters in the service of a shameless madam.] Detective/Merchant: Gohar Effendi? Gohar: I’m listening. Detective/Merchant: This murder of the young girl Arnaba reminds me of an old story that also took place in a brothel. A strange detail suddenly came back to me…
Captions: Detective/Merchant: About a prostitute who was stabbed to death. At the autopsy, the coroner stated that she was a virgin. The funny thing was she’d been doing her job for over twenty years...What do you make of that? Gohar: Unbelievable! Detective/Merchant: Isn’t it. A virgin prostitute! You have to admit, you can’t trust anyone. Gohar: Even a whore’s pussy can surprise you. It can astonish the world. Detective/Merchant: Your philosophy is enchanting, I see you’re a man who understands life. See you later, Gohar Effendi. Gohar: Entirely at your service. [Gohar went back to his accounts, but he felt touched by grace. Once again, this drama was revealing its ridiculous aspect. Take this ludicrous world seriously? There lay madness…and he’d had years of it.] El Kordi: I knew you’d be here, master! I have something very serious to tell you. Gohar: What is it, my son? Are you hurt? El Kordi: No, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m trying not to be recognized. Gohar: Why the mystery? El Kordi: I’ve been found out. Master, they know I’m a revolutionary! Gohar: Who’s they? El Kordi: The police of course. I’m being followed. This evening I took the train to the European Quarter… El Kordi: …When suddenly I noticed a man staring at me intently. The man was one-eyed, and he was watching me with his bad eye… Gohar: But what were you doing in the European Quarter? El Kordi: I told you the other day. I’ll do anything for money. I was going to try to rob a jewelers.
Captions: Gohar: Why do you need so much money? El Kordi: It’s not for me, master! But Naila is ill, and then there are all the others. Gohar: What others? Do you have a family to look after? El Kordi: No. But I’m thinking of the poor, oppressed masses, Master. I don’t understand, how can you not care about the bastards exploiting these people? Gohar: When we have a country entirely made up of beggars, then you’ll see what will become of this total domination. It will crumble to dust. El Kordi: But we’re already a nation of beggars! It seems to me there isn’t much more we can do. Gohar: There’s lots we can do. There are still all the people like you who continue to collaborate. El Kordi: You’re wrong these, master! I do next to nothing. My presence in the ministry amounts to sabotage. [Gohar remained silent. What did El Kordi think then? That he was the only one who knew that the poor were ruled by a band of shameless thieves? He himself had given up everything, comfort and position, so that need no longer mix with such degenerates.] Gohar: You realize there’s a policeman here. At the moment he’s busy fornicating with little Akila. El Kordi: By Allah! It’s true, from now on I must be very careful. [Set Amina, who’d been keeping her eye on El Kordi all this time, suspecting him of some kind of plot, uttered a sigh as she watched him approach.] El Kordi: Is Naila in her room? Set Amina: Yes, she’s with a client. Let her work. Do you all want to bankrupt me? El Kordi: You won’t go bankrupt today, woman! Anyway, here she comes.
Captions: El Kordi: Let’s go to your room, darling. I need to speak to you. Naila: Leave me alone. I’m here to work, not listen to stories. Set Amina: Go on, my girl. This boy is mad. I don’t want a scandal. Naila: No, auntie, I won’t go. I no longer know this man. El Kordi: You shouldn’t be working! I told you to rest. Naila: Are you going to feed me then? El Kordi: I’m being followed by the police and you talk to me about food!?! Set Amina: Shhh, don’t speak of the devil, he isn’t far away. El Kordi: If there’s a policeman in this house, I’d certainly like to meet him! Detective/Merchant: A policeman, here? On my honor, what a… El Kordi: Apparently it’s you! Detective/Merchant: You’re mistaken, Effendi! I’m an honorable businessman. El Kordi: Don’t insult the customers. This man is a nobleman, I know him. El Kordi: But it was you who told me he was a policeman. Set Amina: Me?! Ungrateful man! And I welcomed you into my house as my own son. Detective/Merchant: Everyone calm down. It’s a simple misunderstanding. Let’s work this out. El Kordi: There’s no point, I’m ready to confess. Detective/Merchant: Confess what, Effendi? El Kordi: I confess I murdered Arnaba! Gohar: ? : ? Naila: !?!
Captions: Perfume seller: A single drop of this perfume and men will die for you. Woman: I don’t to kill anyone, I just want to make my husband happy. Perfume seller: Then I won’t sell it to you! I feel sorry for him, he’ll go mad at the very least. Woman: What a day! Why say such silly things? I’ll take it. Perfume seller: All right. For you, it’s only ten piastres. Woman: Ten piastres! By allah you’re ruining me! I’m the one who’s going mad!?! Perfume seller: You’ll see, you’ll be eternally grateful to me, your husband will never reject you. He’ll be unable to exist far from this perfume… Woman: He only needs to come here and get some. Perfume seller: By the prophet, I won’t sell him any. Perfume seller: …It’s a deal then, the price is ok. I’ll take it. Yeghen: I’ll bring it as quickly as I can. I’m not sure when. They’ll be handing it over soon. Perfume seller: I hope it’s good quality?!? Yeghen: The best! You know I’m an expert. Good-bye!
