THE POETICS OF AMNESIA AND REVERSE MIGRATION IN Le Caire à corps perdui
Son Eldorado à lui, c’était le monde ancien dont il avait été extrait trop tôt pour pouvoir en vivre la plénitude
Le Caire à corps perdu [Cairo in a lost Body] is the debut novel by the Egyptian-French author Khaled Osman, a Paris based novelist and celebrated translator of such eminent literary figures as Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal Ghitany. The novel portrays an Egyptian who, after years spent in France, decides to return to Egypt. Upon his arrival in Cairo, he suffers a concussion that leaves him disabled and helpless, unable to remember his name or any components of his identity. As he attempts to reconstruct his identity, the reader witnesses the chaotic meanders of a city that never sleeps. Evidently, all the features that led to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution are enmeshed in the narrative: bureaucratic corruption, tyranny of the faces of power, and lack of civil liberties. Osman takes the reader in a maelstrom of impressions, emotions, and intricate social rapports in a narrative marked by intertextuality, one of the keys to the regain of identity, what I call "the poetics of amnesia" in the title of the essay.ii
The aim of this essay is to delineate the paradoxical particularities of the protagonist’s amnesia, with the consequent loss of identity, and the subsequent chase to recover this identity. At the outset of this quest, the possibility of reverse migration—He was born in Cairo and moved to France with his parents as a young child—is highly suggested, though not definitely established. Keeping in mind that readers may not have access to the untranslated French novel, the plot analysis that follows, informed by the aforementioned aim, is deemed necessary.
Soon after he faints with fatigue, hitting his head against a tool box in the taxi that drives him from the airport, the unconscious protagonist is carried and deposited by the frightened taxi driver on a bench in front of a modest looking boarding house. In his haste to get rid of such liability and for fear of reprisals, the cab driver forgets, in the back seat, the jacket which contains the passenger’s identity papers. However, moments later, the protagonist is taken in and befriended by the kindly head of the boarding house, Sett Baheya, and by her caring lodgers: Faouzi, a student of medicine, Azza, a student of political science, Ibrahim, the concierge, and Khadra, the maid. They all agree to name him, for the time being, Nassi, which means in Arabic "the one who has forgotten," and they devise strategies to help him recover his lost identity.
In point of fact, Nassi’s seems to be a case of post traumatic retrograde amnesia, where the victim may not be able to remember her name, her place of residence or any events that occurred prior to the injury, but can still recall scattered incidents going back all the way to childhood. That is precisely Nassi’s predicament: He remembers visiting his grandparents in Cairo every summer as a child (where from, he does not know, though he suspects it is from "somewhere in Europe"), and he evokes sensorial impressions from those yearly visits such as city walks that always ended with a refreshing ice cream or iced lemonade drunk in the scorching summer heat of the metropole. Moreover, unable to name his country of residence, his or any of the names of his relatives or friends, Nassi can spontaneously recall the name of a protagonist in a novel and he can recite Arabic poems that illustrate the emotions he is experiencing or the situations he finds himself in at a given moment during his search. He also recalls sequences from movies he saw in the past, sequences that corroborate his present experience.
Those incongruous memories act as objective correlatives, whose function is to show and suggest, rather than describe, feelings and emotions. One such instance is worth mentioning. One day, Nassi thinks of going to the French Consulate in Cairo to apply for a job as translator, but mainly to request that they check their records abroad to see if he is possibly a citizen of France, as he suspects he could be. He hesitates taking this step, however, and he is plagued by doubt: What if he is rejected on both sides, Egypt and France? France because he would be deemed an impostor, and Egypt because of his state of amnesia which would prevent him from securing a place in this society; then he could find himself, as the Egyptian expression goes, "like the woman who danced between two floors. Neither those above nor those below saw her" (121-122). Rejected by both countries, Nassi feared to end up in a "no man’s land" identity-wise, "condemned to wander indefinitely" (121) like the heroes of a Tunisian movie he once saw.
The movie recallediii is about two foreigners, a Polish and an Arab, who embark on a ferry in Ostende (Belgium) en route to Dover (England). After humiliating interrogations by British Police and a long wait, they are both refused entry to Great Britain and sent back to Belgium. There, again in Ostende, they are also refused entry because their visas have expired, so the two characters find themselves neither here nor there, in limbo, waiting indefinitely in the port of Ostende. Whereupon, the Arab character, Yousef Quraichi, outraged and offended in his Arab pride and refusing to plead and beg, decides to write a dignified letter in the form of a poetic missive, addressed to the Arab ambassador in Belgium:
A notre ambassadeur arabe à l’étranger,
"Nothing is more terrible than the infinite/When all land is irrevocably banished," a poignant and telling predicament of the refugee in between lands, forever branded an unwelcomed alien, forever hounded by fear! It is also the Kafkaesque nightmare Nassi faces.
