Albert Cossery
Albert Cossery
Latest News from al-Qahira

THE human multitude ambling at the languorous pace of a summer afternoon stroll along the decrepit pavements of the immemorial city of Al-Qahira, appeared to be accepting serenely, and even with a certain cynicism the endless irreversible degradation of their environment.  It was as if all these idlers, stoical beneath the incandescent avalanche of a molten sun, had, in their indefatigable wanderings, entered into a benevolent conspiracy with the invisible enemy,  undermining the foundations and the structures of a capital that once had been resplendent.  Indifferent to this drama of desolation, the crowd carried along with it an astonishing variety of characters, all tranquillised by their lack of occupation: unemployed labourers, artisans without customers, administration clerks forced out of their offices through lack of chairs, university graduates bent under the weight of their sterile knowledge, and the eternal mockers, philosophers in love with shade and quiet, who considered this spectacular deterioration of their city to be specially devised to sharpen their critical faculties.  Hordes of migrants from all the provinces – nourishing insane illusions about the prosperity of a capital become an ant-heap – had infiltrated the native population and practised an urban nomadism of a disastrous picturesqueness.   In this brutally perturbed ambience, cars bore down like driverless engines of destruction, taking no notice at all of traffic lights and thus transforming any attempt a pedestrian might make to cross the street into a suicidal gesture.  Bordering arteries neglected by the traffic department, buildings on the point of collapse (whose owners had long since banished from their thoughts all pride of possession)  exhibited on their balconies and terraces converted into precarious shelters the coloured rages of poverty displayed like triumphal flags.  The decrepitude of these habitations suggested an image of future tombs and gave the impression, in this notably touristic country that all these suspended ruins had traditionally acquired the value of antiquities and in consequence remained untouchable.  In certain places, the bursting of a sewer formed a stretch of water as wide as a river pullulating with flies and giving off the effluvia of innumerable stinks.  Naked, shameless children enjoyed themselves splashing one another with this putrid liquid, their one antidote against the heat.  Trams, agglutinated with clumps of human beings as on an outbreak of revolution, forced a passage at top speed along rails encumbered by the constraining mass of a populace long since schooled in survival strategies.  Doggedly swarming around all the obstacles and ambushes in its path, this populace that stopped at nothing and that was making for no precise point, pursued its course through the meanders of a city invested by total decrepitude in the midst of screaming car horns, clouds of dust, piles of rubbish and mud holes without showing the slightest sign of aggression or raising any kind of protest; the consciousness of simply being still alive seemed to annihilate all other consideration.  From time to time could be heard, broadcast by loud speakers like a murmur from the beyond, the voices of preachers at the doors of mosques.

What Ossama enjoyed best was simply to watch all this chaos.  Leaning on the rail of the overhead walkway encircling with its metal pillars Tahzir Square, he was harbouring thoughts boldly contrary to the views proposed by acknowledged thinkers, who asserted that a country’s everlastingness was the product of order.  The spectacle before his eyes was an outright confutation of that imbecile affirmation.  For some time now, this structure, imagined by humanistic engineers to spare unfortunate pedestrians from the perils of the street, had become his panoramic observatory supporting his intimate conviction that this world was able to continue to exist indefinitely in a state of disorder and anarchy.  In fact, despite the inextricable confusion that reigned over the vast square, nothing seemed to affect the humour of the population and its healthy appetite for sarcasm. 

Ossama was convinced that there was nothing more chaotic than wars; yet they lasted for years on end and it often happened that notoriously ignorant generals actually won battles, chaos being by its very essence a great producer of miracles.  He was enchanted to be living in the midst of a race of men whose volubility and gaiety no iniquitous destiny had had the power to tarnish.  Instead of fulminating against the troubles suffered because of the monstrous decay of their city, they behaved in an affable and civilised manner, as if they attached no importance at all to material conditions that could cause affliction only in meaner souls.  This worthy, proud attitude amazed Ossama, for it denoted the total incapacity of his compatriots to comprehend tragedy.

