In search of a ‘personal’ Coptic discourse: Shady Lewis on his debut novel

On a cloudy afternoon in southeast London, I met with the writer Shady Lewis, who recently published his first novel, Turuq al-Rab (The Ways of the Lord). Shady’s lively conversation and keen sense of humor are reminiscent of his spirited protagonist, Sherif: an ever-indulgent storyteller, despite the growing darkness of his circumstances. As he gathers the documents necessary to marry his German girlfriend, Sherif finds himself increasingly at odds with both the Church and the state. Turuq al-Rab is perhaps most remarkable for its unprecedented exploration of the life of its Coptic protagonist and his complex relationship with the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Egypt. Lewis’s large repertoire of articles betrays a long-standing interest in Coptic identity politics and Church affairs. However, his newly published novel brings a refreshingly human dimension to a discussion that has become overwhelmingly politicized.


LN: We know you as a writer of cultural and opinion pieces — but what exactly do you do for a living?

SL: Originally, I was a civil engineer, just like Sherif actually. I worked for seven years between Egypt and Saudi Arabia before moving to England. I’ve now been in the UK for a total of 13 years. When I first came here, I began studying psychotherapy and psychology, and then started working in social services: first at the social housing department, then at the National Health Service for a while. About two years ago I committed myself entirely to writing: articles (culture and opinion pieces) as well as some academic work and, of course, fiction.

I finished writing Turuq al-Rab about a year ago. I’ve also finished a second novel but it hasn’t been published yet.


LN: Was writing a novel something you’d been considering for a long time, or did it come about spontaneously?

SL: About six months before I started writing Turuq al-Rab, I was giving a talk at a conference about Christian minorities across the Arab World. I was one of only two Egyptians invited to speak. The other was an activist and researcher specializing in minority rights, and I was sure that she would discuss Copts from a legal perspective, looking at marriage laws within the church as well as the constitution, etc. So I decided that I would look into the discourses available for Copts to look to when constructing their identities and own sense of self. My hypothesis was that there were three such discourses. Firstly, the Church discourse, which mainly centered around how Copts are victims, how they’re persecuted and how they should rejoice in this suffering because this is what it means to be Christian — anywhere in the world, not specifically in Egypt or the Middle East. The second discourse is the 1919 discourse, where everyone is united under one flag, one nation, cross and crescent, and so on, and in this discourse Copts are a part of the nation and can’t see themselves outside of it. But the problem with this discourse is that no one believes in it anymore. The third discourse is a modern one introduced by human rights organizations, telling Copts that they are citizens and they have rights. With this, they started thinking of themselves in human rights and legal terms, in relation to the law and how it’s applied, etc. And within this discourse, one’s relationship to others and to the state is also defined by these terms.

As for me, I wanted to find a human discourse. I wanted real flesh and blood. When humans talk to each other they don’t talk in the church discourse or legal discourse or nationalist discourse;  they talk in personal terms. I could only find this ‘personal’ discourse if I asked people to write for me. In a public message on Facebook, I asked Copts in my network — friends, family, anyone who saw my post — to answer the question: what does it mean to be a Copt? I didn’t want them to write about persecution, laws or building churches, I just wanted one page of writing describing their experience in the simplest way possible. Honestly, I didn’t expect to receive a huge number of responses, but the surprise was that, although there seemed to be a lot of interest at first, in the end I only received three responses. One was from a Muslim woman who was not veiled and was often mistaken for a Copt. The second was from a Muslim man who really wanted to make the point that a Copt is an Egyptian, and so he, also being an Egyptian, could write about the experience of being a Copt. The third was from a Copt, and his was a legal piece.


LN: So no one actually answered your question?

SL: No, not one person. And why is that? Because for us to be able to express ourselves we need resources, we need a repertoire, somewhere we can look to and read about how it is to be a Copt, and then build on that. But it simply doesn’t exist. If you look at the Egyptian canon in literature, there’s almost nothing of the sort.