Captions: [Yeghen reflected on the deal he’d just concluded. If everything went according to plan, he’d soon have the money he’d promised Gohar for his trip. To spare Gohar, to save him from prison, even from death, had become a kind of sacred mission.] [He was a little anxious. The deal was for a certain quantity of heroin and, when the moment came, he’d be supplying a packet containing sodium sulfide he’d bought in a pharmacy…] [In the café of mirrors he found Gohar at a table with El Kordi.] Gohar: You look worn out. What’s up? Yeghen: Oh it’s nothing, I haven’t slept in a bed for I don’t know how many nights, since I left my hotel, it was too dangerous. The police found out where I was. Gohar: Why not let destiny follow its course. What are you afraid of? Yeghen: I need them to leave me be for a few days. Give me time to sort out a matter that concerns both of us. I can’t stand the idea of losing you. Gohar: But if I go to Syria you’ll be losing me just the same, my son. El Kordi: Are you really leaving for Syria, master? Yeghen: No, master! I only need to know you’re alive, even if you’re far away. El Kordi: So you’re leaving us alone!?! I beg you, take me with you. I have my car, my horses are champing at the bit. What are you waiting for, master? Yeghen: What’s going on? Why, you’re delirious! Gohar: I think he had a fight with his mistress. He’ll be over it in a minute, don’t worry. Yeghen: Look! There’s the police officer in charge of the murder. We must be discreet…. El Kordi: I will say what I like. I’m not afraid of anyone!
Captions: Yeghen: Good evening, officer. Please honor us with your company. Nour El Din: What a happy surprise. I’d be charmed to know your friends… but I believe I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting this young man. El Kordi: Well, I’m really flattered that you remember, Excellency. Nour El Din: How could I forget? I never forget an intelligent man. Let me introduce Samr, a young relative of mine. Yeghen: And this is Gohar Effendi, Excellency. How is it you don’t yet know Gohar Effendi? It’s a serious gap in your life! Gohar: A gap I’d be glad to fill… Yeghen: So, officer, is the enquiry progressing? Nour El Din: I’m not unhappy, the case is close to being solved. Nour El Din: A worrying story reached my ears, El Kordi Effendi. It appears you boasted of murdering Arnaba, in front of witnesses. Is that true? El Kordi: It is true, you were not deceived, and I retract nothing. What are you waiting for to arrest me? Yeghen: I had no idea, my dear El Kordi, well done. Nour El Din: I will not arrest you, because I know that you are not the murderer. You just wanted to boast. Why? I don’t understand it…Can you explain his conduct, Gohar Effendi? I think you were present at this ridiculous scene!?! Yeghen: Officer, wait, go on, Master, tell us your thoughts. Gohar: Well, I think I can explain my young friend’s behavior. El Kordi is a man with a very noble soul. He’d like to change the world, but isn’t sure ho to go about it. I think he was revolted by this crime. He wanted to take responsibility for it and offer himself as a martyr to the cause he believes in.
Captions: El Kordi: Master! This is intolerable! I admit I’m not the murderer, but what does it matter whether it was me or someone else? El Kordi: What matters to you, officer, is to arrest someone, no? Nour El Din: That’s absurd! Utterly absurd. It’s not that at all. I want to arrest the guilty man and no one else. Gohar: Innocent and guilty, it must be hard to choose. Nour El Din: But I’m not choosing. I only arrest a man when I’m convinced of his guilt. You’re all educated people here and yet you seem to have no idea of the law! Yeghen: It’s not law that interests us, but man! Why a man like you, instead of enjoying his brief life, should spend his time arresting his fellow men. It does seem an unhealthy occupation. {Music and singing from radio} Nour El Din: But I’m simply defending society against criminals. What kind of people are you? you’re living outside of reality. Gohar: The reality you’re talking about is one made up of prejudice. It’s a nightmare invented by men. Nour El Din: There aren’t two realities?!? Gohar: There are! First, there’s the reality born of trickery and deception, where you’re thrashing about like a fish caught in a net. The other is a smiling reality, reflecting the simplicity of life. What does a man need to live? A bit of bread is enough. Yeghen: A bit of hashish too, master! Gohar: All right, my son, a bit of hashish too!
Captions: Nour El Din: But that’s the negation of all progress! Gohar: You have to choose progress or peace? We have chosen peace. Yeghen: So, Excellency, we’re leaving progress to you. Enjoy it. We hope you’ll be happy. [Nour El Din knew nothing of Gohar’s former life, but it seemed to him this man was not all he appeared to be. He even wondered if he wasn’t perhaps the murderer…] Nour El Din: Peace?!? Gohar: Peace, that’s what you’re looking for. Nour El Din: By Allah! How do you know what I’m looking for? What I’m looking for is a murderer! Yeghen: And the bomb!?! Can you stop the bomb, Excellency? Nour El Din: Not this madness again! No, Yeghen Effendi, I cannot stop the bomb. Yeghen: Well then, you’re being paid to do nothing. What does it matter to me if you arrest some poor murderer? Ah, but if you could arrest the bomb! Nour El Din: What, are you leaving? Samr: Excuse me, sir! But I must go home. My honorable father doesn’t let me stay out late. Nour El Din: Give my regards to all the family. Samr: Of course. Yeghen: It’s time I was off too. I’m sorry, Excellency, to cut such a fine conversation short. The truth is I’m asleep on my feet. Gohar: Wonderful to meet you, Officer. See you soon, I hope. Nour El Din: Can I walk with you a little? Gohar: It would be my pleasure. [Yeghen had already disappeared. El Kordi stayed on alone. He seemed unaware that the others had left.]

