Book Review: A brief history of Ain Shams and domestic violence


Mugaz Tarikh Al-Khaliqa wa Sharq Al-Qahira (Brief History of Genesis and East of Cairo) by Shady Lewis, Dar Al Ain Publishing, Cairo 2020 pp. 282

Lewis uses a first-person narration stream-of-consciousness technique over the novel’s seven chapters. The novel is narrated through the eyes of Sherif, who reveals throughout a one-day journey with his mother, all that he has experienced through childhood, especially his parents’ horrible relationship.

From the very first page, Sherif focuses on numbers, counting every step he takes, starting with the number of the street he lives on. Then he delves into the Book of Genesis and how Adam gave everything its name and Eve was left to the numbers which were neutral and not evasive.

However, in the last quarter of the novel, Sherif realizes that this is not necessarily an accurate characterization of numbers. “When ‘incidents’ occur they [i.e. the numbers] lose their artificial innocence and usual neutrality which people got used to it.”

Perhaps it is Sherif’s horrendous childhood that drives him to escape through the mental act of accounting.

Sherif’s father was a very complex character. On one hand, he is a lover of music and fussy about his appearance, while on the other he beats his wife for any reason and sometimes for no reason at all. He forces his wife to give him her monthly salary and gives her only meagre pocket money. He also accuses her of carrying on an affair with their neighbour Shaaban. He has a wide general knowledge but still considers Ain Shams to be the centre of the world!

There is a telling scene when Sherif and his father return from a failed fishing attempt and his father breaks the fishing rod symbolizing his broken image before his child!

Sherif’s mother is the epitome of the oppressed woman, who, trapped in a marriage to a brute, lives her life almost as a ghost. Her subjugation is due to both rigid customs and traditions and the Christian prohibition of divorce. The only time she revolts is when she threatens her husband that she will convert to Islam, which their Muslim female neighbour suggested as a solution. In response, her husband calls her Upper Egyptian uncle, who comes and beats her fiercely. She even tries to commit suicide, only to be mocked by her husband for not knowing how to immolate herself.

There is a recurring episode in which Ragai, a cousin of Sherif’s father, comes from Upper Egypt to visit him but then wanders instead; first by riding a bus going in another direction then reaching a residential area identical to his relative’s and knocking on the door only to find a veiled woman opening the door! It transpired that a Swiss company designed and built two identical residential blocks; one in Imbaba and the other in Ain Shams.

Helana, Ragai’s wife who is in the final stages of cancer and utterly crushed by her husband, advises Sherif’s mother to try to escape and not to repeat the mistake that caused her to contract cancer.

One of the novel’s minor characters is Sherif’s father’s intimate friend Brother Azeez, who stopped being a pharmacist and started making and recording musical compositions for hymns for different denominations in return for alms.

Throughout the novel, Lewis also makes biblical references, especially God’s punishment for mankind’s arrogance. In this story, God destroyed the Tower of Babel and deprived Adam’s offspring of the ability to communicate with each other by making them speak many different languages.

The author mentions in a literary, although very lengthy, manner how the Pentecostal Church or the Church of the Apostles men persuaded five Egyptian Copts to become Protestants. These five men went down to Upper Egypt and destroyed all the icons and statues in a church and even burnt the entire church provoking Copts, as well as Muslims, who chased them but they escaped to Cairo.

Lewis recounts the horrors of Ain Shams battle between Islamists and the police and its spillover on the Copts living in the neighbourhood, albeit in an oblique way. He depicts the paralyzing fear engulfing Copts during this bloody strife such that they would drop the curtains, sit on the floor, speak in hushed tones, and only open the door to the house very cautiously. Through the narrator, Lewis expresses his astonishment at how official newspapers downplayed the clashes by only covering them in inside pages calling them “incidents.” It reminds the reader of the dispersal of the sit-in Sudanese asylum seekers in Mohandesin district in Cairo that has resulted in a massacre which Lewis mentioned in his first novel Ways of the Lord.

It is surprising that a male author writes in graphic detail about domestic abuse that women undergo. All the male characters are either vicious like Sherif’s father and his cousin or misfits like Brother Azeez.

The novel can be seen as a journey during a day and night in the life of Sherif and his mother. It starts with them leaving their home and concludes with both returning to find their husband/father not present. Going to a nearby church to seek a solution to her ordeal, the pastor asks Sherif’s mother to be patient, but the scene ends up with them fleeing a fire that may have started accidentally or may have been arson.

Although a curfew is declared, the sense of elation that comes over Sherif’s mother when she learns her husband went missing during a firefight the night before is simply astounding. She does not even want to share the news with the neighbouring family, preferring to celebrate it in her own way in her home by hugging her son. Sherif is overwhelmed, wanting to cry for feeling his mother’s tenderness.

The narrator points out that after any disaster a sense of relief follows. It was a befitting end to an eventful night.

It is worth mentioning that there is an author note saying that all the names are real and that some events in the novel happened or might have happened, which makes one wonder which are factual and which are fictitious.

Unfortunately, the novel’s plot veers away from the main story of the boy and his mother into the history of Ain Shams, the story of the Genesis, the unconvincing part of relegating numbers to Eve, and the history of Evangelical missionaries in Egypt, which is distracting and boring.