Shady Lewis Botros: ‘Fiction Puts the Author in a Less Vulnerable Position’

Last fall, Egyptian journalist Shady Lewis Botros released his debut novel, Turuq al-Rab (Ways of the Lord):

By Tugrul Mende

Egyptian author Shady Lewis Botros is currently living in London, although his first novel — Ways of the Lord — was published in Egypt. He answered questions over email about the nature of his novel and the difficulties of translating it into other languages.

Why a novel? What did you find you could express in Turuq al-Rab that you couldn’t express as a journalist or essayist? 

Shady Lewis Botros: To be able to answer this question, we may need to demarcate the boundaries between journalism and literature, or between fiction and non-fiction more generally. It is not an easy mission, neither now nor in the past. Since the sixties, New Journalism has changed our understanding of journalistic writing: using literary techniques, relying on subjective perspectives, redefining truth, rethinking the ways authors immerse themselves in the stories they report on, as well as celebrating their visibility in their own texts. It is rightly claimed that this genre of journalism faded away in the eighties. Still, in 2015, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the Arabic press, the boundaries between literary writing and journalism has always been very blurry. I would say a clear distinction between these genres has been imposed very recently. The late Hany Darwish is the most astonishing example of the literary capacity of journalistic writing in Arabic. I believe that the literary value of his dense and poetic subjective, anthropological, and autobiographical texts on the urban history of Cairo go above and beyond any work of literature produced in the last two decades in Egypt.

What I want to claim here is that there is nothing in particular that an essay could not express that a novel could, simply because both share nearly the same pool of raw materials, aesthetics, and tools.

The main themes of Turuq al-Rab are based on an article that I published in 2015. While I was writing the novel, I could not resist the urge to “copy and paste” the very same article in one of its chapters. I had the intention to alter it a bit, but in the end there was no need to do so. I guess nobody could tell the difference.

Having said that, I will still argue that writing fiction puts the writer in less vulnerable position. Turuq al-Rab is autobiographical in a way, but it is fictional, too. As an author, you can hide and be less visible in a novel; you can easily change names, events, and fates, and you can lie as much as you like without ethical dilemmas. Writing a novel could be an ideal way to make a long public confession — without the scandal. It is probably not a coincidence that Turuq al-Rab is written as a series of confessions to a priest.

In a journalistic piece, the editor and the rest of your readership will expect from you a focused, brief, and possibly enlightening argument, some kind of coherent thread of thoughts or emotions. In a work of fiction, you are allowed to be confused, showing as many contradictory voices as you have: the irrational, the shameful, and the dark.

The lifespan of literature is much longer than journalistic work; a novel could stay alive for centuries, while an article will be forgotten in couple of days in most cases. For some reason, people tend to get involved with and show empathy for fictional characters more than they do with real ones. That is fascinating phenomenon. Maybe it’s because they take part in creating and imagining these characters while reading; thus the characters are theirs as much as they are the author’s, or possibly because empathizing with fictional characters is a sort of emotional privilege that requires no commitment.

Turuq al-Rab is very much of the present moment. Did you do any research before you started writing (or during the writing process)?

SLB: I have a personal and academic interest in the social history of the Copts, in particular their interaction with modernity, secularism, and the Western missionaries in Late 19th century and early 20th.

Books like American Evangelicals in Egypt by Heather Sharkey, Copts and The Security State by Laure Guiruis, The Copts and the West by Alastair Hamilton, Artillery of Heaven by Ussama Makdisi, The Copts of Egypt by Vivian Ibrahim, Religious Difference in a Secular Age by Saba Mahmood, and my favorite, The Orphan Scandal by Beth Baron had a big influence on how Turuq al-Rab was written. My intention was to draw a very brief landscape of the social history of the Copts as the backdrop of the novel, and how Western missionaries, urbanization, modern education, wars with Israel, Nasserism, nationalization of the sixties, and the January revolution have shaped the fates of its characters in the past and the present.

