Bayt Al-Qebteya (“The House of the Coptic Woman”), by Achraf El-Achmawi, Al-Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lubnaniah, 2019.
In what can be described only as a mediocre novel, “The House of the Coptic Woman” presents an uninteresting story about a district attorney taking a post in a village in Upper Egypt — Al-Tayaa. Meaning the obedient, and pronounced in Upper Egyptian accent Al-Tayhaa, meaning the lost, the author tried to leave the impression that the village has both characteristics: one of the rare villages where the majority of the population is Christian, while most of the agricultural land is owned by Muslims. Achraf El-Achmawi in his eighth novel used his professional career as a judge to shed the light on the Muslim-Christian feud that has been unfolding in Egypt for a few decades. The novel takes place in what could be one of the last few years in the Mubarak era.
The writer gave up the keys to his novel in the first few pages when the main character, Nader Kamal, finds in his new office a copy of the famous novel “Diaries of a Countryside Prosecutor” by Tewfiq Al-Hakim, one of the great figures in modern Arab literature. The writer was simply telling the reader that he will follow in Al-Hakim's footsteps. He certainly tried, but without much success.
With such a provocative title — giving gender and a religion to a landmark — the expectation was a daring, deep and informative novel exploring the nature of the south, sectarian strife, the vendetta custom that doesn’t want to end, and many more details that need more attention. But the writer did not put in the effort, or maybe did not have the creativity to insert these complicated issues into the novel. He touched on the issues mentioned, but just scratching the surface. In other words, by reading daily newspapers the novel could have easily been skipped.
The novel runs in two parallel lines: one of the prosecutor, Nader Kamal, and the other of the Coptic woman, Hoda. The writer switches between both stories without disturbing the sequence of events. The style made the novel an easy read, and at the same time unremarkable.
The author tried to show the prosecutor as an angel-like character: a new prosecutor who wants to do the right thing, apply the law, trying to achieve justice, but one met with traditions and customs that leave him helpless amid the cases he encounters (witnesses that deny what they have seen, laws that cannot interfere in marriage or divorce, just to name a couple of examples). The secret hands of security are mentioned in the novel, but that is it. The writer showed that an influential character such as the village’s mayor is under the control of the security apparatus. He begs a security officer to keep his job in front of a prosecutor with no shame, promising that he will control the votes of the Coptic population better in the next election. The writer did not go deep to clarify the measures of control used.
Maybe it was too dangerous of a subject to tackle. But again, when someone decides to write a daring novel, why not go all the way? Whether he was holding back or was not familiar with the measures of control in use is a question that only the author can answer. The author made sure that the reader is aware that the character he chose to confront sectarian strife, district attorney Nader, is a weak person. He is carrying a gun with no bullets, pushed around by his fiancé who is drawn as a shallow and materialistic character, urging him to use his position to get illegal benefits, and he does not dare take a firm position against her childish demands. This is the person that the author drew to impose justice in a village that suffers from ignorance fueled by religious fanatics. Basically, we can tell from the first few pages that failure is inevitable at end of the novel.
Hoda, the Coptic woman, is a girl doomed since her childhood. Al-Achmawi went to great lengths to try to invent an epic character that was supposed to draw the reader’s sympathy. But neutrality was the final result. Hoda was raped by her stepfather, and then forced to marry an older Muslim man to cover that sad event. The husband’s jealousy, violence, impotency and cruelty made her life miserable. She ends up killing him in self-defence and escapes to Al-Tayaa, where she regains her personality and religious identity. In due course, she gets married to a Christian man and by pure chance gains a holy status among her neighbours. She prays for a newborn child who was stillborn. His family was about to bury him, considering him dead, but the child lived after her prayer. Her house became “The Coptic Woman’s House” — a place where a good woman lives, a woman who has blessings to give without discrimination.
The dead husband reappears in the novel, finds her and asks for revenge from the woman who escaped from her husband. Overnight, she becomes a woman married to two men from two religions. A complicated situation that alienates everyone from her. She is trialed for adultery and she gets a suspended sentence. Some sort of naïve tale where reality gets mixed with the absurd; a murdered man who is not murdered, a child that comes to life after a prayer. The type of bedtime stories that can be entertaining for children.
The writer seemed to have relied on a combination of religion, politics and sex to try to achieve the equation of novels that sell. Putting some erotic scenes without getting into vulgar vocabulary, giving the illusion that there are some political secrets that will be revealed, and getting into continuous hostility and maybe a power struggle under the title of Christian-Muslim problems. All this was promised through the intelligent and provocative title, but none of it was delivered. The end was predictable, closing all problems with an easy solution that can be seen coming a mile away. No problems were actually solved or even exposed properly. The guilt and sadness described near the novel’s end by the villagers who loved her at one point, or by the prosecutor who was sympathetic, were not really heartfelt.
Unfortunately, this is a novel that adds nothing to literature or the reader.