‘The Magnificent Conman of Cairo’: When the Despair is Not Your Own

The Magnificent Conman of Cairo‘ by Adel Kamel is a story told simply, humourously, and to the point – and that point seems to be universal across geography and the past century: privileged child is raised and then educated, “discovers” social injustices, rebels intellectually against society, and… well, I won’t spoil it in paragraph one, but I will say it was like holding up a mirror.

Originally written in 1942, the setting is Cairo, Egypt in the 1930s and the focus is on the intersection of two different lives: one rich man’s and one poor man’s. Khaled is a well-educated son of a prominent judge and government official and has recently had an intellectual awakening about society and his father’s wealth, remarking that his father “has [] pillaged it from the peasants who worked so hard for it on the land he rents to them.” Malim, on the other hand, is an apprentice who arrives to fix a window in the judge’s home. While he is there, he is falsely accused of stealing, which launches Khaled’s opportunity to put his intellect into action. Khaled’s activism is much against the wishes of his father, who in turn, alternates between punishing him and dangling bait to draw him in again.

In Khaled’s pursuit to test his own intellectual morality, he ends up doing more harm than good to Malim. It was oddly parallel to a contemporary American novel I recently wrote about (Such a Fun Age: Navigating the White & Woke) where a very similar dynamic plays out between two women. In both novels, the characters use another person to measure themselves, as evident when Khalid thinks of Malim: “Malim, who was the symbol of all that was noblest in him.[…] Malim, Khaled’s conscience given human form[.]” I think this is a fairly easy trap to fall into – and yet, doesn’t the best fiction show you yourself?

In the end…

After his pursuit of radical justice and way of life, Khaled eventually caves. “I am just a simple man but I am now a sane one. And all this sanity has made it clear to me that obedience to our fathers is the only way sons to be happy.” The book finishes with a monologue from a drunk Khaled about the disconnect between his conscience and chosen path: “We now know things with our minds only, but we don’t know how to know things with our whole being[.]”

As much as I reread the ending, I can’t quite put my finger on what’s being expressed through Khaled’s final thoughts. As part of his monologue, Khaled speaks to a lack of wisdom in society in spite of its cleverness, remarking, “I cannot singlehandedly raise the wisdom of being of an entire nation[.]” And yet, I think there must something in between this and Khaled’s eventual unraveling into gluttony, over-drinking, and womanizing… no? It seems like a “why try at all?” ending, which still may be an incredible honest feeling, though not conventionally “uplifting.”

The last line of the book:

Khaled glanced at him in despair. “Oh, Egypt,” he replied, “always burying your head in the sand.”

Sure, this story is about Egypt, but as an American reader, that sounds about right for the US as well. Still, the story and the ending provokes the questions: what does it mean to be an individual in a society where the collective change is so slow it seems nonexistent? How quick and easy is it for the privileged to “despair” and ultimately lose heart… or interest? The author himself was pressured by his father to study law, which he did. He then wrote works of literature for four years before ultimately going back to his law practice, never publishing again. It’s interesting to think of how much of himself he might’ve put into Khaled.

‘The Magnificent Conman of Cairo’ was originally written in Arabic. Here is an interview with the translator, Waleed Almusharaf: Adel Kamel’s Characters are ‘Despicable and Lovable with No Contradiction’