What novels have moved you, as a reader? What did those novels do, that you wanted to do with Turuq al-Rab?

SLB: I have been always moved by the simplicity, humor, and depth of Yahya Haqqi and Ibrahim Aslan. Among contemporary authors, Mohammed Abdel Nabi and Nael Eltoukhy are my favorites. The subtle and smooth techniques Abdel Nabi uses to portray suffering and misery with no sense of victimhood are astonishing. The unique language of Eltouky, his complex characters, and the thrilling pace of his works are equally inspiring while writing about a troubled society.

In English, Philip Roth is one of my favorite authors. What really fascinates me about novels is their ability to take a moral stand on the ground of aesthetics, to simultaneously protest and entertain, to give pleasure and speak in the name of the oppressed and the forgotten. I wanted to write an entertaining, yet upsetting novel. My focus was not the style nor the language, but rather the plot and how to engage the readers with a heavy and dull topic. Above all, I wanted to tell a story about the Copts that is rarely heard.

Have you thought at all about translation, and how you would approach it? How do you think the novel would appear in a different context? Are you afraid, at all, of it being used politically?

SLB: A few weeks after Turuq al-Rab was published, a Master’s student from SOAS, here in London, got in touch with me. She told me she was translating some of the first chapter for her coursework, and she is also including the novel in her thesis on Copts and literature. She did a great job with the translation of the chapter, but I realized how hard it was. I mean there are a lot references in the novel that are culturally specific. If you are not a Copt, you will probably miss most of them. Some other references will make sense only if you are a protestant Copt, but not if you are Orthodox, as the two communities are isolated from one another. Some others will make some sense to a Copt from Upper Egypt, but not to somebody from a middle-class Cairene neighborhood. These specific references were all intentional, to demonstrate that there is no standard, average or “representative” Copt. But how to make sense of all that in another language? Particularly to a reader who might be even surprised to hear that there are Christians in Egypt?

Obviously, I don’t think that Turuq al-Rab is unique in this sense, but it will definitely make a somewhat painful and demanding job for a translator.

I believe writing a novel, any novel, is a political act, and reading one is political too. I am not particularly worried about it being used politically, but how and by whom. I saw two rightwing Israeli websites publish an article about the novel, and I wondered why they are interested in reporting on it. I could not find any other reason but that it could show how Muslim societies are “horrible” to minorities. The novel itself tells a different story, how the establishment of Israel troubled the relationship between the majority and minorities in Egypt. But there is a limit to how much you can control the ways your work is used by others. Also, one of the prominent activists of the Coptic diaspora in the US shared the same article, this time published in the Washington Post, on social media. Later, his post was used to promote a demonstration in front of Congress protesting the mistreatment of Copts in Egypt. That was quite surprising, as I did not imagine that things would go that far. On the other hand, the Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah of the Latin Catholic of Jerusalem mentioned the novel in a statement on religious pluralism in society, calling for acceptance and “living together.” So it could go both ways.

Do you feel a part of the literary scene either in London or Cairo? Do you have a literary group to which you belong?

SLB: I hardly have any contact with literary circles in London, and I have been a way from Cairo for very long time. It is also the time of neoliberal subjectivity and the gig economy, where being a part of a wave, a scene, or a circle is not necessarily viewed positively, especially in creative arenas. However, I could claim that I belong to what Mary Yousef calls “the new consciousness wave” in her book Minorities in the Contemporary Egyptian Novel, a wave she describes as being interested in aesthetics of difference, and “grounded in anti-dominant and counter-essentialist depictions of Egyptian heterogenous society” and its marginalized groups.

What are you working on now?

SLB: I finished another novel, titled On the Greenwich Line, which draws on my diaries while working in homeless hostels in East London. I signed with Dar Al-Ain in Cairo, and It is going to be published in Arabic before the end of the year. In the meantime, I am working on a few projects: a third novel, a travel book, and a study on Copts in Egyptian literature.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher.