Egyptian Novelist Shady Lewis on Coptic Identity, Church-State Relations, and Citizenship

By Nevine Abraham

For the reader interested in Coptism, Egyptian novelist Shady Lewis’s three novels Turuq Al Rab (Ways of the Lord2018), Ala Khat Greenwich (On the Greenwich Line2020), and Tarikh Mugaz Lilkhaliqah wa Sharq Al Qahira (A Brief History of Creation and East Cairo2021), delve into Coptic identity and its national and religious trappings through a perspective that does not limit it to the customary persecution narrative. Lewis voices a grievance against a predominant culture of fear, coercion, and repression, orchestrated primarily by the state and secondarily by the church, and gestures to the effects of social and colonial history, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s teachings and policies, its relation to the state, and the interactions with Western missionaries in shaping Coptic identity.

In this conversation, which took place in November 2021 over Zoom, Lewis addressed these topics and their relation to his three novels. The translation of this interview, conducted in Egyptian dialect, is mine.

Nevine Abraham: You have been living in England for 17 years. Did you choose to leave Egypt or was it a forced exile?

Shady Lewis: I was married to a German and our plan was to leave Egypt. This plan went at a faster pace than expected, and we left quickly because of the unstable situation there, similar to the experience of the protagonist in Ways of the Lord

NA: So, is Ways of the Lord an autobiography?

SL: No, none of my novels is 100% an autobiography. My three novels draw on real events, but are rather a fictionalized autobiography. Every detail that is not credible is based on a real event; as for those that are credible, they are rather fiction.

NA: Was there a Coptic or a non-Coptic writer who shaped or impacted your writing?

SL: I would say [Edwar] Al Kharrat impacted my writing. However, his approach to Coptism differs from mine. He focuses on Coptic identity as an extension of history. Whereas his approach is more abstract, mine places Coptism in its social context and development. Also, Philip Roth, a Jewish-American writer, has strongly inspired and influenced my writing. He focuses on his Jewish identity and what it was like to be a Jew growing up in the 70s and 80s in the United States. His novels are a series where the protagonist carries the same name. Similarly, I have attempted to keep the same character, though not the same name, of the protagonist in my three novels. Generally, in Egypt, the Coptic voice is frowned upon. The circle of novelists with whom I am in contact are leftist intellectuals, and society confuses leftism with secularism whose sole interests are social justice and the working class. It denounces the concept of minorities and identity politics for fear of dividing people and diverting from the leftist’s mission. Apart from that, Egyptian society favors writing about the broader human experience that encompasses all groups regardless of their faith, and thus disapproves of writing about a minority like Copts. Writing about a Coptic experience limits the writer and inhibits readers from sympathizing with the protagonist. A friend of mine, who reads my chapters upon their completion, often advises me to not limit myself to writing about Coptic identity. My response is that this is the topic that interests me, and writing about it is rare. In recent years, there have been a few who have begun writing about it more courageously.

NA: In my opinion, many writers avoid tackling Coptism from your angle because the Coptic church teaches us not to criticize the church or priests, and to obey because, as the popular Coptic teaching goes, “Those who obey will be blessed.” In the meantime, Coptic writers in Egypt would fear any accusation of causing an internal anarchy within the church. This leads me to my next question: Have you faced any backlash by either priests or Copts, whether in Egypt or in England, because of your novels? 

SL: Not really. There was an interesting coincidence when I published Ways of the Lord, where the director of the Associated Press in Egypt asked to write a report on it, which was later translated into many languages and featured in many newspapers worldwide. One month later, the Bishop of the Roman Catholics in Jerusalem praised the novel on Facebook. I am not sure if he read it, but he probably based his opinion on the AP report. Otherwise, there have been no objections to any of my novels: the distribution of books in Egypt is low and thus the impact is limited. It is rare for the novels to reach the church.

NA: I am surprised that your novels did not face any backlash, because they harshly, though subtly, criticize the church and priests for their abuse of authority and programming of Copts, and deal with the internal struggle of Copts within the Coptic community, in addition to the Copts-Muslims relations, albeit it being a side issue.

SL: Yes. I was careful not to be harsh in my criticism of the priests because at the end of the day they are a small part of this big game and do not create it. The state is the main player since it instills the rules and laws that decide the church’s legal authority. Some Coptic writers have described the church as an absolute evil. 

In Ways of the Lord, I sympathize with the priest and depict him as a mere employee who performs his duty, similar to a ma’thun, and who helps Sherif get married upon his release from prison at the end of the novel. I took a fair stance in showing the complexity of the situation and the absence of a pure evil or good. The church makes inconsequential compromises because it needs the state’s protection as it is under its control. The state can harm and punish it, but can also not force it into doing anything and ultimately put it in danger. When Sadat exiled pope Shenouda III, some Copts stopped attending church. Copts in the US may protest and exercise pressure on the Congress to intervene, but these actions are not consequential enough, and the church as a mere institution like any other with a limited space of freedom has no choice but to submit to the state. 

NA: Which topics do you like to focus on in your writings?