Once he makes it to the French Consulate with his dual request, it is an utter fiasco. Nassi is evidently unable to even begin to fill in the application with all the required basic personal information, and indeed, he is deemed an impostor seeking illegal entry into France. Needless to say, he is not given a job as translator. Meanwhile, his co-lodgers are doing their utmost to help him navigate through his selective amnesia.
When taken through the streets of Cairo by his friends, in a desperate attempt to recover his identity by rekindling memories of his past whereabouts, he ends up recognizing the building where his grandparents lived. Alas, it is condemned and boarded up, and no one inhabits it any longer. Nassi laments that Cairo too suffers amnesia, having eradicated some of the places he cherished so: "Le pays tout entier est en train d’oublier son passé" [the entire country is forgetting its past"], an apt allusion to the deterioration of the living conditions over the last four decades. Standing in front of that condemned building, nevertheless, isolated memories come back vividly to Nassi, of the day when a neighbor learned of the sudden death of her son and her screams of grief. Or another day when his cousin fell off the balcony and survived the fall witnessed by his terrified mother and aunts. He also remembers places where he used to eat with his family, and even the foul (fava beans) stand with the humorous sign put up by the owner: "If we run out of beans, I am responsible by no means (90)." The chase for his identity in the company of his friends through the insanity of the traffic and the immensely crowded streets, makes of Cairo a stark antagonist, and that, despite the endearing memories the city evokes in the protagonist.
As the narrative unfolds, one gets the impression that Nassi’s amnesia, on a symbolic level, is an escape from his life as an Expatriate, one he was keen to put behind him. His amnesia is the objective correlative of a deep dissatisfaction with expatriation and the embodiment of his nostalgia for his native land, to which the epigraph to this paper testifies. In fact, we learn, at the very opening of the narrative, that his initial decision to come back to Egypt was motivated by his disillusionment with Europe: The regulated, productive lives, the petty complaints of well-fed individuals who plead poverty at the least breach made to their comfort. He was getting increasingly annoyed by the "cult of performance and efficiency" (23), and the resulting "fierce individualism" that isolated people from each other (203). The chaos and vibrancy embedded in Cairo, on the other hand, called and appealed to him in his exile: "Il avait éprouvé un besoin impérieux de revenir à la simplicité, aux verres de thé sirotés entre amis, aux promenades sur la corniche du Nil, à l’imprévoyance, au fatalism" (37). [He had felt an imperious need to come back to simplicity, to the cups of tea enjoyed with friends, to walks by the Nile, to lack of planning, to fatalism]. As he gets to know his co-lodgers, he is moved by their constant solicitude, their human warmth, and their unconditional support. So perhaps this loss of identity was a blessing in disguise after all. In Nassi’s own words: "Malgré toute son horreur, cette amnésie provisoire avait tout de même du bon: elle lui permettait de renouer directement avec son enfance en passant outre les idées noires, les angoisses et les appréhensions qui encombraient ordinairement son esprit" (37) [Despite all its horror, this temporary amnesia had a good side to it: It would allow him to reconnect directly with his youth by sidelining the dark thoughts, anguish, and apprehensions that normally cluttered his mind]. In this quotation, a sort of nostalgia towards the native land transpires. "To reconnect directly with his youth" is the dream of everyone past the prime of life, and in this particular case, the dream of Nassi in quest of his stolen identity in the city of his birth.
Nassi’s double exile, his "metaphorical exile"iv in Cairo succeeding his physical exile in Europe, is exacerbated by Raouf Effendi, a civil servant who kindly helps him in his quest by sifting through national registers and archives in search of someone who could prove to be him. Thus, Raouf has shortlisted three possible contenders to Nassi’s identity, who are all around his medically estimated age. In his efforts to help, Raouf presents our protagonist with the identity files of the three prospects, with the last one corresponding in many ways to Nassi’s attributes and trajectory. However, and despite Raouf’s insistence, Nassi vehemently refuses to embrace the identity of that man who allegedly spied on his fellow Egyptian Expatriates in France and reported back to National Security in Egypt, an oppressive, ruthless, corrupt, and unethical entity. When Raouf insists that his find is a most likely candidate, Nassi heatedly argues that a human being cannot possibly be reduced to his trajectory. Rather, it is one’s convictions and values ["these don’t lie"] that constitute the true makers of our being (237), hence the impossibility for him, Nassi, who values freedom and integrity above all, to be that slimy individual who colluded with an oppressive government and spied on his countrymen residing abroad.
In regards to Nassi’s delineation of what constitutes the core of our identity, one has the impression that Nassi is Khaled Osman’s spokesman. In fact, in an interview I conducted with the author in 2013, he engaged the topic of the philosophical dimension of the novel: which are the elements crucial to one’s identity, those elements one can possibly hold on to when one’s bearings are all lost or confounded? an issue certainly relevant in the context of migration and transnational bicultural individuals. In the narrower context of the novel’s plot, it is relevant insofar as the protagonist, despite disabling amnesia, retains a strong sense of self. It is almost as if his disability has some liberating power to it.