He was a young man of about twenty-three, and without possessing any kind of fatal handsomeness, nevertheless had a charming face and dark eyes that shone with a perpetual sparkle of amusement, as if everything he saw and heard around him partook inevitably of the nature of burlesque.  He was wearing with incomparable grace a suit of beige linen, a raw silk shirt embellished by a vivid red tie, and brown suede shoes.  This get-up, totally unsuited to the midsummer heat, was not an expression of personal wealth or a desire to show off, but simply an obligation he felt due to himself to lessen the risks inherent  to his profession. 

Ossama was a thief; not a legalised thief like a prime minister, a banker, a businessman, a speculator or a property developer: he was a modest little crook with fluctuating revenues but whose activities – possibly because of their limited profits – have at all times and under all latitudes been regarded as an offence to the moral rules of the well-to-do.  Gifted with a realistic form of intelligence that owed nothing to the teachings of university professors, he had very soon understood that by dressing elegantly like the licensed racketeers of the public he would escape the distrustful eyes of a police force for whom any miserably-attired individual was automatically a suspicious character.  Everybody knows that the poor are capable of anything.  Since time immemorial, this was the one philosophical principle professed and vouched for by the property-owning classes.

To Ossama, this outrageous principle was the result of an imposture, for if the poor were capable of anything, they would be as rich as their calumniators.  Which only went to prove that if the poor persisted in their condition, it was simply because they did not know how to steal.  In the days when he himself had lived the life of an honest citizen, accepting indigence as a fatality, he had had to endure the suspicious looks his ragged appearance aroused in shopkeepers and the narrow-minded members of the  police authorities.  In those days, he felt so vulnerable he did not dare approach certain sections of the city, where those smiled upon by good fortune were wont to disport themselves, for fear of being suspected of harbouring evil intentions. 

It was not until later – his mind finally enlightened to the truth of this world – that he had decided to become a thief and in order to enter this profession in a respectable fashion, had adopted the visible attributes of his superiors in the corporate structure.  From then on, togged out in a suitable attire, he was able without difficulty to frequent those luxury establishments wherein his masters in thievery were wont to relax and, in complete security, rob them with elegance.  These petty larcenies constituted, it is true, only a minuscule recuperation of the fabulous sums that those unscrupulous criminals hoarded up in contempt of the common people’s poverty. 

It has to be said that Ossama’s ambition was not to possess a bank account (a dishonourable arrogation par excellence) but only to survive in a society ruled by financial extortioners without having to wait for some hypothetical revolution forever put off until the morrow.  His playful character predisposed him to humour and practical jokes rather than to the imperatives of solemnly-elaborated vengeances.

Feeling he had sufficiently admired his compatriots’ performances in extracting themselves from the chaos below, he prepared to leave his observatory when his attention was caught by a scene taking place on a traffic island that was also a tramway stop.  A group of sumptuously curvaceous women, laden with an incalculable number of baskets and parcels, were arguing with a man still young but of a massive build, clad only in a tattered singlet and a length of dirty cloth draped round his loins, like an academic statue symbolising poverty.  Those monumental nymphs had apparently just got off a tram and seemed to be engaged with the man in the scant attire in curious transactions that distance and the general cacophony rendered unfortunately inaudible.  Ossama was doing his best to guess the nature of the discussion when it suddenly came to an end in an unexpected manner. 

He watched the man take charge of those women terrified of the permanent assaults of vehicles:  he raised an arm to heaven as if invoking Allah, then conveyed them across the street amid a salvo of horns to the safety of the pavement.  Once arrived their safe and sound, the refugees unknotted their handkerchiefs and each gave a coin to their rescuer, who, having regained his breath, was already proposing his services to the numerous pedestrians hovering on the kerb and still under the spell of the exploit.  Ossama felt keenly all the comedy inherent  in that scene, unique of its kind.  Street crossing guide!  A new profession even  more dangerous than that of a thief, for there was a risk of violent death, and never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined such ingenuity on the part of one of his countrymen. 