By asking people to create something outside these discourses, I was essentially asking them to write literature. But it obviously didn’t work, and it was that experience that got me thinking about writing a novel.


LN: What has been written about this topic?

SL: Like I said, very little, and some of it has not been written by Copts. That’s not to say it should only be written by Copts with this insider perspective, but in any case, what has been written, although sometimes amusing, and sometimes valuable from a literary standpoint, doesn’t really talk about the experience of Copts. It lacks authenticity and depth. Sometimes there’s nothing really Coptic about the character, just the name and a church somewhere in the background. And I would say that the bulk of the representation of Copts in literature and cinema is just plain stereotypes, sometimes negative traits. A lot of it is about a Copt falling in love with a Muslim woman — the Romeo and Juliet element. But the fact is that one out of a million Copts will fall in love with a Muslim, so what about the other 99 percent? Those who fall in love with a Copt? Those who never fall in love?

And again, this is not to say that there haven’t been great Coptic cultural figures. Edwar al-Kharrat, Louis Awad —


LN: Salama Musa…

SL: Yes, exactly, there are many, but nobody — not one of them — wanted to become a “Coptic author.” I was introduced as that on one talk show and I felt outraged.


LN: How would you describe the reception of the few cultural works that have addressed this issue?

SL: I recently read Charles Aql’s book about Coptic cuisine. I thought it was hilarious. He was talking about the experience of being a Copt at school through stories about his sandwiches! But he was also very critical, many people found it demeaning and humiliating, saying: “Isn’t what’s happening to the Copts bad enough? Mish na’seen, we don’t need any more criticism…” And I honestly sympathize with this sentiment. I definitely think it’s good to be critical, but in my own novel I didn’t want to be looking down on my protagonist, or looking at him from afar in a manner that was detached. I also didn’t want to mock or pity him, but rather to sympathize with him — more than that, to empathize with him. And I hoped to inspire exactly that sort of empathy in my reader. That, I believe, is the great value of literature.


LN: To foster empathy?

SL: Yes, exactly. The British philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote a lot about the philosophy of morality, and her argument is very simple and beautiful: there can be no morality without empathy, and that’s what makes literature so powerful — and beautiful. And she herself was of course a writer.

One really incredible reaction to Turuq al-Rab came from an ex-Muslim Brotherhood member, who wrote to me saying that he saw himself in Sherif. He said the character spoke to him and helped him as he tried to piece together his identity and make sense of his own situation. To hear that was really amazing — and unexpected.


LN: What of the broader reception of the novel? Was it what you expected? And were you ever worried about censorship?

SL: Overall, it’s been very positive. Honestly, the way censorship works in Egypt can be very random: some writing gets through the censor despite being extremely sexually explicit, other things that are objectively far less “provocative” are picked on and writers can be imprisoned for it.

The reactions were interesting, though. Particularly to the ending.


LN: Yes, I remember one writer commenting that the ending was what would have happened to you had you never left the country.

SL: Yes, someone did say that. But overwhelmingly, what struck me was how disappointed everyone was with the ending. And that was precisely the point. I wanted it to be disappointing. There were complaints about the shift to the third person, which detached us from the protagonist, and also that so much happened in that last chapter, and that it happened so quickly. So many details were skimmed over. One journalist described it as the chapter that should have been left out!

Some people also complained that this was not ‘representative’ of the experience of the ‘average’ Copt, and I suppose that is true. But I also wonder: is there an average Copt? Sherif looks back through the generations of his family and their relationship with the church, and not one of them is average! And a lot of it is based on my own family history. In fact, I often had to tone down the reality to make it believable. My mother, of course, was not very happy about that.


LN: What was her reaction to the novel?

