Revolutionary Jokers

Recent revolutionary events have shown that simplistic western perceptions of a monolithic middle east are out of date, and even the very idea of a separated and distinct east and west hold little relevance in our connected modern world.  But what form does this modern revolution take? Albert Cossery's satirical novel The Jokers, recently translated into English by Anna Moschovakis, poses some questions about revolutionary tactics in that part of the world, albeit in an ironic way.

Cossery, an Egyptian born French writer of Syrian and Lebanese heritage, wrote eight novels in his lifetime (he died in 2008 at the age of 94).  He was friends with Henry Miller and Camus, and was known as "Voltaire of the Nile".  As in several of his other novels, The Jokers feature characters who have no care of a work ethic or bourgeois respectability.  Laziness is a virtue (Cossery himself once said that "doing nothing is inner work").  His protagonists do battle against an oppressive society by subtly subverting it through mockery and indolence.

His cast of characters in the The Jokers undertake a conspiracy to undermine the governor of an unnamed middle eastern country by putting up posters ridiculously praising him in over-the-top language.   The project is bankrolled by Khaled Omar, an illiterate ex-con full of joie de vivre who discovered an innate gift for business while in prison,  an absurd reversal of fortune that is typical of Cossery's sense of humor.  Karim is a former violent radical, who realizes that mockery is a better way to fight the power of the government.  Heykal, a dandy who is the ringleader of the pranksters,  rejects violence because in his own words,  "that's just what these tyrants want: for you to take them seriously."

Cossery's vision is a detached and highly ironic one, and though he draws on his memories of the Egypt of his youth, his work has an arch tone that elicits little human sympathy from the reader (his one dimensional portrayal of women is another reason the novel seems emotionally abstracted).   The Jokers has a plot that runs like clockwork, and it is quite funny. His characters tend to float through their lives,  and although The Jokers is an amusing satirical novel of ideas, unlike the recent real life events in Egypt there doesn't seem to be really much ultimately at stake.

During the recent uprising in Egypt, people also used mockery, though in a much more upfront way.   The popular Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey said humor is "very effective because it breaks the fear barrier." In her piece on humor in the Egyptian revolution,  Anna Louis Sussman tells the story of how protesters were accused by the government of accepting Kentucky Fried Chicken and 100 Euros as bribes from foreign agents. In response, videos were made of people in Tahrir Square sarcastically talking about their "Kentucky Bribes."

Never underestimate the power of a joke.

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