The man who had invented this astonishing function in order to survive deserved his admiration and eternal friendship.  He would have liked to congratulate him and even write to the government to petition a decoration for him as an example to a new generation of workers.  That discoverer of unusual occupations, until then one of the most obdurate workless in the sinking capital, without question had the right to a medal; but Ossama distrusted all those dubious ministers who sat on the government  and were hardly capable of appreciating an initiative presenting no dodge likely to further enrich them, so he decided to leave them in ignorance of such a captivating phenomenon.

He cast a final glance at the ragged man, a look full of fraternal tenderness, then made for the stairway leading down into Talaat Harb Street, descended it with care (the steps were covered with a thick layer of dust  that might spoil his shoes) and found himself on the right-hand pavement, temporarily in the shade.  At once a voluptuous ease spread through all his limbs on contact with the cooler air, tepid and smelly but so much more refreshing after the furnace left behind. His clothes seemed to him lighter in consistency and he adopted his manner of a rich and carefree young man as he mingled with the crowd. 

He lent an eager ear to the discourse of passers-by around him, catching on the wing incredible snatches of conversation in which irony and invective against the reigning hierarchy poured out at every step, illustrating that mixture of insolence and pride that misery endows its chosen people with.  Listening to them, each speaker seemed to be decended from the pharoahs.  The claims that all those down-and-outs made to an imaginary nobility cast a pleasant charm on Ossama’s mind, for to him the most ostentatious destitution was the indubitable stamp of true grandeur.  All along the streets, shops displayed in their windows a whole panoply of the consumer society civilisation, one still very reduced, but firmly determined to profit from its pillages.  One could see there all kinds of household electrical goods, radio sets, televisions, video-tape recorders, refrigerators, jewellery of considerable value, rolls of silk in abundance, Persian carpets, women’s garments in the latest fashion, luxurious limousines with glittering chrome fittings, and – supreme absurdity – travel agencies advertising, in a sort of inverted exoticism, landscapes of snow and ice.  The greater part of the crowds remained indifferent to these primitive sales pitches for mainly foreign  imports brought in to satisfy the voracity of a tribe of rapacious racketeers. Only rare individuals, either because of fatigue of infantile curiosity, paused to contemplate these objects surpassing their understanding, and to wonder by what dishonest trick of fate they were so poor in a land so rich.

The Café Cosmopolite, which in former times owed its celebrity to the high social and intellectual level of its clientele, had now become overrun by an assortment of people of no particular standing and was slowly degenerating into marginality and ill repute.  It had lost its glorious terrace – eroded little by little in the course of time by the devastating tide of passers-by – and now set outside only a few tables in the haven of an impasse too short to attract idlers. 

Ossama sat at a table in the impasse sheltered from the multitude, ordered a lemonade from the waiter and started to survey the opposite pavement on which rose an old building still preserving some traces of its formerly extravagant architecture, like a courtesan worn out by age displaying, despite her wrinkles, some pitiful vestiges of her vanished beauty.  This decadence of a formerly wealthy edifice possessed, it must be admitted, no attractions to capture Ossama’s attention, were it not for its wrought-iron portal whose double doors stood wide open, and adorned with a black marble plaque on which was inscribed in letters of gold “VIP Club”, thus intimating to the riff-raff that it did not solicit members among the hoi polloi. 

Several times already this sanctum of the mercantile aristocracy had proved to be for our young man a source of fruitful individual recuperations.  As the nameplate proclaimed, the members of this club were not only remarkable by dint of ill-gained wealth, of course they also transported in their wallets an infinitesimal fraction of those riches of which Ossama had the goodness to divest them in the course of some imperceptible contact in passing.  It was an amusing and easy occupation, but was also doubly pleasurable for the player, because he never knew who his next victim would be nor the amount of money recuperated.  In fact, Ossama was a perfectly frivolous pickpocket, more concerned with the enjoyment of uncertain adventures than with financial gain.  His cynical and mystifying concept of the nature of theft absolved him of the sombre and over-anxious attitudes of the ordinary robber, bamboozled by the imbecile morality of the well-to-do. Heart thudding in joyous expectation, he kept the club’s entrance under observation, as if there might issue from its portal a woman divinely beautiful and lascivious such as indolent men imagine in their erotic day-dreams.

