Mohamed Bouazizi lived 26 years before deciding he could not exist a day longer as a poor man beneath the Tunisian government. A government inspector had slapped him and seized the fruit he sold from his cart, which he’d plunged into debt to buy, and would not give it back. Humiliated, Bouazizi, who earned roughly $7 a day to support a family of eight, bought two cans of paint thinner and set himself on fire. The burns covered 90 percent of his body.
The desecration of his flesh would have been despicable and unforgivable had the government done it. But because he did it to himself and because he did it by choice — self-destruction being the ultimate act of self-determination for the powerless — he staked a final, desperate claim on his own dignity no dictator could revoke and, in so doing, set the Arab Spring alight.
Almost a year later, reporting on the ongoing revolution in Egypt that had been partially inspired by Bouazizi’s example, I met a young Nubian named Ahmed Shalpy on Tahrir Square. He told me he’d risen up to reclaim his right to live beneath a police force that wouldn’t shoot out his eyes with rubber bullets and a government whose cronies wouldn’t rob him of his economic ability to marry and buy a house at a decent age. Shalpy said he was risking his life fighting on Mohammed Mahmoud Street to reclaim his dignity, and he loosed the word with such force and conviction that I didn’t wonder what it really meant until much later.
Dignity, it turns out, encompasses multitudes as well as a variety of fatal contradictions, and much of them parade through Albert Cossery’s 1955 novel “Proud Beggars,” recently reissued by NYRB Classics. The novel is set in pre-revolution Egypt — that is, before the 1952 officers’ coup — and in it, many of Egypt’s same social infirmities are on display: economic inequality, unresponsive government, and repressive police.
Cossery was born in Cairo in 1913 and moved to Paris as a young man, where he happily wandered the Left Bank eternally jobless, ensconced in the Hôtel La Louisiane in Saint-Germain-des-Prés for 60 years until his death. Yet his novels remained fixated on the life of vagabonds in Egypt, and so it’s unsurprising that recent history has deemed three of his other novels — “The Colors of Infamy” (1999), "A Splendid Conspiracy" (1975), and "The Jokers" (1964) — worth reissuing. As one Harper’s reviewer noted, with a hint of understatement, “Now seems like a propitious time to rescue Cossery’s writings from oblivion.” Cossery’s book is a timely echo of the past-cum-present struggles of the Egyptian underclass. It’s also a surprisingly subversive treatise on what dignity and poverty can mean for aspiring revolutionaries. At the core of the novel’s revolving cast of characters is Gohar, the Siddartha-like bum who relishes the simplicity of his own poverty. He is contrasted with the his revolutionary friend El Kordi who believes dignity is won through sacrifice or by challenging or shaming authority like Bouazizi did.
Not Gohar. When it comes to dignity, he might be the greatest radical of them all:
Gohar smiled at the thought of El Kordi, at his exaggeration of his troubles, more fictitious than real, and his constant search for human dignity. “What is most futile in man,” he thought, “is this search for dignity.” All these people trying to maintain their dignity! For what? The history of mankind is a long, bloody nightmare only because of such nonsense. As if the fact of being alive wasn’t dignity in itself. Only the dead are undignified.
It turns out the most dignified thing to do might be to let go of dignity altogether. Especially when those in power control the definition of the word. What if we’ve got Bouazizi’s example all wrong?
Dignity, after all, has an undignified history.
When Kim Jong Il died in December, his regime praised him and said he’d brought “dignity” to North Korea “on the highest level and ushered in the golden days of prosperity unprecedented in the nation's history.” Or, translated from the original totalitarianese: North Koreans are two inches shorter than the average South Korean due to sheer malnutrition, and they wept forcibly at their dictator’s passing lest anybody suspected they possessed insufficient patriotic grief.
Dignity is not just a laurel for when totalitarians die but also for when we kill them. When President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, he said “his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” I have no sympathy for bin Laden, but I would not attach the words “peace” or “dignity” to clandestine nighttime raids in which the state shoots its enemies through the face. Surely the relatives of 9/11 victims felt some quiet justice from the killing, but young Americans embraced peace and dignity by dancing in the streets and singing drunkenly of death.
