COVID-19 on the Nile

How coronavirus snuffed out my bookseller's life

Hassouna, the street vendor from whom our author always purchased his newspapers, has died in the pandemic, not yet 50 years old. He was a legend among Cairo's newsagents. By Khaled el-Khamissi

Hassouna is dead, taken at not even fifty years of age by coronavirus. He is gone forever, leaving a void that I feel will never be filled. The strange thing is that the last time I met him, he said to me: "I came into this world naked, and I'll leave it naked." To which I jokingly replied that I hoped he would dress warmly for his journey from this world to the hereafter.

Now I have come to understand that he carried with him the love of so many, after cloaking his heart for so long in sympathy for one and all, regardless of their orientation. Hassouna was a news vendor in Cairo's Mounira district, one who claimed a "farsha", or mat, as his own. The farsha is a wooden board or piece of cardboard that a vendor places on the pavement to display his newspapers and magazines, and sometimes a few books. It is neither a kiosk nor a shop, but just a tiny area of the pavement, usually scarcely two metres wide, but it is a rectangle that is chock full of the ideas and thoughts of journalists and writers, like a blazing fire surrounded by tongue-flicking snakes.

Spending all day long on the pavement like Hassouna calls for great proficiency in all areas of life. For the pavement is a vital space not only for the powerful, for policemen, police informers and city inspectors, but also for the wretched, for peddlers, shoeshines and self-appointed watchmen who demand a fee from anyone who wants to park their car.

The Egyptian police are charged with monitoring what goes across every square metre of pavement, and they view it as their sovereign duty to collect fees from the poor souls forced to hawk their wares on the street, because otherwise they will be banned. It is an old familiar game that goes something like this: you are here and you can stay here, but you will not get a permit that allows you to legally pursue your livelihood here. Which is why the blade always hovers just above your neck. You are here, but your presence is tolerated only on account of a generous gesture that may be revoked at any time.

This picture, taken on 24 May 2020, shows a view of the historic cinema theatre Metro along Talaat Harb Street in Cairo's almost deserted city centre on the first day of Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that begins at the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Samer Abdallah)
The streets of Cairo are practically deserted: Egypt imposed an extension of the night-time curfew to prevent large gatherings during Eid-ul-Fitr. According to official figures, more than 32 600 people in the most populous country in North Africa have become infected with Sars-CoV-2

Hassouna catered to a steady stream of journalists and authors

Everybody here has carved out a territory in which to make a living and exceeding the boundaries is a no-no. Often, however, the presence of one person depends on that of another. As Hassouna had such a large clientele, a shoeshine could always be found plying his services in the immediate vicinity of his farsha. In order to survive the tough life on the pavement, Hassouna had to strike myriad delicate balances with the powers that be on the street. He had to keep that sharp blade away from his neck, had to earn his living and satisfy all sides without betraying any of them. He could not stoop to becoming just another police informer, he had to find books that sold well, he could never let his thirst for knowledge be sated, and he had to diligently keep track of what his friends wanted to read. Amazing how he was able to do all this at once.

Hassouna was a friendly man with a dark complexion, a little round belly and a moon-shaped face; his bushy black moustache distracted from the small bald patch on his head. If I really believed that there is such a thing as a phenotype that distinguishes one nationality from another (an idea I firmly reject), then Hassouna would be the ideal type of the original Egyptian.

I can't remember when I met first met him. But it was certainly before 2011. I think he had inherited his spot on the ground from his father, or another member of his family. I heard that his farsha had been located in the same place for many decades, a strategic location because it was surrounded by several of Egypt's most important journalistic institutions, such as the publishing house of the state art magazine al-Hilal, the headquarters of the venerable political weekly Rose al-Yusuf and other such institutions that have been active in Egypt since the early 20th century.

It was therefore natural that Hassouna catered to a steady stream of journalists and authors who stopped by to see him every day. Because the newspaper vendor was always there, he was part of the pavement scenery, a fixed monument that never moved from the spot.

Despite having so many clients, he knew everyone by name, just as his clients knew that they would most likely cross paths with one journalist or another at his farsha. Hassouna was hence not only a newspaper vendor but a meeting place and conversation venue. And his farsha was no longer just a spot on the pavement but more like a seminar room.

Hassouna possessed an amazing native intelligence. He knew the literary bent of every writer along with his particular intellectual inclinations. He could choose just the right book for every client, and when someone stopped by he would retrieve a package from under a stack of dirty old papers, open the cover, hand over the book with a smile that lit up his whole face, and say: "You will find this book interesting, that's why I got it for you." Rarely was he wrong with his recommendation.

This man's beautiful flame was snuffed out by the accursed virus, likely caught from a neighbour

I remember him during the days of the great mass movement starting in 2011, because his farsha was not far from the seat of the People's Assembly and Tahrir Square. In the midst of these great events he was the present, amidst all the fast-changing press reports, he was the constant. This was the heyday when his great brilliance shone brighter than ever. Thereafter newspaper sales collapsed. If he had previously sold more than two hundred papers a day, now it was not even fifty. So he had to find a new line of business.

From then on, he specialised in selling books. The only remarkable thing about it was that he refused to sell pirated editions. Even though he knew full well that the majority of street vendors in Egypt sell only such copies, charging the price of the original and making quite a tidy profit. More importantly, in those years Hassouna became the man to whom several authors took a pilgrimage to ask for his help in coming up with an attractive title for their books. Indeed, Hassouna had become a non-paid marketing consultant.

More than once he tried to obtain a licence for a kiosk, but to no avail. He tried to boost newspaper sales by studying the best products of the press every day and giving them pride of place to attract the attention of the buying public. But sales continued to drop. Someone told him that he got all the news sent to him for free every day as newsletters on WhatsApp, so why buy a newspaper?

Hassouna probably realised that he was working in a business that threatening to become extinct. And that at some point he would simply disappear, just like the fez makers, known in Egypt as "tarbush", or those ironers who once did their work with their feet. But he told me that he could never give up his job, because his only passion was reading and selling newspapers.

This man's beautiful flame was snuffed out by the accursed virus, which he likely caught from a neighbour. Hassouna died, but his smile did not.

Others will continue to try to sell newspapers, wondering whether these printed products that have so shaped our awareness are doomed to become dinosaurs of the modern age. Or whether they have what it takes to come out on top and outlast the competition.

Khaled al-Khamissi

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Khaled al-Khamissi, born in Cairo in 1962, studied political science at Cairo University and the Sorbonne. He works as a journalist for Egyptian newspapers. He has produced, directed and written screenplays for various feature films and documentaries.

More on this topic