It was no ideal type of woman, but a young girl of barely seventeen who came up to him and said in a timid, almost plaintive voice: “May I sit with you?”  Ossama knew  that tone of voice and turned to look at the young girl standing before him, slender and fragile in her short printed cotton frock, her fake jewellery flashing in the sunlight.  For a brief moment he felt a wave of panic:  the intrusion of the young girl was going to upset his plans and moreover engage him in a pointless and affecting conversation, deflating his optimism. But then at once he smiled and said with the humour of a lover disgusted by his love’s incomprehension:  “But of course, Safira, you may sit down.  Why all these formalities with me?  Really you hurt me.”
“I don’t want to disturb  you.”
“You never disturb me. By Allah, don’t you know that yet?”

The young girl sat down, her eyes suddenly lit by gratitude.  It was obvious the sight of Ossama was for her a cause of great happiness, perhaps the only kind she knew.  Her face, without excessive make-up, had a pallor that betrayed the abuse of cheap food and the complexities of an uninviting way of life. This face expressed the sorrow of an unvarying poverty, but above all resignation and goodness.  It exercised no attraction for Ossama; nevertheless he always treated her in a friendly manner and sympathised with her sufferings.  He was aware that she was vaguely plotting some sentimental project that involved him personally and against which he endeavoured to protect himself by pretending to be a black sheep without any future.

“It’s incredible!”  Safira suddenly exclaimed, as if in an ecstatic trance before some miraculous manifestation.  “When I left home today I was sure I was going to meet you.  Isn’t that marvellous?”
“I am just as delighted as you are,” Ossama replied, suspecting the girl had been scouring the whole city looking for him. “Believe me, I bless the chance that placed me on your path.”

By adopting this exaggeratedly warm-hearted tone, Ossama was simply intending to establish between him and the young girl a climate of sincere and affectionate camaraderie.  Unfortunately, this cordiality tinged with malice, despite its outrageous exaggeration, only encouraged Safira in her modest quest for reciprocated love.  She lived with her mother in a back basement in the Chubah district, in total isolation and poverty.  In order to procure the few piastres for daily necessities in the struggle to keep chaos at bay, Safira had at her disposition the only means available for all proletarians in starvation regimes, namely to keep on searching for non-existent jobs and to die of inanition, or to prostitute herself for whatever price she could get, for she was still too naive to be able to appreciate at its true value the gift of her body.

Ossama had sex with her the first night they met and she had asked him in payment for a sum so modest that the lack of venality in a prostitute had startled and embarrassed him.  Sexual relations for almost nothing must surely conceal some trap and ever since he had abstained from repeating that momentary aberration though without refusing friendship for the young girl.  She seemed to have attached herself to him as the drowning clutch at a straw – in which case Ossama considered himself even weaker than that – perhaps because she saw in him an outcast as unfortunate as herself.  The young man had told her he was a thief, and thus in his own way a pariah living on the fringe of society. In her youthful logic and her ignorance of society, that seemed to her the primordial element in a love relationship.  What offended Ossama’s feelings and had a dire effect upon his morale were her complacency and resignation.

There was so much bitterness, so much accumulated reproach in her gaze that it paralysed in him all desire to laugh.  In fact the compassion he felt for the girl prevented him from seeing her from a derisive standpoint and condemned him to visions of a reality whose tragic element he imperiously denied.  At certain moments she would indulge in the enthusiasms and frivolities of her age group, then suddenly she would adopt a severe, almost haggard expression, as if scabrous images from her past life were suddenly re-surfacing in her memory in all their most ignoble details, and so darkened that brief instant of juvenile gaiety.