So what is dignity, exactly? The word litters Cossery’s novel without much definition, much as we often use it casually with each other without ever saying precisely what we mean. In March 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page attempt to define the concept. It had to. Since the council’s inception in 2001 — after which its largely religious membership gave ethical opinions replicating the administration’s Christian orthodoxy on stem-cell research and abortion — critics believed it had “employed the language of human dignity so loosely that it was nothing more than a rhetorical trump card used to reject policies that were at odds with the Bush administration's perspective," Leslie A. Meltzer wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dignity was a blatant political weapon.
Responding to that criticism, council members proceeded to define “dignity” by rolling it around in their hands and using it to bludgeon each other. Council Member Gilbert Meilaender responded to neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland's secular concept of dignity by telling her that, if she would not consider Catholics' positions, "the most dignified thing to do would be to remain silent."
Almost every essayist (in the council’s 20-essay-long report) concedes that the concept remains slippery and ambiguous. ... We read that dignity reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. We also read that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity in full measure. Several essayists play the genocide card and claim that the horrors of the twentieth century are what you get when you fail to hold dignity sacrosanct. But one hardly needs the notion of “dignity” to say why it's wrong to gas six million Jews or to send Russian dissidents to the gulag.
Dignity has three problems, Pinker writes. First, it’s relative; the shame of, say, showing your skin publicly varies by era and by what country you’re in. Second, dignity is fungible; we’ll volunteer to have an invasive medical exam to check for cancer. Finally, dignity is dangerous; when the politics of dignity are foisted on a population by a small group of people, it’s often called totalitarianism. Dignity can decree that all women wear burqas or that we all call each other “comrade” so that nobody oppresses anybody again. The surest sign of an emerging authoritarian state is one in which the symbols of dignity become valued more than actual liberty.
For Pinker, dignity is rooted solely in the concept of freedom. It’s all about liberty and being treated a way to which you’d freely consent. Even in situations where the state’s will supersedes mine — say, if I’m getting arrested — I still keep a shred of dignity if I’m arrested with probable cause, if the officers respect all of my constitutional liberties, and if I get a fair day in court (though only if I get all three).
Still, dignity's obscurity doesn't make a vague perception of its existence any less valid or important. If you can’t quite prove when and where dignity exists, dictators always can. Before the killing begins, they go on the radio to call you a cockroach, they come with the clippers to shave your hair, they parade you on the streets to announce: Look at them, they’re not even human. If dignity is the desired property of peasants, shame belongs to the tyrants.
One of the subtlest but most telling questions implied in Cossery’s Proud Beggars is: What kind of poor person are you? Are you like Gohar, or are you like the mother of his similarly dignity-agnostic friend Yeghen, who “would have liked to see (Yeghen) ashamed and resigned, moping his life away” in the shame of their mutual deprivation? Yeghen’s mother wants the dignity that can be conferred by society through having money, a subspecies of dignity we might call prestige; Yeghen seems more concerned with maintaining personal dignity — we’d call it integrity — by refusing to take seriously a system that would shame him for not having anything.
The characters in “Proud Beggars” exist mainly outside what most of us would call dignity of any form; much as with Cairo today, Cossery’s metropolis is a layer cake of social and economic repression, and much of the story is spent trying to determine, through decisions large and small, how to live without shame.
That craving for dignity has brought revolution near to Cossery’s Cairo, and as with Egypt’s most recent real-life insurrection, the dignity-depriving police are the regime’s most hated face. Someone has murdered Arnaba, a 16-year-old prostitute, and so detective Nour El Dine arrives at the bordello to assault innocents into confession or into giving a little evidence. The vain bureaucrat El Kordi, despite being completely innocent and ignorant, decides to use this investigation to start the Egyptian revolution by enacting the familiar activist ritual of police humiliation.
“Can I count on your cooperation?”
“In no way,” said El Kordi indignantly. “I will do nothing to help the police. Besides, I don’t know a thing about this affair.”
“Really, you have no ideas about the crime?”
“I have many ideas. But I doubt that you could understand them.”
“Why? I would be very happy to listen to them.”
“Very well! I believe that society alone is responsible for this crime,” El Kordi said grandiloquently.