SL: The impact of the church-state relations on the creation of a subjective Coptic identity, as an Egyptian citizen first, and a Coptic citizen second, under a system of control that produces the limitations of this citizen. This raises the question of citizenship: Is there an acknowledgement of the Copt as a full citizen? In Ways of the Lord, Christians are mistaken for being Jews and are accused of spying for Israel, which demonstrates the lack of recognition of Copts and their conflation with other minorities. Meanwhile, they are expected to serve in the army and die for their country. They pay a full price without proper recognition. These are the issues that I attempt to address. 

In Ways of the Lord, Christians are mistaken for being Jews and are accused of spying for Israel, which demonstrates the lack of recognition of Copts and their conflation with other minorities. Meanwhile, they are expected to serve in the army and die for their country. They pay a full price without proper recognition.

I focus less on the issue of persecution by the other so-called monster, because the real oppression derives from within the Coptic Orthodox church, on the one hand, and from the state whose interest is to scare the Copts with that monster, on the other hand. The state perpetuates the belief that the Copts are safe thanks to its security forces, which protect them from falling prey to that monster. In the end of Ways of the Lord, no one causes Copts or the church any harm on the Friday of Anger on January 28 of 2011, four days into the Egyptian uprising when there was no public security. I have a priest friend who lives in an apartment above the church in Ezbet el Nakhl. He found himself one night during those 10 days having to respond to a crowd carrying swords and knocking at his door at night. He thought they were there to kill him, but when he opened the door, to his surprise and disbelief, the crowd was assuring him that they were there to protect him and that he should not fear for his and his family’s lives during the unrest. 

More about Lewis’s books on Goodreads

In addition to these topics, I like to write about the ways in which Coptic identity is a product of Egypt’s interaction with the Western world, namely colonialism and American missionaries. My last novel, A Brief History of Creation and East Cairo, includes a section on the translation of the Van Dyck’s version of the Bible. Van Dyck’s goal was to write an Arabic translation that differs from the Arabic language of the Qur’an so that readers find it distinct from it. This has shaped the way Copts speak, which is the result of what one may call a Western cultural invasion, and of which we are a marginalized product. When the first missionaries arrived at Cyprus at the beginning of the 19th century, they were distributing books in Arabic in the Arab World. The font they used was called the Arabic American font, on which I comment in my novel. This shows that Copts have been impacted not only by the church-state relations but also by their interaction with the West. Interestingly, Copts tend to identify with Westerners because they share the same religion, while the latter sees them as brown.

NA: In Ways of the Lord, you address the effect of colonial history on majority-minority relations, on instilling the concept of divide and rule, and on the perception of skin color. When Sherif was young, he thought he had blue eyes and was blond, and he was made to believe that he was Western because he was Christian. Later, he discovered that he neither had blue eyes nor was he blond. 

SL(chuckling). This is a true story because my skin complexion is dark. Until I began college, I was convinced that I was abyadani (an Arabic term for having a fair, white skin color) with blond features. I am not joking. It is scary.

We continue laughing.

NA: I have heard this story from many Copts. Colonialism made Copts believe in the superiority of white skin.

SL: Yes, and that we have a fairer skin color than Arabs, although in reality the contrary is true, which is not a big deal. 

NA: Copts do not like to consider themselves a minority in Egypt because this feeds the illusion of their ownership of their country and equality to Muslims. This has always appealed to the state to support the narrative of equal citizenship and absolve it from being held accountable for human and minority rights. 

So, in the short term, the Copts’ situation seems to have slightly improved, but in my opinion, in the long term, this will cause great harm to the church and Copts. 

SL: Copts, like many other groups, adopt many discourses depending on the situation. Sometimes they may claim they are a minority to demand more rights, but they may switch to another discourse where they claim equal citizenship, as natives of the country where Muslims are the guests. Discourses can be a reflection of the church’s concurrent policy, the Coptic heritage, or the international human rights inquiries, like the ones that began in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War and which the United States initiated. 

The Copts were first dubbed a minority by Ali El Din Hilan in a conference in the late 1990s, which stirred a lot of debate around the topic and received backlash from the church and the state. Ten years later, this status became normalized and tolerated by the state. It became a part of a humanitarian message, which continued to flourish until 2020, identifying with other minority movements such as Black Lives Matter. The church may adopt such a stance if it serves its interests. Of course, the situation changes from one regime to another. Take the current president El Sisi for example: Many Copts are happy with him because of his closeness to the Coptic patriarchate. He is the first Egyptian president to attend each Christmas celebration and to get up on the platform to wish the pope and the congregation a Merry Christmas. Under his presidency, the state built a new cathedral in 2019 in the new administrative capital and a new prison that includes a church and a mosque on its premises for the first time in Egyptian history. Such policies have not only made the Copts feel more integrated in the country but have also supported the belief in his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and all Islamists. The question is “has this realistically changed the Copts’ status as a minority?” They are now more connected to the regime than any other time before, which has put them in direct conflict with Islamists, who now have more reason to hate the Copts for supporting El Sisi’s regime. On the short term, the Copts’ status may appear to have slightly improved. Generally, all Egyptian citizens’ rights, the Copts’ included, have been recently suppressed. Take Patrick George Zaki, for example, who has been detained since 2020. Being Copt does not give one immunity compared to any other citizen. So, in the short term, the Copts’ situation seems to have slightly improved, but in my opinion, in the long term, this will cause great harm to the church and Copts. 