Indeed, at the end of the novel, three weeks after landing in Cairo Airport, the taxi driver comes back to give Nassi his identification papers and his wallet. An unexpected slippage happens: he refuses after all to open the envelope and to find out his name and nationality; instead he entrusts the precious envelope that holds the key to his identity to Sett Baheya (the owner) for safe-keeping until such time he feels "ready." In this endeavor, namely postponing the moment of truth, he is motivated by his fear of going back to Europe, the fear, as he puts it, "to fall back in the trap of this uprooted existence he precisely tried to escape, to the point of losing his memory" (251).
At the close of the narrative, Nassi decides to wait a full year to unravel the secret of the envelope, inspired by a poem he had been trying in vain to recall. He has persistently felt, throughout his ordeal, that this forgotten poem held "the key to his deliverance" (252). He jumps into the Nile, goes to the bottom, and holds his breath, determined to conjure up the poem. He almost suffocates and at this liminal moment he suddenly remembers it in its entirety. The speaker of the poem suffers some unspecified harsh predicament. He seems to be in a post-apocalyptic context, and begs the survivors to stop dying. He pleads for an additional year to be granted to him so he could resolve "the enigma of the confusion of time (252)." This settles it for Nassi who identifies wholeheartedly with the poem. He rises to the surface of the water, determined to take that extra year. In his case, this "enigma of the confusion of time" is not only his disabling condition. It is first and foremost the schism between his childhood and his adulthood, between two radically different countries (France/Egypt), between past and present. During this year in waiting, he vows to to know Azza better and to reconnect with his countrymen, with the people of Egypt, and only then to decide whether to go back to Europe or to remain in his native land. Is this a desperate move on the part of an out-of-place transnational, forever in between countries, stranger everywhere, homesick wherever he goes, and belonging to no collectivity whatsoever? "Au fond, il n’a jamais su trouver sa place, et ce qui lui arrive en ce moment ne fait qu’entériner tragiquement un état de fait préexistant"(125) [In reality, he never found his place, and his present state of amnesia reinforces a preexisting point of fact].
Nassi’s decision to postpone finding out his identity for a full year is encouraged by Azza, the female co-lodger and his one-night lover, who reinforces his stance by advancing that his amnesia is nothing more than an escape from reality, from a life abroad no longer suitable to his temperament. She reveals to him the advantages of his unconsciously chosen state: "You live your life like a novel or a movie, refusing the dictatorship of reality with all its constraints-, names, dates, places" (245). In the eyes of Azza, Nassi’s selective amnesia—what I consider as an objective correlative of his ill-lived expatriation coupled with his nostalgia— is a refuge into a virtual country where characters need not wonder who they are, second-guess themselves or question their behaviors at every turn. They simply live in a world where "they breath, have fun, struggle, hate or love, and that is all" (251). With this epiphany in hand, Nassi feels equipped, during the projected additional year, to take reality as it comes, to accept himself, and to reconnect with his lost countrymen, who, despite their many shortcomings, are "generous" and "believe in fatalism" (253). Then and only then, Nassi surmises, would he be able to finally re-appropriate his past by reintegrating his lost and found identity (253).
In conclusion, what I have termed "poetics of amnesia" in the title of this essay can be considered as a conglomerate of features tied to Nassi’s lack of memory. The loss of key facts of his identity (name, date of birth, country of residence, occupation, parents’ names, etc.) are juxtaposed with an uncanny remembrance of chunks of poems, and of songs and moviesthat mark the narrative with intertextuality. These snatches of memories act as objective correlatives of the ills of his expatriation in France and his nostalgia for Egypt. Nassi’s remembrance of incidents and impressions experienced as a child during the yearly summer visits to his grandparents in Cairo are perhaps predictors of the possibility of his reverse migration, as suggested at the outset of the novel. This is further suggested by his decision to postpone finding out his identity hidden in the envelope the taxi driver returns to him. Perhaps Nassi will reconcile his parents’ decision to expatriate when he was only a young child with a redefinition of his transnational identity, for, in the words of Eric Liu, "in every assimilation there is a mutiny against history-but there is also a destiny, which is to redefine history."v
i. Khaled Osman, Le Caire à corps perdu. Paris: Vents d’ailleurs: 2011. This novel was a finalist for a
prestigious Francophone award, Prix Gitanjali. Khaled Osman has just published his second novel, La Colombe
et le moineau (The Dove and the Sparrow) in 2016 at Vents d’ailleurs. Osman is recipient of many prestigious
awards by the French Academy for his fine translations of Naguib Mahfouz and Gamal Ghitany.