All the time he was complimenting the young girl on her appearance, Ossama had never stopped checking out of the corner of his eye the entry to the club in the hope that his day might not have a fruitless and depressing conclusion.  This conduct did not escape Safira’s attention, and she began to show signs of getting up from the table, saying in a humble tone tinged with suffering:   “You must be waiting for someone, so I’d better be off. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to see you again some time.”
“Stay where you are, for the love of Allah.  I’m not waiting for anyone.”
“My mother likes you a lot, I can tell you that. She told me yesterday that she prayed to Allah to protect you and keep you from being arrested by the police.  Don’t you think that was good of her?”
“Hey!  You talked about me to your mother?”
“When she asked me how I got these beautiful shoes.” She held out her feet and made a magnificent pair of shoes adorned with bright metal buckles sparkle in the shade.  “I couldn’t resist telling her it was you who gave them to me.  You don’t mind, do you?”
“And did you also inform her that I was a thief?”
“Don’t be angry.  You know my mother, the life she’s had since my father’s death, her brain’s gone a bit funny.  She can’t tell the difference between professions.  I could just as well have told here you’re a banker:  it would be all the same to her.”
“May Allah protect us! So why didn’t you tell her I was a banker?”  Ossama asked, his voice calm though with a touch of irritation.
“I don’t know,” moaned Safira who appeared to be struggling to contain tears.  “Perhaps because I was proud of knowing you.  You’re the only thief I know.”

Ossama did not ask her if she knew many bankers, for he was still astounded by the girl’s aptitude to see things in a false light.  This little goose was going to lead him straight to the gallows if he did not quickly find a cover-up for the error he had committed in revealing his activities to her.  Again it was compassion at the root of this wretched affair:  he had bought her that pair of shoes one day when she had deeply moved his heart by coming to meet him wearing only a pair of disintegrating straw sandals.  At the back of his mind there was also the insidious idea that with the purchase of these eye-catching shoes Safira would be able to claim a sum of money equal to what her qualities demanded in her business transactions.  He now regretted that generous gesture, for which he expected no more than an expression of thanks, but which had now transformed itself into a threat to his career.  Sooner or later through the interventions of this featherhead all the police of the capital would be alerted to his disguise. 

Dressing elegantly to feign respectability would no longer be of any use to him if he did not  at once put a lid on this bad publicity.  Naturally, these bitter reflections did not in any way alter his conviction that for an intelligent man there is nothing tragic on this earth. Obeying this tolerant and happy-go-lucky ethical point of view, he was not at all disposed to feel resentment and he laughed to himself at the thought that he had informed the girl he was a thief in the certainty that it would scare her off.  But that confession, instead of driving her away, had only increased his prestige in Safira’s eyes.  Doubtless persuaded by the example of extremely  wealthy figures popularised by the press, Safira believed that the profession of thief was synonymous with high social standing.  She had not ceased to pursue him, with one so-called chance meeting after another and her slyly languorous expressions.  As a connoisseur of feminine mentality, Ossama had to admit that he had in this case made a disastrous mistake.  Every imbecile knows that when they thought they were in love all women were blind to all moral considerations as far as the beloved was concerned. For a moment he sat silent, an ironic smile on his lips, as if he was laughing at himself.

For Safira, this silence and this smile could only signify a mute criticism on her account, so she tried to excuse herself by saying in a trembling voice:
“Perhaps I’ve done something bad.  Forgive me.”
“No, nothing bad.  Don’t worry about me. Actually your mother seems to me to be a very sensible woman.  Give her my thanks for her prayers on my behalf.  Who knows, I may one day have need of them.”
“Are you really serious, saying that about my mother?”
“I’m telling you that someone who can tell no difference between a banker and a thief cannot be called all mad. It’s the one criterion for evaluating the intellectual health of an individual.  There is no other.”