From Mendiants et Orgueilleux. Published 2009 by Futuropolis. Copyright 2009 by Futuropolis. By arrangement with the publisher. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel for the Sylvain Coissard Agency, France.Translation copyright 2010 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.

Read Context About Bios Explore Teaching Ideas

From Mendiants et Orgueilleux. Published 2009 by Futuropolis. Copyright 2009 by Futuropolis. By arrangement with the publisher. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel for the Sylvain Coissard Agency, France.Translation copyright 2010 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.

Meet Golo and Albert Cossery

Read the page on Golo in Comiclopedia

Then, get to know Albert Cossery, the author of the novel Proud Beggars, on which this comic is based, via an interview withBanipal or a Paris Review profile followed by a poem called “Beggars.” 

Next, read “Shakedown: Cossery in Egypt,” from The Paris Review, to learn about Cossery’s thoughts on revolution and find out why a Harlem Shake protest in Egypt was deemed a “vindication of Cosserian thought” on political action. 

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Egyptian Arabic terms in this story, read aloud by Noor Nagi.

(Listen on SoundCloud.)

Get the Full Story(ies)
Visit Cairo and Its Coffeehouses

Watch a short documentary film of life in Cairo in the 1950s. 

 Then, listen to a sound clip from Café Riche, a sort of symbol of Cairo coffeehouse culture.

