Turuq Al-Rabb (Ways of the Lord) by Shady Lewis, Al-Kotob Khan Publishing, Cairo, 2018. 191 pp.
Shady Lewis starts his novel with a Bible quote: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29). Tellingly, it sums up the greatest dilemma in the life of Sherif, the novel’s protagonist, who is an angst-ridden anti-hero suffering a restricted and religiously iconoclastic upbringing. Throughout the narrative someone always appears to lay blame on fathers, grandfathers or great grandfathers for the dilemma that engulfs him.
The author doesn’t waste time in tackling the sensitive issue of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt. The name of the street nearby which the protagonist lives is Alfred, or Al-Fareed; the former outright foreign and Christian, and the latter Arabic and thus Islamic.
The novel is built upon Sherif’s weekly confessional with Father Antonius and through this vehicle we get to know his family’s history, from his great grandfathers onwards. Sherif informs the priest that his family members chose neutral names in work and other places in order to avoid clashing with the Muslim majority. Thus, Maria, his mother’s name, is changed into Maysa, Henry into Waleed, and Adeeb into Massoud.
Sherif begins narrating his story to Father Antonius, starting with his maternal great grandfather Gaafar, who since birth bore doubts that he was conceived out of wedlock, due to his African facial features. Both Christians and Muslims rejected him for not belonging to their respective communities — the former for his countenance, in looking like a slave; the latter for choosing a Muslim name for a Christian boy. He was imprisoned for 15 years after killing a man who called him a bastard, and became blind due to working in a limestone quarry. On release, he was naturally angry at the world. When the priest refused to baptise his new born girl at midnight, a girl who died shortly afterwards, thus committing her to limbo, Gaafar’s relationship with the church was destroyed.
Touching on the course of the Copts’ social history, Sherif speaks of the Nasser regime's persecution of Copts, first with Boulos, his paternal grandfather who was expelled along with all Egyptian Jews and most of the Christians, along with foreigners, in 1956 from the Kom Ombo Sugar Factory, to be replaced by Muslims during the nationalisation campaign. He was then transferred to another factory as a manual labourer after being a senior clerk in the sugar factory. As for his father, Maurice, he graduated second of his class in the Spanish Language Department, to be immediately appointed to the Ministry of Mass Communication’s Spanish telephone calls surveillance operation. He refrained from writing a report on a call between Egyptian Pope Shenouda III and one other, and tried to warn the Pope of the surveillance. He was ordered to give any call made by the church clergy to a Muslim colleague.
Discrimination against Christians grew to the extent of questioning their loyalty to their homeland and being viewed as disloyal. During the October War and the encirclement of the Egyptian army, Maurice heard a phone call revealing this top secret matter in Spanish. Consequently, all Christian personnel in this department were transferred to other jobs. In a previous episode, crowds attacked Sherif’s maternal grandmother’s house after the 1967 Defeat upon contacting an Italian Catholic priest and mistakenly thinking him to be an American spy. The grandmother tore her clothes and showed the crowd the picture of her martyred brother who was killed at the front during the 1965 Tripartite Aggression.
The novel also reveals the inherent fear ingrained to the bone among Copts for being a minority, on the one hand, and the overwhelming stranglehold the church possesses over the congregation, on the other.
Chapters containing Sherif’s confessions are followed by chapters on his relationship with his German girlfriend Ester, who worked in a charitable organisation and became fluent in Arabic after staying in Egypt for five years. Ironically, Sherif was treated badly by Ester’s father on his only visit to Germany, because he came from a Muslim country. When Ester pointed out to her father that Sherif is Christian, the father retorted that he was brought up within an Islamic culture.
Sherif always suffered a problem of belonging, and made a tour of different denominations, of which none convinced him. He became disillusioned regarding his complexion when a professor in the Faculty of Engineering described him as black, and started reconsidering his delusions about being similar to foreigners while his features were purely African, like his great grandfather Gaafar. Consequently, he shed self-deception and began a road to self-discovery. He founded a group (comprising two Christians and two Muslims) in his faculty that read translated novels. There, for the first time, he felt a sense of belonging in a non-belonging group.
Lewis deploys a Kafkaesque metaphor when Sherif imagines underground commuters coming out of the station as monsters, or a monster with a thousand heads, which he severed, liberating himself from anxiety.
A picture of Sherif and Ester with their friends is published in a newspaper mentioning they are spies masquerading as human rights activists. The security police seized the picture from Michael, a South Sudanese friend of the couple. The climax of the novel occurs when Ester is attacked in her house by a stranger who claims to be electricity collector wanting to make a reading. Afterwards, Ester meets the man working in a police station as a policeman.
Lewis has marginally presented a South Sudanese family headed by Michael and Maryam, who are asylum seekers along with their children. Since Lewis pointed out that Michael is paying visits to the Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees' sit-in in Mohandessin district, an ominous feeling looms. Near the novel’s end, the sit-in is dispersed, resulting in a massacre. Maryam at first thinks that Michael was killed. But two days later he was released and they successfully immigrate to America. After many menial jobs, Michael joins the US Marines as a translator during the occupation of Iraq, in order to take revenge for those killed in the massacre. Maryam objects to his move, culminating in their divorce.
It transpires that Sherif’s mother didn’t force him to go to confessional; he was compelled in order to receive a certificate showing that there are no religious restrictions hindering his marriage to Ester. The span of time of the confessions prevented Sherif from joining Ester in Germany. Ester suffered a nervous breakdown and severe depression, especially watching the aftermath of the massacre where a man was holding a club and crushing the skulls of Sudanese refugees.
While the novel is composed of 16 chapters, the final chapter is more like an epilogue in which the author moves from first person to third person narration. Here he shows the destinies of Sherif, Ester and Father Antonius. Sherif was married to a beautiful orphan girl who gave birth to a baby boy whom Sherif named Hani. His wife was adamant on calling him Bola at home. Later, she informed Sherif that having two names for a baby keeps away any harm from evil spirits. Considering this a moment of illumination, Sherif relates all his own misfortunes to having one name! He deems that changing the past is worth the effort through adding and deleting whatever he wants in his own story, and choosing to recount it to old people within the congregation. They always exclaimed, “How wondrous the ways of the Lord are!”
The novel was an exciting read, containing a considerable amount of suspense. This is partially because the author raised the lid on the relationship between Copts and Muslims, on the one hand, and Copts and the Orthodox Church on the other, through the multi-generational lens of one Christian family.