NA: Ways of the Lord opens with the verse “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Why did you choose this verse? 

SL: My purpose was to trace the Copts’ social history, where we as individuals are a product of a much bigger force, of a multi-generational institution, an accumulation of all that happened to our parents and grandparents. The Bible traces lineages in a similar manner. The verse I chose is very expressive of this idea: the children’s teeth will hurt because of what their parents and grandparents ate. 

NA: When you say a product of a bigger force, defining this force may be complex. Does it consist of multiple entities: the history, colonialism, the state, the majority Muslims, the church, the patriarch and his ties to the regime?

And the most important thing is that it is an accumulation of generations. It did not just happen today. If we look for instance at any of the laws that debilitate Copts today, we can trace them to many generations back. 

SL: Yes, it is a combination of all these. And the most important thing is that it is an accumulation of generations. It did not just happen today. If we look for instance at any of the laws that debilitate Copts today, we can trace them to many generations back. 

NA: A Brief History of Creation and East Cairo begins with Genesis and refers to Eve’s knowledge of numbers, which recurs several times in the novel. Is this symbolic of something? Could you explain? 

SL: The novel aims to establish a parallel between Genesis and the history of language. Then I move to the Bible and its different translations, followed by the divisions that happened within the church because of the different interpretations of the Bible. My indirect goal was to establish that language is a social product, but that it also shapes us. It was a philosophical approach, but I aimed to relate it to our language use on genders, religions, and cultures. My direct goal was the personal, familial relation in the novel, the history of the protestant church in Egypt, and the clashes that occur between the police, the radical Islamist groups, and the Copts in Aim Shams in the 1980s. As far as the woman’s knowledge of numbers, this relates to her skills and responsibility to manage the household needs, while her husband has the privilege of speaking about the language, its meanings, and the use of words. As you read further, the connection and similarity between numbers and words become clear.  

NA: Coptic identity is primarily founded on religion. There are secular Jews, for example, who are accepted by their religious institutions. The Coptic identity is different. As someone who lives in the diaspora, do you think that Coptic identity may shift in the future from a religious identity to a cultural one? 

SL: Do you mean in the diaspora or in Egypt?

NA: I think the only possibility is that it has to start in the diaspora. It is difficult for it to being in Egypt because religion there is a full system.

SL: This is difficult to predict for a simple reason. I cannot speak on this because I have not had any ties to Copts or the church in England. I have only been to the Coptic church once 15 years ago. If I had more relationships with Copts here, I would have been able to judge this. However, I believe this will be the natural development to the Coptic identity.

NA: When you say Coptic, do you mean the Orthodox or Protestants?

SL: The Orthodox are the majority. I personally do not practice religion. When I was younger, I went to Protestant churches, where religiosity was more intense than in an Orthodox Coptic church. The Catholics are more relaxed about practicing religion, but they constitute a small number. So, as an adult, Coptic identity as a religious issue should have preoccupied me the least. But I find that it imposed itself on me. My Egyptian ID indicates that I am Christian, whether I like it or not. I have no other choices. My names Lewis Botros confirm that I am Christian. This forces me to think about my identity. Indeed, the issue of being denied the ability to choose one’s name or religion is central to my novels. Sherif in Ways of the Lord does not frequent a church yet finds himself forced to confess in order to seek permission to get married. 

NA: Why does Sherif have to confess to the priest? Was it to get married in the Coptic Orthodox church? 

SL: According to Egyptian law, in order for a marriage to take place, a male Copt is required to bring a paper from church to show he was not previously married in order to be able to register the marriage in the Ministry of Justice. Many priests are afraid to issue this paper if they do not know the person well. If the priest issues one to a male Copt whom he does not know and the wife finds out later that he was previously married, she can sue the church. There was a real incident where a priest was imprisoned for one year for doing this. This was my experience when I wanted to marry my German ex-wife. Because I did not have ties to any church nor did any priest know me, some suggested I undergo confession sessions in order to receive this permission, which I refused to do. It took me a few months to find a priest to issue one. Interestingly, this complicated process did not exist at the time when my parents got married. My father is Orthodox and my mother is Catholic, and their marriage happened smoothly, but pope Shenouda III made this process harder. 

Excerpts in translation:

An excerpt from chapter one of Shady Lewis’s The Ways of the Lord, translated by Lena Naassana. 

A video reading by translator Katharine Halls, from On the Greenwich Line

Previous interviews:

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

Also:

A special section on Edwar al-Kharrat

Nevine Abraham is Principle Lecturer of Arabic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University. She received her PhD at Ohio State University and teaches courses on French and Arabic languages, literature, and cultures. Nevine strives to build her students’ cultural literacy by connecting them to Arab college students in Arab countries, engaging in dialogues on a variety of cultural topics. Her research interests are contemporary Arab identity, Coptism, film studies and censorship, and food politics.

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