INTERVIEW: Novelist Sherine Hanaei talks about need to learn and collectively own Coptic history

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 7 Jan 2024

In her eighth novel – Sirat Al-Qaptia – Rehlat Al-Khorougue ila Al-Nahar (The Tale of the Coptic Woman – A Journey of Emerging to the Light) – author Sherine Hanaei tells the story of a Coptic saint that she believes can be enjoyed by all Egyptians, not just Coptic Egyptians.

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Since she put out her first novel Necrophilia in 2011, Hanaei has often explored the theme of breaking down the taboos. She has done this through science fiction, horror, and historical novels.

In her books, Hanaei breaks down taboos about parents-children relationship, the pursuit of humiliation as a road to safety, the delusional social elite, and the addiction to subjugation.

Most recently, in Sirat Al-Qaptia (2023), Hanaei recounts the tale of Saint Verena, digging into the otherwise off-limit Coptic archives.

She told Al-Ahram Online about the story behind her biographical novel on Saint Verena, a woman from Upper Egypt who embraced Christianity in the face of the horror and tyranny of the Roman rulers of Egypt and who went through much suffering until she ended up in Switzerland, where she is still remembered to date.

Ahram Online: Why did you choose to write about Saint Verena?

Sherine Hanaei: Well, I am not sure how it all started; it was not exactly deliberate but I have always been impressed and inspired by so many stories of the Coptic history – especially in its early years, like that account of Saint Verena that takes place in 2 AD.

Saint Verena is the story of a woman from Upper Egypt who was among the early Christians who were committed to their faith against all the horrific pressure of the Roman rulers. Her tale is not just one of faith but also one of suffering and endurance – which makes it similar to that of Isis – the Great Mother from Ancient Egyptian History.

She represents the elements of strength that are so associated with Egyptian women. She also represents the fidelity and compassion of motherhood – just like Isis, Virgin Mary and even Sayyeda Zeinab (the great-granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad).

Moreover, I really wanted to write about those inspiring characters of the Coptic history who are otherwise held in the strict domain of church teaching.

Coptic history is Egyptian history and there is no reason that it remains off limit or why a Muslim novelist should feel apprehensive about working with it.

Saint Verena is a true Egyptian role model in terms of sticking to faith despite fear. This is not just about religion; it is about faith in general. It was unfair that her story remains confined to a 70-page book that is essentially circulated within the wall of the Church.

AO: Was the novel well-received?

SH: Yes. I cannot say that it sold like previous titles I had produced and I cannot say that it got exactly the same level of attention that other biographical or history-based novels have been receiving during the past years as these types of fiction becoming very popular, but I can safely say that it got decent attention and it made decent sales.

In the book discussions I have had on this novel since it came out during last year’s Cairo International Book Fair, I found that Coptic readers were very comfortable with the fictional take of the tale of this saint; I also found that many Muslim readers were inspired by this novel to learn more about Coptic history.

I think Coptic history is really poorly represented, in history books at school, in the books put out every year, both fiction and non-fiction, there is not enough attention to this segment of Egyptian history. I was lucky that my publisher, Al-Rewaq, was enthusiastic about the book. This is not necessarily always the case because there is always this unspoken concern among publishers about books that praise Coptic figures. This might have changed a little but still this is not the easiest genre of books to entice publishers into – especially as in the case of Sirat Al-Qaptia, which blends history with fiction.

AO: Do you think that the growing interest in history books and historical fiction and the growing openness about discussing religion in general allows for a better level of attention to Coptic history, in fiction, cinema, and drama?

SH: Well, it depends; I guess I am not sure about drama; for the most part the representation of Copts in drama is limited and rather superficial. In general, drama productions are not particularly interested in digging into history. This is not just about Coptic history, but especially about Coptic history.

History is not an easy subject to represent in drama; it is often associated with politics and religion – the two biggest taboos. Drama production is mostly designed away from these issues.

AO: You studied and worked as a designer of cartoon movies and you actually contributed to some very popular productions there. Why have you not tried to introduce segments of Coptic history across this medium?

SH: Well, first of all, due to the limited attention that this history has traditionally received, today, for the most part, society perceives Coptic history as a matter of religion and not as part of the collective Egyptian history. To speak of Coptic history, especially in praise of a saint who has suffered to withstand her faith, is something that has been only done within Coptic framework.

To be very honest, I cannot think of a production company that would be keen to put out a cartoon production on Coptic history. This is for a good reason – the majority of parents, in a Muslim majority country, would not necessarily be comfortable with their children watching such a production.

Moreover, for the most part, the high season for airing cartoon production on TV is Ramadan – especially in the hour prior to Iftar; I am not sure that a cartoon on Saint Verena would be suitable for this particular hour of this particular month.

I think the beginning should be in the history curricula; we need to see Coptic history just as we see Pharaonic history. We need to encourage our children to learn about the history of their Coptic classmates.

We need to move beyond the Muslim and non-Muslim dichotomy that has been so imposed on us.

AO: Will your next title be another take at history or will you go back to horror fiction and science fiction?

SH: I am currently doing some research on the pre-Islamic era of the Arab peninsula. I want to better understand this era from the cultural and political perspectives. For the most part out collective perception of this era is designed by very simplistic narratives on the opposition that Prophet Muhammad faced when he started his call for Islam; things are much more layered and much more political and the history of the Arab peninsula is much larger than those group of people who were harming Prophet Muhammad as he was trying to spread the call for Islam.

Again, I am interested in these grey shades  - these things that are not black or white; in moving beyond the stereotypes and the idealized.

 

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