SL: She basically read it over the course of one day. When we spoke and I asked her what she thought, she said: “It’s a nice story.” When I probed a bit more, she complained that I hadn’t been faithful enough to the facts. But it turns out she had mixed up some of the facts herself. Actually, the novel prompted my extended family to get together in our family home in the village and retrace the historical events to try and figure out what actually happened. But they were so confused by the novel that they often couldn’t remember. So they called me asking me to clarify what I had borrowed from our family history and what I had invented, but by that point I, too, was so confused I couldn’t really tell anymore. It’s actually amazing how the line between “reality” and “fiction” can become so blurred.


LN: So no one really knows what happened?

SL: No! And we won’t ever really know for sure…


LN: Do you think, though, that the criticism was somewhat muted because of that last chapter, which is ‘redemptive’ in a way? It is fatalistic, depressing even, but I suppose it depends on how you’re looking at it. To an extent, people can see whatever they want in that last chapter.

SL: That’s true. One journalist wrote about being happy that at the end Sherif embraces the church and finds his place there, but that’s really not the way I saw it. Is this a sort of self-imposed delusion of his? It could be read that way too, and that’s the way I understand it. But maybe it’s unavoidable in some situations — you have to empathize with him, either way, and it really does make you wonder whether this sort of attitude becomes a coping mechanism for so many in his situation…

And this really is at the heart of one of the central questions I was asking myself,  and still am. Are we the product of a system? Can we determine ourselves? In many ways this book is about authority: the protagonist is trapped between different authorities and navigates his course through these imposed limitations.


LN: What did you grow up reading?

SL: Yehia Hakki, Naguib Mahfouz, and, of course, Ibrahim Aslan. Also, Gorky’s short stories. But in writing Turuq al-Rab, I was very inspired by contemporary South American fiction: magical realism was a big hit when I was growing up, everyone was reading it. I had also always enjoyed South American political thrillers, such as Edmundo Soldan’s The Matter of Desire, and I wanted my novel to read like one.


LN: How do you situate yourself in relation to the fiction that is coming out of Egypt, and the Middle East more widely, at the moment?

SL: To be honest, I don’t really relate to the current impulse towards experimenting with form, and writing in rich and poetic language, but avoiding politics or social issues entirely. Perhaps it’s a sort of reaction against the realism of the sixties. Personally, I was never really interested in reading or writing that sort of fiction. The storyline is what interests me, and I take my inspiration from real events and real characters. Great stories are engaging, and I wanted to write a novel that would keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

I also believe that reading a book or engaging with any piece of art shouldn’t necessarily be a pleasant or comfortable experience. Actually, when I finish reading a book I want to be upset. And that’s what I wanted to communicate in my own writing.


LN: One thing that really struck me in the novel is how passive the protagonist is. He is in a sense rebellious and he’s also stubborn, but fundamentally he is passive. I found that extremely frustrating. And in comparison to this, it was interesting that the main female characters — Esther and Maria, Sherif’s mother — were strong, proactive women. Was this male/female contrast intentional?

SL: Well, Sherif is passive, but he does get things done. He swallows his pride on many occasions in order to get through an annoying bureaucratic process, like in his dealings with the officer and the priest. But yes, he is passive — perhaps because it becomes the only way to cope with the constant obstacles that arise, one after the other, from all these various authorities: the state, the church, his workplace, etc. And we see the same thing mirrored in his father. Also, I suppose males are always perceived as more threatening members of minority populations, whereas women really aren’t. As a result, women are often left to deal with things on behalf of the family. That is not to say that Coptic women are not harassed or persecuted,  just that they’re perceived as less of a threat.

All the women in my own family were very strong; they carried the family and held it together in tough times, and this entailed a lot of suffering. So I really wanted my female characters to be strong, but also complex — not simply heroines or victims, and not stereotypically seductive or hysterical either.


Turuq al-Rab is published by Al Kotob Khan and is available in Al Kotob Khan in Maadi and Tanmeya in Downtown, among other bookstores.

Lena Naassana 

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