However, he avoided telling the girl that this criterion was one of his own invention.  Although she believed everything Ossama said, this evaluation of madness, based on such a simple criterion, seemed nonetheless insufficient to Safira in estimating the psychic state of her mother.
“Are you sure?” she asked nervously.
“On my honour,  sure as sure can be!”  Ossama promised, placing his right hand on his heart to prove the sincerity of his diagnosis.
“I’m very glad to hear that.  I was afraid of seeing her become completely mad.  You’ve lightened my heart.”

He detected true relief on the young girl’s face and felt a sudden blaze of desire to teach his conception of the world to this exemplary neophyte.  But this urge was of short duration.  To vulgarise such a subversive concept for the benefit of such a creature as irredeemable as Safira seemed to him like offering pearls to an old woman on the point of death.
“Tell me,” he went on brightly in the tone of an amusing conversational ploy, “do you often talk to your mother?”
Ossama just wanted to keep the conversation going and not give his companion the impression he was bored with her. In fact the girl’s misfortunes fascinated him despite himself, as if all the injustices she had suffered – all that inheritance from immemorial ancestors – had their roots in far-off countries and not in her immediate environment.  Ever since his elevation to the paradise of thieves, he no longer listened to the plaintive laments nor the cries of a resigned population that continued to believe in the myth of a celestial paradise. 

Listening to Safira meant hearing the echo, fainter but still persistent, of former times when he himself was perishing beneath the triumphant tread of impostors.   Though he would not admit it, he was hoping to hear her complaining and lamenting, thus opening his heart to the lost paths of his childhood, with its train of miseries and infamies that his new wisdom had relegated to the rank of derisory peripeteia.  All the same, this vague nostalgic aspiration did not deflect him from his principal preoccupation which was the club doorway that the waves of passers-by from time to time hid from his view.  Until now he had noticed only liveried servants emerging one at a time for a breath of the street’s overheated air and to cast censorious looks at the interminable procession of the excluded in their nonchalant progress under the blazing sun.  Doubtless the members of the club – Very Important Persons – were engaged in working up an appetite by the ingurgitation of their favourite alcoholic beverages, at the same time plotting further shady transactions.  But the dinner hour was approaching and Ossama knew that none of these sons of bitches would miss a meal: inflating their bellies was the one labour they applied themselves to with competence and honesty.

“Yes, I talk to my mother, though not so often.  It upsets me to have her mixing everything up in our discussions.  It leaves me feeling dizzy.”
“What do you discuss with her?”
Safira hesitated a moment before replying.  She then gave Ossama a look of unaccustomed boldness, and said in a mocking voice:
“What do you think people discuss?”

It was a sly blow, a perfidious manoeuvre on the part of the girl, and Ossama was momentarily mortified by his clumsiness.  He was sure the two women could discuss nothing but money – especially the lack of it – and he decided to put an end to this thorny subject on a pleasant note.

“I know quite well that the poor can only talk about money, but talking about money has never enriched anyone.”  And he gave a friendly, contagious laugh to encourage the girl to join him in a happy resolution of the matter.

But Safira obstinately refused to laugh.  On the contrary, Ossama’s wild burst of laughter had given her even  sadder thought for the young man’s frivolous attitude towards poverty.

“Money means nothing to me,” she said.  “What use is money if your life does not have a little love in it?”

She lowered her eyes and sat rigid with a frightened look on her face, as if anticipating an earthquake.  Ossama was no dupe:  it was easy for him to understand that this message was aimed at him and that he must pretend not to realise that it was intended for him.  Feminine wiles, even in this barely nubile adolescent girl, always amused him for it was a frail weapon, only good for outwitting simpletons or cretins. In spite of everything he was touched by the way she admitted her frustration and he seized the girl’s hand in a friendly gesture of consolation.  Once again the compassion he felt for his companion seemed to him a defect that put his personal freedom at risk.
“Do you talk to your mother about love?”
“Who else do you expect me to talk to?  She’s the only one I can confide in.  She at least listens to me.”

Ossama admired the girl’s strategy of attacking him without mentioning him as her target, at the same time knowing that he would recognise himself in this allusion to his indifference.  Beneath her pose as an innocent victim, she was using the artfulness common to her sex to attain her ends, which was to entangle him in the nets of some sordid intrigue.  But how could he hold it against her?  It was all just talk without lasting inconvenience to him.  His indulgent attitude towards the insinuations of this obstinate victim of love was above all due to Safira’s extreme youth and to her absolutely ineffective wiles.  What he would never have allowed in an adult woman he willingly put up with in this young girl who was experimenting at his expense with the unreasonableness and the ambiguities that eminent  psychologists attribute to all feminine mystery.  As Ossama had never been able to detect the slightest mystery in any woman, poor Safira’s artifices as usual caused him no perplexity, but merely a vague pity for such universal stupidity.

“But I also listen to you,” he protested out of pure goodness of heart, so as not to distress the girl too much through his refusal to understand her.
“Yes, that’s true, you also listen to me but it’s just in order  to laugh at me.  For example, the other day when I told you I was looking for work, you told me not to look for any because with my bad luck I might run the risk of finding it.  And then you burst out laughing.”

Seeing him so often laugh like that when she was describing certain aspects of her miserable existence, Safira had composed an image of the young man which conformed with his devil-may-care attitude of someone egotistical and frivolous, disdainful of the sufferings of others.  Therefore, in order not to contradict this blasphemous exuberance, she sometimes tried herself to laugh at her own misfortunes with perhaps the superstitious idea of thus circumventing fate.

“I bore you with my stories,” she said with a strained smile.  “Tell me about your exploits as a thief.  It would certainly be more amusing than my discussions with my mother.  I’d really like to become a thief myself.  Unfortunately I don’t have the courage:  I’m sure I’d be arrested even before trying.”
“Now listen Safira, that’s where you’re mistaken.  I’m not a courageous person,” Ossama replied with feigned weariness.  “When I told you I’m a thief, it was just a joke on my part, and I’m sorry you ever believed it.  You mustn’t take everything I say so seriously.”
The young girl’s face became horribly contorted as if at the confession of some unpardonable betrayal.  The young man’s ignoble occupation had persuaded her to believe that her own moral decline was no obstacle to amorous relations between two beings equally perverted by poverty.  But if Ossama was no longer the thief he had claimed to be, how could he passionately desire to enter into an idyll with a petty prostitute?  Her eyes bathed in tears, she gazed at the young man as if he were a renegade who had turned into an enemy of her class.
“What’s the matter?” asked Ossama with a touch of remorse in his voice.  “Have I offended you?”

The young girl kept silent, more out of a sense of shame than from the anger that was choking her.  She could not explain to Ossama that his falsehood deprived her of the one free gift that had been granted her on this miserable earth.
“So it was just a joke,” she said finally, in a bitter tone.
“I did it to amuse you.  I’m sorry, but there’s no need to take it tragically.  On the contrary, you should feel happy to know that I’m not a thief.”
“Happy for what?  If you’re not a thief, how can you keep company with”  (she did not say love) “a street girl like me?   After all, I’m nothing but a common prostitute.”
“But I don’t give a damn what you are.  Have I ever refused to be seen with you?  Even if you were to assassinate someone, you would still be a respectable person to me.  Indeed, it would make me esteem you all the more.”
“I have no wish to assassinate anyone.”
“Then you are wrong.  Many people deserve to be assassinated.  A few years ago my only dream was to suppress these rich bastards. But now I want them to stay alive because they make me laugh.”
“Can you tell me who they are, these rich bastards?”
“You’ll know one day, or perhaps never.  In any case, believe me, they do exist and indeed they proliferate all over the world.”

Translated by James Kirkup, 1998, for Banipal 4, Spring 1999.

* later published as ‘Les couleurs de l’infamie,’ by Editions Joelle Losfeld, Paris, 1999