Actually, the beggar-Buddha Gohar is responsible for the girl’s murder. Gohar owns nothing in the world except joy and a dependence on hashish, and in a crazed moment of craving, he spontaneously killed her for her jewelry to sell for drugs to sate his addiction.
But Gohar doesn’t feel guilt, only loathing for the police now hunting him. He loathes them for their very efforts, in fact, because he suspects they aren’t really sympathetic to Arnaba’s death but to their own power:
Not that the murder of a prostitute was an odious, inhuman act in their eyes, but it disturbed their tyrannical order. The concept that each transgression should receive its punishment was one of those hypocritical lies serving as a bulwark to a rotten, dying society. … It was merely an instrument of domination destined to hold the poor in awe.
When Gohar refuses to resist, run away, or surrender to the investigation, it’s El Kordi who tries to martyr himself in front of the police. El Kordi determines that he is the kind of poor person who will fight for dignity by confronting the tools of oppression. Though El Kordi also later falsely admits to the murder solely because he wants to impress a girl into thinking he’s dangerous. Dignity takes on many forms, and a thin line separates it from sheer vanity.
But back to Bouazizi: What does mean that his death of shame or dignity — whatever you want to call it — sparked a “Dignity Revolution,” as Maytha Alhassen has taken to calling each Arab Spring uprising? What does it mean if the crowds in Tahrir Square and Moscow each ask for dignity en masse, a political “quest” Tom Friedman thinks the countries share despite their different political fabrics?
There’s some evidence suggesting that dignity, or the revolutionary discourse of dignity, is overrated, just as the word proved overrated when the Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics first used it. When crowds cry “dignity,” it’s often shorthand for a brief moment of coalition politics, as was the case in Egypt last year, and a potentially dangerous form of them at that.
Coalitions of dignity can end swiftly. They can lack militancy and a shared concept of what life after shame is supposed to look like. The Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t decisive in Egypt’s 2011 revolution and yet will likely end up running the country if the military doesn’t; as with many revolutions, they walked through a door that someone else opened. Any good political speechwriter could tell you that “dignity” is just charged and obscure enough to build a coalition around without making the kind of specific promises that would drive away necessary constituencies, a Band-Aid over wounds that haven’t closed. The small groups still energized and militant enough to set the rules after a dignity revolution can become far more specific about what dignity means for everybody else if they aren't busy using their new power to rob the place blind.
So what if we cast away the politics of dignity altogether? “Proud Beggars” is unique for the way that it treats the concept of dignity and shame, and the unlikely murderer, Gohar, is its linchpin: He doesn’t even believe in dignity. At one point, Gohar’s serenity cracks open long enough that we see an actual ideology, a happy vision of beggardom located somewhere between the poles of Zen asceticism and Vaclav Havel’s dictum to “live in truth.” It’s as if Pinker’s liberal concept of dignity were reformulated into a belief that, if the entire system has been constructed to constantly strip your dignity, the most dignified thing you can do is deny participation in any way whatsoever. “I refuse to collaborate with this immense charade,” Gohar says to a confrere, speaking both of the police investigation and of middle-class society. His friend responds:
“But an entire people cannot afford to have this negative attitude. They must work for a living. How can they not collaborate?”
“Let them all become beggars. Am I not a beggar? Once we have a country where the population is composed entirely of beggars, then you’ll see what will become of this arrogant domination. It will crumble into dust. Believe me.”
Poor? Reclaim dignity by discarding it, by relishing poverty rather than feel ashamed of it. Abused by the police? Take joy in being beaten without becoming indignant. Eventually a system that thrives off the manufacture of (in)dignity — of the various tools of shame it uses to perpetuate the existence of a lower class it can exploit — will be starved of it and collapse.
Proud Beggars is a revolutionary novel. It tells you that Bouazizi might not have had to set himself on fire if everyone were as poor as he and were content with it, that Egypt could be revolutionized if it just let go of its material desires; it suggests that Russia, Greece, Britain, and America could be, too.
If only this revolutionary conception of dignity didn’t tell you how to make a world of pauper fundamentalists in which you can murder a 16-year-old girl for no reason and happily get away with it.