 Finally, read about the  larger political and cultural impact of Cairo coffeehouses.

A man listening to a friend at the el-Fishawy Cafe in Cairo, Egypt, 2017. By Mark Fischer.
Get Background on Egypt

Mural, Egypt 2013, photographed by stttijn. License: CC by 2.0.

Learn about the history of Cairo in the 20th century

Then, to learn more about Egypt’s history, read the BBC’s timeline of key events from 7000 BCE to 2018.

Or, find out about current events in the newspaper The Egypt Independent

Albert Cossery

“The Voltaire of the Nile,” Albert Cossery (1913–2008) was born in Cairo. At the age of seventeen he moved to Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life. Some of his books translated into English are Men God Forgot, The House of Certain Death, The Lazy Ones, and Proud Beggars. In 1990 Cossery was awarded the Grand Prix de La Francophonie de l’Académie Française.


Golo (pen name of Guy Nadeau) was born in 1948 in France and lives in Cairo. He began his career in 1973 as a magazine illustrator for French music and various Egyptian newspapers, and he has published numerous graphic novels, including Mes mille et une nuits au Caire.

Lulu Norman (translator)

Lulu Norman lives in London. Working from French and Spanish, she has translated Ricardo Arrieta, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, and Serge Gainsbourg, and written for the Guardian, the Independent, and the London Review of Books. Her translation of Mahi Binebine’s Welcome to Paradise was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 and Horses of God has just been awarded a 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation.

Her most recent translations include Lebanese Cuisine by Andrée Maalouf and Karim Haïdar (Saqi Books, 2010) with Sophie Lewis, three stories in the Penguin Anthology of African Writing, Gods and Soldiers (Penguin Books 2009), Paris Noir (Serpents Tail, 2007), The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome (Serpents Tail, 2006), The Star of Algiers by Aziz Chouaki (Graywolf 2004, Serpents Tail 2006), all with Ros Schwartz, and The Demented Dance by Mounsi (Black Amber, 2003). She also works as a freelance editor and is an editorial assistant at Banipal, the journal of modern Arab literature.

More from Golo and Albert Cossery
  • Browse through a gallery of other work by Golo
  • Read the original translation of the Albert Cossery novel this graphic story is based upon, also called Proud Beggars
Golo, Cossery, and Artistic Influence
  • Golo led a series of comix workshops that many believe led to the rise of the form in Egypt. One comix artist inspired by Golo’s 2002 workshop was Magdy El Shafee—read his comic pamphlet “Two Million People in the Square.”
  • Browse through other graphic literature on Comiclopedia. Look at the works of artists Tardi and Hergé, who are said to be influences on Golo. 
  • Albery Cossery has been referred to as the “Voltaire of the Nile.” Read an intellectual biography of Voltaire, a French author, activist, and philosopher, and browse through his complete works
A Picture-Tour Through Modern Egypt
“Egyptians will never give up the struggle for freedom and democracy.” Mural tribute by graphic artist Ganzeer and a team of volunteers to eighteen-year-old Islam Rafat Zinhoum, killed by security forces during the uprising of 2011. Photograph by Alisdare Hickson. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Look through photos from Egypt between 1800 to 2013. Then, look at some images from modern Cairo in a photo essay on a neighborhood dubbed “one of Egypt’s most desperate slums,” in Cairo Dar al-Salam.

More Music

Learn about Umm Kulthum, a famous Egyptian musician whose music could have been played in a café in the 1940s. Watch a video of her performing “Al Atlal” with English subtitles.

(Watch the video on Youtube.)

Then read about 20th-century Arab urban music on the page of the group Zikrayat.

More Cairo Comix

For other graphic literature about Cairo, read “The Apartment in Bab el-Louk,” also published on WWB Campus, and an excerpt from Metro.

More On Authors Away From Home (Like Cossery)
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.

From Mendiants et Orgueilleux. Published 2009 by Futuropolis. Copyright 2009 by Futuropolis. By arrangement with the publisher. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel for the Sylvain Coissard Agency, France.Translation copyright 2010 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.